So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part XI: threats one can and cannot see coming, or, resisting the urge to call wolf

I had to laugh yesterday, campers: as so often happens here at Author! Author!, everyday life rushed to provide a perfect metaphor for something we had been discussing here on this very forum. Or, more accurately in this case, something about which I had been blogging extensively, while scores of aspiring writers read silently — and a tiny minority buttonholed me privately to try to discuss offline. Take a gander at what popped into my inbox:

I have parts of your blog and am thankful for your July 25, 2012 post regarding proper ms format. I just have a couple other questions that I didn’t see addressed in your post. If you could help me on this I would be greatly appreciated.

1. I have a finished memoir, just doing editing now from my printed copy. I am not sure how to deal with dialogue. I know obviously it is in quotes, me talking to someone or someone telling me something, but what I am not sure about is the format this dialogue should be in the ms itself. ie: is each speaking part on a separate line? or just within the paragraphs and continued on with the rest of the story afterwards?

2. And I know you mention this a little in your post, but I have a lot of areas in my ms where I mention where I thought something, or one of my other “characters” used to say something, etc. How do I format? You mention when a character has a thought to either put it in single quotes OR say I thought. But not sure if this pertains to my situation with my memoir. Also, do I do a separate line for these instances as well?

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

Thanks so much for any help you can provide.

Why, since I receive artless little missives like this about once per week, did this one strike me as such an apt exemplar for our ongoing series on common post-pitching and post-querying faux pas? Well, several reasons. First, I was supposed to cover every aspect of professional manuscript formatting in a single post? Admittedly, the post in question did provide a visual overview of what standard format looks like, but in it, I urged readers new to the rules to consult the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right for fuller explanations. In addition, the aptly-named MANUSCRIPTS AND HOW TO FORMAT THEM PROPERLY category contains a heading for DIALOGUE FORMATTING, and there was this particularly handy post on dialogue formatting? Because third, and most to the point of this series, obviously, the proper place to ask this set of questions would have been — wait for it — in the comments section of my July 25th post, would it not?

Yet this puzzled writer, like so many others, saw fit to contact me privately about it. And that, frankly, would have mystified not only most bloggers, but anyone with significant experience with the publishing industry.

Let’s take the blog-related perplexity first. Even a couple of years ago, virtually no regular blog reader would have dreamt of asking questions anyplace but the comments. Oh, some of you might have chosen to inquire in the comments section of my most recent post — also a good option, by the way — in order to engender comment amongst regular readers, rather than tying your comments to the post in question, but logically, most readers understood that if they had a beef with a publicly-displayed post, the blog format featured a comments section for a reason.

And that reason was ease of discussion. The difference between a blog and a column, after all, lies largely in formatting — in a blog, readers have ready access to a forum in which to express their opinions, gratitude, and/or criticism of a post. While in the past, readers who wanted to chime would have had to sit down and write a letter to the editor of a publication, wait to see if the editor thought that letter worthy of publication, and then wait again to see if any other reader decided to write a letter in response to that letter, all a blog reader has to do to share his thoughts publicly is to — again, wait for it — click on COMMENTS and share his thoughts publicly.

Emphasis upon publicly: before the rise of hand-held devices, few readers would have considered it either acceptable or desirable to shatter the well-established wall between public and private by e-mailing a blogger to discuss the subject matter of a post. Not only does it defeat the purpose of a blog — which is, correct me if I am wrong, to discuss issues of mutual interest in a public forum — but in a blog devoted to helping the literally millions of aspiring writers deal with the thorny and often perplexing issues of manuscript submission, it’s inefficient.

Why? Well, if a question is asked and answered in the comments, there’s a reasonable hope that someone else will benefit from the answer, right? If, by contrast, I invited (or even permitted) every single one of you to contact me offline to ask (forgive me for putting it this way, but it’s true) the same fifteen or twenty questions over and over again, I wouldn’t be a blogger — I would be a secret question-answering service.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, my archive list (conveniently located on the lower right-hand side of this page) is so extensive and contains so many specific questions: since I have been at this for more than seven years, I have addressed a plethora of common concerns. Rather than reinventing the wheel, as the saying goes, for each curious reader, I have chosen in the spirit of public discussion to make those previous posts easy to find.

And just a few years ago, that would have been considered going above and beyond the obligations of a blogger. These days, however, the individual’s ability to whip out her iPhone, perform a 15-second search, and come up with at least a superficial answer to most common questions has, rather surprisingly to many of us that provide online content, has lead to a pervasive expectation that any question, regardless of complexity, should be answerable and should already have been directly answered somewhere online.

How else, after all, would one find it in a 15-second search?

Actually, I don’t have a problem with that: one of the advantages of living in the current age is ease of information access; I would not have made thousands of pages of professional insight available had I not wished to — are you tired yet of being told to wait for it? — make them available to millions of struggling writers.

That does not mean, however, that I don’t find it surprising when a reader who does not instantly find what he wants on my site — and, as in this instance, apparently does not check the archive list to see if I’ve ever dealt with the issue before — leaps to the twin conclusions that (a) I must have fallen down on the job by not having anticipated the specific question he had in mind and (b) I must therefore be willing to donate my time for a private tutorial on the subject.

Instead of, say, donating my time to the writing community at large by blogging about it in public, where not only one, but millions of aspiring writers had access to the answer.

I’m bringing this up not because I’m peevish — although you might be surprised at how often those of us that blog for aspiring writers talk among ourselves about the startling recent rise in offline demands like this. I’m aware that sometimes, readers may feel a bit awkward about posting questions on months-old posts. (To set your minds at ease on this point: my blogging program informs me whenever any reader comments on any post, no matter how old. People post questions on old posts all the time.)

Throughout this series, we have been discussing the sometimes broad, wide, and deep gap between what aspiring writers can consider acceptable in approaching agents and editors and what the pros do. And, frankly, agents and editors who blog are not the only ones who have been receiving missives like this lately. Which, to someone familiar with how the publishing industry works, is genuinely shocking.

It’s become astonishingly common for aspiring writers to send long, chatty questions to agents to whom they have pitched at conferences, for instance — or even those they have merely heard speak at one. You’d be amazed at how many queries read like demands to drop everything and pay attention to the sender. And just the other day, an aspiring writer e-mailed me triumphantly to announce that, contrary to what I have always strenuously recommended on this blog, he had picked up the phone, called the agent that represented TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, and not immediately been rejected.

In fact, the nice person on the other end of the phone line answered his question: yes, cold-calling an agent to pitch is completely unacceptable. Who knew?

If you’ll pardon my saying so, anyone who reads this blog regularly would have. So would anyone who had taken the time to check the aforementioned extensively indexed archive list at right. Yet, like the formatting enthusiast above, the cold-caller not only did not check what I have written publicly to see if I had addressed the issue — he went out of his way to e-mail me to tell me so.

Privately. Where no other aspiring writer could possibly learn anything from the communication.

I tremble to add this, but it’s also become amazingly common for successful queriers and pitchers — you know, the ones who did take the time to learn how agencies work, made a polite approach to an agent or editor, and garnered a request for the opening pages — to expect to hear back from the requesting pros within a week or two. Or even just a few days.

That’s an unreasonable set of expectations, from a professional perspective: it’s not as though these writers’ manuscripts are the only ones that the agent or editor has requested in the last few months, right? It’s only fair that the pros would read what’s already on their desks before they turned to a newly-arrived submission. And savvy submitters know that, because — feel free to chant it with me now, campers — an agent or editor’s request for manuscript pages does not constitute a promise to drop everything and read your work.

Aspiring writers often believe otherwise, of course, but until fairly recently, norms of social behavior and high long-distance telephone rates rendered follow-up calling blessedly uncommon. In years past, these justifiably anxious submitters might have been forced to stew in their own impatience until they received either a thin letter asking for the rest of the manuscript or the return of their pages in a postally-battered SASE.

Admit it: even those of you who know better have been tempted to nag, right? That’s natural, but it’s also problematic, given the current state of technology: today, the ease of e-mail permits, if not downright encourages, gun-jumping. Many an excitable submitter has been known to stand it as long as she can, then shoot off an ill-advised message in the wee hours, demanding to know what on earth could possibly be taking so long.

And because many agents are darned nice people, she might actually receive a soothing, I’ll-get-to-it-soon reply. But fair warning, gun-jumpers: this is a response that a submitter is likely to get only once, if at all. Which is unfortunate, as many aspiring writers apparently find the ability to generate those soothing replies rather addictive. Or so I surmise, for I hear all time about — and from; had I mentioned that boundaries regarding e-mailing online advice-givers have become rather porous? — submitters who just can’t stand to wait another month. Or week. Or day.

