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!

As individual as a snowflake — but my, don’t those snowflakes start to look alike when they start to pile up (or, as we like to call this post around here, Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXI, and Structural Repetition, part VIII)

My, that’s a mighty cool image for a midsummer day, is it not? After catching the tail end of a national weather report, I thought some of you fine people could use some visual air conditioning.

And what a refreshing breeze was caused by all of those hands suddenly shooting into the air. “But Anne,” those of you who have been following this series on self-editing and rigorously applying its principles, “air conditioning is felt viscerally, and visual images are seen by the eyes! Is this not, therefore, a mixed metaphor — and aren’t mixed metaphors one of the many, many things that get our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s goat?”

Quite right, sharp-eyed revisers, and well caught. Our Millie has indeed been known to gnash her teeth over analogies that are not quite analogous, as well as sensual organs that pick up sensations beyond their traditional ken. Hearts that skip a pulse, rather than a beat, eyes that observe inflections in tone, facial expressions that convey emotions of such complexity that Marcel Proust would consider their fullness over-examined on the page — all have done their part over the years in depleting Millicent’s goat herd.

She doesn’t have awfully many goats left, people. Choose your words with care.

In an effort to help her conserve a few cloven-footed beasts, I went on at some length last time about the yawn-inducing effect of mentioning characters’ names too often within a short stretch of text. As I tried to show in what was probably an excess of examples, the repetitive force of all those capital letters can be somewhat hypnotic. More seriously, they can be distracting from the story the book is telling.

And that, my friends, is bad news for any submission. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to massage the text a little to try to reduce the frequency of those monikers. It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s. Heck, if we going to be honest about it, it would behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list.

Especially someone who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Why? Well, think about it: the more worked-over a manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed over the course of the revision process, right?

Oh, you thought Millicent wouldn’t notice if your protagonist’s sister was Emily for the first third of the book and Evie thereafter? I can hear her pet goats saying, “Meh!” at the very notion.

Even if this is your first attempt at editing your manuscript, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, repeated first letters in different names can cause the reading eye to leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

While you’re already well-braced, I might as well continue with the bad news: character blurring is particularly likely to occur in the opening pages of a manuscript, where many characters are often introduced quite close together.

Resist the temptation, please, to blame the skimming eye, rather than authorial choices, for this species of confusion. It’s hard to blame Millicent for getting confused when eight characters are tossed at her within half a page — especially when that half a page happens to be on page 1, when she cannot reasonably be expected to know which of this cast of thousands is the protagonist.

Oh, you think it’s easy to keep track? Okay, skim over the following sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can. As always, if you’re having a bit of trouble making out the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

similar name page 1

Be honest, now: right now, based on that rapid reading alone — no fair referring back to the page — could you draw Cheryl’s family tree? Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part. Since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

Repetitive capital letters are not the only avoidable bugbears in naming, however. Swift readers will also frequently mix up names with similar sequences of letters, such as Cheryl, Meryl, and Beryl. Or Jenny and Benny. Or even Bunnie and Billie.

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? Millicent is. And her goat is getting antsy.

Believe it or not, even names that merely sound similar can be hard to tell apart on the page. Why? Well, many readers (not usually the speediest text-absorbers, admittedly, but still, potential enjoyers of your prose) will pronounce names in their minds, at least the first time those monikers appear on the page. So while it may seem unnecessary to worry about anyone’s confusing Cheryl and Sherrill in the same manner that they might mix up Cheryl and Meryl, or Meryl and Beryl, it’s actually not beyond belief.

Try saying that last sentence out loud three times fast, and you’ll see why.

Again, advance planning (or most writers’ preferred method, after-the-fact tedious alteration) is your friend here: name your people so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, speaking as someone who survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

There’s another species of naming conducive to character-blurring, one that seldom involves any capital letters at all: avoiding proper nouns altogether. Such narratives have a nickname amongst editors: he said/she said texts.

Or, as I like to call them, he said/he said/he said.

Don’t laugh: name-eschewing is a more common practice than you might think, and not only in mid-book chapters, where the relevant characters are already established. In fact, leaving identification entirely to pronouns is a fairly popular type of book opening, intended (one assumes) to hook the reader by making him guess who the mysterious he (or, more often, she) of the opening paragraphs could possibly be.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, given its ubiquity, this type of opening turns up on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Judge for yourself why it might be a goat-getter:

pronoun-only text

Well, are you hooked? Or, to put it in the terms that a professional reader would, are you eager to turn to page 2? If so, how much of the appeal lay in the inherent excitement of the situation and how it was presented — and how much in the fact that the narrative didn’t bother to tell you who any of these people were or much of anything about them?

“Meh,” says the goat. “I could take this story or leave it, at this point.”

I’m with you, Flossie. For the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating — and overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of Who is this broad?, What on earth is going on here?, and Why is this writer withholding relevant information from me? Is this lady’s name a state secret?

Trust me on this one: in a submission (or contest entry, for that matter), it’s the writer’s job to show what’s going on, not the reader’s job to guess. Letting the reader know who is who is more than good Millicent-pleasing; it’s generally considered better writing than false suspense.

Or any other tactic that’s like to result in reader confusion, really. Millicent’s usual response to being confused by what’s in front of her on the page is generally quite dramatic: a cry of “Next!”

Oh, those hands are in the air again. Yes? “Um, Anne?” those of you joining us mid-series inquire meekly. “I have to admit, I rather like this kind of opening. I can see that it’s suspenseful, but what’s false about it? I’ve seen it in plenty of published books. And if there’s only one character in a scene — or only one whose name the protagonist knows, as in that last example — what’s so confusing about not telling the reader who she is?”

Valid questions all, meek inquirers. Yes, this opening is exciting, and yes, there was a time when this strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles. But really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

The rather hackneyed nature of the tactic is not its primary drawback, however: the problem is that the suspense arises not solely from the considerable inherent stress of the situation upon the protagonist, but from the fact that the reader knows neither who she is nor why she is being pursued. (And why is she wearing a party dress in the woods?) Obviously, though, the narrator, the woman, and the author do know the answers to these questions — so the only possible reason not to share this information with the reader is to prompt the reader to be curious about it.

Hey, you — put Millicent’s goat right back where you found it. It’s not her fault (or the goat’s, for that matter) that the author didn’t have enough faith in the action of his opening scene to let it speak for itself. No, he thought had to introduce a narrative device (and a rather tired one at that) in order to interest the reader in his heroine’s plight.

Frankly, this opening doesn’t need it. Take a gander at the same page 1 with the withheld evidence added in:

“Come on, admit it,” the goat says. “It’s every bit as suspenseful, isn’t it?”

Good point, surprisingly articulate barnyard animal. For many readers, it may even be more suspenseful — having a bit of background to this chase enables us to empathize with Alice’s plight more fully.

Let’s go ahead and establish an axiom: unless there is a very, very good reason for denying the reader information as basic as a character’s name — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name the first time they appear in a scene (or the book), rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she.

Believe me, Millicent doesn’t like to guess — and she has a point in this instance. Too little name-calling can be as harmful to the reader’s experience as too much. Even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes.

Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test, I shall valiantly resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, he pushed back, sending him tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” he cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. (Although that would have been fun to see, wouldn’t it?) All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

It is indeed possible, then, for the reader to emerge at the end of this passage unconfused. But is it a good idea for a writer to expect the reader to put in the work?

I can answer that one for you: not if that reader is Millicent — or, indeed, any professional reader. Because clarity is, after all, the absolute minimum requirement of publishable writing, the pros typically regard an unclear passage as a poorly-written one, period. Or if not precisely poorly-written, then at least lazily revised.

At best, it’s an abdication of authorial responsibility: the gap between what the writer meant the reader to take away from the text and what’s actually on the page needs to be bridged by someone. The writer who submits the text at this stage is tacitly conveying the belief that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the necessary details; Millicent, by contrast, will be quite sure that it’s the writer’s job — and that the writer called in sick that day.

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

Millicent is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears on page 1 of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

Chant it with me now, campers: “Next!”

Does that low, despairing moan mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? “But Anne, aren’t you presenting us with a Catch-22? I’m afraid that once I start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to my manuscript, I shall almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition. Help! And why is this goat following me?”

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, the last time I brought this up, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up:

Reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

Elizabeth speaks for many here: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as she points out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety.

Let’s see why. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, Herman pushed Paul back, sending Paul tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” Ed cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it? Unless a writer wants to stock up on Goat Chow, this seems like a strategic mistake.

It does serve, however, to illustrate an important reason to approach writing advice with caution: all too often, writing guidelines that aren’t applicable to every situation are presented as inviolable rules. Certainly, many, many aspiring writers are prone to take them as such. Matters of style are, unfortunately, often discussed as if they were matters of fact. As a result, accepting sweeping generalizations like the one Elizabeth cites above may actually be harmful to your writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. So here is my advice: never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance. If you are not positive that you understand why a writing axiom or piece of feedback will improve your manuscript, do not apply it to your pages.

What should you do instead? Ask questions, plenty of them, and don’t accept, “Well, everybody knows it should be this way,” as an answer. Plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

Take the 9/10th truism Elizabeth mentioned, for instance: it’s not uncommon generic writing advice, but it’s not particularly helpful, is it? I suspect that the real intention behind it is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Somehow, through the dim mists of time, what may well have started out as a relatively minor revision suggestion (you might want to think about giving that lady in the forest a name, Gerald), transmogrified into an imperative (thou shalt not use pronouns!).

But that imperative does not exist: there’s plenty of good writing that uses pronouns in abundance. Great writing, even, as even the most cursory flip through the volumes at any well-stocked bookstore or library will rapidly demonstrate. I’ve seen it, and I’m sure you have, too.

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering for the past ten paragraphs, I specified that I often hear the proper-name-at-all-costs rule from aspiring writers; professional writers know better. They know that there are many, many means of achieving clarity in writing about people without treating pronouns as if they were infected with some dreadful communicable disease.

Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above. The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule.

Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense. As Aristotle liked to point out, moderation is the key.

Okay, so he was talking about something else, but obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name, at least occasionally, could reduce confusion quite a bit. (And before anybody asks, the rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in American literature, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself at the time, regardless of the stage of physical transition. While Marci is introducing herself as Marci, rather than Marc, use she; when he would introduce himself as Marc, use he. It’s only polite to call people what they wish to be called, after all, and it will save the narrative from having to indulge in pointlessly confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

Once the reader knows who the players in a scene are, a clever writer can easily structure the narrative so pronoun use isn’t confusing at all. Remember, moderation is your friend, and clarity is your goal.

Let me guess: you want to see those principles in action, don’t you? Okay, let’s revisit a proper name-heavy example from last time, one that might easily have been composed by a writer who believed pronouns were to be eschewed because they have cooties. Behold the predictable result.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, Susan,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” Susan said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, Susan. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

Susan sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

“Meh,” the goat observes, shaking its horned head, “that’s quite a lot of proper names for such a short scene, isn’t it?”

Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would leave the reader wondering what was going on. Lookee:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you,” she snapped.

“Why ever not?” she asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

She played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about him?”

“Of course it’s about him,” she huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” she said, smiling. “It’s been just him since the seventh grade.”

Her eyes stung for a moment. She always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

She sighed. “Those were the days, eh?”

“I’ll say,” she said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Fortunately, those two options aren’t the only tools we have up our writerly sleeves, are they? Let’s try a combination of minimizing the proper nouns by incorporating a little light pronoun use and reworking the dialogue a little:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about him. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” she said, smiling. “It’s been just him since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Experience even momentary confusion about who was who, or who was saying what when? The goat and I think not. All it took was a touch of creativity, a spot of flexibility, and a willingness to read the scene from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.

After all, clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that pupil happy by making your narrative a pleasure to read.

Oh, come back, Flossie — Millicent doesn’t like bad puns, either. Keep up the good work!