In case I’m being too subtle here: whatever you do during what can be an extended wait to hear back about your manuscript, repress the urge to demand constant status updates. Trust me, it will not get your submission read faster — in fact, it might get your manuscript rejected on the spot.

Being pushy is not — how shall I put this? — likely to make you any friends at the agency. It’s considered quite rude for a writer to try to rush a decision, in fact. (Interesting, considering that writers often have only a week or two to decide whether to accept a publishing offer, and most agents will expect a yes or no on a representation offer right away.) It’s also not a good way to convince an agent that you’ll be a dream client: why would anyone at an agency believe that a writer that e-mails four times in a two-month period to try to find out if the agent has decided whether to represent a manuscript won’t do precisely the same thing if and when that agent is circulating that manuscript to publishing houses — a process that often takes months, if not years?

Oh, should I have warned you that one was coming? Crunching a dry cracker should help with the nausea.

I bring this up advisedly, because the often vast differential between writers’ expectations and publishing realities can, and increasingly frequently does, lead inexperienced pitchers, queriers, and submitters to believe, wrongly, that directly and forcefully contacting an agent or editor is not only acceptable, but appropriate. And as those of you who attend writers’ conferences or read agents’ blogs are probably already aware, people who handle manuscripts for a living tend not to be all that fond of being hounded, nagged, or otherwise blamed for — were you already waiting for it — not dropping everything to pay attention to any particular aspiring writer.

Fortunately, the genuinely rude are relatively rare; as those of us that work with aspiring writers like to say, 99.99% of the pros’ perennial complaints about how pushy writers are actually refer not to the ten thousand who approach respectfully, but the one who does not.

And that one, in my experience, tends to be brand-new to the game — and harboring the astoundingly popular misconception that a really good manuscript from a first-time writer is uncommon enough that the pros will want to be disturbed at work to hear about it. Or, now that e-mail makes disturbing total strangers so darned convenient, rousted in the dead of night to read a pitch.

Or — you saw this coming, right? — to answer a question from a writer they’ve never met, one who evidently doesn’t realize that there are literally millions of aspiring writers who want to get published every bit as much as she does. From a professional perspective, then, this type of approach is simply queue-jumping: rather than doing what pretty much every successful author has had to do, learn how the publishing industry actually works and abide by its quite strict rules of conduct, the dead-of-night e-mailer or spur-of-the-moment caller believes, wrongly, that those rules don’t apply to him.

He has talent, so how could they? And had he mentioned how much he wants to get his manuscript published?

Which, admittedly, is not a new thing for first-time writers to think — I can’t think of a time in modern publishing history when agents and editors did not complain of constantly receiving pay attention to me now! missives — but the technology that enables them to act upon these beliefs is. What’s interesting about the rise of e-mailed pushiness, I think, is not that there are so many impatient aspiring writers, or that a hefty swathe of them should have come to believe that it’s the pros’ job to drop everything to hear pitches or answer questions but how often these attempts appear to be the sender’s first attempt to track down the information.

How can we tell? Well, let’s take another peek at the undoubtedly well-intentioned questions my dead-of-night e-mailer sent me.

1. I have a finished memoir, just doing editing now from my printed copy. I am not sure how to deal with dialogue. I know obviously it is in quotes, me talking to someone or someone telling me something, but what I am not sure about is the format this dialogue should be in the ms itself. ie: is each speaking part on a separate line? or just within the paragraphs and continued on with the rest of the story afterwards?

2. And I know you mention this a little in your post, but I have a lot of areas in my ms where I mention where I thought something, or one of my other “characters” used to say something, etc. How do I format? You mention when a character has a thought to either put it in single quotes OR say I thought. But not sure if this pertains to my situation with my memoir. Also, do I do a separate line for these instances as well?

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

From a professional perspective, these are rather revealing questions. First, my nocturnal e-mailer must be brand-new to submitting memoir, at least to US-based agencies: not only does she refer to the characters in her memoir as “characters,” as if characters existed only in fiction, but in this country, the overwhelming majority of memoir is not sold on a finished manuscript, but upon a book proposal. While some agencies do ask first-time memoirists to see a full manuscript first, that’s because it’s often emotionally very difficult to complete a memoir; the human psyche, after all, does not make a huge distinction between reliving an experience vividly enough to write about it well and living through it directly. The pros want to make sure someone new to the game is already dealing with that.

Then, too, questions (1) and (2) might have been answered by opening not only virtually any published memoir, but most published books. My guess here, then, is that what the sender was actually asking here is not a question about dialogue formatting per se. I think she really wanted to know is whether there is a special dialogue format for memoirs, or perhaps for first-person narratives in general.

The answer to that one is short, sweet, and could easily have been answered in the comments on that post: no. Dialogue is dialogue, period.

The question about thought would also raise eyebrows for another couple of reasons: in a first-person narrative, the narrator’s thought is generally presented as just part of the narrative; if everything in the book is from the memoirist’s perspective, it’s hardly necessary to keep informing the reader of the fact. And in a first-person narrative, of course, it’s impossible to cite the thought of any character other than the narrator, right? If the narrative is quoting somebody else’s speech, that’s dialogue, not thought.

And, while we’re being technical, would I be too editorial-minded of me to point out that I have literally never advised any aspiring writer formatting a work for the U.S. market to use single quotation marks for thought? Or, indeed, for anything purpose other than designating a quote within a quote, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s incorrect in American English?

Before we go into the horrifying possibility that my e-mailer contacted me about some other writing guru’s advice, let’s once again go over this often-misunderstood piece of punctuation. Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, single quotation marks (‘) do not carry a special meaning in American English, nor is using them instead of italics to emphasize a word or phrase proper. Nor is the decision to use single quotation marks (‘) or the American standard double (“) a stylistic one, ever. So how may a single quotation mark be used in American English? In only one manner: when a character quotes something someone else has said. In that instance, the overall quote falls within doubled quotation marks, and with the single quotes designating what the speaker is saying someone else has said. As in:

“Well, then Antonio saw me and yelled, ‘Hey, get out of here,’ and I ran away,” Ellen explained. “But not before I shouted over my shoulder, ‘Watch out for the rampaging tiger behind you!’”

My point about the two — and only two — means of correctly formatting thought in a text has absolutely nothing to do with this. As, indeed, one might surmise from the fact that in the post in question, I specifically said not to place thought within quotation marks, as Jane Austen did; it’s exceedingly old-fashioned, and it obviates the point of quotation marks, which is to indicate to the reader that something was uttered out loud.

Or, to put it another way, thought is not dialogue. Easy to remember, isn’t it?

What I did say, as it happens, is that it drives Millicent the agency screener — and, indeed, any classically-trained professional reader — completely nuts when she sees thought designated redundantly on the page. It’s always proper to designate thought with — five, six, seven, eight — the phrase I thought, of course. However, in some book categories (not all; check recent releases in yours), it is also considered acceptable to use italics to show what is being thought, as opposed to said. Thus, both of these would be correct in standard format:

I’ll never come here again, Hermione thought, slamming the door behind her.

I’ll never come here again. Hermione slammed the door behind her.

Makes sense, right? Since Hermione thought and the italics are intended to convey precisely the same thing to the reader, this formulation would be redundant:

I’ll never come here again, Hermione thought, slamming the door behind her.

Everybody clear on that? Excellent. Now let’s return to the question that’s probably been burning in my mind far more than in yours: did my e-mail correspondent mix my advice up with somebody else’s — and is that what she actually meant when she mentioned that I have parts of your blog? Did some well-meaning but organizationally challenged third party copy excerpts of my formatting run-downs without my permission (a copyright violation, by the way), throw them into a bowl with bits of other online advice, stir, and hand it to our question-asking friend?

Or — and this seems to happen quite often to writers who glean most of their writing guidelines online — has simply read so many different and probably mutually contradictory sources that she has concluded that I was advising something quite far removed from what I actually recommended?

Either way, no wonder she was confused. Again, I could simply refer her to the extensive explanations and many visual aids under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category, but I honestly would like to figure out what happened here. Here’s the example I used in the post she cites, a page in standard format, with all of its constituent parts labeled:

And here is her question:

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

See the problem? The example shows a two-line chapter heading — and nothing on this page is in all-caps formatting. Nor do any of the other examples I include in that post feature all-caps formatting; conscientiously, I went back and checked, although to the best of my recollection, I have never advised its use for a title.

Why would I? It wouldn’t be proper in standard format. We must reluctantly conclude, then, that my late-night correspondent was in fact asking about somebody else’s advice.

Again, I’m bringing this up not to be peevish, or even to call her out for disturbing my night with a question she fairly clearly should have been aiming at someone else; mixing up online writing advice is much more common than any of us who habitually give such advice might hope. That’s to be expected, given how much self-described expert advice is floating around out there and how many aspiring writers engage in 15-second searches of it. What is surprising is that, being confused, she approached me offline with her questions about it.

Now, we could easily get all Freudian about motivation here — is it possible that she contacted me privately because she was aware that she wasn’t entirely sure of the source of her confusion, and if so, have I completely defeated that purpose by discussing it in public? — but this is a practical blog: I am far more concerned about writers’ actions than their intentions. This e-mail caused me to worry, then, not only about how my correspondent and all of the many, many aspiring writers like her are acquiring and processing formatting and submission information, but what they might do with it.

Specifically, about whether anything about this missive would be likely to get this obviously well-meaning writer in trouble if she sent something similar to an agent. And the answer is yes.

Half of you just rolled your eyes, didn’t you? “Please don’t tell me again to ‘wait for it,’ Anne,” the more experienced submitters among you scoff, “although, naturally, I relish the opportunity to demonstrate that I am adept at using quotes within quotes. You’ve already made the point — and quite forcefully, too — that as charming and addictive as those 15-second searches can be, they might not always be the best means of finding reliable information upon subjects as inherently complex as successful writing, manuscript formatting, querying, and/or submission. You’ve also already explained, albeit indirectly, that just because it’s possible to discover a publishing professional’s e-mail address online doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good idea to use it in the dark of night. Or any other time, for that matter. But I can’t help but feel that few of us who have read through this post are likely to succumb to that temptation anytime soon — and that those of us who have been submitting for a good, long while already know better. So what may I, a reader that would never even consider snatching up a phone and calling an agent I have never met or sending repeated, nagging e-mails to one that has my submission, learn here?”

Well, a couple of things — but you’re right that most of this post has been aimed at those that are new to the biz. Frankly, the question of whether it’s okay to approach an agent or editor informally — or to cold-call them at all — is just not one that would occur to someone who has been hanging around publishing for long. Since agents and editors do not pick up new writers that way, to us, it’s a self-evidently self-defeating tactic.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, there’s a reason that e-mails like this are seldom answered at all. In a world with rapidly-dissolving boundaries, the sub-world of books remains a place where manners count. Thank goodness.

I do have an ulterior motive for devoting a post within this particular series to the all-too-common problem of writers assuming that any publishing pro that’s nice to them, or even seems from afar to be approachable, is going to be willing to give private advice. In the first place, one does not have to work in publishing very long to be aware that there are literally millions of aspiring writers out there — as queriers and submitters so often lament, sheer volume prevents most agencies from having the time to respond individually to each. Heck, it’s become downright common for agencies not to tell a submitter at all if they’ve rejected a manuscript.

Yes, even if they requested the whole thing. From the writer’s perspective, one of the side effects of the astronomical increase of submission spurred by the wide use of personal computers has been that her submission’s getting rejected and simply having gotten lost, either in the mail or at a paper-laden agency, looks remarkably similar. I’m afraid that there’s little that aspiring writers can do about that, other than to send a single, well-mannered e-mail a few months after the manuscript has arrived at the agency, politely double-checking that it did in fact arrive in one piece.

If that e-mail does not elicit a reply, the only sensible course is to assume that it’s been rejected and move on. Again, as tempting as it may be to presume that having been asked to send pages has given a writer some rights, repeated or nagging e-mails are unlikely to help your case.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Ready for one that might be even harder to choke down?

Brace yourself, please: greater experience submitting — or even attending writers’ conferences, which tends to accelerate a writer’s learning curve about how the industry works — will not necessarily help an aspiring writer avoid the problems of over-familiarity or less-than-reasonable expectations. And that’s unfortunate, because just as the pros assume that any writer serious about getting published will take the time to learn how professional book manuscripts are put together — a presumption so pervasive that few agencies even list the strictures of standard format on their websites, speaking of things that might not pop up in a 15-second search — agents and editors tend to believe that any new writer accomplished enough to write beautiful prose will have learned along the way how submission works.

Find that hard to believe? When’s the last time you heard an agent say at even a very good literary conference, “Look, we have mountains of requested materials to read. If we asked for it, we are interested, but the idea that we would be ready to make an offer of representation on a manuscript we received a week ago is pretty laughable. Unless, of course, the book was written by a celebrity, there’s a clear pop culture demand for a book on that particular subject AND the writer happens to be an expert, or the writer’s just done awfully well in a prestigious writing contest. Or if I happen to be stuck on an airplane with nothing else to read, and you’re my college roommate’s ne’er-do-well younger brother. Otherwise, be prepared to wait.”

That’s all likely to be true, but it would be an extremely unwise speech to give at a writer’s conference, wouldn’t it? The attendees might well rush the stage, perhaps after first snatching up any torches and pitchforks that happened to be handy.

Because good writers so often send off their manuscripts without any clear notion of how long it might be before they are likely to see them again — if, indeed, they will see those pages again at all — and because successful pitchers in particular are prone to tumbling into the trap of believing that a nice conversation with an agent or editor at a conference implies both the beginning of a friendship and an implicit promise to toss aside whether happens to be on the pro’s desk to read their submissions the instant they arrive, I’m going to share one more case study before I sign off for the day. To be candid, the writer in this situation is someone of whom you have probably heard; he’s now a pretty well-established author. He finally gave in to my two years of blandishments to allow me to use his story here on the blog only if I changed enough details to render him unrecognizable.

So don’t even try. Just keep his fame in the back of your mind as you read his tale of woe and uproar, to remind you that no matter how talented a writer might happen to be, it’s easy to get sucked into unreasonable expectations. Not to mention unreasonable hopes.

And his story, too, begins with an e-mail I received in the dead of night. I had known Teddy — not his real name, naturally; nice try, guessers — for years before he got his first break; it’s actually not all that uncommon for writers that end up getting published to have met on the writers’ conference circuit. (Yet another reason that it’s a good idea to attend them: no one, but no one, will understand your joy at finally landing an agent or selling your first book than a fellow writer who has been rooting for you since you shared the last bagel on a conference breakfast buffet.) Yet this was the first time he had ever e-mailed me in a panic.

Bear with me here, because I have something to confess. Remember those agents you suggested I query if my pitches didn’t work out? Well, I have not yet contacted them because Respected P. Editorvich from Arewe, Literate, & How had asked me to send my book directly to him. Dream agency, dream connection, right?

I sent him the manuscript last September. I gritted my teeth until May of this year, then I e-mailed him. He said that he loved what he had read thus far, but had misplaced the book during a move! Okay, it happens. I resubmitted, telling him that I wanted my book in his hands.

That was five weeks ago. Last week, I sent him an e-mail asking about the book, but I haven’t heard back from him. At this point, I don’t know how to handle the situation. I’m a newbie in the confusing world of publication.

Do you mind if I ask for your advice? When Respected initially asked to see the book, he had told me I didn’t need an agent at that point. In my shoes, would you wait to hear from him or would you seek representation? Let the agent make the next move?

Finally, do you still think those agents are the best for my book? You keep a much closer eye on acquisitions than I do.

Okay, what did Teddy do wrong here? Or are those of you new to submitting reeling too much from the notion of not hearing back from September to May of the following year — or, indeed, for five weeks?

Or do all of those huffing sounds mean that some of you have taken umbrage at the very question of wrongdoing? “But Teddy did nothing wrong here!” some of you cry, demonstrating admirable loyalty to a fellow writer whom you have probably never met. “All he did was do what Respected asked!”

True enough, but he also did something Respected didn’t ask him to do — and something that placed himself at a genuine disadvantage. Any guesses?

Award yourself a gold star for the day if you immediately leapt to your feet and shouted, “He gave the editor an unrequested exclusive!” Unless Respected had already offered to acquire the manuscript (extraordinarily unlikely, considering that he had not yet read it) or stated point-blank that he would not look at it unless Teddy promised not to seek representation (which would have been ethically questionable), Teddy was under no obligation not to seek out an agent while Arewe, Literate, & How was considering the manuscript. He would certainly have been in a better position when the manuscript got lost if he had: while it’s always a trifle dicey for a writer to prod an editor politely to try to speed up reading times, it’s an integral part of an agent’s job. Everyone expects it, and rightly so.