It was a dark and stormy night, perfect for — revising?

a dark and stormy night

Sorry about the unusually long hiatus between posts, campers. I shan’t bore you with long-winded justifications; suffice it to say that the Grumpy Relative is once again home from the hospital, and thus so am I. Many thanks to those of you who sent good wishes during the last few weeks.

Now that my head is back in the game, so to speak, I’m all ready to hunker down for a nice, lengthy winter’s foray into matters of craft. There’s nothing like a dark and stormy night for manuscript revision, I always say.

Stop cringing — revision is a necessary phase of the writing process. But let’s face it, nobody likes being told to re-work a manuscript, but if you ever hear any professional writer say that his first drafts regularly get published as is, well, you might want to muffle your laughter as you back swiftly away from him. Because as any pro could (and should) tell you, revision frequently takes up most of the writing time the author devotes to a published book.

Cool compresses applied to the head will help reduce the urge to curl up into a ball and moan at the very thought.

Frankly, I understand that reaction: it would be genuinely marvelous if all a talented writer had to do was to wait until inspiration hit, take dictation from the muses, and mail the result off to an agent or editor. It would be equally fantastic if agents routinely said to their clients, “You know, I would like to see a few changes in this manuscript you’ve just spent a couple of years slaving over, but hey, the editor who picks it up will probably have a different opinion, so let’s go ahead and send it out as is, okay?” And it would be downright miraculous if the third editor handling a book project (because the editor who originally acquired it has moved since to another publishing house and the second was laid off last week) was satisfied with the changes editors 1 and 2 had already convinced the author to make before the book joins the print queue.

It would also be great if cows gave chocolate milk to passing children, long-battling neighbors spontaneously realized that their deep-seated differences were unimportant, and my cats stopped staring at me indignantly because I went out of town (for a good cause, felines!), instead devoting themselves to more worthy pursuits like being comforts and joys, scampering merrily, or finding a cure for cancer. Yet somehow, I don’t think any of these things are likely to become the prevailing reality anytime soon.

Try not to take it personally. Having to revise one’s work in order to please others is, both unfortunately and fortunately for writers everywhere, simply a fact of life for a working author.

I know, I know — embracing the necessity of revision (or, for some aspiring writers, the imperative to write not only to please oneself, but a potential reader) is easy to advise, hard to pull off. Yet since writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s tempting for those of us who advise, teach, and otherwise cajole the aspiring into presenting their words and ideas professionally to forget that writers are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s genuinely hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop by an unexpected request to change something fundamental in our manuscripts.

Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, to be thrown, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

As a freelance editor, I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read. I have been exchanging chapters with my own first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on. The vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping an author incorporate a revision request from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not interfere too much with the original vision.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) Recently, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job — or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving — to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: as any of my clients could tell you, it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the biz refers to me affectionately as the manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet the Chapter Two-producer informed me that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of reams and reams of glowing praise. And although it pains me to point it out to writers as open-minded and eager to improve their craft as my readership, it’s not at all uncommon for writers inexperienced with feedback to respond in this manner.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her.

Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Or even not respond to a submission at all.

Their stated reason for form letter responses — or non-responses — to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. Fair enough, or if not, at least understandable. It’s harder to make the case in favor of form-letter (or no letter) rejections of requested partial or full manuscript submissions, because, obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved.

Or, as insightful and curious reader Jenyfer pointed out in the comments recently:

Why it is that once an agent asks to see the material and the material is actually sent, the agent can’t be bothered to respond? It’s one thing to ignore an unsolicited query / partial, but if they actually request it, you would think they could at least say “thanks, but no thanks” if they aren’t interested. Surely I’m not the only one this has happened to?

No, Jenyfer, you’re most certainly not, and it’s an excellent subject for writerly speculation: non-responses are rapidly becoming not only acceptable, but in many agencies, the norm. And even those increasingly rare agents who do respond with a direct yes or no seldom give a specific reason for rejection beyond I just didn’t fall in love with this or the ubiquitous this material does not meet our agency’s needs at this time.

This may seem like a cold, impersonal, or even jaded response, but to be fair, there is a pretty good reason many professional readers don’t want to give writers specific rejection reasons: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Don’t believe that’s a realistic possibility? Try suggesting to a sensitive soul that his Chapter Two could use a little work, then duck.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, the fear of a very negative reaction is perhaps overblown. Certainly in the case of agencies that simply do not respond at all if the answer is no. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it — and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway. Although I’d be lying if I didn’t add here that sending out form-letter rejections is quite a bit less expensive and employee time-consuming than mailing or e-mailing off individually-crafted nos — and that not responding at all is undoubtedly cheaper still.

If that seems like an affront to art, please remember: agencies make no money at all from screening queries, or even submissions. (Not a reputable agency, anyway, one that does not charge to consider manuscripts. For some insights on the other kind, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category on the archive list at the lower right-hand corner of this page.) Agencies make money when they sell their clients’ manuscripts to publishers — and receive a percentage of royalties after the books have made enough to cover the advance. (If that made no sense to you, or if you were not aware that advances are pre-payments of royalties, and thus no further royalties are paid until the publisher has made back the advance, please see the posts under the aptly-named ADVANCES category at right.)

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, you might want to greet the first emergence of any revision request with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.”

Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in the moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not recently been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a super-defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

For working writers — especially those who would like to make something resembling a decent living from their keyboards — a muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. After all, all of us who write works longer than a postcard must inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone moan about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t stick around for very long, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn novels. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself whenever I complained about the revision process. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. Nor was it that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself trapped in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time.

No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything will work, as long as it gets your eyes off your own words for a while.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad experience with that Chapter Two-hugger. Naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?”

Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger. She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia.

Keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part II: show me the money!


My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: thus the skipped day between posts. I honestly hadn’t planned it that way. Let’s see if I learned my lesson sufficiently to keep today’s within a more reasonable range.

Stop your chortling, long-time readers. Perhaps it’s unlikely that I’ll be terse, given my track record, but I’ll give it the proverbial old college try.

For those of you who happened to miss Tuesday’s epic, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

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

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

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

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

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

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

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

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

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

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

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

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

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

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

Or even original.

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

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

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

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

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

A few little matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

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

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

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

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

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

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

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

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

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

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

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

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

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

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

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

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

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VII: clarifying those expectations, or, has my watch stopped again?


Is it me, or are people who take even the slightest, most veiled criticism of their work as either deep personal insults or as proof positive that they should scrap the entire thing and start again rather, well, annoying?

Perhaps they are not to the general populace, but I’m sufficiently annoyed today to let you in on a little trade secret that we professional feedback-givers seldom admit in mixed company: for subtle critiquers, both forms of over-reaction are kind of insulting. Why bother to formulate a nuanced analysis of a work if its creator is simply going to blow up or be plunged into the depths of despair? With someone unskilled in the fine art of accepting feedback, the critiquer is in a no-win situation.

While I’m telling tales out of school, let me add that professional feedback-givers aren’t all that crazy about another species of feedback-taker: the one who doesn’t kick up a fuss upon getting critique, because he has no earthly intention of incorporating it. He either cherry-picks what he wants to hear from the feedback, blithely ignoring what doesn’t fit in with what he had already decided to do (or, even more often, not do), or simply doesn’t listen. In this case, too, the feedback-giver is left feeling that she might as well have saved her breath.

Especially when she’s staring at the next version and notices that none of the problems she pointed out last time have been fixed.

What feedback-giving crisis prompted this extended lament, you ask? Let’s just say that the World’s Worst Landscaper™ has really been getting on my nerves for the past few days. The photo above shows the current state of a wall and steps that are now in the process of being torn down and reconstructed for what I believe is the seventh time since last April. That pile of rocks you see is atop what was through Valentine’s Day a bed filled with burgeoning bulbs and other mildly decorative plant life, now demised. And when I happened to glance up from an editing project yesterday, I noticed someone tearing down yet another wall that no one had ever mentioned touching again. I had to dash outside to keep my favorite rosebush and the cat buried under it from being dug up and summarily discarded.

Talk about deconstruction.

But that’s not what you thought I was talking about at the opening of this post, was it? I would bet a wheelbarrow full of the abundant rock lying all over my yard that some of you, at least, just assumed that I was complaining about writers defensive about their work.

Well, I must say, I can’t blame you for leaping to that conclusion: writers in general (and aspiring writers in particular) are legendarily touchy — at least according to agents, editors, and any first reader who has tried to pass along a couple of suggestions to an ostensible feedback-seeker who secretly only wanted to be told that his work was the best collection of sentences ever produced in the English language; the rest of the scribblers worldwide might as well turn in their printer ribbons now.

I’ve got bad news for writers harboring this yen: from a professional point of view, there is no such thing as a manuscript that’s beyond critique.

Actually, this mythical beast doesn’t really exist for most good readers, either — have YOU ever met a published book that you didn’t think could use an alteration or two? — but professional readers are far more likely than other people to see the same manuscript twice. Given that reality, those of us who are devoted to trying to give useful feedback to writers are often left wondering: where does that astonishingly common aspiring writer’s daydream where the first reader hands back the manuscript the day after receiving it, exclaiming something along the lines of, “I stayed up all night reading this; I just couldn’t put it down. Don’t change a word!” come from?

You’re familiar with that daydream, right? It’s the first cousin of the one about the brilliant book written in secret, without the author’s revealing so much as a syllable of it to any eyes other than the faithful raven perched on the bust of Pallas above the chamber door (and if that last line didn’t make you either smile or groan, I’ve got a bone to pick with your high school English teacher), wowing the first human being to clap eyes on it — usually an agent or editor, in this fantasy — so much that it is snapped up and published without so much as the odd gerund altered. Not only does no one ever dare ask the author for revisions, even minor ones, but all of the normal rules of publishing dissolve into a mist before this august volume. Everything else in the publisher’s print run is shunted aside so that the book can come out within the month. Listing on the New York Times’ bestseller list and genteel protests that the writer never dreamed that her book would ever be so popular (“I wrote it because this was a story I just had to tell, Oprah!”) follow a week after that, and the writer is a household name by Christmas. When platoons of literary-minded interviewers trample down the overnight sensation’s shrubbery to ask neighbors how it feels to live next door to a national treasure, the local gossip is so flabbergasted that he sounds like the person whose block watch captain was just arrested as a serial killer: “Well, I just had no idea. She seemed so normal.”

You do realize that it doesn’t work that way, right?

Don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t — or if you thought, as so many aspiring writers do, that if a book is any good, it will inevitably get snatched up right away; therefore, if yours didn’t, it must not be very good. These are extremely pervasive misperceptions, harmful not only because they encourage writers to harbor unreasonable hopes that will be dashed even if they end up landing an excellent agent and selling their books to the best conceivable publisher, but because they place an amazingly heavy burden on the writer to produce perfect prose on the first draft.

Just doesn’t happen.

If you ever happen to meet an author who actually does produce perfect first drafts, will you be kind enough to introduce me? Because, frankly, I’ve never met one. And even if I did stumble on this to-be-envied freak of nature, I would still expect to hear her grumble about her agent and/or editor’s revision requests — because, I assure you, even Ms. Perfect Composer is going to receive them.

Okay, the volume of disbelieving guffaws has grown so tumultuous over the last couple of paragraphs that I can no longer ignore it. “But Anne,” some of you huffers cry, “that’s ridiculous. If an agent or editor didn’t already like a manuscript, why would she sign its writer? And if she does like it, why would she want it changed?”

Those are clear, direct questions, oh guffawers, and they certainly deserve a clear, direct answer. How I wish that I had one to give you, but at the risk of repeating myself, it just doesn’t work that way.

The fact is, a well-written book is not necessarily a book that an agent can sell to her already-existing contacts in the current market, nor a book that an editor can successfully push through an editorial committee and acquire. It’s not necessarily a tome that booksellers will instantly recognize as appealing to their customers, or one that browsers in bookstores will knock one another over to stand in line to buy. And even if the book in question is simultaneously all of those things — which it has to be, for the publishing world to consider it a success — every single individual who helps the writer bring it to publication will have — and express — his personal reading preferences about it. Unless that writer self-publishes, she’s going to need to take all of that feedback into account.