Oh, dear, more huffing? Has my site been invaded by the Big, Bad Wolf? “But Anne, Respected said that he didn’t need an agent, under the circumstances! And Teddy waited a whole eight months before contacting the editor — far, far longer than I could have stood the suspense. So now, not only do I not think he did anything wrong; I think he’s a saint.”

Actually, his saintliness in this situation harmed him, too: he would have been well within his rights to send that polite follow-up e-mail within 6 months, if not 4. And while I’m sure that every aspiring writer currently treading the earth’s surface can sympathize with Teddy’s not wanting to put in the energy, effort, and emotional strain of querying agents while his dream publisher was mulling over the book, is he really better off now because he waited? Or merely going into the querying process more frustrated?

I get the appeal, of course: if Respected had snapped up the book right away, he probably would have referred Teddy to a good agent. But there was no guarantee of that — or, indeed, of Arewe, Literate, & How’s picking up the book. So, again, what did Teddy gain by holding off on seeking out an agent he might eventually have to find, anyway?

By the dark night Teddy sent me this e-mail, however, all of this was water under the bridge, spilled milk, and in all other ways beyond his power to change, short of constructing a time machine and returning to the day before the conference at which he met Respected. As he asked me at the time, what should he do now?

The short answer is no, I would not advise waiting until he hear from the editor. I would advise him to do now what he should have done the previous September: queried widely. Then, as now, his position with Arewe, Literate, & How’s could only have been strengthened by landing an agent.

Why? Well, a couple of reasons. As is common for major American publishers, ALH does have a policy against considering work by unrepresented authors. However, like some others, they do occasionally set that rule aside if they believe that they can pick up a book at a conference cheaper than they would be able to if an agent was involved. So it might well have made a great deal of sense to Respected to try to get in on the ground floor of Teddy’s book, so to speak, by trying to nab him before he signed with someone that would try to drive up the price.

Which is, incidentally, a good agent’s job, too. It’s expected — and the fact that Respected knew that there was not an agent involved might well have affected the timeline here. If Teddy had submitted his work through an agent, that agent could legitimately have been calling or e-mailing Respected every couple of weeks, to follow up. But since the editor was dealing with Teddy directly, he could rely upon aspiring writers’ well-founded fear of being pushy.

Because Teddy was one of the conscientious ones that worries about treading on professional toes, he knew better than to ask for updates too early and too often. Indeed, he erred on the side of caution: following up in 4-6 months, and then very politely, is what’s considered acceptable for a writer dealing with an editor directly.

Given this set of ambient expectations, then, it was not all that surprising that Respected did not respond to Teddy’s second e-mail; he had jumped the gun. It’s not as though the submission clock doesn’t start afresh with a requested resubmission, and five weeks is not a particularly long time, in publishing circles.

Especially for an unagented manuscript. Let’s face it, Teddy had already made it fairly plain that he’s not planning to introduce an agent into this situation: when he sent the second submission, told Respected that he would already agree to any terms ALH might want to set for publication. (How an editor would hear “I want my book in your hands,” in all probability.) Respected could also surmise from it that Teddy had not submitted it to other editors, either, so he has no reason to fear that another publishing house will buy it out from under him. Why, then, should he hurry?

See why placing all of your eggs in this one basket might not have been in Teddy’s best interest? Even though he did legitimately misinterpret Respected statement about not needing an agent — elicited, I later found out, in response to Teddy’s asking in the pitch meeting whether he would need to find an agent before sending the pages Respected requested — there is no such thing as a tacit request for an exclusive read.

Chant it with me now, campers: if an agent or editor wants to be the only one reading something, she will make a writer promise that will be the case.

But aspiring writers often walk away from pitch meetings with the opposite impression, don’t they? They believe, and with some reason, that if an editor is enthusiastic about a manuscript, she has made a provisional commitment to publishing it. And, let’s face it, it would be a lot easier on the writer if that were the case.. But a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.

I know, I know: it doesn’t feel that way, but as Teddy’s case shows, what the writer feels a post-pitch conversation might have meant over and above what was actually said is not binding on anyone. He took a gamble that Respected would like the book enough that he could bypass the usual steps by which manuscripts get published. Even if everything had worked out perfectly, though, he would still have needed to get an agent eventually — it would have merely meant that he would have been doing so with a book contract in hand.

And then his agent would have spent the next two years telling Teddy that he should have brought to her before you signed it. Because that, too, is her job.

I can sense some cringing those of you terrified of offending the prose (bless your hearts), but honestly, Teddy would have not run any more risk of affronting Respected by pursuing representation five weeks into the second submission than if he’d floated fifty queries before he submitted at all. In fact, he needn’t even have told the editor he was doing it.

Why should he? The worst that could have happened if both Respected and an agent fell in love with it simultaneously is that Teddy would have told the agent that he wanted to go with ALH. His new agent would have been thrilled to be spared the work of pitching the manuscript to at least one likely prospect, and Respected would have had someone calling all the time to speed up him reading process — and to tell him if another editor was also reading it.

My advice to Teddy, then, was that he should query 5 or 10 agents right away (I cranked out a few more recommendations), and keep that many queries in circulation until he attracted a firm offer from somebody. I also cautioned him, though, not to contact Respected again until either he had some concrete news to report — that Teddy had landed an agent, that another editor was reading the book — or until Respected has had the new version for 4-6 months.

That’s not at all an unusual turn-around time these days, after all. And then, I would simply e-mail to ask if he is still interested.

Politely. Once. If Respected does not respond at that point, Teddy should move on.

Regardless of what happened next, however, under NO circumstances would it have ever been in Teddy’s best interest to contact Respected and say any version of, “Hey, what gives? You have not has not done as I expected!” Respected already knows how he has handled the manuscript; no good can come from reminding him.

So what, you may be wondering, was the overall moral here? Respect professional limits. Be polite. Resist the urge to hit SEND.

And no matter how many times you have queried or submitted, don’t assume that the pro asking to see your pages is saying anything more than that she wants to see your pages. If you’re in doubt whether you are being asked to submit exclusively, chances are that you’re not.

But, as always, if you’re not sure about what an agent or editor requesting your manuscript wants you to do, ask. Once. Politely. And in the proper forum. But do bear in mind that once you cry wolf, you can’t take it back.

Wow, this was a long one, even by my standards, wasn’t it? Well, when I disillusion people, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep posting those good questions in the comments, everyone, and keep up the good work!

“Wait, haven’t I read that someplace before?” — Millicent

old-fashioned writing desk in Victoria

Please join me in a moment of silence, campers. Today, I received one of the saddest pieces of news a person can hear from a writer friend: an extremely talented author of my acquaintance reported that her hard disk had crashed, doubtless from overwork. Not a syllable could be salvaged.

In response to those of you who just gasped audibly: yes, she was almost finished writing her next novel. She had circulated only the first four chapters to her critique group, so physical copies of that much still exist. Beyond that, however…

On a not entirely unrelated note, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Is it recently enough that you could reconstitute your most recent revisions or new text from your unassisted memory?

If the answer to that second question is no, feel free to stop reading right now and make a back-up. At minimum, e-mail them to yourself, for heaven’s sake. I’m perfectly happy to wait, if it means that we can all sleep better tonight, confident that hours, days, weeks, and/or months of your writing time won’t just vanish in the proverbial puff of smoke.

Or ozone, as the case may be. As undoubtedly conducive to creative expression as computers are, the permanence of the results can be illusory. At times like this, I occasionally find myself longing for my father’s good old Olivetti typewriter, or even a simple Edwardian writing desk, like the one above. (Note, please, the requisite photo of a loved one and apparently equally requisite liquor tray.)

True, one had to hit the Olivetti’s keys so hard that when my parents first plopped me down in front of it at age ten to compose the term paper that everyone else in my class was writing by hand, I couldn’t actually force the q, z, p, or ? keys to hit the ribbon with sufficient force to create any impression upon paper. It took me so many hours to write the definitive history paper on the Bonus March that my mother seized the opportunity first to sketch my profile — she had never managed to convince me to sit still long enough before — then to sculpt my head in clay. Considering that my parents insisted that I write it in standard format for book manuscripts, I should probably count myself lucky that she didn’t also have time to cast the sculpture in bronze.

Yes, it was a touch on the tedious side to be forced to retype an entire page in order to rework a single sentence. On the bright side, though, to lose a year’s worth of one’s writing, an author actually had to misplace it physically.