Since I may already have depressed some of you into a stupor, I shan’t even bring up what the marketing department might want a writer to do to the manuscript prior to publication. Suffice it to say that the book is almost certainly going to read differently in its published form than it did when the writer first approached her agent.

I can feel some of you clinging to that almost in the last sentence, can’t I? “But Anne,” a hopeful few point out, “it’s possible that my book will be the exception, isn’t it?”

Well, yes, it is possible, in theory. It’s also theoretically possible that you will win the lottery, give birth to sextuplets, and get struck by lightning, all on the same day. It is, however, extremely unlikely.

How unlikely, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: if I had a quarter for every writer who believed himself to be the exception to this particular rule, I wouldn’t have to win the lottery; I would be the richest nit-picker on the planet. Queen Elizabeth II would be hitting me up for loans. If I had a dollar for every superb writer whose agent or editor told her, “I love this book — now change it radically,” I would buy a small island in the South Pacific and establish the world’s first combination writers’ retreat/tap-dancing school for dolphins. And if I had five dollars for every writer who has ever heard, “I love your writing — could you give me less of it? How about cutting about a hundred pages from your perfectly delightful book?” I would…well, I don’t know what I would do after I commissioned fine Persian rugs for every drafty kitchen in Canada, but I’m sure that I’d think of something.

Yet hope is a stranger to the strictures of probability, isn’t it? One or two of you are still thinking that your manuscript is that 1 in 100,000,000 that will astonish us all. “Okay, so maybe the odds are a trifle long,” those dreamers concede. “But if clinging to that rather remote hope helps me keep moving forward with writing and submission, what’s the harm in my stubbornly refusing to apply my math skills to this particular situation?”

Apart from causing your future agent to go bald from pulling her hair out in frustration, you mean? Well, let’s me see…one common type of harm involves getting one’s hopes dashed, taking the small handful of rejections (or even just the first) that prove one’s manuscript isn’t the exception one thought it was as proof positive that one should just abandon any further attempts at submission. Another type leaves the writer so unprepared for critique of any kind that the slightest hint for improvement causes him to deconstruct his manuscript down to its very foundations and begin again. A third prompts the feedback-receiver to stomp away from the feedback-giver in a huff, or causes him to stuff his fingers into his ears, merrily whistling until the critiquer gets tired of fighting to be heard and just goes away.

Any of these behaviors sound familiar? They should: they’re precisely the behaviors I pointed out above, the ones that drive good feedback-givers nuts, because they imply that it never occurred to the writer that in producing a book, he would need to please anybody but himself.

Hadn’t thought of it that way before, had you, oh guffawers?

But once you accept the proposition — as every writer who intends to make a living at it must — that it’s part of a writer’s job to accept and incorporate feedback, then you can start to regard good critique as what it actually is in the professional reader’s world: a compliment to a writer’s talent. Because, really, would it be worth a feedback-giver’s time and energy to convey suggestions to a writer who wasn’t gifted and professional enough to use them to improve the book?

In order to work well with first readers — be they agents, editors, contest judges, or that constantly-reading coworker who has expressed interest in seeing your manuscript — that you are indeed worth the effort who ever walked the planet, though, you’re going to need to do more than write a good book. Even if you happen to be both beloved of the Muses and the best natural handler of constructive criticism ever born, you’re going to need to learn how to ask for useful feedback — and mean it.

Up until now in this series, we’ve been concentrating on the problems poorly-selected non-professional first readers — i.e., critiquers of your work who are neither freelance editors, agents, editors at publishing houses, or paid writing teachers — might have in giving feedback. Now, let’s take a gander at some of the more common frustrations feedback-seeking writers encounter, with an eye to figuring out how the writer’s way of making the request for critique might have influenced the outcome.

Of course it doesn’t sound like fun. Eliciting good feedback is hard work.

If you’ve already tried to drum up some useful critique, you’ve probably already encountered the enthusiastic friend who begs to read your manuscript…and then never mentions it again. Practically every serious writer has run into this one at some point. Or the second most common, the person who takes 6 months to read it, then hands it back with no more complex commentary than, “Oh, I liked it.” Or the reader who concentrates so hard on the minutiae (rending his garments and exclaiming, “The way you use commas is INFURIATING!” for instance) that he has nothing to report on the big picture.

“Forest?” he says, gaping at you as though you were insane. “All I saw was a single tree.”

You don’t need the chagrin of any of these outcomes, frankly, but the frustration is not the only reason such interactions hold little value for the writer. Even when such first readers do produce useable feedback, the manner of delivery often renders it either too soft-pedaled, too vague, or too harsh, or simply too late to be of any practical value.

Yet to be fair, most of the time, it isn’t precisely the first-time critiquer’s fault: these outcomes are usually the result of the writer’s not having selected readers carefully and/or not having set firm desiderata for feedback. You owe it to yourself — and the good first readers you will be asking to have faith in you — to invest the time in doing both.

Time is the operative word here, isn’t it? Even gearing up to submit your work to another human being is stressful for most writers, much less waiting to hear back. It’s nigh-impossible to explain to non-writers, but the period preparing to send work out to agents and editors can leave a writer as raw and sensitive as the time while she is waiting for a reply on a submission.

Which is another good reason to select your first readers with care, rather than just handing your baby to the first person that asks. Even when a spate of rejections may well have left you simply dying for someone — anyone, please! — to show an interest in reading your writing, it’s not a good idea to give in to that impulse without first giving the matter some extended thought.

What I am about to suggest may come across as downright prosaic, but I assure you, adding this one step to the feedback-solicitation profess can save a writer weeks or even months of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending whilst awaiting feedback:

Make sure your potential reader has time already available in his schedule to read your manuscript BEFORE you hand it off.

This is not a rude question; actually, it’s rather considerate to ask before you start handing over pages. If the reader cannot estimate a reasonable return date, thank him and move on to another choice.

I know, I know, we all wants to believe that every human being is going to be overjoyed to read our work. But the fact is, a critique-providing first read is not the same experience as reading a book for pleasure — yet far, far too many of us pretend that it is when handing our books to someone who has never given a writer feedback before.

Come on, admit it: even writers read differently for pleasure and for analysis; it’s the nature of the beast.

Reading to spot problems is considerably more time-consuming than other kinds of perusal, not to mention more stressful for the reader — and that will be the case even if the reader does not also have to worry about couching his feedback in ways that will preserve the intimate relationship between you. (For lively reader debate on this last point, I would highly recommend reading the comments on an earlier post on this topic.)

Remember, your first readers are doing you a favor, donating their time to the good cause of furthering your writing career. Even if you are giving them an advance peek at the next DA VINCI CODE so they can say they knew you back when, agreeing to give you feedback is a significant responsibility. Treat their time with respect.

It may seem counterintuitive, but setting some boundaries in advance is one of the better ways to pull that off. As in:

Ask your feedback-giver BEFORE you hand over the manuscript if you can schedule a date for her to return it to you, one that will work within her already-existing rubric of commitments.

Yes, I know: setting even a loose deadline makes it seem like an assignment, rather than a favor, but let’s not kid ourselves here: from the writer’s perspective, it is an assignment, as well as a favor. You honestly do want to hear back within a reasonable period of time, don’t you?

Being wishy-washy about the fact that you honestly do want feedback enough to stay up at night, nibbling your fingernails down to the quick because you’re terrified what your first reader might say, is not the kind of information you’re going to want to spring upon your kind friend as a surprise after the fact.

If you’re unsure why, please go back and re-read the litany of resentments at the top of this post.

Pick an actual date, rather than just saying, “Okay, I’ll expect that back in three weeks.” It’s far more difficult to follow up on a vague understanding than a specific commitment. If your potential first reader hesitates at all, ask him to suggest a date that seems reasonable, then add a week to it.

Obtain timing information even if — and perhaps even especially if — someone has expressed an interest in reading your manuscript simply out of friendship, family feeling, or curiosity. In my experience, such people, while kind and encouraging, frequently do not realize just how much time it takes to read a manuscript carefully – or even that the task is going to be any different from reading any book at the library. Often, these folks end up not finishing it at all or giving inadequate feedback, just because they did not budget sufficient time to read well.

Also, if you ask for this information courteously up front, you will have given yourself permission to take advantage of my next tip:

A week or so before the agreed-upon return date, send a polite reminder e-mail or drop a friendly note to your first reader, asking if he will find it convenient to finish the book in time for your meeting. If he says no, chuckle understandingly and set up a new date.

No, this isn’t nagging; it’s demonstrating your awareness that not everyone may consider reading a book a higher priority than eating, sleeping, and making a living. Crises do come up, and it’s only courteous for a feedback-seeker to give a first reader the option of extending the deadline.

But that’s not the real reason you’re going to want to ask. Creative civilians (or, to put it less colorfully, people who don’t write) almost never understand that writers are serious about deadlines — an opinion that many agents and editors seem to share, incidentally.) How could we be, they think, when we spend years at a time working on a single book?

Forgive them, readers: they know not what they think.

Given the pervasive belief that writers don’t own calendars, a pre-deadline reminder can go a long way toward making sure that the reading actually gets done. Just a quick heads-up, perhaps inviting the reader to coffee or lunch just after the deadline to discuss it, will help keep you from seething three weeks after the stated deadline passed, wondering if you should call now or wait another three days.

Since you will be asking for a time commitment before you hand over the manuscript, it’s a good idea to tell your first reader WHY you want her, of all people, to give you feedback. To put it bluntly, buttering ‘em up will often yield swifter results. Which leads me to my next tip:

NEVER leave a non-professional first reader guessing why you selected her to ask for feedback. If possible, couch your request for feedback in a compliment.

Ideally, you would like your potential first readers to be flattered that you asked, and thus hyper-motivated to sit down and read. There’s no need to make up extravagant praise — just be very clear about why you are asking THIS particular person for feedback, as opposed to anyone else who can read and has some time on his hands. The more specific you can be, the more likely your first reader is to regard the request as an honor, an indication that you respect his opinion enough to want to know what he thinks of your book.

So before you approach a potential reader, ask yourself: why is this person THE person to read THIS book? What special insight or experience do you believe will render this person’s perspective especially useful for this particular story? And, based upon these reasons, what type of feedback would you like from this person?

If you can’t come up with good answers to all of these question (or if the answers run along the lines of, “Um, because she asked to read it, and she’s less of an idiot than everyone else who works at my office. And I know absolutely nothing about either her reading habits or her life prior to two years ago, when she set up shop in the next cubicle.”), are you really sure that this is a good first reader for your book?

When it comes time to make the request, honesty is the best policy, just as your mother spent your youth suggesting. Try phrasing it like this:

“I trust your eye implicitly, so I am relying upon you primarily for proofreading.”

“I’ve always admired your sense of humor — would you mind flagging the jokes that you think don’t work?”

“You always know what’s about to happen in a slasher flick – may I ask you to take a quick run through my manuscript, flagging anytime you feel the suspense starts to droop a little?”

The complimentary approach kills the proverbial two birds with one stone: you will be preemptively thanking your first reader for the effort (good manners), and you will be setting some limits on the kind of feedback you would like (good strategy). Also, by setting these goals in advance, you will be better able to avoid the super-common pitfalls of either your first reader or you mistakenly believing that the manuscript-sharing process is about stoking your ego.

Or bringing you and the reader closer together as friends or lovers. Or even to reveal yourself more fully to another human being you happen to love. No, that’s what your kith and kin’s buying your published books are for: that’s support.

At the risk of sounding like a broken…broken…broken… (Allow me to pause a moment for readjustment.)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you’re going to be professional about your writing, the sole purpose of ANY pre-publication manuscript-sharing should be to help prepare the book for submission and eventual publication. As the author, you are the book’s best friend, and thus have an obligation to do what is best for it.

Writers new to the game often forget that. Heck, even writers who have been published for years forget that.