(Were you distracted from the pithiness of that last bon mot by a mental image of a 5th grader using two hands to wrestle the z key into submission? That memory haunts me, too. My mother, however, asks me to inform you that she had faithfully typed my newspaper articles prior to that term paper, and that a little pro of my caliber shouldn’t have graduated from elementary school without learning to touch-type, anyway. And to be fair, she didn’t actually make me try it blindfolded until after I’d turned in the paper.)

Writing on a computer boasts at least one monumental advantage over the all hard copy, all the time method, however: it’s possible, and indeed easy, to check whether that wry observation that just occurred to you also struck you as the last word in style back when you were composing Chapter 3. And Chapter 7. And possibly Chapter 16.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that you had repeated yourself? Trust me, Millicent the agency screener will.

Since aspiring writers so seldom catch their own phrasing reuse, I’m going to spend the next couple of days talking about that ever-popular birthmark of Frankenstein manuscripts everywhere, the sentence — or paragraph, or footnote, or scene — that turns up more than once in a manuscript. Or more than once in a chapter. Or — are you sitting down? — more than once in a page.

Already, I sense some of you rolling your eyes. “Yeah, right, Anne,” writers of 384-page texts huff, “I’m so uncreative, so myopic, so prone to writing only one paragraph per session that I would repeat entire sentences within just a few pages, yet Millicent remembers phrasing so well that she will catch me if I recycle a description from page 73 on page 312.”

Actually, she might — and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but otherwise quite good manuscripts reuse pet phrases all the time. You’ve probably noticed the tendency in the later works of well-established authors, in fact; as television comedy has led us all to expect, revisiting the same premises, jokes, and yes, even descriptions can elicit chortles of delighted recognition from an audience already familiar with one’s work. Heck, Oscar Wilde used to trot out the same laugh lines in play after play after play; he was monumentally good at branding.

For the overwhelming majority of writers, though, self-plagiarism does not constitute a promotional strategy so much as a simple lapse in memory. In the course of writing an entire book, it should perhaps not come as a surprise if the creative brain revisits a favorite turn of phrase, a trenchant observation on the human condition, of striking bit of imagery that strikes a writer as particularly, well, striking.

Hey, if it sounded good in the writer’s mind the first time, what’s to stop it from sounding good the second? Or the fourth? Or the forty-seventh?

Perfectly innocent and understandable, right? Well, perhaps not so much to our old pal Millicent — or her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. To someone who reads manuscripts for a living, such inadvertent redundancy can take on a more sinister aspect: to an uncharitable reader, even a single repetition of a pet phrase can smack of authorial laziness. Or as an aftereffect of that perennial bugbear, insufficient authorial re-reading.

Or, sacre bleu! a first indicator that what she holds in her ink-stained hands is a Frankenstein manuscript.

We’ve all seen Frankenstein manuscripts, right, even if we have not had the misfortune to write one? Many of us have at least a partial monster lurking in a bottom desk drawer or haunting our hard disks, books written over such a long period, in so many moods, at so many different levels of technical skill, and — come on, admit it — under the influence of so many and such varied favorite authors that it would take a small army of literary detectives years of close textual analysis to discern even an embryonic similarity between the authorial voices on pp. 10, 143, and 412.

In a first draft of a first novel, that’s virtually inevitable, right? Contrary to popular opinion amongst those who have never actually sat down in front of the ol’ Olivetti and cranked out a book, few writers are born with completely polished voices; it can take a great deal of trial and error to figure out how to sound original on the page. Then, too, it takes a good, long while to write a book, particularly the first time around: as Millicent would be the first to tell you, it’s not all that uncommon for the manuscript to betray significantly greater technical skill at its end than at its beginning. Or for the first chapter or two to read a great deal more like the end of the book than like the middle, because the writer went back and revised those opening pages after polishing off the draft.

Why is Millicent an expert on the two most common stripes of Frankenstein manuscript? Care to estimate how many first-time novelists and memoirists start querying and submitting their work practically the instant they polish off the first draft? Or the second?

Trust me, those of us who read for a living learn to catch the early warning signs. When Millicent sees a sentence, image, or observation from page 1 turn up on page 26, Frankenstein manuscript warning bells start chiming wildly in her head. From that point on, her already sharp critical sensors turn downright predatory, eager to swoop down upon more tell-tale signs that this is one of those texts whose author either kept changing his mind about the style he wished to embrace — or tone, or target audience, or book category — or just kept revising it so often that the narrative reads like a patchwork of different prose styles.

That does not mean, however, that self-plagiarism does not turn up quite frequently in non-Frankenstein manuscripts. How can an experienced reviser tell the difference? While the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text merely becomes redundant: passing scenery always described the same manner, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 24.

Nonfiction writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is notoriously prone to redundancy. So are book proposals. Again, that’s quite understandable. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of footnoting everything in the least questionable, it’s pretty easy to reuse a footnote, for instance, or to come to rely upon stock definitions instead of writing fresh ones every time.

Or, in a memoir, to tell the same anecdote more than once. As, indeed, people who like to talk about themselves tend to do in conversation. (Did I ever tell you about the time my mother wanted me to learn touch-typing as a fifth grader?)

Or, in any kind of writing, for a particular way of describing something to sound good. Many a writer simply finds a certain turn of phrase appealing and forgets that he’s used it before. Or just doesn’t notice, despite the fact that great way to catch this sort of redundancy is — wait for it — to read your manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

Oh, had I suggested that excellent pre-submission strategy before? Had I in fact mentioned it about once per week throughout Queryfest? How silly of me not to notice.

You may laugh, but actually, it’s quite easy for even a fairly conscientious reviser to miss instances of self-plagiarism on the page, especially if — and most revisers do this — she is reading through the manuscript over several days or even weeks. After all, you have to be gifted with an unusually strong memory for phraseology to stop short in the middle of Chapter 15 and shout, “Hey, I’ve seen that image before, and it was on page 36, paragraph four!”

I don’t mean to frighten you (or do I?), but professional readers frequently have astonishingly accurate memories for text. Millicent might not be able to tell you precisely where she’s seen that Ch. 15 image before, but she will almost certainly have the dim impression that it has appeared earlier in the manuscript. I can positively guarantee you, though, that if the first instance of its use pops up on p. 36, and the second on p. 42, she will most assuredly spot the second as redundant.

She should: professional readers are trained for that.

For a self-editing writer, it can be harder to catch — and harder still to remember if you actually used that sentence elsewhere, or merely thought about it. As inveterate commenter and long-time FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) Dave so rightly pointed out the last time we discussed this phenomenon, most good writers spend quite a bit of time mulling over any given scene in a book, not to mention revising it later on; it’s not uncommon, therefore, to have a positive welter of mental associations about the evolution of the aforementioned pp. 36 and 42. Add to that the fact that a reader’s eye will tend to pass over smoothly-written text pretty quickly, especially if it’s a scene he’s read before, and reading through one’s own manuscript by definition entails re-reading, and can we really be surprised when repeated phrasing passes unnoticed under the reviser’s gaze?

Even when the repeated phraseology or image does jump out at the rereading reviser (try saying that four times fast!), it won’t necessarily be for a negative reason. It’s not unheard-of for writers to prefer repeating bits of their own work: those turns of phrase are his favorites for a reason, presumably. They linger in his ears pleasingly when he reads them out loud; they strike him as some of his best writing on the page. If pressed, he might admit to wanting to see one of them chiseled on his gravestone.

Yes, those of you who have been jumping up and down with your hands raised for the last couple of paragraphs? “I know what this writer should do!” survivors of English 101 burble excitedly. “It was for precisely this kind of writer’s benefit that Dorothy Parker started urging all of us to kill your darlings. If he loves those phrases so much, they should be the first axed, right?”

Aspiring writers and the English composition teachers who love them just love this piece of revision advice, eager burblers, but if you want to hear anyone who reads for a living choke on the coffee that’s never far from her elbow (hey, you try staying awake uncaffeinated through the fiftieth YA paranormal novel you’ve seen this week), feel free to trot out this most misunderstood piece of writing advice. We’ve too often seen the slash-and-burn effects of this canonical advice in action. Indeed, going through one’s own manuscript, relentlessly slaughtering any writing that strikes one as excellent is a pretty good prescription for creating a Frankenstein manuscript, not healing one.

And it’s not even what Aunt Dorothy was advising writers to do. She wasn’t talking about ruthlessly excising every piece of writing you like and leaving the stuff you like less, people: she was suggesting that you consider taking a critical look at even your favorite sentences and paragraphs. All too often, inexperienced self-editors will simply skip over their pet bits.