Keep that foremost in your mind, and I promise you, you are far less likely to hand your beloved baby over to the first careless coworker who says, “Gee, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” The writer may be flattered by such attention, but the manuscript deserves not to be sent on blind dates.

Nor do your first readers; it’s not fair to expect them to read your mind in order to figure out how soon you expect them to read your book, or why on earth you picked them for that honor in the first place. Believe me, even if your carefully-picked critiquer turns out not to have much to say about your book (hey, it happens), you’ll both be far happier with the experience if you made the effort to set out your expectations clearly.

More on these crucial issues follows next time, of course, most likely accompanied by — heaven help me! — more updates from the WWL front. Please keep visualizing me cavorting amid walls that go up and stay up, and as always, keep up the good work!

Manuscript formatting 101, part XI: why you shouldn’t blindly take anyone’s word on formatting, even mine

Hello, campers –

I meant to post this yesterday, I swear; I had updated a former post while I was awaiting the departure of my much-delayed flight yesterday. But lo and behold, once I made it to my hotel, the one that had promised Internet access, were they set up for MacIntoshes? No, they were not. In fact, the in-house computer guy told me that if I intended to travel much, I should get a PC.

There being no polite reply to that sort of comment, you had to wait until today for the end of the Manuscript Formatting 101 series. Specifically, you had to wait until I was in an airport with wifi again.

Now that I read over the post, though, I notice something: it’s pretty darned redundant. I could edit it down, I suppose, to render it less so, but it’s such a beautiful example of what happens when the average writer works on a small screen (or revises her work on a small screen, as happened here) that I thought I would post the whole darned thing as a caution to everyone else who finds herself writing (or revising) on a precariously-balanced laptop under fluorescent lights while waiting for the second delayed flight in the course of two days.

Or if I am being too specific, for those who write and revise on small screens, period. It only goes to show you: some forms of redundancy are much, much more apparent in hard copy.

Just ask Millicent. Enjoy!

To polish off this extended series on manuscript formatting — book manuscripts, that is; please be aware that short stories, magazine articles, theses, dissertations, and other types of writing are subject to other restrictions — I’ve revised a post from last December, one I wrote in response to a reader’s expressed grumpiness (and who could blame her?) about the prospect of changing her manuscript from one space after each period and colon to two, as I had advised and indeed is proper in English prose.

I’m not going to lie to you, though: even amongst agents, preferences do differ on this particular subject. Although I’ve literally never heard of an agent’s asking a client to remove that second space, not every agent will tell his Millicent to take umbrage at its not being there.

So, like yesterday, we find ourselves in a situation where you have a choice to make. Return with me now to those thrilling days of last year, to talk about how to handle it.

Picture, if you will, a chilly holiday season, filled with twinkling lights, holiday joy, and a reader annoyed with some of my advice. I had been waxing long (invariably) and eloquent (I hope) on standard formatting, and intrepid reader Paula wrote in to take issue with my stand about the burning issue of whether the language has, without the intervention of the English professors of the world, spontaneously changed to require only one space between sentences and after colons, rather than two.

Business as usual here at Author! Author!, in other words.

As you may perhaps have been able to glean from the subtle clues I buried in the paragraph before last, it’s a topic upon which, as an editor, I have some fairly strong feelings.

How strong, you ask? Well, it wasn’t until I was well into my fourth page of response that it occurred to me that the comment sections weren’t subject-searchable, and thus I was unloading my hefty commentary in a place where posterity was unlikely to find it.

Fasten your seatbelts; I’m about to go to town.

As you MAY have noticed my whining about throughout this series, every time I do a post on standard format, readers write in to tell me that the rules have changed, on this point or on others. And frankly, they SHOULD be commenting, if they believe I have misspoken, or even if they feel a particular point requires further elucidation: false modesty aside, quite a few people do read this blog on a regular basis, and the last thing that I want to do is lead anyone astray inadvertently.

As I like to remind you all from time to time.

So please, folks, keep sending in those constructive comments and trenchant questions. Emphasis upon the constructive and pithy parts.

Apart from the community-support reason to ask follow-up questions, there is another, more self-interested reason that you should consider giving a shout if you think I’ve just told a real whopper: no writer, aspiring or otherwise, should apply a rule to her book without understanding WHY its application is a good idea.

Yes, even with something as basic as standard format.

If a particular suggestion doesn’t make sense to you, PLEASE don’t implement it just because I say so. Do it because you have thought about it and decided that trying it might help you market your writing.

I know, I know: life would be a whole lot easier if it came with a foolproof set of directions, and nowhere is that more true than in one’s first approaches to the publishing industry. It can definitely be confusing to a newcomer, fraught with unspoken expectations and counterintuitive requirements.

And, really, having spent a lifetime around them, if I were feeling lazy, I could conceivably just have given you a list of standard format requirements, dusted off my hands, and traipsed off to finish my holiday shopping.

Yes, I AM that organized, thank you very much.

Unexplained rule-flinging is not my style, however. I like to take the time to explain the rules, both to render submission less of a big, ugly mystery and to give my readers a chance to make up their minds for themselves. Call me wacky, but in the long run, I think my way helps people more than pronouncements from on high.

Speaking of pronouncements from on high, my correspondent began, charmingly, by quoting one of mine:

“In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen a manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. ”

Have you heard of a manuscript being rejected for using only ONE space between sentences? Within the past five years or so?

Isn’t that a trenchant question? Isn’t it about time I stopped yammering about the desirability of discussion and got around to answering it?

Here’s the short answer: rejected SOLELY upon that basis, no. It’s hard to tell for certain, though, because as I pointed out the other day, manuscript problems seldom travel alone. In order to prove this proposition absolutely, I would need to find that rara avis a submission that has positively no other problems and watch how it is received at agencies.

Starting to suspect me of being a bit flippant here? Well, you caught me: I am, but honestly, the notion that changing only ONE thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof is not particularly easy to swallow.

Oh, I understand its appeal (and thus why clients, students, and blog readers ask about it so much): it would indeed be dandy if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent out there.

Unfortunately, that formula doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much. Sorry to be the one to tell you that.

This is vital to understand about standard format: it’s not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it.

But it is a basic means of presenting your writing professionally, so your garden-variety Millicent will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits. All I can claim for standard format — and this isn’t insignificant — is that adhering to it will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis.

However, I’m not going to lie to you: even a perfectly-formatted manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough. Why? Because every agent out there, just like every editor, harbors quirky, individuated ideas about how the perfect book should be written.

Everybody clear on that? Good. Let’s get back to Paula’s question, already in progress.

No, I haven’t seen submissions rejected ONLY on the basis of too-few spaces, but I have seen plenty formatted that way that also had other problems get rejected. But have I seen the practice criticized as unprofessional? Yes, often. Knocked out of finalist consideration as contest entries, absolutely.

And (just in case anyone’s still having trouble accepting the proposition that making this formatting tweak to a submission will automatically make the difference between rejection and acceptance) I’ve certainly heard it listed among several equally subtle points that led to rejection at agencies. Basically, like the other minor restrictions of standard format, it’s contributes to the sense that a writer just doesn’t know the ropes.

Have I flogged this dead horse into submission yet? No? Okay, I’ll keep going, then.

The irony, of course, is that so many of the folks who proselytize for the single-space style DO apparently regard this piece of formatting as precisely the kind of magic bullet that I just told you didn’t exist. No, seriously: the sources that claim the language HAS changed — and permanently, at that — tend to insist that skipping the second space after a period or colon, as our dear old white-headed English teachers taught us to do, automatically stamps a manuscript old-fashioned, obsolete, and generally silly.

In other words, that observing the standing rules of the English language is in and of itself a recipe for automatic rejection.

How do they justify this? The logic, as I understand it, runs thus: since printed books, magazines, newspapers, and to a great extent the Internet have been omitting these spaces in recent years, the language must therefore have changed. So much so that not only is leaving out the second space now permissible — which it definitely was not until very recently; Paula’s estimate of the last five years is pretty accurate — omitting it is now REQUIRED.

That sounds very serious, doesn’t it? Scary, even: nameless people might hurt you if you don’t take this advice.

Let me ask you something, though: if it is required, why isn’t the industry enforcing it in the ways that formatting restrictions are generally enforced, by agents and editors asking writers to change their submissions accordingly?

I’m not being flippant about this (for a change): while this rather radical formatting rule change has been popping up in a lot of fora that give advice to aspiring writers over the past five years, the actual practices of the industry have not seemed to be the engine behind the change.

Perhaps I lead a sheltered life, writing and editing up a storm in my little corner of the Pacific Northwest, but I have never seen (or heard) an argument in favor of omitting the second space made by anyone who works within the publishing industry — although I have chatted with a number of agents (including my own), who don’t mind the single space omission.

So it’s safe to say that the doubled space is still the norm — as long as we’re talking about MANUSCRIPTS.

Printed books, well, those are a different story — and here, I think, is where the confusion lies, because many publishers have made this change in their newer releases. Essentially, the proponents of eliminating the second space between sentences are arguing that what one sees in print is what one should reproduce on the manuscript page.

As I MAY have pointed out earlier in this series, publishers have made this shift in order to save paper. Which, as those of you who followed this last summer’s series of posts on the various aspects of marketing already know, is most emphatically NOT the goal of manuscript format, which aims toward ease of reading and hand-editing.

Omitting that second space does, as I mentioned, render it considerably harder to write corrections on hard copy. It may not seem like a lot of room, but believe me, when you’re trying to make four grammatical changes within a single sentence legibly, any extra bit of white space is a boon.

Hey, carrots are room-consuming. So are scrawls that read confusing, expand this, or Aristotle who?.

All of which editors have bestowed upon my manuscripts at one time or another, by the way.

I suspect that the underlying assumption of the second-space elimination movement is that editing on hard copy has gone the way of the dinosaur (it hasn’t), just because it is now feasible to send and edit manuscripts electronically. But just because it is technically POSSIBLE to eliminate paper from the process doesn’t mean that it occurs in practice all the time, or even very often.

This sort of jumping the gun in declaring long-standing practices dead, gone, and obsolete is hardly limited to manuscript submission, is it? Remember when Internet-based shopping first became popular, and technology enthusiasts assured us all confidently that the supermarket and shopping mall would be obsolete within a decade?

Turns out that a lot of people still wanted to squeeze melons and try on clothes before they bought them. Who knew?

Also, for the argument that the extra spaces are obsolete to makes sense on a practical level — or, at minimum, to generate the levels of resentment amongst agents and editors that its proponents predict — the industry would have to expect that every submission would be absolutely camera-ready by the time it hits a prospective agent’s desk.

In other words, in EXACTLY the format that it would appear in the finished book. Anybody see a problem with that?

As those of you who have been following the series wrapping up are already aware — at least you are if you’ve been paying attention and have a memory longer than a gnat’s — standard format for MANUSCRIPTS has little to do with how BOOKS are formatted. Heck, as I have been demonstrating for the past couple of weeks, manuscripts differ in many important respects from the format the Chicago Manual tells us to expect in a published book, or that AP style urges us to produce in a magazine or newspaper.

Which prompts me to ask: is it really SO astonishing that spacing would also differ? And why would a change in publishing practice necessarily alter what professional readers expect to see in a manuscript — especially when that alteration would unquestionably make their jobs harder?

And that, in case you were interested, Paula, is why I don’t embrace the practice of eliminating the second space between sentences in manuscripts. Until I see strong evidence that agents, editors, and contest judges have begun to FROWN upon the extra space, I’m going to continue to recommend it.

So there.

All that being said — and that was a rather lengthy all, wasn’t it? — I can certainly understand why aspiring writers who had gone the single-space route would be miffed at this juncture, though; changing that fundamental an aspect of a text could eat up a LOT of time. As, indeed, my insightful correspondent pointed out:

It took a lot of effort to train myself to STOP using the two spaces. It’s one of those grammatical rules that seems to have all but disappeared (much like the rather perplexing fad to omit the comma before the word “too”). If it’s necessary, I suppose there’s an easy “find and replace” way to correct my manuscript to add an additional space between sentences?

In the first place, I’m SO sorry you had to go through that, Paula. There’s nothing I can do about it, unfortunately — which saddens me, because I hear from so many Paulas who have had similar experiences — but I am genuinely sorry to hear about each of them.

In the second place, I’m very glad that the commenter brought up the comma elimination fad, because it provides a perfect parallel to what has happened with the spaces, or indeed, a certain Presidential candidate’s bizarre decision to eliminate the grammatically-necessary comma from the slogan Yes we can after he lifted it from the United Farm Workers (Si, si puede remember whence it came). Now, children all across this great land will think that comma is optional.

Annoying to those of us who wrangle words for a living? You betcha, to quote another recent candidate. But it does point up a moral we all would do well to bear in mind:

Just because a rule of grammar’s relaxation becomes common doesn’t mean that the rule itself has disappeared; it just means that breaking the rule has become marginally more acceptable.

For instance, these days, few people other than my mother would stop a conversation cold in order to correct a speaker who referred to “everyone and their beliefs,” but technically, it remains incorrect. To preserve subject-object agreement, it should be “everyone and his beliefs” or “everyone and her beliefs.” The reason for the loosening in common parlance is primarily sociological, I suspect: when American businesses (and television writers) began to take active steps to make language more friendly to women, the incorrect version sounded less sexist, and thus became widely accepted.

Does that mean that “everyone and their beliefs” magically became grammatically correct overnight? Not on your life. And the better-educated the intended reader- or listenership for the sentence, the more likely that the error will raise hackles.

On a COMPLETELY unrelated note, had I mentioned that Millicent, along with pretty much everyone who works in her agency, was probably an English major? Heck, she probably wrote her senior thesis on this kind of colloquial speech.

The fact is, the grammatical rule about the requisite number of spaces between sentences and after colons HASN’T changed — the PRACTICE has in many published works; in manuscripts, academic work (almost always the last to accept any sea change in the language), and private writing, the rule most emphatically has not.

As with splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions — both of which were, as I like to point out to my mother, good enough for Shakespeare — while most people won’t care, the ones who DO care feel very strongly about it indeed. To them, it’s more serious than formatting: it’s a matter of literacy.

Don’t believe me? The next time you’re at a book signing by a Grand Old Literary Figure, walk up to him or her and speak a sentence ending with a preposition. (“Which college did you go to?” would suffice, for experimental purposes.) Then count the number of seconds of wincing before the GOLF can compose his or her features enough to respond to you with the courtesy due a long-time fan.

That may seem surprising, given that most of the aspiring writers who have embraced the practice of eliminating the second space report that they are doing it because some apparently authoritative source told them to make the switch — but tellingly, those sources’ certainty on the matter didn’t stop howls of protest from the professional reading community when Miss Snark (among others) suddenly started advising aspiring writers to leave it out.

Props to Miss S’ constituency, the result was pretty dramatic: mysteriously, half the submissions agents received were harder to read, and the change happened more or less overnight — and since most agents don’t read even the major writing blogs, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

How loud were those howls, you ask? Suffice it to say that the grumbles continue to this day. No one who edits text for a living would vote for this particular change. To most professional eyes, it still just — chant it with me now, readers of this series — looks wrong.

(Hey, I’ve just inadvertently brought up another grammatical rule that one often sees flung off as obsolete: the practice of making a proper name ending in s, either because it is plural or because the singular is spelled that way, possessive by adding an apostrophe after it: the Jones’ dog, rather than the Jones’s. No matter how many times you may have seen the latter in print in recent years, the former remains correct. Again, so there.)

To return to my correspondent’s last comment, yes, it’s a pain for the writer to make as all-pervasive a change to a manuscript as adding the necessary second space after periods and colons — but as you have probably already noticed, the industry is not exactly set up to minimize effort for writers.

Sorry. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest.

That being said, I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the ONLY reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem — which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written.

So — everyone join in now; you know the words — changing the spaces between sentences alone probably isn’t going to be the magic bullet that results in instant acceptance.

A wiser person would probably sign off now, but I’m going to bite the bullet (not the magic one) and bring up the question that is probably on many, many minds at this juncture: barring a flash of insight from a reader or a well-timed act of celestial intervention, could you get away with retaining the single-space convention in a document already written?

As you may have gathered, I would not advise it, especially in a contest submission. However, it really is up to the individual writer. As much as writers would LIKE for there to be a single standard upon which every single person in the industry agreed, it just doesn’t happen.

As I keep saying (over and over again, I notice), there are exceptions in what individual agents and editors want; you might strike lucky.

If you DO decide to go the single-space route (picture me rending my garments here), make absolutely certain that your manuscript has NO other problems that might trigger Millicent’s ire. Also, be prepared for an agent to ask to make the change before the manuscript is submitted to editors — and, if asked, do it cheerfully and without explaining at length why you originally embraced the single-space practice.

Not that YOU would do such a thing, of course, but for those who don’t know better: agents and editors tend not to be amused when writers of first books lecture them on how the industry has changed, implying that those who haven’t really should get on the ball.

And this is definitely an instance where folks outside the industry have been making pronouncements about how the industry should operate for quite a while. Even if you are completely polite in how you express it, chances are that the last writer who made the case to Millicent’s boss was not.

The word Luddite may actually have been uttered.

Whatever course you decide to pursue, though, make it YOUR decision — and stick to it. Don’t leap to make every change you hear rumored to be an agent’s pet peeve unless you are relatively certain in your heart of hearts that implementing it will make your manuscript a better book.

Yes, even if the suggestion in question came from yours truly. It’s your manuscript, not mine.

Thanks for the great question, Paula, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing, part XIII: where you stand depends upon where you sit

This is, in my humble opinion as a novelist, quite possibly the greatest newspaper headline in the history of the printed word; I came across it outside a small-town diner this morning. It’s so delightfully human, isn’t it? The stock market is in distress, the polar icecaps are melting, and a sign in the restaurant window testified to the number of local young people currently serving in active combat (and, tragically, the two who no longer are), yet what concerns the citizens of this hamlet? Budget cut-related turmoil at the dog shelter.

I was charmed.

If that headline appeared in a novel about small-town America, it simply wouldn’t be believable — proving yet again something that I have often maintained on this blog, that reality tends to be a lousy writer. Just because something happens doesn’t necessarily mean that it will seem plausible on the page.

It’s the writer’s job to make it so.

That’s enough free-association for one day, I think. Let’s meander back to our ongoing list of questions designed to ferret out the most pervasive of synopsis problems. To recap:

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

(2) If the reader had no information about my book other than the synopsis, would the story or argument make sense? Or is more specific information necessary to render the synopsis able to stand alone?

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Is it clear where the climax is and what is at stake for the protagonist? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable?

(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?

(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

(8) In a memoir synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is? Does s/he come across as an interesting, unusual person involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

(9) In either a novel or a memoir synopsis, is it clear what the protagonist wants and what obstacles are standing in the way of her getting it? Is it apparent what is at stake for the protagonist if she attains this goal — and if she doesn’t?

(10) In a NF synopsis that isn’t for a memoir, is it clear what the book is about? Does the subject matter come across as interesting, and does the synopsis convey why this topic might be important enough to the reader to make him/her long to read an entire book about it?

(11) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?

Everyone clear on those? Superb. Let’s proceed to something fresh — actually, while it’s in the front of my mind, let’s go ahead and address the plausibility issue.

(12) If I’m marketing fiction or memoir, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible? If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

I could sense some of the novelists out there rolling their eyes before I even finished typing #12. “Um, Anne?” a few of you scoffed. “What part of FICTION don’t you understand? By definition, fiction writers make things up.”

Quite true, oh scoffers, but for even the most outrageously fantastic storyline to hang together, it must be plausible — at least in the sense that the characters would actually do and say the things they do and say on the page.

Yes, even in a novel where obeying the law of gravity is merely optional. Otherwise, it’s hard for the reader to remain involved in the story.

Why? Well, when a reader is swept up in a drama (or a comedy, for that matter), she engages in behavior that Aristotle liked to call the willing suspension of disbelief. Basically, she enters into a tacit understanding with the author: the rules that govern the world of the book, no matter how wacky or impractical they may be for the reader’s world, are precisely what the narrative says they are. Most of the time, as long as the narrative abides by them, the reader will be willing to go along for the ride.

Note that as long as clause. If a narrative violates its own rules, the agreement is violated: in thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” the reader is knocked out of the story. (Ditto, incidentally, when a first-person or tight third-person narrative suddenly switches, however momentarily, from the protagonist’s perspective to something that the protagonist could not possibly perceive. But perspective-surfing is a subject for another blog post.)

Millicents are notoriously sensitive to being pulled out of a story by a plausibility problem. So are their bosses, the agents who employ them to reject as high a percentage of submissions as possible, and the editors to whom those bosses sell books.

I just felt some of you go pale. “How sensitive?” those of you who have submitted recently enough that you haven’t yet heard back squeak in unison.

Are you sitting down? Got the smelling salts handy? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but in a manuscript, a single instance is often an automatic rejection offense.

Yes, even in a synopsis.

Why? Well, any gaffe that breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief is, ultimately, a storytelling problem. Thus, Millicent may be excused for thinking as soon as she casts her hyper-critical eye over one, “Oh, this writer isn’t a very consistent storyteller.”

Okay, so this may be an unfairly broad conclusion to draw from a line or two in a synopsis — especially when, as we’ve discussed earlier in this series, many, many talented aspiring writers simply throw together their synopses at the last possible minute prior to sealing the submission or contest entry envelope. But lest we forget, Millicents are in the BUSINESS of making snap judgments; they couldn’t get through the hundreds of queries and submissions they see every week otherwise.

Aren’t you glad you had those smelling salts handy?

If you’re not absolutely certain that your synopsis is internally consistent enough to pass the plausibility test, have someone else (NOT someone who has read the manuscript, ideally) read it and tell the story back to you. Better yet, have someone else read it, tell the story to a third party, and have the third party try to reproduce it for you AND a fourth person.

You may not catch the “Hey, wait a minute!” moments, but chances are that #4, at least, will. Listen carefully to any follow-up questions your experimental victims may have; address them in the synopsis, so that Millicent will not be moved to ask them of the ambient air at the screening stage.

Pay particular attention to any spot in the text the provokes an unexpected giggle. Few narrative gaffes provoke bad laughter — the giggles that spring from readers or audience at a spot where the writer did not intend for them to laugh — as readily as deviations from the internal logic of a story.

This isn’t a bad fix-it strategy for nonfiction, either, especially for memoir. Too often, NF writers in general and memoirists in particular assume that just because they are recounting true events, their narratives will be inherently plausible.

It’s just not true.

Just as a novel’s plausibility depends upon the narrative’s consistently following its story’s internal logic, a NF account or argument needs to hang together, with no missing steps. In a manuscript, plausibility problems tend to arise from incomplete set-ups and telling stories out of chronological order.

(If any of you would like me to elaborate upon these in the weeks to come, I would be delighted; leave a comment below. For today’s purposes, I’m going to move on.)

Where NF synopses usually fall down on the job is by providing insufficient background — prompting questions like, “Why did this happen?” Again, you will be much, much better off if you can solicit such questions from someone other than Millicent, so you may address them before she reads your synopsis.

I really went to town on that last point, didn’t I? I’m going to gloss over the rest of the synopsis questions quickly, so I can polish them off today and send you on your merry way for the weekend.

Don’t worry; the rest are pretty self-explanatory.

(13) Does the first couple of paragraphs of my synopsis Is there an indelible image that the reader can take away?

To put it another way, does the opening of the synopsis contain something both unique and memorable? A vivid sensual image, for instance? A surprising juxtaposition of words? A fresh emotional dilemma?

And so forth. As with a contest entry, screeners tend to pass judgment upon synopses pretty fast — and, in order to approve them for continuing on to the next step of the screening process, often need to be able to describe the book in just a sentence or two. Giving Millicent (or a contest judge) a fantastic detail will make her job easier.