That being said, kill your darlings (selectively!) is excellent advice for habitual self-plagiarists. Perhaps a writer need not sacrifice the first of the litter, but the second through seventeenth should definitely go.

That’s especially good strategy if the phrasing repetition was deliberate in the first place. If a line was clever once, many a darling-coddling writer thinks, the reader will find it so the second time — and the fifth, and the forty-seventh. Deliberate redundancy is particularly common with humor: since situation comedies tend to rely upon repetition of catch phrases, many aspiring writers believe that the mere fact of repetition will render a line funny.

On the page, it seldom works. Sorry to be the one to break it to you sitcom lovers, but it quickly becomes tedious on the stage and screen as well.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: as those of us who live in caucus states know to our perennial (or at least quadrennial) sorrow, nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarism more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. Not only from speech to speech — oh, you thought your favorite candidate gave a speech only once, then threw it away? She has fourteen more campaign stops today! — but throughout a political season. Heck, as anyone who has listened closely to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, they often contain the same phrases from year to year No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, chances are that you’ll find self-plagiarism of epidemic proportions.

There’s a good narrative reason for that, of course: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas — and usually even the actual phrases — of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout, to drive the point home.

Doubt that? Okay, answer this: do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only once in his famous March on Washington speech?

On paper, phrase repetition is often problematic, but in and of itself, repetition does not necessarily equal self-plagiarism. On paper, repetition can seem very cool to the writer, as a means of creating a galloping rhythm. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done in this very paragraph, much to Millicent’s chagrin).

We all know how phrase repetition can create a sense of momentum in writing, don’t we? Take, for instance, the ending of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now that’s a political speech, caucus-goers: great spoken out loud, but Millicent-enragingly repetitious in print.

Did that last observation catch you by surprise? Yes, this particular speech happened to fall from an exceedingly talented pen, but unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this rhythmic device, too. Because it is ubiquitous, it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet.

Please tell me that you aren’t even considering repetitive phrasing in your query. Or that the first line of your synopsis is the first line of your novel. Please. Please. Please?

Why is it dangerous? Well, to professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, we few, we happy few will not necessarily jump off the page for the beauty of its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are, lest we forget), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change we few to we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want, Bill.

A pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention: why would a savvy submitter not want to convey the impression of an incomplete editing job? That’s right: because that’s the birthmark of the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, the fish that Millicent is only too happy to throw back into the sea.

Remember, too, that it may not take many instances of repetition for Millicent to draw this conclusion. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it.

And no, I don’t care how many times I have to repeat that point. It’s vital for your happiness as a writer to understand that the pros are trained to catch redundancy. Editors in particular are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim.

It’s a specialized brain function, sharpened by use. When I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even frequently remember who wrote the original. As you may well imagine, I quickly acquired a reputation amongst the fraternities and sororities who kept files of A term papers for their members to, ahem, borrow.

Which is why, in case those of you who have had the good fortune/petrifying experience of receiving professional feedback, paraphrasing what you’ve said earlier in the manuscript tends to be significantly less frowned-upon in editorial circles than outright literal repetition. While very similar passages may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel, generalized repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the recurring bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book.

In a shorter piece, however — such as, say, those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, or the 15 pages plus synopsis — it certainly can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe. It’s in your best interest to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “You told us just a few minutes ago that Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

You have a point, of course, grumblers. The next time you trot out this argument, you might bolster it by mentioning that Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING, but entire plot lines and basic characters.

Tell you what: after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do — as I sincerely hope you will — all I can do is tell you that phrasing repetition tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

Seriously, I will repeat it all night. Don’t tempt me.

“But Anne,” I hear the well-read among you protest, and with good reason, “many of the classic novelists I studied in my English 101 class used phrasing repetition to create invocatory rhythms. They also repeated dialogue, because, as you like to point out early and often, real-life dialogue is hugely redundant. If it’s good enough for those long-ago greats, why isn’t it good enough for me — or for Millicent?”

One reason leaps to mind: you’re not writing on a typewriter, are you? You’re probably composing your book in a word processing program. Not only can you spell- and grammar-check with an ease that would have made the late, great Ms. Parker gasp with envy — with the touch of a button or two, you can search your own writing to see if you have used a phrase before.

You think Millicent is unaware of that capacity?

You are perfectly right, though, close readers: all writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another. If a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us. These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. My least favorite: a thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her smartly-bobbed hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works.

It may well pop up more; I merely stopped counting after four. That was, not entirely coincidentally, when I threw the book across the room.

Why Uncle Scott found that particular line so very attractive in a pretty woman’s mouth remains a mystery eternal — it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a sane female utter it, even in jest. But he did, evidently, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Learn from his unhappy fate, I beg of you: no matter how marvelous a line of text is, use it only once.

This will require careful reading to enforce. Your garden-variety self-plagiarism is less obvious to the untrained eye than ol’ Scott’s outright dialogue reuse. Spread out over an entire text — or, as it often appears in the case of successful authors of series, once per book — it may be fairly innocuous, the kind of thing that might only bug someone who read manuscripts for a living.

Like, say, Millicent or yours truly. Do not underestimate, for your own sake, our memories. Unbound manuscripts do not typically survive intact being flung across the room.

E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Arctic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. To gather but a small nosegay of examples:

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

“It was as if the North Pole had spoken,”

“icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another as two characters had, and

“Mapp turned to ice.”

See the problem? As a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with four of them without even pulling any of his books off the shelf These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad analogy, of course, if not a startlingly original one. Like any other literary device, however, time it’s used, it becomes less effective.

Yet again, we see an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it — and not just as a cursory mumble-through, either. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear.

Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. It’s substantially easier for the reader to follow who is speaking when that way.

Don’t stand there and tell me that all of Aaron Sorkin’s and David Mamet’s characters speak in identical cadences, as though they all shared one vast collective mind. To my sensitive antennae, nothing is more potentially migraine-inducing than an evening of the percussive prose of Mamet. (Unless it’s a chamber concert of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest hits.)

As if the prospect of annoying your humble correspondent were not sufficient incentive to eschew identical dialogue patterns for every character, remember what I said back in Queryfest about the dangers of those new to the biz assuming that what the already-established have done, they may get away with as well?

Uh-huh. In a first manuscript, it would be considered poor craft to have every character in the book sound the same. Not to mention poor character development. While I’m on the subject, keep an ear out in your read-through for lines of dialogue that cannot be said aloud in a single breath without passing out — they tend to pull professional readers out of the story.

Why, you shout breathlessly? Well, in real life, listeners tend to interrupt speakers when the latter pause for — wait for it — breath. Cramming too many syllables into an uninterrupted speech usually doesn’t ring true on the page. Allow your characters to breathe occasionally, and your dialogue will seem more realistic.

I’d give you a concrete example, but I meant to post a short blog today, and here I have gone long again. Which begs the question: I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?

There, now at least one real, live human female has said it; don’t say I never did anything for you, Uncle Scott. 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!

Queryfest, part VI: pretty is as pretty does, or, what makes you think that polyester minidresses are still in style, Barbie?

Barbie ad

Last time, I threw all of you queriers a bit of a curve ball: in the midst of talking about how to polish a basic query letter — polite salutation, title, book category, brief description, writing credentials/platform for writing the book, courteous sign-off, your contact information, SASE if you’re going to send it via mail — I insisted ordered blandished you into suggested that you write it not in your own good prose, but in the language of the publishing industry.

Why might you want to invest the time in doing that? To elevate a ho-hum query that features just the basics into one that veritably leaps off the incoming mail stack at Millicent the agency screener, the dedicated and often quite poorly paid individual charged with the awesome task of going through the hundreds upon hundreds of queries a good agency receives each week, deciding what tiny fraction fits closely enough with the resident agents’ interests to warrant requesting pages.

Does that sudden flash of blinding light mean that Millicent’s job description caused light bulbs to appear over some of your heads? Or was it something else? “Oh, I was already aware that it was Millicent’s job to reject over 90% of the queries she sees,” some of the abruptly illuminated call out, “but back up a little. Did you just give a formula for a bare-bones query two paragraphs ago? I was so startled that I almost burned my lip on a too-hot latte, as Millicent always sees to be doing.”