Trust me, you want to make her job easier.

What you DON’T want to do — oh, you may think you do, but it’s not in your best interest — is to make your job as a synopsizer easier by reusing text from the first chapter of the book. Especially, as synopsis-writers for contests so often do, by recycling the opening paragraph of the book.

Which leads me to…

(14) Does the opening of the synopsis read too like the opening of the book?

This may make some of you giggle, but you wouldn’t believe how often the first paragraph or two of manuscript are actually identical to the first paragraph or two of its synopsis. Yes, even in contest entries, where the synopsis and chapter are almost always read within the same sitting.

Millicent and her ilk tend to regard this as a symptom of authorial laziness, but I suspect that there is usually more to it than that: I think that aspiring writers, having slaved to create a memorable opening for their books, often regard those opening paragraphs as some of their best writing. If it really is so, they reason, why not feature it in a document where it’s likely to do them some good?

If you believe nothing else I tell you today, please believe this: it won’t do you any good. People in the publishing industry remember what they’ve read; make sure every sentence you submit within a packet is different.

(15) Is my synopsis in the present tense and the third person, regardless of the tense and voice of the book itself? For a memoir, is it in the first person and past tense?

This is one of those secret-handshake things that render a rookie’s submission so apparently different from an experienced writer’s, from Millicent’s perspective: a professional synopsis is ALWAYS in the present tense and third person, unless the book in question is a memoir.

Yes, even if the book being synopsized is written in the first person. Don’t fight it; it’s just a convention of the trade.

(16) Are its pages numbered?

Even after years of reading synopses intended for submission, I remain perennially shocked at how few of them identify either themselves or the author, due no doubt to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies that borders on the childlike.

Why do I attribute this to faith? Well, like everything else in a manuscript or book proposal, the synopsis should not be bound in any way; like pretty much everything else on earth, paper responds to gravity.

Translation: things fall; pages get separated, and some luckless soul (generally, the person under Millicent the screener on the agency’s totem pole, if you can picture that) is charged with the task of reordering the tumbled pages.

Place yourself in that unhappy intern’s Doc Martens for a moment: given the choice between laboriously guessing which page follows which by perusing content, and pitching the whole thing (into what we devoutly hope is the recycling bin, but is probably merely the overloaded wastepaper basket) and moving on to the next task, which would YOU choose?

Okay, so maybe you’re ultra-virtuous. Allow me to rephrase: what if you were Millicent, had 20 other submissions to screen before lunch, and had just scalded your tender tongue on a too-hot latte?

Don’t rely upon the kindness of strangers. Especially busy ones who have been trained to believe that unnumbered pages are unprofessional in a submission. Make it easy to put the pages back in the proper order.

(17) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book, or does it just begin abruptly? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

And if it seems a bit silly to tell the nice people who asked you to send a synopsis that what they’ve got in their trembling hands is in fact a synopsis, remember that in a largish agency, the person who requests a submission is often not the person who subsequently reads it. Not the first person, anyway.

Even if it were, from the envelope-opener’s perspective, being expected to recall one request for further materials from — how long? Perhaps a month? — before is tantamount to being asked to guess how many fingers the author is holding up.

In Nebraska, when the guesser is standing in midtown Manhattan. Don’t make ‘em guess.

(18) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what your word processing software tells you is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere. Period. No excuses.

95% of writers — and 99.98% of non-writers — fall into the trap of thinking that if a document passes muster with their computers’ spelling and grammar checkers, it must therefore be spelled correctly and grammatically sound. That is, alas, generally not true.

Word processing programs’ dictionaries are NOTORIOUSLY inaccurate — and often surprisingly outdated. I am fascinated by the fact that mine evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations.

Don’t believe me? Should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into its vocabulary?

And don’t even get a professional editor started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers. Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips necessary accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Once, when I was not looking, it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog from “here” to “hear.”

Editors like to fantasize about the special circle of hell reserved for those amoral souls who teach our children that the differences between these don’t matter. I’ll spare you the details, but they include the constant din of fingernails on chalkboards, a cozy relationship with angry skunks, and the liberal application of boiling oil to tender parts.

Grammar checkers also typically butcher dialogue, especially if it contains necessary slang. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do.

Read the manuscript for yourself.

And if you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the Internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web.

So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary, for heaven’s sake. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

(19) Are all of the proper nouns spelled correctly?

This is a perennial agents’ pet peeve, and with good reason: believe it or not, misplaced cities, states, and even character names are rife in synopses.

Why? Because these are words that are generally omitted from standard spell-checkers — or are entered with a number of possible variations. So unless you have inserted all of the proper nouns in your work into your spell-checker’s memory, it will often overlook the difference between your elegant heroine, Sandy, and that trollop who wandered into your synopsis unbidden, Sandie.

Triple-check all character and place names.

(20) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write it at all?

Yes, I’ve talked about this one before, and recently, but this is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content, so it bears repeating. It’s often not as visible to the author as it is to a third party.

As I MAY have mentioned earlier in this series, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

If you have even the vaguest suspicion that your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your marketing materials — may give off a even a whiff of that attitude, hand it to someone you trust for a second opinion.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it. Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing.

Then, just before you send it out, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, naturally), and ask yourself a final question:

(21) Finally, does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

”Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor? Catch me — I’m about to faint with surprise!”

Well caught, those of you who thought that. Yes, I am the queen of specialized submission packets. Down with genericism, I say!

It’s just common sense, really. If you heard an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at an agents’ and editors’ forum or during a pitch meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

Doesn’t it? Huh?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it unless you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased AND have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone BUT the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers and as I have been pointing out for several years now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment — and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s.

And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even the moment after someone complimented your shirt (it brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?), as opposed to the moment after you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them — or the pitch they are hearing — right now. As the old international relations truism goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent (or an editor, or a contest feedback form, or every last member of your writers’ group, or the Wizard of Oz) has advised you to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in the industry will greet that tweak rapturously.

Use your judgment: it’s your book, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for the SPECIFIC eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Whew, that was a long one, wasn’t it! Make those synopses shine, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Wait — if my contest entry was so good, why didn’t it make the finals?

Let’s start out with the obvious question: yes, I AM just getting into the swing of a series on pitching, and yes, as a general rule, I hold off on posts-by-request until after a series is complete. So yes, normally, I wouldn’t be doing this.

But yesterday, long-time reader Karen wrote in on a topic I know a number of my readers are pondering right now, how to respond to feedback on contest entries:

With your help, I entered the contest-that-shall-remain-nameless. I’m sorry that I can’t report that I won, or even placed. I didn’t. However, life is about learning. I just received my two critiques and I can’t tell you how valuable they are. Wow! One problem I have though is this…I read the critiques to my husband. He said, “How is it possible that the critiques are that good and you DIDN’T place?” I have no answer for that.

While there are a few suggestions that I am mulling over, for the most part, the comments are super-positive. This leaves me to wonder, “then why wasn’t I a finalist?” Is it just that the competition was so steep? I’m not sure what to think of it all. On the Additional Comments section, one even says-and I quote “Get this published!!!” Hmmmm…can you cover this sometime? What to do with the critiques when you DON’T win?

Anyway- I am not angry or bitter. I am actually very encouraged. I just don’t know which direction to go. Thanks for all your help Anne. Your blog rocks! ~Karen

Karen, I hear this from good writers all the time — not the part about my blog’s rocking, necessarily (although that’s always nice to hear) but questioning how seriously to take contest-generated critique. Since contest judges are anonymous and faceless, and since judging criteria are often shrouded in levels of mystery that would make the WTO’s deliberations seem transparent by comparison, many writers are left staring at feedback, wondering, “How close is this to what an agent or editor might say about my work?”

It’s a question asked with particular frequency in my neck of the woods, with respect to the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. For those of you who do not live and write in my part of the country, the fact that the CTSNBN routinely has first-round judges give such feedback, in a format that implies that the opinions expressed are authoritative, is one of the contest’s main selling points to writers: every entrant receives two ostensibly well-informed critiques. Since this particular contest does not pay its first-round judges (nor, in the last couple of years, has it thanked them), the anonymity of the feedback presumably guarantees impartiality.

In years past, entrants did not receive their critiques until well after the conference at which the literary prizes were awarded; as of last year’s contest, the policy changed (thank goodness) so that entrants could benefit from feedback prior to pitching at the conference.

Which means, in theory, that if entrants are going to take advantage of these critiques, they have only a few weeks to do it now. So my addressing it after my pitching series was complete might be a TAD tardy. Thus the exception.

(Before I launch into it, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that I used to serve as a judge in the contest in question, but no longer do; I also won its highest nonfiction award in 2004 and was the organization’s Resident Writer for a year. In fact, the CTSNBN is my local writers’ association, whose name I no longer mention on this blog (for those of you who missed last year’s fiasco) because (a) I don’t feel that it deserves the free publicity, (b) its formerly quite prestigious conference and contest are now handled so differently that I can no longer in good conscience recommend either to my readers, (c) I think the purpose of a writers’ organization should be to help all of its members, not merely the ones who happen already to be published, and (d) I don’t like people who are mean to little old ladies. So much for that rather dull little explanation. Back to the question at hand.)

Obviously, it’s really, really hard to answer any question about how a contest entry might have been judged without, well, being one of its judges. Only someone directly involved with the administration of a contest would know for sure, for instance, if there had been a policy change in how the judges were asked to evaluate entries.

Taking a gander at the CTSNBN’s website, however, I do notice that there has been a policy shift that anyone might notice: instead of having 10 finalists in each category, there are now only 8. Which would almost inevitably mean that the competition for each finalist slot would be more intense.

So you’re quite right to wonder about the competition level, Karen — it’s not unusual for a category with 10 or 15 finalist slots to have seven or eight times that many entries that could have been finalists in a less competitive contest. When the field is narrowed still further, it’s probably safe to conclude that the differences between Finalist #8’s entry and Not-Finalist #1’s were pretty miniscule.

If not entirely a matter of personal literary taste.

Literary contest entrants are often shocked to realize this, but evaluating writing can never be entirely objective. Oh, the issues that tend to knock most entries out of the running are fairly easy to grade objectively — formatting problems, grammar, spelling, adherence to contest rules, and so forth — but presumably, any entry that would even have a chance of making the finals would not run afoul of any of these.

Beyond exclusion factors, judging style is necessarily subjective — which means, logically, that the difference of the tenth of a point in scoring that might have separated Finalist #8’s ranking from even the next twenty below must be equally so. Lest we forget, the individual judge just gets to assign a numerical value to the entry, typically, not to say this one should be a finalist or that one shouldn’t.

If another judge was more generous with points…well, I don’t need to spell out the inference, do I?

My point is, it’s not as though judging a writing contest is as straightforward as being able to rank every single entry as clearly better or worse than the one just above or just below it. Judges tend to think of them in groups, and the fact is, in a contest with a lot of good entries, one should expect that there would be more finalist-worthy entries than finalist slots.

Particularly if a contest is, for reasons that escape me, trying to limit its finalist slots.

Also, the entrant can’t know if the judges were looking for something specific this year — which happens more than the average entrant tends to think. The broader the category descriptions, the more likely this kind of unofficial judging preference is to crop up, I’ve noticed, if only to narrow the criteria for winning.

As one might want to do if, say, a contest lumped Mainstream Fiction and Literary Fiction into a single category, when the writing standards for each in the industry are quite different.

I always wonder about policy shifts when I hear of contest feedback like, “Get this published,” with or without the extra exclamation points. Frankly, from a judge’s point of view, it doesn’t make sense as feedback UNLESS the critiquer had some reason to believe that your entry WOULDN’T make the finals and didn’t want you to be discouraged by that outcome.

Think about it: as feedback goes, it isn’t all that helpful otherwise, since it’s unlikely to the point of ridiculousness that trying to get the entry published would already have occurred to anyone who entered a literary contest.