My sympathies on your scalded mouth, campers, but I’m afraid I must make a technical correction: what I described above was a list of the information that absolutely must appear in a query letter in order for Millicent to decide to ask for pages; it wasn’t a formula for how to put it all together. This data could be presented in a million different ways — and should be, because as we have discussed, nothing so bores our Millie as the 5,421rst version of the same ostensibly surefire boilerplate query that’s been making the rounds on the Internet this month.

It would behoove you, therefore, to send her something a trifle more original.

I felt half of you tense up, but you have my permission to relax to the point of lolling: you’re beyond basic querying now, my friends, at least if you have been following Queryfest with an open heart and inquisitive mind (or even vice-versa) moved past the quite good query letter we discussed in Part I of this series. I have greater ambitions for you than that. You’re ready to become so conversant with the logic of querying that you could toss out future queries in a relatively pain-free hour or two, instead of an anguish-filled week or month.

And what’s the magic wand that’s going to enable you to make that radical leap forward? Learning how to describe your work as an agent or editor would. The first two steps: nailing down a book category and figuring out who your ideal reader is.

A savvy querier needs to do more than assert that such a reader exists, however; she must provide some evidence of it. Why? Well, no matter how well-read Millicent and her boss are in your chosen book category, unless you happen to have written a manuscript with exactly the same market appeal as a recent bestseller, neither will necessarily have a clear idea of how many potential readers there are for your book.

The more esoteric your claim to your ideal reader’s sympathies, the more likely this is to be the case, by the way. Let’s assume you’ve written a cozy mystery about a left-handed, redheaded sleuth/clog dancer who breaks her foot by tripping over log while running away from a spider. Now, you could say in your query that your novel will appeal to readers of cozy mysteries — but that’s not likely to come as news to an agent who represents that sub-genre, is it? It’s a tautology: cozy mystery buyers buy cozy mysteries, by definition. You could also claim that your book will appeal to left-handed people, or to redheads, but that would be a hard sell: both of these groups are too large and diverse to render such a claim plausible. You could, however, argue persuasively that there are not at present very many mysteries aimed specifically at clog-dancing enthusiasts, spider-fearers, and/or victims of falling accidents.

That’s not a bad argument — perhaps not the best for the work in question, but certainly a means of demonstrating the possible market appeal of this book. Strategically, you could do worse. However, it would definitely be poor strategy to assume that simply mentioning each of these groups would be sufficient to make your case.

Why not? How likely is either Millicent or her boss to be conversant with the specific demographics of that target audience to be able to say instantly, “Oh, terrific — arachnophobia is one of the most common of all phobias, 1 in 3 Americans over 65 will experience a fall in any given year, and clog dancing has been popular for the last four centuries! That would provide a wealth of different promotional approaches for this book!”

Even if an agency denizen did happen to have that particular array of statistics at her ink-stained fingertips, she’s not going to have the time (and probably not the inclination) to do the math. Although it’s fun to picture, isn’t it? “Let’s see,” Millie muses over your query, “assuming that about 30% of readers will be afraid of spiders, and virtually all of them will know somebody who harbors such a fear (insert adding machine operation sounds here)…and that about 10% of the population is left-handed (click, click, click), although of course that includes the ambidextrous and incompletely dominant as well…and about 13% of the current U.S. population is over 65…carry the three…add that to the national clog sales statistics I have at my elbow…”

Not going to happen. So why make Millicent guess?

In response to the hefty percentage of you who just shouted, “Because tracking down those numbers would be a big, fat pain!”: allow me to suggest that if you do not do that research, it’s terribly unlikely that Millicent will. Even if she happens to be a clogging enthusiast, she’s going to appreciate it if you throw some concrete numbers into your query, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is. Not to mention rendering it infinitely easier for Millicent to talk about your book to higher-ups — and, in turn, for an agent to pitch it to anyone at a publishing house.

Why, you gasp? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers. No matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given manuscript or book proposal, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too.

So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

I sense some ambient eye-rolling. “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things?”

Well, yes — if you happen to be a former president of the United States, a movie star recovering from a drug addiction, or a plain, ordinary writer with previous publishing credentials querying a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire and a werewolf, or a middle-grade novel about a young magician left mysteriously to fend for himself, with the assistant of two friends carefully selected to maximize the probability that young readers will be able to identify with one or the other, in the face of ultimate evil that adults are too dim-witted to see. If you are already a household name or have written a clone of a recent best-seller, it is entirely possible that your target market is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “This memoir gives the inside scoop on the White House,” “This is what it’s like in celebrity rehab,” or, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience, and if you’re already a celebrity or an ex-president, you’re probably not writing your own query letters, anyway. If your manuscript is original — it is, isn’t it? — you’re probably going to have some ‘splaining to do.

Still don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Aspiring writer Ermintrude has written a charming women’s fiction manuscript about Trudymin, an American woman in her early forties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12, as well as the trauma of having grown up with an off-beat name. Miracle of miracles, since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Ermintrude herself is. (“It’s sort of autobiographical,” she admits, but only amongst friends.)

Like the vast majority of queriers, Ermintrude has not thought much about her target market before approaching agent Betheen; she just assumes, and rightly, that she’s written a well-crafted women’s fiction novel. Isn’t it enough to say that it will appeal to women?

Um, no: she’s stunned when Betheen tells her that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Ermintrude comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she shoots back in an e-mail. (A tactic a rejected querier should NEVER, EVER embrace, by the way, but necessary here for the sake of drama.) “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is too vague to convince Betheen. What Ermintrude really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters. Would you like to hear the demographics on how many of us had oddball names like Sunshine?”

But Betheen heard what Ermintrude SAID in her query and ill-advised follow-up e-mail, not what she MEANT. As they’ve never met, how reasonable was it for Ermintrude to expect Betheen to read her mind?

Given this partial information, Betheen thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Federico) conclude from Ermintrude’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Ermintrude’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Ermintrude says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents, many of whom will have had an elementary school classmate named Zephyr.”

Agent Betheen thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Betheen pitches it to editor Federico this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of underemployed, recycling-conscientious vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but still, no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Ermintrude has thought through her readership in advance and approaches Betheen with relevant statistics all ready to leap off onto the query page.

Ermintrude says (immediately after describing the book in her query): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Betheen responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. I want to see the manuscript; this has market potential.”

And editor Federico thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing. Yes, Betheen, send me that manuscript by your new client.”

The moral of this exciting tale of woe and uproar: even the best book premise can be harmed by vague assertions about its target audience; it can only helped by the query’s talking about in marketing terms.

There is one drawback to using up-to-the-minute demographic statistics, of course — if you end up querying the same project repeatedly over several years (not at all unusual for even very well-written manuscripts, at this point in literary history), you may have to go back and update your numbers. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to reexamine your query’s arguments every so often, anyway. it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

Speaking of which, let’s return to our ongoing query-improvement list already in progress. Take a long, hard look at your letter and ask yourself…

(10) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?
Some of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? “But Anne,” you cry in unison, and who could blame you? “I’m experiencing déjà vu. Didn’t we already cover this in #5, Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I made some suggestions last time for some tried-and-true reasons for explaining why approaching a particular agent makes sense for your book. But no, we didn’t discuss how to fix a generic-sounding first paragraph.

Let’s rectify that right now: basically, you fix it by not using the same first paragraph in every query.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each agent on their list. Less experienced serial queriers, though, often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has, alas, made it much, much easier to be dismissive: never have so many been rejected so much with so few keystrokes. So although it may seem needlessly time-consuming, it’s worth reviewing every single query to ascertain that the opening paragraph speaks specifically to the recipient’s tastes and placement record.

Most aspiring writers don’t even consider doing this — and frankly, it’s easy to see why. Many approach quite a few agents simultaneously, and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. Querying every possible agent one at a time can add years to the agent-finding process.

Do I sense some restless murmuring out there? “But Anne,” some of you conference veterans protest, “I heard that some agents will become furious if they find out that a writer is sending out many queries simultaneously. I don’t want to scare them away from my book by breaking their rules right off the bat!”

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. The differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

What no agency will ever leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time — if it has one, which is exceedingly rare. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So if you heard that most agents prefer exclusive queries, you’ve been misinformed — or have been talking to someone who last queried in the mid-1970s.

Rather than hamstringing your querying efforts by assuming that a relatively rare preference is universal, take the necessary few minutes to check each agency’s querying policies before you send them anything. If you can’t find agency-specific guidelines (and you may not; query with SASE is an exceedingly common agents’ guide listing), it’s safe to assume that (a) they’re not expecting solo queries, so (b) you needn’t even mention multiple queries in your letter. Trust me, (c) if the agent wants an exclusive peek at your manuscript, he’ll tell you so point-blank in the request for pages.