Judges’ perceptions of marketability also vary widely, especially if the judging pool’s level of professional experience is uneven. (As might be the case, for instance, in a contest where many of the long-time judges abruptly resigned in a huff and needed to be replaced in a hurry.)

If you’ll recall from my earlier posts on contest judging, marketability is usually weighted almost as heavily as style in judging. As both are in the eye of the beholder — and the former tends not to play a very heavy role on a feedback sheet — it’s impossible for the entrant to figure out how the points were assigned.

As if all that weren’t confusing enough, the rating forms (where the entries are actually assessed) are typically quite different from the feedback forms (which are sent back to the entrant). The feedback may or may not be reflective of the numerical scores the judge assigned the entry. That’s left up to the judge’s discretion.

One more possible rating factor to consider: although from a judge’s perspective, there is a very palpable difference between an entry that has no outstanding problems (which would tend to receive a very positive feedback sheet) and one that has the WOW! factor that just screams, “This one’s got a shot to win,” most contest critique forms do not reflect that. I cannot speak to the CTSNBN’s current format, but in the past, a judge would have had to make an additional effort to note this.

On most feedback forms, these two types of manuscript might seem very similar indeed.

On the bright side, this usually means that an entrant who received glowing feedback can at least be sure that she has not made any major mistakes — not an achievement at which any of us should be sneezing. But that doesn’t really offer many tangible hints about how to up the WOW! in the entry, does it?

I hate to bring up the other logical possibility, but it’s not beyond belief that the judges were kinder in their written evaluations than they were in their numerical ones, the ones that actually counted toward whether the entry made it to finalist consideration or not.

I know: the very notion is annoying, from the entrant’s perspective. But it does happen. In fact, sometimes the rules and even the evaluation forms themselves promote this kind of judging duality.

Manuscript critique is a serious responsibility, you know; it’s easy to crush someone’s ego without really trying. Back in the Paleolithic era, when I used to be a judge in that particular contest, we were encouraged to accentuate the positive in our feedback — and to provide as much specific, helpful feedback as possible. Some judges made the effort, some didn’t. (Some also interpreted this dictum to mean not to mention ANY areas of possible improvement, but that’s neither here nor there.)

To answer your husband’s question directly, then: since there’s not necessarily a correlation between the judges’ critique and the scores they assign the entry, it’s not really possible for an entrant who receives stellar feedback to figure out WHY her entry didn’t make the finals. Sorry about that.

But in any case, the critique forms would not give a solid indication of why one entry placed, rather than being just one of the finalists. Few literary contests are judged in a single round. In the case of the CTSNBN, the first-round judges (who produce the feedback) are neither the people who tabulate the results and pick the finalists (that’s the category chair) nor the people who decide who will win and place amongst the finalists (usually one of the agents or editors attending the conference).

Clear as mud, isn’t it?

In fairness, though, the CTSNBN’s judging practices (or what they were in the past, when I was actually involved with them) aren’t really any less opaque than most literary contests’. It’s in a contest’s interest to pretend that there are always clear demarcations between finalist and non-finalist entries, just as they would like us to believe that the difference in quality between first and second place, or between third and finalist, is so obvious that any professional could spot it instantly.

But in practice, as anyone who has ever been a contest judge can tell you (or would if s/he were being honest about it), the lines are seldom so clearly drawn.

What does all this mean for the feedback, those of you who entered the CTSNBN ask? Well, it’s not really possible to answer that without (a) reading the piece in question and (b) reading the feedback, of course. But here are a few general rules of thumb:

(1) If the critique contains discussion of any technical points — formatting, grammar, etc. — address those issues right away. Chances are, if these problems caught the eye of a contest judge, they are serious enough to annoy an agent or editor as well.

(2) If the critique doesn’t bring up technical problems, be very pleased with yourself.

(3) Weed out the generalized part of the critique (“Get this published!”); these points are not going to be of much use in revision. Save the compliments to cheer yourself up on a rainy day.

(4) Make a list of the specific critique points, so that you may weigh the suggestions and see if they seem reasonable. (If you’re like most writers, you may need to sit with them awhile and/or get an outside opinion before you can make this judgment. For tips on maximizing your objectivity about your own work, please see the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK category at right.) If they strike you as good ideas, try incorporating them.

(5) If any part of the critique doesn’t make sense to you, PLEASE do not incorporate it blindly, simply because it seems to be coming from an authoritative source. Find some good first readers to go over your work to see if the critique makes more sense to them.

This is an especially good idea if the feedback in question concerns the marketability of your entry. As I said, contest judges’ levels of experience in the industry vary WILDLY — not all of the feedback you receive may be of sterling value.

Remember, typically, first-round judges are writers, not agents or editors: their sense of what is and isn’t marketable may not be the current wisdom in the industry. Do your homework to double-check before you do a major overhaul on your manuscript based upon an anonymous judge’s opinion.

In short, treat contest feedback in much the same way as you would any other manuscript critique: warily, using what’s helpful and applicable without merely substituting someone else’s judgment for your own. Often, these critiques can provide substantial insight, but ultimately, it’s your book, right?

Phew — that was a heavy topic, wasn’t it? Next time, we’ll traipse off into the lighter world of…wait, we were talking about pitching, weren’t we? Never mind.

Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: you say tomato, I say, “Please don’t throw it.”


You’ll be delighted to hear, I expect, that today will be the next-to-last installment in my series on ways to ease the difficulties of incorporating written feedback. Later in the week, I shall be tackling the specific problems associated with dealing with a critiquer who has the power to enforce a change request — your agent, for instance, by not sending your manuscript out to editors until he’s certain the latest version will fly, for instance, or the editor who acquires it. This can be tricky, especially if one does not happen to agree with the feedback in question.

Hey, I warned you at the beginning of the series that we would be building up our feedback-incorporation muscles. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself, and repeating myself…), it is not merely for the sake of maintaining peace in a writing group or friendships between more casual first readers that it behooves writers to add good listening and critique-accepting skills to their tool belts: these skills come into play at every stage of a writing career.

Seriously, your future agent, editor, publicist, and probably anyone who happens to be frequenting your domicile when your first book’s reviews start rolling in are going to bless the time you put in now developing a measured response to literary criticism. So will you.

Your very pets will be happier for it, because you will be less stressed when you need to incorporate editorial feedback on your tenth book. Not UNstressed, mind you — I’ve been doing this for years, and even my backyard raccoons get a mite testy when I’m on a short revision deadline — but certainly able to manage even the most extensive revision request in your stride.

You can do this, I promise.

For now, though, let’s keep swimming in the relatively less shark-infested waters of dealing with written feedback in general. To review the tips so far:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.

6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your work. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.

7. Don’t try to do it all at once.

8. Make a battle plan, setting out reasonable deadlines for each step.

9. Allow some room in your battle plan –and time in your schedule — to respond to inspiration, as well as to experiment.

10. Make sure that you’re not over-estimating the critiquer is requesting.

11. When in doubt about what a critiquer expects you to do, ASK.

12. Avoid making the same mistake twice — at least for the same feedback-giver.

Phew — that’s a heavy list, isn’t it? Let no one say that being a tolerant and wise recipient of feedback is the proverbial walk in the park. Moving on…

13. Keep excellent records about the changes you have made to the manuscript — and keep both hard and soft copies of EVERY major version of the book.

Having grown up in a family of writers — ones who were fighting the good fight back in the golden days of typewriters, no less — I was STUNNED to learn that most revisers do not keep copies of each draft. Seriously, the first time I met a writer who didn’t, I thought he was joking.

Why is it such a jaw-dropper, from a professional point of view? Quite simply, either the writer or the editor might conceivably change his or her mind.

Remember last week, when I mentioned that writers tend to be the only ones involved in the publishing process to cherish the illusion that a book is DONE until it’s actually been printed and is for sale at Borders? Well, that mindset of continual modification is not, some of you may be alarmed to hear, necessarily a one-way process.

That’s right: critiquers’ opinions have been known to vacillate from time to time. They also — please don’t throw anything heavy at my head; I’m just the messenger here — been known to forget that the aspect of Draft #2 they liked least was in fact something they asked the writer to do after reading Draft #1.

Or — and I’m already ducking under my desk — be displeased with a writer’s specific solution to a vaguely-phrased concern.

Did you feel that lurch your stomach just took? The goal of Strategy #13 is to avoid that feeling’s ever being associated with your manuscript, by providing concrete records through which you can retrace your revising steps.

While the maid is mopping up all of the soggy tomatoes my readers just lobbed in my general direction, let’s concentrate on the first problem on the list: just because a critiquer suggested last month that you kill off your protagonist’s sidekick does not necessarily mean that she will prefer the revised, sidekick-free storyline.

Because I love you people, I’m not going to go into detail about how much farther a writer’s stomach can displace itself when the stakes are higher — when, say one’s agent or editor changes her mind. I suppose I could describe what the moment of hearing one’s agent say, “Sandy, I’ve been thinking about it, and your first running order was better,” means to a Sandy who has been simply saving each new change in the same Word file, but frankly, gut-wrenching, sustained groaning is hard to convey in words.

And even if Sandy’s agent/editor/first reader DIDN’T later backtrack, how is Sandy supposed to figure out three months after a revision whether Scene Q worked better in draft #1 or #2?

Especially if — as is, I’m still stunned to report, very frequently the case — Sandy hasn’t kept a meticulous list of what has changed between those drafts?

A wise reviser ALWAYS maintains the ability to check both versions side by side — and a clever one records the major changes separately, keeping it handy for future reference.

Why, you ask? Well, several reasons, potentially. Many, many books go through many, many drafts, for starters; do you really want to be rending your garments two years from now because you can’t remember whether Draft #3 or Draft #4 included Cousin Max’s funeral? Or at what point you realized that Dennis and Denise’s names scanned too similarly, and readers might get confused if you didn’t rechristen one of them?

Also — and this may come as something of a surprise, after my recent diatribe about how critiquers tend to notice when writers haven’t taken their advice on previous drafts — especially if the same feedback-giver has followed the book through several versions, he might not always remember what precisely he asked the writer to do.

Is that gagging I hear out there? “But Anne,” some of you sputter, “aren’t we talking about dealing with WRITTEN feedback here? Surely, there’s no question about what has been said after, say, an editor requests a textual change in an editorial memo.”

How shall I put this delicately…

Professional readers go through a LOT of manuscripts in any given month; it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the details began to blur a bit would it?

And honey, if your nerves will stand calling up the editor who’s just acquired your book and saying, “Hey, I’m calling foul — your last two memos contradicted each other,” well, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

I can also tell you right now that ol’ Gunga Din’s agent is going to throw what used to be called a conniption fit immediately after that act of bravery — because from the editorial end of that phone line, that statement might very well have sounded like a declaration of war.

Hey, I’m not the only message-bearer who fears the wrath of the angry tomato-thrower.

Instead, think about how much more smoothly the exchange might have gone has our pal Gunga instead been able to whip out both the list of suggested changes (prepared, perhaps, in response to Strategy #8) and the roster of what he had changed between drafts in preparation for such a discussion.

Armed with such tools, perhaps Gunga could have blunted the potential for confrontation even further by prefacing his remarks with, “I think I’m confused. From what you said in the memo, it sounds as though I may have misunderstood what you were asking for last time. Or are you asking for something completely different now?”

In short: keep good records of changes, and make it as easy as possible for yourself to revert to an older version, if necessary and appropriate.

Whew, I think we could all use a nice, long nap after that little exercise in hypothetical horror, couldn’t we? The rest of the strategy list will be much less stomach-wrenching, I promise.

Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: is that a dagger I see before me?


Welcome back to Part II of my series of tips on how to accept feedback with a minimum of angst, mutually hurt feelings, and/or swordplay. Since we have a lot to cover today, let’s rush right into reviewing our tools so far for dealing with written manuscript critique:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.

Oh, look — here’s a corollary to #5:

6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your manuscript. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.

To put it another way, just because an agent, editor, or friend expresses an interest in reading your book does NOT imply either that (a) s/he has nothing else to do but sit around until you cough up the manuscript OR (b) s/he is planning to drop everything else s/he currently has on her plate in order to read it from beginning to end the nanosecond it arrives in the mail.

But try explaining that to an aspiring writer who has just received such a request from a pro for the first time.

Because this is such a common set of misconceptions, those of us in the biz see them manifest in quite a variety of ways. Let’s see if we can’t unearth another examplar or two to show how:

Written feedback meltdown #4: Tatiana’s agent, Ulrich, pitched her novel, PAY ATTENTION TO ME NOW! to editor Vivienne in last November — and now, at the end of March, Vivienne still hasn’t yet vouchsafed an opinion on it.

Tatiana is going nuts with anticipation. She wants to be a good client, yet she can’t resist sending Ulrich e-mails every few days, asking if there’s been any word yet.

No? How about now? Or…now?

He answers every third tersely: “What makes you think that I would keep that kind of news from you?”

She knows that he has a point, of course. She tries to restrain her anxiety, but she’s a novelist, after all — she’s an inveterate situation-dissector. Her brain is hard-wired to make up motivations.

So on Monday, she attributes the delay to Vivienne’s difficulties in gathering an editorial committee so close to Easter; on Wednesday, she is depressed into a stupor because she’s convinced that Vivienne has passed on the book, and Ulrich just doesn’t know how to break the news to her; by Saturday, she’s frantically re-editing the manuscript, absolutely certain that Vivienne has spent the last three months unable to make it past the first page.

Long-time readers, would you care to guess where that’s manuscript actually been for most of the intervening period?

That’s right: under three other manuscripts-to-be-read on Vivienne’s coffee table, competing for her time and attention with the editor’s significant other, work, meetings, her sister’s impending wedding (not another puce bridesmaid’s dress!), desire to make it to the gym occasionally, desire to sleep occasionally, the ambient noise of New York, and any TV show she might happen to watch on a regular basis.

None of which have anything whatsoever to do with Tatiana or her book, of course.But in the throes of worried speculation, the author simply cannot see that. Maybe if she tweaks that dodgy section in Chapter 10 one more time, something good will happen.

This is what we literary types like to call magical thinking.

Those of us who know and love Tatiana send our best wishes her way, along with sincere hopes that Vivienne will get around to reading that manuscript before the author starts sleepwalking, muttering that all the perfumes of Arabia won’t sweeten that little hand of hers.

That’s right: Lady Macbeth went nuts because she was an aspiring writer waiting for professional feedback.

(Think about it — it’s not as though the play gives a really convincing alternate explanation for why she cracks at that particular moment. And if you think turn-around times are slow today, what must they have been in the 11th century, when rejection letters would have been traveling on horseback — or, for an editor really in a hurry, via the local witch’s broomstick? )

Not seeing the moral? (Other than DON’T MURDER YOUR DINNER GUESTS, that is.) Let’s try another.

Written feedback meltdown #5: after many months of querying, Xerxes is elated to receive a request from agent Yarrow to submit the first 50 pages of his memoir, AND THEY SAID I WAS WASHED UP IN 480 BC: RECOLLECTIONS OF A COMEBACK KID.

Like so many frustrated aspiring writers, he interprets this request as an implied command to throw work, sleep, relations with loved ones, flogging the slaves, and personal hygiene to the winds until those pages are safely in the hands of the fine folks at FedEx.

Hey, those slaves aren’t gonna flog themselves.

Do I see some of this blog’s long-time readers with their hands raised, jumping up and down to capture my attention? “Wait just a Babylon-invading minute!” I hear these sharp-eyed protesters roar. “Did Yarrow ASK him to overnight his submission? If not, didn’t Xerxes just waste a fair amount of money?”

Well caught, readers: take a hoplite or two out of petty cash.

(Okay, I’ll admit that the jokes in this post are starting to get just a tad esoteric. Trust me, readers of Thucydides would have found that last one a real thigh-slapper.)

You’re quite right, in any case: there is absolutely no reason to shell out the dosh for overnight shipping for a submission. But hey, this was the guy who had his troops beat up the Hellespont when his bridge across it collapsed during a storm.

A bridge made of flax and papyrus; our pal Xerxes isn’t exactly the king of reasonable.

Having sent off his pages with the greatest possible swiftness, Xerxes naturally takes a week off work to rotate nervously between checking his e-mail every ten minutes, pacing outside to examine the contents of his mailbox every half-hour, and picking up his telephone receiver to make sure there’s still a dial tone every time the second hand clicks.

Yet amazingly, Yarrow does not get back to him before he runs out of vacation days. (Being king of Persia carries fewer fringe benefits these days than in ancient times. Back then, he would have had time to take a vacation long enough to discover the New World twice, if he’d wanted.)

By the time she asks to see the rest of the manuscript a month later, Xerxes has become a mere shadow of his former self: listless with chronic lack of sleep, he’s even too tired to rends the papyrus of his next book into 50,000 pieces and feed it to the palace dogs himself; he has the army do it.

But when an agent asks to see pages, pages be sent, right? So he gulps down a few handfuls of vitamin capsules, puts his entire scribe brigade on round-the-clock inking duty, and is able to send out the entire work in record time.

Once again, the wait is long, at least as far as Xerxes is concerned. “Criminy,” he grumbles. “Conquering Babylon took less time. How is she reading it, three words per day and six on Sundays?”

His patience pays off, Baal be thanked: Yarrow asks to represent him!

After the agency contract is signed, Yarrow tells her new client that she has a few pages’ worth of small tweaks that she would like him to make in his manuscript. “Nothing major,” she assures him on the phone. “Shouldn’t take you long at all.”

Exhausted by his extended vigil, yet eager to get his book into print, Xerxes rushes to his e-mail, rapping his fingertips nervously on his desk until Yarrow’s list of revisions arrives. He opens it — and ye gods, it must have a hundred points!

Overwhelmed, he begins to bash his head rhythmically upon his gold-encrusted desk, bringing his retainers running. How can he possibly do it all?

Catching my drift here? No? Okay, let’s try again:

Written feedback meltdown #6: Zelda has written what she modestly believes and hopes is the best novel in human history, MY HEART ON A PLATE. While not at all autobiographical, she assures every agent she queries, it is the story of a woman who went to her alma mater, holds her current day job, and was apparently married to her first husband.

The schmuck.

After much querying, leads to a handful of requests for pages and no offers of representation, she realizes that she is no closer to her goal of publication than she was at the beginning of her queryfest, for the simple reason that no one she has approached has actually told her anything about her book.

Other than, “We’re sorry, but it doesn’t meet our needs at this time.”

Perplexed, she begins reading every how-to book she can find on the writing life, only to find that most of their advice is of the pep talk variety; it’s not telling her why HER book isn’t getting published. But she does the suggested breathing exercises, makes a voodoo doll of herself and places it strategically within a carefully-arranged diarama depicting a packed book reading, and sacrifices a goat or two to the Muses.

As she’s been told many successful authors do.

She begins haunting writers’ conferences and surfing the net, looking for better answers. One day, she stumbles across a blog where a freelance editor was threatening to chain herself to a rock and expose herself to sea serpents unless all of her readers agreed to get some feedback on their manuscripts before shipping them off to agents and editors.

“Eureka!” Zelda cries, digging around in that nifty tote bag she got in return for her $500 literary contest registration fee. Surely, she jotted down contact information for a few of the nicer writers she met there.

She e-mails the one she liked best, Zippy (I don’t have the energy to go through the alphabet again, people; sorry), asking if he would like to exchange manuscripts.

Zippy responds that he would indeed like that very much, but he is about a month away from polishing off the latest draft of his novel, NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY EITHER, REALLY, the tender story of an accountant striving to be a novelist.

“But I’ll have quite a bit more time on my hands after tax season,” he assures her.

Delighted, Zelda immediately e-mails her entire book to her new friend — and is nonplused when Zippy writes back a few days later to suggest that they exchange physical manuscripts, for ease of reading, rather than each expecting the other to print up 700 pages or so.

Shaking her head at his unreasonableness — he sounds just like her ex, Xerxes — Zelda digs up her last rejected copy and hands it over.

A month passes with no more word than a quick note from Zippy saying that his revision is taking a bit longer than he’d anticipated. “Turns out taxes are due in April,” he informs her cheerfully. “Who knew?”

No matter, Zelda thinks: a slow read means more thoughtful feedback, right?

Another month goes by, however, and Zippy is still not ready to exchange: last week’s horoscope told him that he was too stressed out, so he took a much-needed break from revision to take up curling. “But I am reading yours,” he writes apologetically between slides across the ice. “I’m enjoying it very much.”

Zippy has an unexpected crisis at work — his client Tatiana is being audited — pushing back his projected completion date still further. By this time, Zelda has gnawedher fingernails down to the quick: she really needs this feedback.

Still, she knows that he’s doing her a favor, one that he hasn’t yet made it possible for her to return, and tries to be patient. Is it possible, she wonders, that he isn’t aware that she can’t query again until she’s weeded out any problems with her work?

Yes, long-time readers, I saw your hands shooting into the air: Zelda SHOULD have kept querying all throughout this process. She also should have found more than one first reader, made sure that he had time to give her feedback, and made specific requests about how she would like to receive it and when.

But then, she hasn’t had the advantage of having read the posts in my GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK series (conveniently available in the category list at right, Zelda), and you have.

At three and a half months, she writes and asks Zippy to lunch the following Saturday. “Maybe,” she suggests brightly, “we could talk about my novel?”

“Don’t have time,” he writes back. “Sea monsters have just carried off my favorite writing blogger.”

Losing her temper completely, Zelda sends him a lengthy, tear-stained explanation about why she had sought out feedback in the first place. “If you hate it,” she concludes, “or if you never intend to finish reading it, just tell me so. It’s kinder than toying with my feelings. My God, it’s been like Acts II-IV of Macbeth — all I’ve been able to do is wait!”

Contrary to what some of you cynics out there may have concluded, Zippy actually HAS read her novel; he genuinely is extremely busy. (Sea monsters can’t be relied upon to hack off their own heads, obviously.) So he tosses together a few supportive-sounding paragraphs saying how much he liked the book and sends them to her.

Delighted to have critique in hand at last, Zelda opens it — only to find that he has not given her ANY specific suggestions about how to improve her manuscript, only some vague statements about liking this character, not liking that plot point, and so forth. Her howls make all the cats of the neighborhood rush for cover.

Clearer now? Yes, each of today’s exemplars stumbled in several ways (heaven forefend that I should ever provide an illustration of only a single point) in facing genuinely frustrating situations over which they had virtually no control.

But Tatiana, Xerxes, and Zelda greatly exacerbated their own suffering by walking in with unrealistic expectations about when others would read their work. (And, in Zelda’s case, not setting up sensible ground rules for exchange before anyone so much as thought about budging a manuscript.)

As I MAY have mentioned seventy or eighty times before, agents and editors are REALLY busy people. If you imagined most of them buried up to their delicate necks in paper, you wouldn’t be far off about how much they have to read.

Yet most writers expect to hear back more or less instantaneously — and if they don’t, come up with all kinds of explanations except for the single most likely one: the agent or editor hasn’t had time to read it yet.

Why do unrealistic timing expectations make incorporating feedback harder when it actually does come? Because the writer has already expended so much vital energy in fretting over the differential between how quickly she wanted to hear back and when she did, energy that would have been much better spent, say, drafting the first chapter of her next book.

You can’t fool me about why Lady Macbeth went mad, Bill Shakespeare: you didn’t give her anything to do after Act I but wait around for her husband to slaughter half of Scotland. A long wait is an open invitation for an imaginative mind to prey upon itself. No wonder she started strolling the battlements at midnight, moaning.

Of course, she shouldn’t have told her husband to kill the king, either, but hey, no one’s perfect.

Since you’ve all been so very good, we’re going to take a break from this series tomorrow for a post on something completely different — and trust me, it will be a treat. In the meantime, keep up the good work!