This should, I hope, sound somewhat familiar to those of you who have been querying for a while. If not, I’m more than happy to haul out the broken record player again:

broken-recordThere is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Fair warning: sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on the agency’s Publisher’s Marketplace page.

I can hear some of you worrying types beginning to gnaw your fingernails down to the elbow, wondering if you sent out multiple queries based upon outdated sets of guidelines, or that the information was coded in a way you did not understand, but again, I would urge you to relax. It’s practically unheard-of for an agent to wake up one fine morning, stretch, and suddenly shout, “Hey, I’m sick of queriers not committing to me from the instant it occurs to them to approach me. I’m going to tell Millicent to dump any query that doesn’t say I’m getting an exclusive look into the recycling bin!”

That’s ridiculous, of course. Many agencies don’t recycle.

Just do your best, and hope for same. If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on how to deal with such a request if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess (and apparently I do), I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

In other words, don’t send out generic queries. They’re just not worth your time — or Millicent’s.

A query letter designed to please all is unlikely to be geared to the specific quirks and literary tastes of any particular agent — one of the many reasons that this shotgun approach seldom works. The other, believe it or not, is that mass submitters often render the fact that they don’t know one agent on their lists from another by sending out what is known in the biz as a Dear Agent letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel, LEFT-HANDED REDHEAD IN CLOGS. It’s a guaranteed hit with tempestuous coppertops everywhere, and a natural for the talk-show circuit. I enclose a pair of clogs as a gift in the desperate, forlorn hope that a huge, heavy box will be mistaken for a manuscript, and thus this query will end up on someone influential’s desk. Please find me charming?

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, Dear Agent means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, Millicent reasons, that it is unlikely to the point of mockery that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency — and unlikely to the point of rolling around in hysterics on the floor that the querier will have bothered to read the agency’s submission guidelines What’s the hope, then, that requested materials would even remotely resemble professional manuscript pages? And, most agency denizens would additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

The result: virtually any Millicent will simply toss it into the reject pile, if not actually the trash, without bothering to read even the first paragraph. (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs, alas.)

Since this is such a notorious agents’ pet peeve, I’m going to trouble you with yet another question aimed at making that first paragraph a beautiful case that you — yes, you — are the best possible fit for the agent you happen to be querying at the moment. And to make that case pellucidly clear even to a Millicent who has only 30 seconds or so to devote to each query.

(11) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
This is a corollary of the last, of course. To put it another way, writers aren’t the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” (Agents scream it, too, but with a slightly different meaning.)

It’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

And no, in this context, because she is an agent and I desperately want to sell my book to a publisher is not a reason likely to impress Millicent. She hears it too often.

The best way to justify your agent choice is by mentioning one of the agent’s recent sales. (Recent, in publishing-speak, means within the last five years.) Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring her, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief, private meetings with everyone on the faculty first. If she wants to get their vote, she had better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or she’s toast.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who want to believe simply everyone in the universe has read their work. Everyone smart, anyway.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia. But it did teach me something very valuable indeed: pretty much every human being affiliated with any book ever published likes to be recognized for the fact.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent {fill in recent title here}, I believe you may be interested in my book, TITLE, a {book category} aimed at {target audience}.”

I can feel your blood pressure rising, but again, relax: there are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. If all else fails, call your favorite book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was; legally, it’s a matter of public record, so they have to tell you.

Actually, with small publishers, this isn’t a bad method for finding out what they are looking to publish. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. Are you presenting your work in a way that invites Millicent to take a chance?

(12) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him speak at one, or picked him because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately? If I picked him purely because he represents my book category, have I at least made that plain?
Queriers often seem reluctant to mention bring up having heard an agent speak, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book.

broken-recordThe prevailing wisdom dictates that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present. A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, it’s one you should be milking for all it is worth.

I would suggest being even more upfront than this, if the conference in question was a reputable one and you did in fact attend it. Why not write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, in approximately the same place where you would have written REQUESTED MATERIALS had you pitched to the agent successfully there?

And if you are e-querying, why not mention the conference in the subject line of the e-mail? Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.

If you have not heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked — all fair game to mention in the first line of your query — don’t give in to the temptation not to personalize the first paragraph. Be polite enough to invent a general explanation for why you added her to your querying list. Something like this will work just find

Since you represent such an interesting array of debut fiction about women in challenging situations, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

(13) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I quadruple-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries? If I am sending it via regular mail, have I checked that the agency still accepts paper queries?
Stop cackling, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — even as I write this, it’s still far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that routinely accept electronic submissions often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic.

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well. If you’re in doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

Why? Glad you asked.

broken-recordit’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. Also, the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. Thus, a truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

The relative speed of scanning e-queries is why, in case you’re wondering, quite a few of the agencies that actively solicit online queries tend to respond more quickly than those that don’t. Or not at all — which means that it’s doubly worth your while to check an agency’s policy on responding to e-queries before you approach them; many have policies that preclude responding to a querier if the answer is no.

“But Anne,” I hear many of you protest, “what happens if I accidentally send an e-query to an agent who doesn’t like them, or a paper query to one who prefers to be approached electronically? That won’t result in an automatic rejection, will it? It’s not as though I did it on purpose.”

I’m afraid intent doesn’t matter much in this instance, but no, these are not necessarily instant-rejection offenses. They often are, though, for obvious reasons.

Oh, it’s not so obvious? Okay, let me ask you: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

I don’t know about you, but given my druthers, I would select the former.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that just as it’s polite to address a person the way he prefers to be addressed, rather than by a hated nickname, a courteous writer should approach an agent in the manner she prefers to be approached. Those with strong preferences either way seldom make a secret of it; verify before you send.

And before anyone out there asks: yes, most agents will assume that a writer worth having as a client will have gone to the trouble of learning something about their personal preferences. If they have expressed a pet peeve in one of the standard agency guides, been interviewed about it, or have written about it in a blog, they will assume that you are aware of it.

Google is your friend, in other words. Take the 5 minutes to check before you query. While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the night:

(14) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I addressing the agent of my dreams as Dear Ms. Smith, rather than Hey, Amy? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?
I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common each of these gaffes is. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie constantly receives queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex. This type of annoying mix-up has led to more agencies posting pictures of their agents on their websites than you’d expect.

If you’re in serious doubt — faced with a grainy photo, no photo at all, an agent with a name like Bo, etc. — call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two polite options, unless the person in question happens to be a doctor or a professor. Unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should never call an agency until after she has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if she’s polite about it. As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

Have you noticed how many of these tips boil down to some flavor of be clear, do your homework, and be courteous? That’s not entirely coincidental: as odd as it may seem in an industry that rejects so many talented people so brusquely, manners honestly do count in this business.

As my grandmother was fond of saying, manners cost nothing. But as I am prone to tell my clients and students, not exhibiting courtesy can cost an aspiring writer quite a lot.

So sit up straight, brush your teeth, and help little old ladies across the street; it will be great practice for working with an agent or editor. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XXV: riddle me this

A couple of years ago, in the midst of the test of human endurance and sheer grit known as the Seattle Ring Cycle — four Wagner operas over the course of five days, presented by the same group of singers — I saw something I had never seen before: the orchestra leaving its pit during the curtain call, at precisely the moment when the singer playing the lead in Die Walküre was walking forward for her solo curtain call. (And no, that’s not a picture of Brünnhilde; it’s Frank Gorshin as the Riddler on the old Batman show, a national treasure.)

Why would this very respectable and accomplished group of people have done such a rude and unprofessional thing? Were they simply exhausted, as the audience was, by so many consecutive hours of sitting? Did the golden hour of overtime click in thirty seconds hence? Had a swarm of hornets abruptly descended upon the string section?

All valid possibilities, I suppose, but my guess would be that they staged a walk-out for the same reason the audience members in my part of the balcony stopped yelling “Bravo,” sat down, and engaged in barely-audible golf claps when Brünnhilde tripped lightly to the front of the stage. They felt disappointed.

It wasn’t because the singer didn’t have a marvelous voice; far from it, as she demonstrated in Act III. Nor was the problem her acting: the lady was — and is — world-famous for playing this role. Unfortunately, in anticipation of Act III, she had chosen not to sing at full voice in Act II. As a result, the Valkyrie most closely associated with belting out the top notes was barely audible past the tenth row for a good hour.

An hour, alas, that contained the single best-known aria in Western opera, a little ditty that runs something like this: