Countdown to a contest entry, part II: what’s in it for me?

Before we launch into today’s installment — which will be the first of two, by the way, but more on that in a moment — let us all rise to our feet to give a giant round of applause to long-time Author! Author! community member and inveterate commenter, Kate Evangelista, whose first novel, TASTE, was just released by Crescent Moon Press in in e-reader format. Kudos to you, Kate!

I have it on good authority (so to speak) that other formats are following imminently. I have a strong feeling that I shall be crowing about those, too, because if you couldn’t tell, I absolutely love being able to announce that one of you has a new book out. Kate is the classic hardworking, creative, enthusiastic writer who paid her dues, learned her craft, and is being justly recognized for it. And that, frankly, tickles me no end.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: it can be done, people. As I also tend to say early and often, the long, hard road to publication is a heck of a lot easier if we support one another along the way.

One way I like to do it: sharing publisher’s blurbs (and author photos) at moments like this. Take a gander:

At Barinkoff Academy, there’s only one rule: no students on campus after curfew. Phoenix McKay soon finds out why when she is left behind at sunset. A group calling themselves night students threaten to taste her flesh until she is saved by a mysterious, alluring boy. With his pale skin, dark eyes, and mesmerizing voice, Demitri is both irresistible and impenetrable. He warns her to stay away from his dangerous world of flesh eaters. Unfortunately, the gorgeous and playful Luka has other plans.

When Phoenix is caught between her physical and her emotional attraction, she becomes the keeper of a deadly secret that will rock the foundations of an ancient civilization living beneath Barinkoff Academy. Phoenix doesn’t realize until it is too late that the closer she gets to both Demitri and Luka, the more she is plunging them all into a centuries-old feud.

I know: I can hardly wait to read it, either.

On to the day’s business. Workloads for those of us who read for a living are predictably heavy in the spring: a lot of books, especially memoirs, tend to have manuscript delivery deadlines around now, and the delivery deadlines for next year’s summer reads are just around the corner. Which is to say: it’s going to be a trifle difficult for me to grab the time to post at length over the next few weeks.

Yes, yes, I know: I should have thought of that before I launched into this series on writing contest selection and entry prep. The challenge prompts me to revert to an experiment that has worked well in the past: posting shorter posts more often. I’m going to try to post a couple of times per day over this weekend, to traject us well into the meat of the matter by Monday.

Not only will that enable us to work through the, let’s face it, rather enormous range of relevant contest-related tips with greater expedition, but breaking it down into shorter posts will also render the individual sub-subjects more easily searchable for those of you who want to revisit specific topics in months or years to come.

Besides, I felt that tremor of panic when I did not post yesterday. I know that some of you are shooting for submitting to the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Writing Competition in mid-month. I don’t want to encroach too much on your entry-prep time, but don’t want to leave you hanging, either.

Let us press forward, then, with no further ado, to address a question I feel to be burning in many of your minds: yes, I would like the ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) that a contest win, placing, or finalist status would provide, but I barely have time to write and query as it is. Is it really worth my time to stop those endeavors cold while I prep a contest entry?

The answer, as it so often is in strategizing a writing career, is a maddeningly non-specific it all depends.

And the trees outside my studio bend complainingly under the force of your collective sighs. “Not again, Anne!” you moan, and who could blame you? “Dare I ask upon what it depends?”

Funny you should ask, moaners. Last time, I laid out a few tips on how to determine whether to enter any given writing competition. I intimated, in my long-patented winsome way, that it would behoove you to do a little background research before you invest time and or so much as a cent in entry fees.

Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, there is more to consider before entering a literary contest than whether the piece you’ve chosen to submit is ready for tough judging scrutiny. Although I must add swiftly, on behalf of every current and former contest judge in North America: no piece of writing is ready to be submitted to a competition unless it has been thoroughly proofread IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD.

Yes, yes, I know: I say this about submissions to agencies, too, but actually, it’s even more important for a contest entry — and yes, that is indeed possible. How? Okay, picture Millicent the agency screener’s hyper-vigilant eye, eager to weed out 95% of queries and 98% of submissions in order to come up with the very few that her boss, the agent of your dreams, could possibly make time to read. Picture her doing it for minimum wage plus the experience.

Now picture her Aunt Mehitabel, doing the same thing to a contest entry for free. And had I mentioned that Auntie has been teaching English lit and composition at a local junior college for the past thirty-seven years?

So I reiterate: it’s impossible to overrate the importance of proofreading.

And, to be blunt about it, contest entrants often ignore the necessity. it’s rare to see a contest entry that isn’t rife with spelling, grammatical, formatting, or even coherence errors. And that drives your garden-variety conference judge positively mad.

Why, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, Mehitabel wants to find the winning entry in her assigned pile of manuscripts; it’s kind of a thrill. As a direct consequence of this quite generous and literature-loving attitude, there are few judging experiences more trying than reading a terrifically creative, well-written entry that absolutely cannot make it to the finals because the writer mistakenly used the wrong form of there, they’re, or their.

Oh, yes, it happens. More often than any of us would like to think.

It’s far, far easier to catch that type of typo in hard copy. Which, admittedly, probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to anybody who has been reading this blog for more than a month, but still, it bears reiteration. It’s also a good idea to have eyes other than your own search for grammar, spelling, and logic mistakes.

So you know how your significant other, best friend, mother, and/or next-door neighbor’s teenager who wants to be a writer keeps bugging you to read your work, but you fear (and with good reason) that your relationship to them and/or the fact that you’ve told them the story of your novel 153 times means that they will not give you impartial feedback? This is a task these well-meaning souls can perform beautifully. Put ‘em to work.

But please, I beg you, do not assume that your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker will take care of it for you. As any editor, freelance or otherwise, will rend her garments and tell you, such ostensibly helpful functions often both miss mistakes that would be caught by the naked eye and suggest word substitutions that are either inappropriate or grammatically incorrect.

Or so I surmise from the fact that the latest version of Word suggested only a few moments ago that my correct use of it’s should be changed to its.

Please, too, set aside adequate time to proofread in your entry-prep schedule — and no, just telling yourself, “Oh, I must remember to proof this,” will not necessarily do the trick. If it’s (that’s the instance Word wanted to change, by the way) half an hour until the post office closes, and your entry must be postmarked today, it’s going to be be awfully tempting to skip the part where you read it IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. Budget at least an hour for every twenty pages of the entry.

In fact, if you’re new to the contest game, you might want to reserve a couple of days at the end (weekends are always nice) for last-minute scramblings. Prepping the average entry usually involves quite a bit more effort than merely printing out your first chapter and already-existing synopsis, you know. (Which is often all that competitions for unpublished book-length works allow a writer to submit, incidentally. Rather changes your sense of the value of the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Writing Competition‘s accepting entire manuscripts, does it not? )

It may seem as though it won’t take long to pull an excerpt that short together, but believe me, the various steps can quickly start to add up. There’s the time to find the contest in the first place, for instance, which isn’t always easy — contests for unpublished book-length works are actually comparatively rare. Competitions that accept short stories, essays, and/or poetry are much more common, but if you are trying to market a book-length work, entering these can involve embarking upon entirely new writing projects.

Then, too, it can eat quite a bit of time and energy to prepare a winning entry, as opposed to the other kind — and in case you’re interested, most contests are set up so that it would be impossible simply to print up one’s existing synopsis and first chapter, pop it into an envelope, and call it good. There are generally formatting restrictions and length requirements that render it advisable to spend some fairly serious time tailoring the pages to the contest’s standards. (Don’t worry; we shall be talking about that part later in this series.)

All of this is time-consuming, naturally. Potentially, a writer could spend so much time entering contests that she ends up with very little time to write.

Oh, yes, those of you who just snorted derisively, I’ve seen it happen. I once met a very gifted writer at an artists’ colony who had stretched two excellent and atmospheric short stories into eight solid years of contest wins, writer’s residencies, and successful grant applications.

And no wonder: of our four subsidized weeks at the colony, she was writing grants for three. Not entirely coincidentally, at the point that I first encountered her, she had been working on the same novel for — you guessed it — eight interminable years.

If her initial goal had been to live the life of a writer at minimal expense, I wouldn’t have had a serious problem with her strategy. But given that her intention had been to use the competitions to finance writing her novel, I did find myself wondering if she were going about it in the most efficient manner.

To be blunt about it, contest preparation requires time you could be using to write. Or query. Or even have a life, as I’m told that non-writers occasionally do. If you choose to spend your time entering a contest instead, make sure that the potential returns are worth the sacrifice.

Then there’s the money. Entry fees can be quite hefty, especially cumulatively, and not all contests give much in the way of tangible rewards, even to the winners, much less the finalists. A high entry fee may be worth it if, say, the judges provide written feedback or if finalists are given special access to the agents and editors who attend the contest-giving organization’s conference.

Look beyond the contest’s website for confirmation of any or all of these benefits of entry, however; not all contests are created equal, and feedback on entries varies widely. A big hint that a contest may not be all that it’s cracked up to be is a separate fee for feedback. In a credible contest, the judges should be evaluating every entry, not just the ones sent in with extra cash attached.

There is a hidden fringe benefit to shelling out the dosh for entry fees, however: systematic contest entries, like attending conferences and send out rafts of cover letters on a regular basis, are a way that you may prove that you are pursuing your writing as a business venture, rather than as a hobby.

Do I hear some quizzical huffing out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “in what context would I possibly need to prove that? Should I be anticipating some great cosmic tribunal on how I spent my time on earth?”

Actually, I was thinking of an inquisition a trifle closer to home: the Internal Revenue Service. I’m not a tax expert, and I would encourage you to consult one that specializes in writers’ (not just artists’) returns, but rumor has it that if you file a Schedule C as a writer, contest entry fees are potentially both tax-deductible and evidence that you’re actively trying to land an agent and sell your work. (Why not just any tax expert? It’s not uncommon for those unfamiliar with the rather obscure regulations governing writers’ returns to tell aspiring writers not to bother to file a Schedule C until the first advance rolls into one’s bank account. But that’s not necessarily the only option. Here’s a nice brief summary of how writers’ taxes work.)

The important thing to know for the moment is that entering contests is legitimate promotion for your book, even if it is not out yet. Like other ECQLC, it’s a demonstrably good way to catch an agent’s attention. Do be open to the idea, though, that an entry fee might not be your only writing-related business expense. Printer cartridges, for instance. Reams of paper. The most recent agents’ guide. Conference fees. And so forth. (Poets & Writers online has a good article on recognizing what your writing expenses actually are.)

Why bring this up within the context of a discussion of literary contests? Because one solid way to differentiate between the hobbyist writer and the professional is evidence of a profit motive, proof that you are pursuing your writing in a professional manner, with the ultimate goal of selling your work. As opposed to the Emily Dickinson route, in which one writes primarily for one’s own pleasure without sending it out.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. But my guess is that if you are serious enough about developing your professional skills to invest the time in either entering a literary contest or reading a series like this, you probably have some desire to have other people read your work — and pay you for it, even.

Basically, establishing a profit motive involves documenting that desire. You can hardly blame the tax folks for wanting to have some reasonable assurance that you would be selling your work if anyone showed up on your doorstep, clamoring to buy it.

What kind of proof do they like? Well, again, you should ask a tax pro familiar with writers’ returns, but high up on the hit parade is evidence that you write on a regular basis, as well as tangible proof that you are consistently trying to find an agent and/or a publisher for your writing. So not only is the cost of stamps and envelopes a legitimate writing-related expense; buying the makings of SASEs is a mark of serious, potentially taxable effort.

Another way to prove that you really are writing with the intent to sell it, honest, is thorough making demonstrable efforts to increase your professional skills. For a writer, that means not only learning better craft, but learning how to market as well. Continuing education such as going to conferences and promotional efforts like entering contests fit very clearly within the profit-seeking rubric.

I mention this not only so you can make some inquiries in the months between now and tax time, but also to encourage you to apply the concept of the profit motive to any writing-related expense you may be considering. In the case of a contest, for instance, you might want to ask: how will winning it help me get my book published? Is entering this contest an efficient way to pursue my profit motive as a writer?

And I’m not just talking about contest wins in general here: I’m talking about any particular contest you may be considering entering. The adulation and opportunities offered the winners vary so widely from contest to contest that it is almost impossible to generalize about any benefit accruing to all winners.

Other than boasting rights in query letters, of course. If you are going to hang your agent-finding hopes — and your resources — on an array of contests, it honestly does pay to be selective.

Which means, among other things, that you might want to think twice about entering a contest just because it has a large cash prize for the winner or because it is sponsored by a nearby writers’ organization. You also might want to pay attention to whether its winners go on to get published — and how strong a track record the granting organization has for continuing to support its winners.

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

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

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

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

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

See why it might be a very, very good idea to check out the contest’s track record of helping its winners, placers, and finalists? Like finding out a bit about a conference over and above its formal offerings before register to attend it, this basis research can help you maximize the potential return upon your profit-motivated contest entry.

True, good literary conferences are a blessing to humanity, and the volunteers who pull them together deserve candy and roses from all of us. However — are you sitting down, Virginia? — there are conferences out there that exist primarily for the enrichment and/or self-aggrandizement of their organizers.

Contrary to that pesky common belief that keeps asserting itself today, not all literary conferences — or contests, for that matter — are organized by the Muses and attendant cherubim for the pure advancement of Art. Some are — brace yourself, Virginia — organized by mere mortals with agendas. Although I hate to be the one to break it to you, sometimes that agenda is pretty transparently to permit the conference’s organizers to rub elbow patches with the speakers, agents, and editors at the expense of allowing attendees access to them.

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

Call me zany, but if I’m going to plunk down the dosh to attend a conference, particularly one far away, I don’t particularly want to be relegated to the kids’ table while the organizers hobnob with the agents and editors at the Important People’s table, if ne’er the twain will meet. Or are whisked off to private parties at some board member’s house, far away from anyone who might conceivably have come to the conference to pitch. Or — sacre bleu! — where the agents and editors enjoy those parties so much that some of them just don’t show up for pitching appointments the following day.

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

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

Ideally, of course, you’d ask someone who has won the contest in question, but if you’re looking for formal events that will bring you decked in your winner’s laurels into the presence of the agent of your dreams, you can also try calling the organization sponsoring the contest and asking about access. If that seems too direct and/or confrontational, you could always just post a question on one of the big writers’ forums. Many of them have entire pages devoted to specific conferences; asking where the agents and editors tend to hang out. If the answer is the bar, you’re probably okay.

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

Why might this be a matter of interest to someone considering entering a contest with an eye to meeting the agent of his dreams at the affiliated conference? At a conference where the agents, editors, and speakers do not hang out at that nearby bar — i.e., in public — it’s usually a whole lot harder for a writer who wants to attempt to give a 30-second pitch to track ‘em down.

The writers’ grapevine can be very informative about this. If the agents and editors are not available because they are cloistered in private meetings with aspiring writers, or because they are having breakfast with contest winners like you, that’s one thing; that might be a good reason to enter the conference’s contest. But if they’re nowhere to be seen because the local bigwig thriller writer has carried them off to his beach house the moment they stepped off the airplane, or because there’s a party in a locked hotel room that paying attendees know nothing about…well, let’s just say that the writer who takes second place in the literary contest will probably have a harder time introducing herself.

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

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

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

I’m quite serious about this. If your mole says, “My God, the agents there wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who didn’t have a top ten entry!” it’s a good bet that the winners get some enviable perks. You might want to enter that contest — but perhaps not attend the attached conference unless you were up for a prize.

That’s not being pessimisitic; that’s marshalling your resources wisely. There are plenty of conferences that will demonstrate your profit motive in pursuing your writing equally well, where you will get more out of the experience.

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

It’s also a good idea to check out the list of your category’s winners from three or more years ago: how many of these writers can you find on a basic web search or by checking Amazon? More to the point, do any of them show up as clients on agency websites? Or, for more recent winners, as debut book sales on Publishers’ Marketplace?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a writer — especially as a writer with a full-time job — you need to treat your writing time as precious, profit motive or not. Three days or a week spent agonizing over a contest entry is necessarily time taken away from your actual writing, and the more expensive contest fees tend to run around the same amount as a good writing seminar. Weigh your options carefully.

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

Querypalooza, part XV: nicely stamping your SASE and other Millicent-pleasing habits of the sanitary author

sanitary-author

I’m not much given to double-takes, campers, but I must admit, I did a lulu when I spotted this sign standing by the side of a two-lane highway in unincorporated Neskowin, Oregon. To the casual observer, Neskowin is a blink-and-you-miss-it collection of buildings, but to the observant tourist, it is fraught with enigma: its population is 170, according to its ostensibly unofficially municipal website — a human density which renders the two golf courses located there, well, surprising. Who is playing golf in such high numbers that a lone course wasn’t deemed sufficient for local needs? Bears? Sea lions? Migratory Scots with an affection for Pacific Rim cuisine?

All of these legitimate wonders pale, however, next to the enigma of the Sanitary Author.

What makes him or her so darned clean, the passing motorist is left to speculate, and why is the population of Neskowin so proud of that particular resident’s hygiene habits that the non-city fathers saw fit to erect a sign to commemorate the SA’s immaculate practices? Did s/he win some sort of international award for cleanliness, a plaudit akin to the Nobel prize, in order to raise him or her so very high in the town’s esteem?

Not, obviously, as high as videos, coffee, or ice cream, but still, it’s more recognition than most authors get.

Does the SA reside in remote forest because such cleanly writing practices would not have been feasible within the confines of a large city like New York, Los Angeles, or even charming and nearby Portland? More importantly from the point of view of fellow authors, how does being so sanitary affect the quality of the SA’s writing — and if it has a net positive effect, should we all be beating a path to Oregon, demanding to follow in the SA’s spotless footsteps?

And should we be worried about all of the unsanitary authors running around out there?

Oh, I know what prosaic types out there are likely to tell me: since the period after AUTHOR would tend to indicate an abbreviation, this sign probably only refers to the local sanitary authority, the fine municipal employees who look after water quality and maintain the local sewer system. So much for impenetrable ambiguity, the literal would doubtless conclude. Just ignore that sasquatch strolling by; there’s nothing to see here.

But look closely at that sign: there’s a period after SANITARY, too. Complete words are seldom abbreviations, I find.

So the mystery continues. I shall make a valiant effort to wrest my mind away from the Sanitary Author and concentrate on the matter at hand: queries and the things that accompany them.

Oh, it’s no use: the image is burned into my brainpan. A psychologist friend of mine once told me that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks AS current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist.

The writer’s descent into a creative trance is one of the least-understood of human phenomena, isn’t it? Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing.

Personally, when I’m in mid-chapter, I lose most of my sense of the passage of time. If my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, MOST cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

I’m inclined to blame this on the way that the creative process colonizes the writer’s brain. The cats seem inclined to blame it on me, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing: if it can’t wait until I polish the scene in front of me to a high gloss, it’s probably not going to happen.

You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard. Or — and I honestly am getting around to the point of our series again — when you are embroiled in sending out a flotilla of queries.

Oh, you thought you were the only one who spaced out? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a querying binge or writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline or, heaven help us, immediately after an agent asks to see a partial or full manuscript.

(I’m going to be talking about those last two contingencies this weekend, by the way. Delving into the practicalities of submission seemed like a natural way to round out the ten days of Querypalooza.)

I suspect that this checking out from the everyday world is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it?

With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life. Only better.

Is it that same is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex trick of the brain, I wonder, that would allow a reader to fall in love with a character in a novel? As Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in THE PERPETUAL ORGY:

A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known.

He’s talking about a literary orgy, incidentally, not a physical one: quite a lot of the book is about his passionate decades-long love affair with the entirely fictional Emma Bovary. And who can blame for falling in love with her, really? She’s a pretty absorbing character.

Do I sense those of you who intended to get queries and/or submissions out the door now that the annual post-Labor Day return of the publishing world to New York has arrived becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to find an agent. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical concerns we’ve been discussing for the last week?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that Millicent and others like her who screen queries actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

The querying hurdle is, at least in principle, set in place to maximize the probability of discovering the next Great American Novel — or memoir, or nonfiction book — by freeing agency staff from the necessity of reading pages from every ambitious soul currently writing in English. That way, the theory goes, Millicent can concentrate on deciding amongst the crème de la crème.

Your mind is still focused on the paragraph before last, isn’t it? Yes, you read that correctly: even the most virulent rejection-generator is usually eager to discover a novel that pulls him immediately into its lifeworld, or a memoir that wrings his heart, or the next Emma Bovary. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that agents and editors so often describe their first responses to submissions in the language of attraction: you’re going to love this book, it’s a sexy topic, it didn’t grab me, I can’t get this book off my mind, I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case any of you fine souls out there have been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor. So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially more noble put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. I meant to begin this post by talking about SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

I can only plead that I was absorbed in my writing. Excuse me a moment while I feel my languishing cats.

Or perhaps I zoned out because, let’s face it, SASEs are not the most thrilling of topics. But they are absolutely vital to discuss within the context of Querypalooza, because a mailed query unaccompanied by a SASE will get rejected automatically at virtually every U.S. agency. Almost invariably without being read.

And if Millicent doesn’t read your query, it’s literally impossible for her to decide to request your manuscript, and therefore impossible for her to fall in love with your writing. Which, in turn, renders it impossible for her boss, the agent, to fall in love with your writing, for the agent to convince an editor to fall in love with your writing, for the editor to convince an editorial committee to fall in love with your writing, and for the publishing house’s marketing department to convince readers to fall in love with your writing.

So omitting the SASE isn’t just a technical gaffe; it’s the catalyst in a tragic tale of lost love.

That’s the writer’s opportunity cost of neglecting to include a SASE in your query packet, but there are costs on the agency end as well. Think about it: having the SASE arrive in the same envelope with the query means that Millicent can grab either a form-letter rejection or please-send-us-pages note (oh, didn’t you realize that both were boilerplates?) the very instant after she makes up her mind which is appropriate.

It takes very little time, and the writers themselves are providing the resources. What’s not for the agency to like?

In fact, they like it so much that that most agencies have standing policies against SASE-free queries at all. Providing an envelope and a stamp to reject a single forgetful writer may seem like a negligible expense — but multiply it by the 800-1500 queries the average agency receives every week, and we’re talking about a considerable investment in writers whose work they’ve already decided not to represent.

So if you didn’t hear back on that last raft of queries — you know, the ones where you glibly told Millicent to contact you via e-mail if she wanted to see pages — that’s probably why.

Yes, in answer to what half of you just thought so loudly, answering your mailed query via e-mail would have been costly for the agency, too, although obvious, not as much so as hauling an envelope from the supply cabinet. The Millicent charged with opening all of those envelopes and scanning the paper queries would have to stop what she was doing, carry your query — and only yours — to a computer, open the agency’s e-mail server, type in a rejection (which would probably be identical to the form letter she’s been stuffing in SASEs all day), send it, then go back to work.

Multiply that by every querier who thinks he’s being clever, considerate, and/or paper-saving by insisting on this, and it would add up to a lot of unnecessarily expended energy over the course of a year. Far, far cheaper for the agency just to tell its Millicents to toss any query unaccompanied by a SASE into the recycling bin.

Although if she does decide to ask for pages, she will probably let you know via e-mail, rather than by sending a reply in the SASE you so thoughtfully provided. I like to think of this as the SASE Utility Paradox: the rejected writer must pay for the postage and envelope that carry the bad news; the accepted writer must offer the stamp and envelope as a sacrifice to the gods of querying.

Either way, you’re going to be buying some envelopes and stamps. (Don’t forget to keep receipts; if you file a Schedule C for your writing business, you may be able to deduct the cost of both as a promotional expense. Talk to a tax expert with experience handling writers’ returns — which I am not –before you deduct anything, however, because the IRS rules governing writers are both strange and different than those applicable to other kinds of artist.)

Believe it or not, part of the SASE’s original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but to render the querying and submission processes cheaper for the writer: it was substantially less expensive than if the agencies sent back manuscripts with postage due. (Which used to be the alternative.) It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the writer ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t quibble at me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to prove copyright over unpublished writing, the writer needs to know at all times where all the extant copies are, saying who can and cannot read it. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, writing posted online is technically published. It makes it easier for writers to prove that they were the original authors of their online work.

The control-who-reads-it doctrine still governs how agencies operate. When you send previously unpublished material off to an agency — to a credible one, anyway — you are both operating on the tacit assumption that no one on the other end will reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

(Which means, by the way, that you should be very wary of an agent who implies, as some have been known to do in order to edge out the competition, that she has already shown submitted materials to an editor as an inducement for you to sign with her. Technically, she cannot market your writing to anyone until you give her explicit permission to do so — but a writer who has just won a literary contest and is juggling manuscript requests from several agents might not be aware of that.)

When you send a SASE with a submission, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

I hear the one in which Harry fights a dragon actually isn’t bad.

As I believe I have mentioned seventeen or eighteen hundred times before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agencies’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions; prior to that, virtually none of them did. (Some still don’t; double-check before you press SEND.) And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Spoiler alert: your thumb is probably going to get pretty tired before you find even one. Yes, even in 2010.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you may well be perceived as thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince Millicent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction. So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

Knowing the likelihood of those norms changing anytime soon, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY. Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a few moments and tell you PRECISELY how to play the SASE game correctly.

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), include a stamped (not metered envelope addressed to yourself. Do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides.

If you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis — make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you. A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage.

Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours. This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages, but in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that particular request is unlikely to come via regular mail.

Again, do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read each and every agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

If the requested pages fit in a Manila envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission packet. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs. Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Next time — that’s 10 a.m. PST tomorrow, for those of you keeping track — we’ll delve a bit deeper into the practicalities of submission. You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared if your query is successful, would you? Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part X: the agency contract revisited, or, excuse me, sirs, but could any of you tell me which one of you will be representing my book tomorrow?

police line-up

Last time, I broached the seldom-discussed issue of agency contracts — you know those handy documents that spell out explicitly what the agent offering to represent you will do for you in exchange for how much. While most aspiring writers simply squeal and shout, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” the nanosecond an offer emerges from an agent’s mouth, it’s very much in your interest to know what you’re agreeing to before you agree to it.

In other words: not all agencies are created equal. Nor do they all operate in the same manner.

There are, however, some norms. As those of you who pored over yesterday’s post may recall to your sorrow, in going over how (and how much) US-based agents typically get paid for representing their clients’ work, I mentioned that US agency contracts typically specify 15% for books sold to a North American English-language publisher, 20% or more for sales to non-North American publishers, whether the book is published in English or not.

“Um, Anne?” a small, confused chorus has been piping out there in the ether ever since I first brought it up. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated, drawn-out typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convoluted explanation.

Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes.

North American vs. world rights
From the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America (meaning in the US and Canada), those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. So when folks in the industry speak about a US-based agent selling a book to a US-based publisher, they’re generally talking about the first North American rights: the publisher has bought the ability to be the only source of the first addition of the book in the US and Canada.

Of the three categories, only North American rights are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales, which is why — pay close attention here — if your agent manages to sell your book to a UK-based publisher, you will be selling the world rights. Believe it or not, the world excludes North America — which I imagine might come as something of a surprise to those of us who live here.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense.

What might all of this rigmarole mean for the writer? Perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Sometimes, the Canadian rights are subsumed in the world rights (if, say, the publisher is UK-based), instead of under the North American rights.

Before you laugh out loud, I should warn you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales — it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.

Why? Well, do the math: if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

I cannot stress enough, though: read your contract. Ask some questions. Norms are just norms; individual agencies’ policies do vary.

But what if I am represented by an agent based outside North America — or if I’m unsure if a North American one is asking me to agree to legitimate terms?
Obviously, what constitutes a domestic sale would vary depending upon the country in which the agent does his primary business. So if you are reading this somewhere outside North America, or translated into a language other than English, you should not blithely assume that what I am saying here applies to your home country; it’s always worth your while to check with your national literary agents’ association. For the English-speaking world, the top ones are:

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

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

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

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

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. They are there to help writers make crucial decisions about who should represent their work. So are writer-protection sites like Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

Please don’t dismiss the notion doing some minimal checking to assure the agents reading your work are on the up-and-up as writerly paranoia — who represents your work is too important to your writing career to leave to chance. Remember, not everyone who slaps up an official-looking website is actually an agent, and good writers too nice to want to seem confrontational get burned all the time.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2010 is fast receding into memory.

I just mention.

Let’s assume for the moment, though, that the agency lucky enough to land you as a client — strange to think of it that way, isn’t it? — is as reputable as reputable can be. Most agencies are. Even under that happy circumstance, it’s very much in your best interest to understand how and to whom an agent might market your book before you read, much less sign, an agency contact. Not only because these distinctions are rather counter-intuitive, but because they’re the criteria used to determine what percentage your agent will take out of your advance and royalty checks.

Again: read your representation contract before you sign it. Ask some questions. The only way this relationship is going to work to both your benefit and the agent’s is if both parties understand precisely what each of them is supposed to do.

Tell me again how I’m supposed to cover all of this in my first conversation with a prospective agent without sounding like a paranoid jerk?
I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort the details out later?”

Well, of course you could — as I said, most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this impulse: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent you.

Yes, YOU. How thrilling!

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything especially nefarious. Remember, agents move from one agency to another all the time, especially in this economy. If this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent. (Either is possible.)

It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts. And so forth.

The agency contract is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. It’s perfectly legitimate to request time to pore over it. Then pick up your notes, hie yourself to a telephone, and start asking follow-up questions.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent — as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements — do make a point of asking the agent in your first conversation for a brief overview of its major points.

That’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

Because, you see, by being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship.

The agency, not the agent, produces that contract I keep yammering about, after all; the agent may not even sign it. So a savvy writer should be very, very interested in the policies and procedures of any agency to which she is about to commit herself and her writing.

Wait — what do you mean, I’m committing to the agency, not just the agent?
That’s right — agency policy will affect you, and that agent who is being so nice to you on the phone will not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work. Among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (For a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours — and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. And the agency is also going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it? Or, in some cases, people that you may not even know exist?

Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; is it really all that surprising, then, that few are on friendly terms with the rest of the agency’s staff? It’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.

The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially increase the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.

At minimum, find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Remember, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her, or will at least be given the option of doing so. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not.

Again, asking about this is not being paranoid; it’s being prudent. Few human relationships are permanent, after all.

Let’s face it: some agencies have pretty short lifespans. It’s also not all that uncommon for agents simply to burn out on the biz; selling books is hard work, after all. And since many agents have a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that how the agency is set up may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Don’t think that nice agent who called you to offer to represent you would drop out of sight? Okay, cover your representation contract — no peeking now — and answer these trenchant questions:

(1) If your agent retired, would you still be represented, or would you need to find a new agent?

(2) What about if she got laid off and the agency did not replace her, as is happening in agencies all over the country right now? Would you still be represented then?

(3) What if she got into a car crash, God forbid, and had to cut her client list in half?

(4) Does the agency have any hierarchy in place to mediate any disagreements that may If you had a fundamental disagreement with your agent, could you move to another agent within the agency, or would you need to find a new agent elsewhere?

(5) On the brighter side, what if your agent started an agency of her own?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking. None of them had even considered any of these possibilities until the realities hit them in the face. And virtually all of them now say that it never occurred to them to question whether the agency would be there to support them if something happened to their again.

But perhaps that’s not too surprising: many an author could not pick any member of her agency’s staff but her agent out of a crowd at a writers’ conference. Or out of a police line-up, for that matter.

So I take it you’re saying that this isn’t a business that runs on handshakes
Sometimes it is, but you should be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 5-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established.

Protect yourself. A good place to start: reading your representation contract and asking some intelligent questions.

Assume, too, that at some point, you will want to revisit some of these issues. If you are offered a written contract, make yourself a photocopy so you may refer to it later.

Yes, even if the agent or agency’s head has not yet countersigned it. Many agented writers report that they have never seen another copy of the contract again after they signed it.

Dare I hope that those great, gusty sighs I hear wafting from my readership mean that this is all sinking in? “Okay, Anne,” sadder-but-hopefully-wiser writers everywhere concede. “I get it: it’s not in my interest to take the details of the agent-client relationship on faith. I need to ask questions when I don’t understand something. But right now, I don’t think I have the energy to do that, because you’ve depressed me into a stupor. The last couple of posts have occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors.”

Of course, that’s not the case. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers — but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.

So read that contract; act those questions; walk into that agency with your eyes wide open and your reading glasses firmly on.

And please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you. Put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone’s care.

Next time, I’ll talk about what agents do with manuscripts after the representation contract is signed. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, or, how does a book concept make it from a New Year’s resolution to a shelf at Borders?

gutenberg press drawing

Welcome to 2010, long- and short-term members of the Author! Author! community. May this be a year of major steps forward: starting the book of your dreams, finishing the book of your dreams, revising your manuscript until it becomes the book of your dreams, discovering the best agent on earth to represent it, convincing the best agent on earth to represent it, that agent blandishing the ideal editor into reading it, said ideal editor falling in love with it, a lucrative sale and easy publication process, readers eager to bury their noses in it, a second book (or a third, or a fifteenth) that exceeds expectations, a well-deserved Pulitzer prize.

You know, the basics of a writing life well-lived.

An especially hearty howdy-do and handshake for those of you acting on a New Year’s resolution to learn how to get your book into print. Or how to land an agent. Or why a writer might need to land an agent in order to get her book into print. You’ve happened upon this blog at an excellent time, because I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks getting down to those very brass tacks. I’m going to be addressing the two most basic questions of the writerly life:

(1) How does a book go from sitting on an aspiring writer’s desk to being sold in a bookstore?

(2) What, if anything, does an aspiring writer need to know to navigate that trip successfully?

Why go straight to the root of the quest, rather than simply handing those new to the game a couple of one-page sheets of directions? Well, first of all, because there are plenty of advice-givers out there willing to bark unexplained orders at those new to the biz. In my experience, quick-and-dirty isn’t nearly as helpful as carefully-explained. Unless a writer understands why things work the way they do, he’s not only likely to break the rules — he’s not going to be able to improve his game.

Heck, he may not be able to play with the big kids at all. So: let’s talk fundamentals.

That chorus of groans you just heard, newcomers, arose from some of the longer-term readers of this blog who were really, really into my recent series on self-editing. “But Anne,” they whimper, ink-stained fingers gesticulating, didn’t you tell us just the other day that since half the writers in North America suddenly send out queries and submissions” (you’ll be tossing around those terms very soon, newbies, never fear) “as part of their New Year’s resolutions, we should hunker down and wait until mid-February before trying afresh? Wouldn’t that hiatus be a dandy time for, you know, revision?”

Indeed it would be, ink-stained protestors. A review of the basics before leaping back into the fray is never a bad idea. But just to keep it interesting, I’ll make a valiant effort to keep tucking tidbits useful for self-editors into the corners of my next couple of weeks’ posts. I wouldn’t want you to feel that I was ignoring old friends for new.

And let’s face it: a crash course in how the publishing industry works isn’t a bad idea before leaping back into the fray. As I’m sure many of you are already well aware, when a rejection is staring a writer in the face, it’s awfully easy to forget that it isn’t personal; good book concepts and well-written manuscripts is just part of how the system works.

Didn’t expect me to be so up-front about it, did you, newbies? Fair warning: this series is going to be rather disturbing to any writer who believes that the only real test of whether a manuscript is any good is whether it gets published. Or that a good manuscript will always be able to find an agent, and swiftly.

At the risk of repeating myself, that’s just not how it works.

Honest. I’ve been in the game practically since birth, and I’m here to tell you, there is no literature fairy. No winsome sprite will guide an agent to the doorstep of a talented new writer, simply because she is talented; the writer has to take some steps to flag that agent down.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? I haven’t even laid the foundation of gloom-inducing yet, and here I am, waving from a second-floor window.

What I’m about to tell you may well be depressing — heck, it depresses me, and I have an agent — but please, I implore you, stick with this series, even if you are already fairly familiar with, say, how to construct a passable English sentence or to write a query. This is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know.

Seriously, it’s to your advantage. Aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are not the people for whom I am writing this. I’m talking to every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice. I want to help you succeed.

So let’s get this baby cranking, as Johann Gutenberg doubtless said to his assistants in 1450 or so.

Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff, persons with whom he may well have shared a dormitory at some elite private college; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a well-placed review.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Heck, that’s assuming that you’re even reading newspapers anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commonly available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence.

This is what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, a manuscript an author sends to an agent or editor without said agent or editor’s having asked to see it. Today, an unsolicited manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread.

Not every aspiring writer believes that, however, because they’ve heard what used to happen to such manuscripts in the days of the Model A: publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

That hasn’t always been easy advice to follow, unless one happened to command a personal army of copyists and/or a steno pool; see my earlier comment about historical access to copy machines.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when jolly old TR (Roosevelt hated being called Teddy) was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say; no agent or editor in her right mind would read even a sentence of a hand-written submission today. Another way that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were (and are) sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, editors buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract.

It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well. Usually, there was a pretty good reason for that: the author spent five or ten years, or even a lifetime, cranking out that first novel, but after it hit the big time, her editor began clamoring for the next immediately. The author tossed something together in a year, and poof! Everyone was astonished that the second wasn’t nearly as good as the first.

Hmm, who could have predicted that? As late as the 1980s, not the publishing industry.

As a result, while multi-book fiction contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series-production — they have become substantially less common in the mainstream and women’s fiction markets. Which is to say: the vast majority of fiction is sold on a per-book basis. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books– and have them polished into publishable form before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials.

Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work in their book proposals — which is why, in case you’d been wondering, so many nonfiction books are authored by journalists. They tend to have stacks and stacks of clippings on hand.

Why are clippings helpful in selling a nonfiction book to a publisher? Because they prove that some other editor has thought enough of the proposer’s writing to publish it before. Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that every nonfiction writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Why not, you ask? Because buying something that does not yet exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that novelists can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? If not, please trot right to the comments and ask a pertinent question.

While we’re waiting, let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries, shall we?

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller, independent publishers that do accept direct submission. Very good houses, some of these. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are getting a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. Nonfiction writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book before I approach an agent, much less a publishing house. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-manuscripts-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as at best a necessary evil, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses.

Okay, so they bring some not-so-hot writers and less-than-amazing books to ‘em, too, but try to see the forest, not the trees here. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

Everybody understand that? Agents reject 95% of the queries they receive, and an even higher percentage of submitted manuscripts, so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is simply not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be clarifying that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Allow me to repeat that, because: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Contrary to common belief amongst aspiring writers, their employees are not primarily concerned with the task of discovering great new talent, but rather with finding books they believe the agency can sell within the current literary market.

In other words, they reject books they know to be written well. Routinely. Because if they can’t sell the book, the agency does not make money.

It’s honestly as simple as that. See why knowing how agencies work might help you take a rejection less personally?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to appreciate this level of verifiability once you become successful. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since Theodore Roosevelt roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: agents largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it.

But wait — I haven’t given you a self-editing tip yet today, have I? Here’s one that will keep many of you busy for a good, long while: in most adult fiction, professional readers like Millicent prefer to see tag lines — all of those he said, she exclaimed, they cried statements that litter the average dialogue scene — minimized, or even omitted entirely. Unless there is serious doubt about which character is speaking when, they usually aren’t necessary.

Quotation marks, after all, indicate that what falls within them is being spoken aloud. So dialogue that runs like this:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah?” he said. “Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed in fear, but she stood her ground. “I am,” she said stoutly.

“Ooh,” Johnny said, “this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

may often be trimmed to the following, with no real loss of meaning:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah? Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed, but she stood her ground stoutly. “I am.”

“Ooh, this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful way to work today’s editing tip into the text. Hey, I’m just warming up here. Keep up the good work!

Submission packet mystery theatre, continued: the race is not always to the swift

monk writing at desk

Before I launch back into my ongoing spate of darkly illustrative tales of Submitters Gone Wrong (hey, it’s Halloween — what could possibly be scarier to a writer than a submission gone horribly awry?) I have a bit of procedural business: I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus from posting here at Author! Author!, probably about a week, to lock myself in a suitably arty and consumption-inducing attic somewhere to perform a bit of intensive writing. In the interim, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall be checking in every couple of days. Do talk amongst yourselves.

To provide you with some mental chewing gum to munch while I’m off doing an intensive rewrite, I shall be wrapping up this week’s micro-series on SASEs and other things an aspiring writer might conceivably ship to an agent or editor with a bit more discussion of the submission process — specifically, more cautionary tales where completely well-meaning aspiring writers go wrong in pulling together and sending off requested materials.

Or at the very least, cause themselves some unnecessary chagrin.

Case in point: too many aspiring writers waste scads of money speeding up the delivery time between their houses and a requesting agency. Overnighting a submission is utterly unnecessary; it won’t win you any Brownie points whatsoever with Millicent the agency screener, and it most assuredly will not get her boss to read your manuscript any faster.

Save your money for something else — nice paper upon which to print the submission, for instance. Or a bottle of aspirin for the stress headache induced by waiting for the response.

With an eye to helping submitting writers figure out what is and isn’t a necessary expense, I have spent the last few posts talking (in part) about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.

Did a few of you new to the process just choke on your cornflakes? “Wait just a minute, Anne,” a sputtering few still working up to the marketing stage cry. “Surely, you’re talking about the entire agent-finding process being expensive, right, not just the shipping-off part? I mean, really, I’ve just shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend a writers’ conference so I could meet agents to query — I hadn’t thought at all about the next step, mailing off requested materials, taxing my scant savings.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but better to shatter your illusions than your piggy bank: the submission process itself can be quite expensive. Especially if you decide, as many a savvy writer does, to submit to several agents simultaneously.

Why might it add up? Well, let’s take a gander at what’s involved. At minimum, the costs of producing a professional-looking submission packet include:

shipping (both there and back),
boxes,
paper,
ink cartridges or photocopying expenses,
wear and tear on your computer, and
a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else.

While individually, these may not seem as potentially scarifying to your checking account as the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape, if you’re printing out five different packets, the cumulative cost can be significant.

So much so that if you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns in general and writers’ returns specifically: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must actually sell some writing in a given year to claim associated expenses. That’s not necessarily true.

Or so I’m told. Had I mentioned that I’m not a professional tax advisor, and that you absolutely shouldn’t take my word on any of this?

Last time, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Antoinette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript, then waited seemingly endlessly by the phone for the agent of her dreams to respond. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate.

Today, I want to talk a bit about the other two primary motivators for jumping the proverbial gun and springing for swifter-than-normal shipping: clawing, pathological fear and nail-gnawing eagerness.

To let one of the most poorly-hidden cats out of one of the most hole-ridden bags in the business, few souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials. Especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying or after a particularly intense conference, it’s far from uncommon for the lucky writer to decide, wrongly, that the only possible response is to drop everything else in her life — by calling in sick to work, evading kith and kin, pretending to have emigrated to Morocco, that sort of thing — to throw together the requested materials and get them out the door as close to instantly as possible.

One of two rationales may prompt this super-speedy response. In the first, the writer cries, “Oh, my God, this request to see all or part of my manuscript must be a fluke. I’d better get these materials under the agent or editor’s nose within the next few hours, before either (a) s/he changes her/his mind, (b) the malignant forces that rule the universe cause the wall of indifference to art to rise again, this temporary fissure mended, or (c) both!”

Whichever thunderbolt the hostile gods of publishing are planning to send his way, the hyper-fearful writer wants to make absolutely sure that his submission is out of his hands well before it strikes. Who cares that he hasn’t had time to double-check his submission for easily-overlooked gaffes that a few hours invested in proofreading (IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and read OUT LOUD, preferably), or that overnighting that package will cost four times as much as sending it via regular mail? He’s trying to submit before the agent of his dreams comes to his/her senses.

In reality, of course, it just doesn’t work like that: a request to submit materials will be every bit as good two weeks from the day it was made as it was in the moment. Or two months hence.

As I MAY have hinted gently above, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent typically does not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the much more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.

Especially during summer conference season, since most of the industry goes on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the NYC-based part of the biz more or less shuts down. Or in January, when half the aspiring writers in North America are trying to live up to their New Year’s resolution to get those queries and submissions out the door, pronto.

The other, more common rationale for too-swift submission is eagerness. “Whew!” the writer who has just received a request to submit exclaims. “The hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material. From this point on, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah.”

You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of the delivery time for that brilliantly fabulous future?

I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this second trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s usually under 5%, even in a brisk economy), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

Or, to put it the terms we typically use here at Author! Author!, it generally takes even less provocation to cause Millicent shout “Next!” over the first page of a manuscript than over a query. (If that’s news to you and you’re in the mood for a good, old-fashioned Halloween scare, I would strongly urge you to set aside a few hours to run through the posts in the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s sent many a strong writer running screaming from the room.)

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know: I want your queries and submissions to be in that top few percentiles. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Gilberto:

Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest with his thriller, DON’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN; HE’S NOT REALLY CARRYING AN AXE. During the very full pitching day that follows his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Maxine, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.

Over the vehement objections of every previous winner of this particular contest (and, incidentally, yours truly), Gilberto says yes. When his local post office opens the next day, he’s already waiting in line, all set to overnight the submission packet he stayed up all night preparing..

However, being a savvy submitter, he submits simultaneously to the other five via regular mail right away. Yet he does not tell Maxine — or any of the others — that he is letting many agents read his manuscript at the same time. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.

Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, the super-eager Maxine is the very last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with a form letter. This most enthusiastic of agents has rejected him without even telling him why.

What did Gilberto do wrong? Not much, really, except for saying yes to an unreasonable request — and not telling all of the agents concerned up front that they were competing over his work. That not made his submission process more expensive than it needed to be, but also more or less eliminated any benefit he might have derived from the contest-generated buzz about his book.

Let’s take Gil’s missteps one at a time. Why was Maxine’s request that he overnight the manuscript unreasonable?

In essence, the situation was no different than if Maxine had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. Yet as Maxine’s subsequent behavior abundantly demonstrated, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

So why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. Lest we forget, agents tend to be competitive people — to many of them, a book project’s value will increase in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in it. (Also true of many editors, incidentally.) The give-me-first-peek request is one way it manifests.

Yet another reason that — chant it with me now, long-time readers — it is always in an aspiring writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries, rather than approaching them one at a time.

Not clear why? For the same reason Gilberto’s not telling all of the agents concerned that they were in potential competition over his work was a mistake: had they known that, they would probably have been a bit more interested. Or at any rate aware that they might miss out if they put off reading his submission for too long. Thus, not using his manuscript’s being in demand as a selling point may actually have harmed Gilberto’s chances of landing an agent.

That out-of-the-blue pop quiz worked so well, I’m going to spring another one upon you: why do you think Maxine didn’t get back to him sooner?

In practice, of course, she could have had a lot of reasons — a death in the family, a problem with an existing client’s relationship with her editor, a particularly exciting negotiation, rehab…the list goes on and on. But any other possible factors aside, Maxine knew that if any of those other agents at the conference had made an offer, Gilberto would have contacted her — and when he didn’t, she could treat his might-have-been-hot property just like any other submitted manuscript.

In other words, jumping in and asking for a first peek cost Maxine nothing — it obviously affected her subsequent treatment of Gilberto’s work not at all — but guaranteed that she would be first to know about how his other submissions fared. And once she could safely assume that he had not been picked up by anyone else, the shiny gleam of being the most sought-after new writer at the conference faded from his manuscript.

Now pause and consider the ramifications of Maxine’s attitude toward other agents’ interest levels for a moment. Picture them spread thickly across the industry. Let the possible effects ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Not high on the average Maxine’s to-do list.

Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages two months ago hasn’t gotten back to you, doesn’t it? While an agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to ramp up the agent’s sense of urgency. Sneaky writer; no cookie.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Maxine already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, I don’t know her personally, so this is merely an educated guess, but I strongly suspect that Maxine’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

It honestly does make sense, when you consider the necessary level of competition amongst agents. Maxine is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Gilberto to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write up a storm. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

Because, as agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Maxine’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big contest win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible.

To beat the Christmas rush, as it were, of his submitting to other agents. And to increase the chances of being able to see it at all.

Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Maxine is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer: he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect.

If she gets such a call, Maxine’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

What’s the hurry, from her perspective? (Hey, I promised you a serious Halloween scare, didn’t I?)

Asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m completely booked up for the next few days, and several other agents have already asked to see it. I can get a copy to you by the end of the week, though, when I send out the others.”

And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later, accompanied by a cover letter reiterating that other agents are also reading it. (Tick, tick, Maxine.)

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: after a publisher acquires your book, the house will generally be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you; after you’ve signed with an agent, you’ll probably be asked to e-mail anything s/he needs right away, because it’s cheaper for everyone concerned.

You need some time to wrap your brain around that last point, don’t you? Perfect — I shall slip away into my studio while nobody’s looking. Just keep looking in the other direction…

That didn’t work, did it? Well, boo! And keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XI: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower
You know how I’m always talking about how I glean some of my best ideas for posts from readers’ questions and comments? Quite recently and in our very midst, it happened again. Earlier in this series, thoughtful readers Gayton and Anni were kind enough to bring up an issue that troubles many a conscientious would-be querier and book proposer: what kind of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform?

Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

This is a terrific question, I think, one that looks deeper than the mere what-might-you-conceivably-include-in-your-pitch list I ran in this summer’s Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered under the heading of that same name in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it). And, conveniently enough for my evil plan for the weeks to come, it’s also a fabulous way to get all of you thinking about the author bio that I’m going to be nudging you to write later in the month. (Yes, really — it’s an increasingly-common part of a query packet.)

More to the point of our current series, the question also speaks to an incredibly common insecurity: plenty of aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers.

That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can. “What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would rather represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it: in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are plenty of wonderful agencies out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of wasting your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again, don’t I? “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

Those got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t they?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game..

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies: a previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query letter. The previously published tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline — a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their jobs harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of ANY sort silently signal that you are a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories in The New Yorker than if you were the periodic book reviewer for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings, incidentally: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query letter.

Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying. In the first place, what makes you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem and you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the down side is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate — out comes the broken record again — that the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers are under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at deadlines, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you don’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in different genres. So if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is what some of them mean. But most of the time, they’re just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right?

“Back up a minute,” some of you are saying. “What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but since it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well — authors often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. And you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference, of course, but occasionally, it does.

Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Speaking of nepotism, Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Or had you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-thrower: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may be described very briefly — not an insignificant advantage in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, all I can say is that maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct one. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Again, nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor, would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet — so why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel she pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would certainly not make me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being.

A personal platform, I have been known to say over and over again like a mantra, is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book: whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform demonstrates why people in the media – might be interested in interviewing the author.

So while your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you are writing the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for your book, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of the sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

Amy Carter, however, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirable in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though, if memory serves.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

Um, how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to the book?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not — ANY experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading.

Seeing where I’m going with this? If you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as professional ones. So why not spend the fall making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, what’s a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Or if your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by.

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se; if it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out a query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

But I have to say, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

This advice should sound a bit familiar to those of you who hung out here at Author! Author! during this summer’s Pitching 101 series, as well as to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident.

The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: the beautifully-written summary paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query letter is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, and an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

In other words, you’re the one who is going to have to make up your mind. I’m just the advice-giver here; it’s your book. Which is the most important reason why the query should make your credentials shine.

Your mother is not the only one who should be proud of you, after all; let Millicent know why she should be as well. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXIII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part III: the bare necessities of pitching — and no, I’m not just talking about 3 lines scrawled on the back of a business card

glass-of-water

I honestly am trying to wrap up our weeks-long series on formal and informal pitching, but the fact is, if I’m going to talk about getting the most out of (often quite expensive) writers’ conferences, it only makes sense to give a few more practical tips on pitching while I’m at it. So please bear with the absurdly long and complicated titles for a while: labeling discussions as series makes it easier for late-joining readers to follow them in the archives, I’ve found.

Since we’ve all been so very good for so very long, I have a fun-but-practical topic for today: what materials should you bring with you to a conference — and, more importantly, to your pitch sessions with agents and editors? Other than good, strong nerves, an iron stomach, and faith that your book is the best literary achievement since MADAME BOVARY, of course.

At minimum, you’re going to want a trusty, comfortable pen and notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, to take good notes. You’ll also want to bring all of the paperwork the conference organizers sent you, including a copy of your conference registration, information about your agent and/or editor appointments, and tickets to any dinners, luncheons, etc. for which you may have paid extra. (As, alas, one almost invariably does now at literary conferences. I can remember when rubber chicken banquets were thrown in gratis, and folks, I’m not that old.)

I’m already sensing some shifting in chairs out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” those of you new to writing great big checks to conference organizers protest, “why would I need to burden myself with all of that paperwork? I already signed up for those events, as well as my pitch appointments. Won’t the conference folks have all that on file?”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but not necessarily. Remember, most writers’ conferences are organized by hard-working volunteers, not crack teams of hyper-efficient event organizers assisted by an army of support staff with Krazy Glue on their fingertips. Details occasionally fall through the cracks.

So it’s not very prudent to assume that your paperwork has not been crack fodder — or even that the selfless volunteers working the registration tables will have access to their computers to double-check what you paid to attend. Few literary conferences are held in the offices or homes of the organizers, after all, and while being able to get into the dinner where you paid $60 to hear the keynote speaker may be vitally important to you, the volunteers on site will probably neither have the time nor the inclination to run home to double-check a misprinted list of attendees.

All of which is to say: if you registered electronically, make sure to bring a hard copy of the confirmation. And if everything goes perfectly when you check in, please remember to thank the volunteer who helped you.

As my grandmother used to say: manners cost nothing.

While you’re printing things out, go ahead and produce a hard-copy confirmation of your hotel reservation as well, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. Again, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book.

Also, it’s a good idea to bring a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference. This is not an occasion for a flimsy purse. Think grad student backpack, not clutch bag.

Don’t underestimate how many books you may acquire. It’s rare that a literary conference doesn’t have a room devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the folks who organized the conference. (At the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, for instance, only organization members’ and conference presenters’ work are typically featured.)

Don’t expect to receive discounts on those books, however; because the conference typically gets a cut of sales, offering a members’ discount seldom seems to occur to organizers. On the bright side, it’s usually child’s play to get ‘em signed. Even if the author is not hovering hopefully behind a pile of his literary output, if he’s at the conference at all, he’s going to be more than happy to autograph it.

Don’t be shy about walking up to ‘em in hallways and after speeches to ask; this is basic care and feeding of one’s readership. And if you’re polite about it — introducing yourself by saying how much you loved the author’s latest work and/or speech last night, perhaps, or via the Magic First Hundred Words — who knows? You might just end up with a marvelous literary friend.

Which is one of the reasons you signed up to go to a conference in the first place, right?

Do be aware, though, that when major bookstore chains organize these rooms (and at large conferences, it’s often a chain like Barnes & Noble), they often take an additional payment off the top, so a self-published author may well make less per book in such a venue. And if an author with a traditional publisher has shown up with her own copies, purloined from the sometimes generous stash of promotional copies publishers often provide authors because the expected copies did not show up on time for the conference (yes, it happens), the sales may not count toward official sales totals.

This is not to say that you should hesitate to purchase a book from the writer with whom you’ve been chatting in the book room for the last half an hour. You should. However, if the book is self-published, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere. Generally, authors will be only too glad to steer you in the right direction.

Speaking of requests folks in the industry are thrilled to get, if you are struck by a particular agent or editor, you can hardly ask a more flattering question than, “So, are there any books for sale here that you worked upon? I’d like to read a couple, to get a sense of your taste/style/why on earth anyone would want to spend years on end editing books about horses and flamingos.”

Hard for even the surliest curmudgeon scowling at early morning light not to be pleased by that question.

By the way, at a conference that offers an agents’ or editors’ panel (and most do), do not even CONSIDER missing it. Attendees are expected to listen to what the agents and editors are seeking at the moment and — brace yourself for this — note where it does not match what was said in the conference guide blurb or on the agents’ websites.

Oh, did I forget to tell you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Tastes change. So does the market. But blurbs tend to get reused from year to year. Even the standard agency guides, resources that actually are updated yearly, often don’t represent what any given member agent wants right this minute.

No comment — except to say that you will be a much, much happier camper if you keep an ear cocked during the agents’ and editors’ fora to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “Heavens, if I see ONE more vampire romance…”

In addition to noting all such preferences in my trusty notebook, I always like to carry a few sheets of blank printer paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’, to keep track of who was sitting where and note a few physical characteristics, along with their expressed preferences in books.

Why do I do this? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first full day of the conference — a very, very long day.

By the time people are wandering into their appointments at the end of the second day, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, I’ve found that they’re often too tired to recall WHICH editor had struck them the day before as someone with whom to try to finagle a last-minute appointment.

Being able to whip out the diagrams has jogged many a memory, including mine. It’s also a great help a month or two after the conference, to help you remember which of the dozen agents who spoke struck you as worthwhile to query instead of pitching, and which left you with the impression that they eat books, if not aspiring writers, for breakfast.

On my diagrams, the latter tend to be depicted with horns, pitchfork, and tail. But that’s just me.

I always, always, ALWAYS advise writers to bring bottled water to conferences — even to ones where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience for your neighbors.

Why? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers in a classroom, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the pitcher on it, nor to step over people’s legs with a full glass in your hand.

If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, there’s a good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses, and personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.

I’m wacky that way.

If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead. Men may not make passes at girls who wear ‘em, to paraphrase the late great Ms. Parker, but looking bookish is seldom a drawback at a writers’ conference.

Even if you have perfect vision, there’s a good reason to keep on sippin’. If you are even VAGUELY prone to nerves — and who isn’t, while preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Lip balm can be helpful in this respect, too.

Both conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of foot traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is NOT the time to skip the vitamins. I go one step further: at the conference, I dump packets of Emergen-C into my water bottle, to keep my immune system strong.

If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at a conference sometime, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. Remember, if you find yourself stressed out:

*Take deep breaths. Not just every so often, but on a regular basis.

*Don’t lock your knees when you’re standing. People who do tend to fall over.

*If you need to sit down, say so right away, no matter who happens to be standing in front of you. Trust me, that editor from Random House doesn’t want to have to pick you up off the floor.

*Don’t drink too much coffee, tea, or alcohol. (Even though everyone else will be doing so with enthusiasm.)

*Go outside the conference center every so often. A glimpse of blue sky can provide a lot of perspective.

*Make some friends. You’ll have more fun, and you can meet in the hallway later to swap notes about seminars happening simultaneously.

*If you’re feeling nervous or scared, talk about it with some nice person you met in the hallway, rather than keeping it bottled inside.

*Be willing to act as someone else’s sounding board. Just for the karma.

Trust me, this is a time to be VERY good to yourself. A conference should not be an endurance test. If I had my way, the hallways at any pitching conference would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress levels.

While I’m sounding like your mother, I shall add: don’t try to pitch on an empty stomach.

I’m VERY serious about this — no matter how nervous you are, try to eat something an hour or so before your pitch appointment. When I ran the Pitch Practicing Palace (a safe space for those new to the game to run their pitches by agented writers BEFORE trying them out on an agent or editor, to weed out potential problems), I used to keep a bowl of candy on hand, because so few pitchers had remembered to feed themselves.

Trust me, even if your stomach is flipping around like the Flying Wallendas on speed, you’ll feel better if you eat something. If you are anticipating doing a lot of hallway pitching, or dislike the type of rubber chicken and reheated pasta that tends to turn up on conference buffets, you might want to conceal a few munchies in your bag, to keep yourself fueled up.

It’s also not a bad idea to bring along some mints or ginger candy, just in case you start to feel queasy. As a fringe benefit, the generous person with the tin of Altoids tends to be rather popular in the waiting area near the pitching appointments.

Since you will most likely be sitting on folding chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo.

You should have heard the public rejoicing.

In the spirit of serious frivolity, I’m going to make another suggestion: carry something silly in your bag, a good-luck charm or something that will make you smile when your hand brushes against it. It can work wonders when you’re stressed, to have a concealed secret.

Honest, this works. I used to advise my university students to wear their strangest underwear on final exam day, for that reason — it allowed them to know something that no one else in the room knew.

(It also resulted in several years’ worth of students walking up to me when they turned in their bluebooks and telling me precisely what they were wearing under those athletic department sweats — and, on one memorable occasion, showing me, à la Monica Lewinsky. So I say from experience: resist the urge to share; it’s disconcerting to onlookers.)

If you suspect you would be uncomfortable wearing your 20-year-old Underroos or leather garter belt (sorry; you’re going to have to find your own link to that) under your conference attire, a teddy bear in your bag can serve much the same purpose. Anything will do, as long as it is special to you.

So far, my advice has been concerned with your comfort and welfare. From here on out, the rest of today’s tips will be all about networking.

That’s right, I said networking. Conferences are about CONFERRING, people.

Because you will, we hope, be meeting some God-awfully interesting at your next writers’ conference, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it: a business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.

I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old FAST.

Besides, if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible – and no, in the US, you don’t necessarily have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. Talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with artists. Heck, all of those books you buy might just be deductible as market research.

Seriously, it is VERY worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, to print some up at home, or to ask Santa to bring you some professional-looking jobs for Christmas. First, it’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book REALLY wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared.

Second, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like — maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together.

The easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s just that simple.

I’m sensing some ambient rustling again. “But Anne,” some rustlers exclaim, “I’m going to the conference to meet folks in the industry who can help me get my work published. Why would I waste my time chatting up other aspiring writers, who are ostensibly there for precisely the same reason?”

A very good question, oh rustlers, and one that deserves a very direct answer: because it’s far from a waste of time.

Besides, avoiding the unpublished is just a wee bit snobbish, I think. I would urge you to avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into ANY writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. It requires less energy to keep to yourself, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say short-sighted: in the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.

Why? For one very, very simple reason: the more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience.

Why make your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now, if not that nice writer with whom you chatted about science fiction at lunch?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it — I once spent several hours stranded in a small airport with Ann Rule, and she is an absolutely delightful conversationalist. (Especially if you happen to have an abnormally great interest in blood spatter patterns; she’s a well-respected expert on the subject.)

But try not to let star-watching distract you from interacting with the less well-known writers teaching the classes — who are there to help YOU, after all — or the writer sitting next to you in class. I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So, what do you write?”

Don’t tell me that you’re too shy to handle this situation — I happen to know that you have a secret weapon. Remember those magic first hundred words? This is the time to use ‘em.

Believe me, it’s worth doing. Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves — realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block ISN’T the next Stephen King? — and don’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?

And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business — for every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better, I say.

Even the most charmed writer, the one with both the best writing AND the best pure, dumb luck, has days of depression. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.

So stuff some business cards into your conference bag along with a folder containing several copies of your synopsis AND five copies of the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents do this, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book.

Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript.

Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire manuscript with you to the conference, UNLESS you are a finalist in one of the major categories. You will never, ever, EVER miss an opportunity by offering to mail or e-mail it instead.

In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is often true, bizarrely, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, I don’t think it should come as much of a surprise to anyone that agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent would ask for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it — and the writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting blue ribbons.

So while I have known agents to read a chapter or two of the winners’ work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard.

It could happen — but it doesn’t really make sense to plan your life around a possibility that remote.

Otherwise, don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. And no, don’t bother to bring an electronic copy of your book — it’s actually considered rather rude to hand out CD-ROMs willy-nilly.

Why? Well, because not everyone is as polite as my lovely readers. It’s not at all uncommon for a total stranger to come charging up to an agent, editor, or someone like yours truly at a conference, shove a soft copy into our astonished hands, and disappear, calling back over her retreating shoulder, “My contact information’s on there, so you can let me know what you think of it.”

Without exception, electronic media presented in this manner ends up in the trash, unread.

Why? Well, apart from the general impoliteness involved in insisting that just because someone is in the industry, s/he has an obligation to read every stranger’s work, there’s also the very real risk that a stranger’s disk is going to be infected with a computer virus; it would be rather imprudent even to try to check out its contents.

Even if the recipient happened to have a really, really good firewall, this method also conveys a tacit expectation that the recipient is going to go to the trouble and expense of printing the book out — or risk considerable eyestrain by reading an entire book onscreen. Not very likely.

These days, if an agent or editor wants an electronic copy of your book, s/he will ask you to e-mail it. Trust me on this one.

Regardless, your 5-page sample should be in hard copy. If you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that, but if you can at all manage it, choose the first five pages of the book as your sample — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.

From the writer’s POV, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format.

Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the standards of the industry!”

If the fact that there IS a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does NOT resemble the formatting of published books — is news to you, rush into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right. Even if you’re relatively sure you’re doing it right, it isn’t a bad idea to double-check.

Stop groaning, long-time readers; we all could use a refresher from time to time. As long as I am writing this blog, no reader of mine is going to have his or her work rejected simply because s/he didn’t know what the rules of submission were.

Again, I’m funny that way.

Keep practicing those pitches, everyone, avoid dehydration like the plague, and keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part IV: the most practical of practicalities

chambres-dhote

Welcome back to my ongoing multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. For the last couple of posts, we’ve been talking about the financial aspects of getting to a writing retreat, so this time around, we’re going to get even more practical in our focus: what occurs at a formal retreat on a day-to-day basis?

We join the conversation already in progress.

Anne: Having been in residence at La Muse for two different three-week residency sessions, basically because I was being so productive that I refused to leave when the first one ended, I got to see first-hand the ENORMOUS amount of work involved in getting the retreat ready for new residents. Having arrived to find everything in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott liked to say, I was genuinely stunned at the flurry of activity.

Over and above intersession clean-up and prep, what’s actually involved in keeping a writing retreat going on a quotidian basis?

Kerry: Enough so that after all that dreaming, we work more hours here than we did in NYC and still have very little time to write!

Anne: What’s a day of running an artists’ retreat like?

Kerry: Processing applications takes about two hours a day. Once people are accepted and committed to coming, helping them get here can represent a lot of time. The barter residency has its application process and schedule; running barter projects underway takes three full days a week.

We are daily involved in marketing, advertising and outreach to get our name out there, including the blog, our website, our Facebook page, YouTube, MySpace, Shelfari, Good Reads, LinkedIn

Anne: Heavens.

Kerry: We host and enjoy current attendees at La Muse. We take care of people’s wishes and needs daily.

John: We offer a limited local transportation service, so there’s a lot of driving around.

Anne: That’s something that many first-time retreatants don’t consider, but artists’ retreat tend to be in the middle of nowhere. That’s part of their charm, of course, but if a writer doesn’t plan on bringing a car — which can drive up the cost of a retreat by quite a bit, if it’s a rental — getting around can be pretty problematic. I sprained my ankle fairly soon after I arrived, so I never made the hour-long trek down the mountain to the nearest village with a grocery store, but other residents did. So I, for one, was very grateful that you did offer a transportation service, so I could do my shopping while I wasn’t walking so well.

Kerry: Most months, we work on hosting an art show or some other cultural event for our attendees and our neighbors; in 2008, we hosted 8 events. We hope to host two this year, at least.

John: The house is 450 square meters on three levels with two gardens, the maintenance of which is a full-time job.

shutters-at-la-muse

Because at times we don’t have enough room in the house, we coordinate rentals of neighboring cottages to attendees, sometimesl who want to come with their families. When families come with their children, we arrange for childcare during their stay.

Kerry: And then, there’s all that cleaning… and gathering wood once a week from the forest for our four wood burning stoves which burn around the clock from October through April. So, we are busy.

John: You can say that again.

Anne: Not to mention organizing book swaps amongst the residents, taking us on the occasional field trip, and organizing other bits of occasional communal jollity.

I’m very interested in the practicalities, since the day-to-day business of getting fed, obtaining good sleep, and dealing with all of the million other concrete details involved in being comfortable can make an immense difference in how productive a writer is on retreat. A beautiful environment and/or adequate physical facilities are helpful, of course, but not always enough, in my experience.

But we’re talking about your experience here, not mine. What else is involved to encourage writers and other artists to be productive on retreat?

Kerry: There’s general maintenance (replacing blown light bulbs or the odd repairs or computer help, and doing what we can to help people be more comfortable and productive—whether they want to move their desk closer to the window or have a different chair.

Anne: I have distinct recollections of having made both requests. In fact, I’m relatively certain that I asked John to rearrange a fair amount of furniture.

John: Usually, in the first week, attendees have a lot of needs but after a couple of days, after the jet lag, they really start to settle in and then talk comes around to their projects and how they’re doing as opposed to blown light bulbs or where to get eggs from the locals.

Anne: Yes, let’s talk eggs for a moment, since I have some very pleasurable recollections of scrambling some of your neighbor’s freshly-laid duck eggs. Some retreats provide food for attendees, but La Muse does not. How do attendees feed themselves? How well does the communal kitchen work out?

Kerry: People cook and eat for themselves. 98% of people love it like that as it makes their retreat more of a communal one. Some people like other people to make food for them and some people like to do that for them, but again, we are not an institution.

Anne: I notice that you have a clothesline — which attendees also use. How on earth do you do all of the laundry between retreat sessions when the weather’s not nice?

Kerry: We have been very lucky to have mostly dry weather between stays and when it’s not nice, we drape sheets and towels over every radiator in the house. Worst case scenario, we use our dryer.

Anne: I was there in both spring and summer weather, and everyone got their laundry done just fine. But while we’re on the subject of weather, what’s it like at La Muse in the fall and winter?

Kerry: Fall is sunny and warm but with colder nights. Winter is mild but manages to feel cold. It never really goes below 7 degrees Celsius. That said, the weather has seemed totally unpredictable, so I hate to put anything out there in terms of expectations. I’ll just say we have four seasons, and it’s beautiful here no matter what, and the house is comfortable no matter what.

john-cutting-the-quiche

Anne: I’m sensing that I may have diverted the conversation before you finished telling me about a retreat-running day.

Kerry: We also have conversations with most attendees about their projects at least once during a retreat. Sometimes people have personal issues they struggle with, so we do what we can to provide support. We also meet with everyone socially at least once a week.

This daily interaction is one of our greatest pleasures. It can be very time-intensive, depending on the group. We try to arrange introductions with local artists when there may be the potential for an exchange of some kind. We arrange for French lessons, or just conversation exchange. Everyone needs something, most days.

Anne: Even in the face of that frankly daunting list of tasks you’ve just mentioned, my impression is that, if anything, you’ve been expanding your efforts on behalf of La Muse and the larger artists’ community over time. Is that accurate? How has your vision evolved in the years since you first opened the retreat?

Kerry: We’ve stayed very true to the original concept but have developed a community-based angle as well. We started our non-profit for local cultural activities, and to be able to create more fellowships — another development since the beginning.

Anne: That ties into the dream you were telling us about last time: trying to bring La Muse to the point where writers and artists can attend for free. It’s such a beautiful idea; I hope to see you realize it.

Tell us more about La Muse’s nonprofit. People can deduct contributions to it, right?

John: Basically, any donations made to the non-profit — it’s called “L’Association ‘La Muse’ pour la creation et la culture en Montagne Noire et Cabardes” — are completely tax deductable. An association in France functions much like a 501(c)(3) in the States. It’s due to a convention that was passed on the first of July all the way back in 1901, where two or more people operating a non-profit-making organization call themselves an “Association Loi 1901”.

Anne: You’ve got to hand it to the French when it comes to naming things straightforwardly. I was forever asking the locals what that group of crumbling medieval towers was called, and the name would turn out to be something like Las Tours.

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John: It took a lot of time to get it up and running due to all the paperwork, which is par for the course in La France, but we really foresee it having great benefits for La Muse, as ideally we would like every attendee that comes here to come for free. We haven’t employed a fundraiser yet but we are a member of the Alliance of Artists Communities in Rhode Island and are doing what we can to get our mission out there to potential donors so that we can make La Muse a free retreat, much like foundations like Yaddo.

Like I said earlier. ideally we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or residency attached to an institution or donor so they don’t feel weighed down by the financial weight of getting away. Our mission has always been to make a space for creative people and the best way to do that would to be to offer it for free. Also, it isn’t just now that we’re doing this. Students and graduates have been coming to us from Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States for years.

We want to grow that side of La Muse, but we need help to do so. We need the donations to get people here.

Kerry: We’re also reaching out more to our community not just because we love our neighbors and are grateful to have been welcomed by them, but also because many of them are artists and writers. Our attendees appreciate having a taste of local life, and we try to facilitate exchanges between our neighbors whenever possible, whether by inviting attendees to local events, or sending them to the neighbors for fresh eggs, or for a massage or a hiking guide—you name it.

Anne: We were talking about that earlier: although so many artists’ retreats are located in beautiful environments, they tend to be isolated enough from their neighbors that, other than the weather and the types of trees, spending a month at one might not be all that different than spending a month at another. Experienced retreaters compare amenities, of course, but as someone who has attended many retreats, a lot of them blur together in retrospect.

I find it rather hard to imagine that happening with La Muse, though. Where else, for instance, was I going to see the locals playing giant bagpipes made our of goats?

la-fete-de-ciba

Kerry: On an internal level, we’ve streamlined things since the beginning too, when it was more informal. We added the art studios. We are working on a new retreat calendar; rather than focus solely on longer retreats we’re trying to accommodate people who can only get away for two weeks.

Anne: Really? Not a lot of retreats offer stays that short; that would be helpful for working writers. Not to mention ones with kids!

Kerry: The 2010 calendar will have two-week retreats during months when there are university breaks, as well as our current three-week retreats. That way, people can come for two weeks, three weeks, two two-week retreats, a three-week retreat, etc. Some people stay for up to six months. In other words, people can tailor the length of their stay but keep to an arrival and departure schedule that won’t create a lot of upheaval for other attendees.

Anne: But the normal retreat time is three weeks, right? At many retreats, it’s a month. Why did you settle on three weeks?

Kerry: Our focus is to provide a place in which people can really crank on their projects, make some real progress. We believe that with the time it takes to settle in and with the inevitable socializing and days to read and relax, a person really needs about three weeks in order to get any real work done.

Anne: That’s true, but I know that in my case, it takes me a few days to settle in at the beginning, as well as a few days to get back to real-world mode at the end. So I had always assumed that most retreats arrange month-long (or longer) residencies, assuming that the three weeks you mentioned will fall somewhere in the middle of it.

Kerry: We used to have four-week retreats, and the last week seemed to be a listless one. As well, people often just can’t get away for four weeks. So we changed it to three.

John: Previous attendees told us three weeks would be better than four as they found it hard to get four weeks off from their day jobs or away from the kids or other responsibilities.

Anne: Speaking of time away from other responsibilities, I don’t want to run over-long, so let’s break here for the day.

Happy weekend, everyone, and keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part III: did someone mention fellowships?

library-door-at-la-muse

For the last week or so, I’ve been talking about the pros, cons, ins, outs, and finances of grabbing one’s manuscript, computer, and what Chaucer described for posterity as a bag of needments and trundling off to a formal writing retreat. You know, the impressive kind that they advertise in the back of Poets & Writers magazine: artists’ colonies where you have to write (or paint, or sculpt, or photograph) your way in; for the rest of your professional life, agents, editors, and other literati take a gander at your bio or query letter and exclaim, “Oh, you were at Retreat X?”

Oh, and one generally gets time to work on one’s manuscript, too.

Because both the decision to take time off work and the application process can be intimidating, confusing, or even downright scary, I have devoted the last couple of days to chatting about practicalities with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, owners, operators, and writers-in-residence at La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France. If you gaze carefully into the windows in the picture above, you’ll catch a glimpse of the magnificent view I enjoyed every time I cast my laptop from me last month and stared out the window, mulling over dialogue.

What — not enough detail in that image? Well, if you’re very nice, I’ll treat you to some clearer landscape photos throughout today’s post.

But wait, there’s more: as an additional treat, I’m also going to be continuing the extremely practical bent of yesterday’s post (an excellent behind-the-scenes glimpse into what a retreat application looks like from the other side of the submission desk) by sticking to the nitty-gritty. Specifically, to the financial nitty-gritty, to address the most pressing question on many would-be retreating writers’ minds:

How on earth do writers afford to stay at a retreat like this?

If a writer happens to be independently wealthy, obviously, the answer is simple: there are plenty of perfectly marvelous artists’ hideaways out there for thems as can pay for ‘em. Those of lesser means often save up for them, get a paper route, or blandish kith and kin into donating toward them as birthday presents, in much the same way as anyone else who wants something out of his price range.

However, the answer for most of us who do it on a semi-regular basis, as I mentioned on Monday, is to apply for fellowships, grants, and barter arrangements at the retreats whose facilities we covet.

Fair warning: very, very few formal retreats can afford to offer more than a small handful of fellowships; the vast majority of residents in even the top-flight retreats are paying their own way, at least in part. Not all artists’ colonies offer outright free stays — and remember when you’re budgeting, even those that do seldom offer assistance with travel to reach their often far-flung doorsteps — and those that do tend to see hundreds of applications for each available spot. Barter arrangements are sometimes possible, but rare.

The fact is, though, most retreats do offer a chance to win at least a break on the cost of residency, if not a free ride, to those willing to jump through a few extra hoops. Since you’re going to be submitting an application to a selective retreat, anyway, what are a few extra hoops? It never hurts to try.

Where might one start trying? Well, word of mouth is best; I’ve found some great grants, as well as some fabulous retreat spots, by the simple expedient of asking writers I admire where they go to get away from it all and who paid for it. You can also engage in a web search, but like anything else you shop for online, it’s prudent to double-check a granting foundation’s credibility before you put your John Hancock on a application fee check. Like literary contests, not all of the fellowship opportunities advertised are legit; like literary contests, sometimes the primary goal of a fellowship competition is apparently to collect all of those application fees, rather than to reward, say, compositional excellence. Many a retreat, like many a contest-running organization, depends heavily on funds raised from the fees of unsuccessful applicants.

Please tell me that none of that was news to you. Or that if it was, you haven’t been wildly sending off entries and application fees to every contest, fellowship, and grant program out there. Or that if you have, you will solemnly swear to set aside time to read through the CONTESTS THAT ARE WORTH YOUR TIME TO ENTER category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Hey, I’m only trying to save you some money. And chagrin.

As is the case with so very many other aspects of getting started as a writer, it pays to do your homework before you actually pay for anything. A good place to start looking for fellowships that actually are what they appear to be is Poets & Writers magazine, whose staff tend to keep a sharp eye out for those out to scam writers.

Yes, yes, I heard that massive collective sigh: tracking down a fellowship and applying for it can be quite a bit of work, yet another demand upon your precious writing time, along with querying, going to conferences to pitch, going to conferences not to pitch, submitting, entering contests, attending classes, keeping up with the new releases in your chosen book category, and, oh yeah, writing your manuscript. But listen: while all of these efforts can result in some pretty happy outcomes for a writer, from landing an agent to learning how to present your work professionally to making some pretty terrific fellow writers, applying for a retreat fellowship or writing grant is one of the very few standard writerly activities that can actually give you more time to write.

All right, that’s enough cautionary preamble for one day. Let’s take a gander at another nice, soothing picture of a lovely landscape in France — and get back to our ongoing conversation with some folks who are, in part, in the fellowship- and barter-granting business. And had I mentioned that La Muse is one of the relatively few fellowship-offering retreats out there that doesn’t charge an application fee?

Labastide Esparbaïrenque on a heavy traffic day

Labastide Esparbaïrenque on a heavy traffic day

Anne: I hear that you offer fellowships to stay at La Muse, which must be awfully difficult to pull off in the current global economy. Since you could fill the retreat entirely with writers and other artists paying their own way, why offer fellowships?

Kerry: We want people to be able to come for free. We want everyone to be able to come. We need people’s help to make that happen though because we are only two people so far with amazing barter attendees nearly every second month but we need more.

Anne: I’ll want to get back to barter residencies in a bit, since that’s so unusual, but let’s stick with the fellowships for the moment. How many fellowships are you offering these days?

John: We have four fellowships a year with separate application procedures, and seek partnerships to extend that to at least twelve fellowships.

Anne: Meaning that you sponsor visiting writers and artists from a number of different institutions.

John: Ideally, we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or on a residency attached to a university, publishing house, organization, or patron so that writers and artists don’t feel burdened by the financial weight of getting time off from work without pay or worrying about the costs of flights, etc.

Anne: I would love to see more retreats run on that basis, but so few of them are. I’ve met literally thousands of writers just in the last five years to whom such a retreat opportunity would have made a phenomenal difference.

John: Our vision has always been to provide a space for creative people who need to get away from life back home to get a project going or finished so inevitably we would like to make that transition much easier and less costly, as even the bare minimum costs we charge to offset our operating costs, can stop people from coming.

view-from-la-muse-window
Anne: So is that how you see La Muse operating ten years from now?

John: In ten years, although we would really love to see it happening a lot sooner, we foresee everyone that comes as being a fellow. We’ve already started this process with Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States, over and above the Wildcard residency every year.

Anne: And everyone’s eligible for the Wildcard residency. I know that you subsidize the Wildcard residency yourselves, out of the goodness of your collective heart. Do the universities pay to send their fellows?

John: The Iowa and Madison fellowships are not underwritten by the universities.

Anne: Wow. So more goodness-of-your-heart stuff.

John: We donate them to the graduates there because we believe in those courses. The University of Iowa brought a load of students here a few years ago under the guidance of Robin Hemley and David Hamilton. We were really impressed by the caliber and professionalism of Robin and David, but more importantly by the students and their potential. That’s why we offer them two fellowships a year.

Anne: Iowa has a great writing program. Was the high quality of the writing programs what prompted you to offer fellowships to students from the other two as well?

John: Madison is where Kerry went to university so she had first-hand experience of how good their creative writing department was, and I went to Maynooth University. which is a member of Foras Feasa. It all felt organic. However, we would love to have fellows from every country, but this takes time and energy and help.

Kerry: And in the future we will have it. We’re definitely going to need another really big house, too (there’s one we love right here in Labastide). Or two. And a support staff. And a recording studio for musicians, a piano, a movie room for screenings and cinema nights, an oven for ceramicists, a big room with a wooden floor for dancers, a full-time on-site yoga instructor, a coop-type organic vegetable garden for attendees, and a sizable gift from a lover-of-the-arts that will have made it all possible without any more debt, plus enough funding for every artist to come to La Muse on a full fellowship.

Anne: From your mouth to Whomever’s ear.

Kerry: I envision nirvana. And an office, so we don’t have to run all of this from our kitchen anymore and John’s small office upstairs.

windows-at-la-muse
Anne: But even now, not all of your fellowships are devoted to people affiliated with specific programs, right?

John: True to our non-affiliated roots, we also offer a Wildcard Residency to a visual artist and a writer every November.

Anne: I imagine that the Wildcard is the one that will interest most of my readers. How does one apply for a fellowship to La Muse?

Kerry: Whether for the University of Wisconsin Creative Writing Fellowship, the University of Iowa Creative Non-fiction Fellowship, or our own unaffiliated Wildcard Fellowship, the process is the same as for a regular retreat stay:

a CV
2 references (one personal and one professional)
a description of the project one hopes to work on at La Muse,
and a sample of work

Anne: That’s unusual, not to require extra paperwork for fellowship applicants.

Kerry: The deadlines are on our website. Foras Feasa in Ireland elects their Fellow every year, in March.

We have also barters almost every month of the year. We would love to have a barter attendee here every month of the year, but the operating costs of La Muse don’t allow for it yet.

view-near-church

Anne: Okay, let’s talk about the barters. If I may quote from your website:

We welcome writers and artists to apply to come to La Muse as barters on work exchange stays. Writers and artists receive a complimentary room in exchange for approximately 3 days of work per week, that is, two days of work and one hour a day of daily tasks.

The kind of work depends on the season and the number of other guests at the house, but would include anything from building stone walls and gardening to home improvement, grant research for the owners, or organizational/administrative assistance.

Barter rooms are not available during the summer. We review applications one to two months in advance. Application

Anne: Your barter arrangements are unusually generous, I’ve noticed. Usually, the work exchange results in a discount for the retreater, but this is the room for an entire three-week session.

Kerry: We try to have barters for most of the year. They apply more or less the same way as other attendees, though it’s a good idea to highlight in the application any specific skills that could help us, such as grant-writing knowledge, fundraising or marketing or PR, or house-painting or construction or gardening experience. All barter projects are for La Muse improvements only, i.e., they don’t do our laundry!

Anne: I get it: the barter attendees are helping you two build the La Muse of ten years hence both physically and financially. That’s a great idea. If any of you readers out there are financial wizards, I hope you’ll think about going on a bartered retreat to help move La Muse toward the dream of an entirely subsidized artists’ community!

Before I get too carried away with the idea, I should ask: do barterers get to stay the same length of time as paying retreatants? How is their work/retreat time differentiated so both they and you can get the most out of both?

Kerry: Once barters arrive, they work for three days a week in exchange for their room. They arrive on the last day of the outgoing retreat so that they can help us get the house ready. Either they work on one intensive project for the whole stay, or they essentially help us on whatever comes up. It depends on the time of the year they come and what we happen to be working on. We work with them on most projects.

John: Barters get a lot out of their stays here, too, because they are really aware of their creative time apart from their barter time. They always get a lot of their own work done because they are really aware of how precious their time here is.

It’s great, because they love to get out of the house to clear their creative desktops. That way, they start fresh after three days. We love having barters and from what they’ve wrote to us over the years they love the experience, too.

Anne: While we’re on the subject of unusual arrangements for a formal retreat, you mentioned last time that sometimes your writer and artist residents collaborate on projects; during my stay, a fellow resident and I happened to be writing books set in the 1980s — she nonfiction, I fiction — so we had amazing brainstorming sessions. Perhaps as a result, I kept thinking while I was in residence, if I ever was working on a collaborative project with another writer, I’d definitely drag him/her/it to La Muse for some intensive co-work.

Which leads me to ask about other types of groups. Do couples ever come together to La Muse, or groups of friends? A writing group, perhaps? Could you accommodate a writer with children and/or a significant other in tow?

Kerry: Yes, all of the above. Spouses who want to come and stay in the house with an artist have to apply with a project proposal etc; if they’re coming to be a tourist, we recommend renting a cottage. Families stay in cottages.

Anne: That makes sense. That way, the family can have its own space, distinct from the other residents.

Kerry: We’ve had creativity/yoga retreats, workshop retreats. It’s all possible. We envision and would welcome proposals for cooking/writing retreats, art/well-being retreats, etc.

Anne: And academics, too, right? A couple of my fellow attendees were graduate students, which I found interesting, as academic writers tend not to go on retreat as much as I think they should. Is La Muse a good place to, say, write up a dissertation? Or, to put it another way, what might be the benefits for an academic to live and work amongst artists for a while?

Kerry: A creative approach to structure and voice would be marvelous for dissertations, and that often comes from the conversations we and other attendees have with Ph.D. attendees. They see structure and approach in a whole new light when they see it from a more commercial or creative standpoint.

Anne: That definitely seemed to happen in my retreat group. I can tell you from experience that few dissertation-writers ever get asked on a college campus, “So, what story are you telling in your book?”

John: Yes, it makes them see beyond the footnotes and cross analysis to where the story of what it is they are writing about lies. Where is the story of my subject? A lot of academics that have been here have found that really refreshing and inspiring.

Anne: John, I hear that you’re planning to go on a writing retreat yourself. What are you looking for in a retreat experience?

John: I’m looking for La Muse!

Anne: On that note, I’m going to sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John, for filling us in about fellowships and barters!

If some of you found today’s talk of finances a bit prosaic for your daydreaming-about-retreating-in-France pleasure, never fear: more mouth-watering details follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Some fellowships may be expensive to win, or, how many times per week could you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

writers' retreat sign
Yes, sharper-eyed readers, that is a gnome sitting on top of the retreat sign — the famous Norcroft gnome, in fact. The Norcroft retreat has gone the way of all flesh, alas, but its basic principle lives on: no matter how well-organized a writer is, from time to time, it’s helpful to the productivity to cut oneself off from the myriad demands of quotidian life, go someplace strange, and just write.

And before any of you get your hopes up: neither your boss, coworkers, friends, nor family will understand this time to be work, rather than a vacation. No, not even if you spend 18 hours a day writing on retreat. Sorry about that.

That remains true, incidentally, no matter how thoroughly you become established as an author. As my sister-in-law put it only this weekend upon seeing me still blear-eyed from 13-hour days of writing and lingering jet lag, “Oh, five weeks in France. Hard to have much sympathy for that.”

She’s one of my more sympathetic sisters-in-law, incidentally.

Because I’ve just been on a lengthy I’ve been chattering off and on for the last couple of months about the joys and drawbacks of formal writing retreats — the group kind, organized by other people — as opposed to the informal type where you find a peaceful place and lock yourself in for a week or two along with a crate of apples, gallons of coffee, and the makings of 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. While the latter type tends to be significantly less expensive, particularly if you happen to know someone who is willing to let you house-sit for a while, the former have many inherent advantages.

Not the least of which: many of them award fellowships to writers. So, perversely, a month at a formal fellowship at an artists’ colony could actually end up being less costly than a week at the Bates Motel, munching Power Bars. Not to mention making for better ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy).

A whole bunch of eyebrows just shot skyward, didn’t they? “Okay, Anne,” eager beavers everywhere shout. “What is a fellowship, and how do I go about landing me one?”

Fellowships vary quite a bit, offering everything from work space at universities (like Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship, which pays fellows $26,000/year, plus tuition and health insurance, to attend one 3-hour writing seminar per week for two years) to actual apartments and a living stipend (like the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown) to financial aid so writers can attend well-respected workshops (like the Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshops reduced-cost or free week- or month-long residencies at artists’ colonies (too numerous to pick just one example).

A great place to look for reputable fellowship opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine. Before you start tearing through their listings, you should know that a few things are true of virtually all of them:

(1) All require fairly extensive applications, so plan to devote some serious time to filling them out prior to the deadline.

(2) Even for a residency for which you pay (or pay in part), you will almost certainly have to pass through a competitive process, known in the biz as writing your way in.

(3) Any merit-based fellowship (as most that accept previously unpublished writers are) will require a writing sample, so do burnish the first chapter of your book, a representative short story or two, or a collection of poems to a high gloss before you start applying.

(4) There will be heavy competition for any that offer serious money or substantial retreat time, so it’s generally not worth the sometimes-hefty application fee for a new writer to submit a first manuscript. Although of course some absolute beginners do win occasional fellowships, unpolished work tends to get knocked out of consideration early in the competition.

(5) Yes, I said application fee — most fellowships require them, and they’re not always cheap. (If you’re a US-based writer who files a Schedule C for your writing business, these fees may be tax-deductible, even in a year that you don’t actually make any money from your writing; consult a tax specialist familiar with writers’ — not just artists’ — returns to see if you are eligible.)

(6) Some ask for references, so if you happen to be a nodding acquaintance of a relatively well-known writer or writing teacher, you might want to be extra-nice to them right about now.

(7) Most residencies and the more prestigious fellowships look more kindly upon applicants who already have some publications (surprisingly, even if they say they are specifically looking for up-and-coming writers), previous contest wins, or have already done a residency. Think about applying for something small, then working your way up to the more prestigious and lucrative residencies.

(8) In comparing fellowships with residencies for which you would have to pay outright, be sure to factor in expenses that a fellowship would not cover. Virtually no fellowship will cover airfare or other travel expenses to get to a far-flung retreat, for instance; some feed residents and some don’t. This is why, in case any of you have been wondering, one of the first questions an experienced retreater will ask about a residency is, “Do they feed you?” (Don’t worry; more on that last part follows below.)

And remember, unless a fellowship provides a stipend, you still will be responsible for paying your bills while you’re taking time off work to go on retreat.

(9) Most mixed artists’ colonies — i.e., those that welcome both writers and other sorts of artists — will harbor at least a slight institutional bias toward a particular kind of art. Even if it is equally hard for every type of artist to win a fellowship or a residency charges every type of artist the same, the work spaces available may differ widely. So if the resources for sculptors are spectacular, triple-check that the writers aren’t just shoved in a windowless basement and told to get on with it. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen.)

I’ve been sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs as I’ve been running down that list. “Um, Anne?” I hear some of you pointing out timidly. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this doesn’t sound like any less work than submitting to an agent. Or to a literary contest, for that matter. Isn’t the whole point of this to gain more time for my writing, not to sap energy from it?”

Congratulations, timid question-askers: you’ve got a firm grasp of the dilemma of the fellowship-seeking writer. Well, my work here is done, so I’ll be signing off for the evening…

Just kidding. Just as when you are seeking out an agent or small press, it’s in your interest to do a bit of checking before you invest too in pursuing any individual fellowship opportunity. I’m not merely talking about entry fees here, either — it will behoove you to ask yourself while those dollar signs are dancing in your eyes, “Will applying for this fellowship take up too much of my writing time?

To assist you in making that assessment, let’s go over some of the potentially most time-devouring common requirements, shall we?

Unfortunately, there are few fellowship out there, especially lucrative ones, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece of writing, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the application fee, and slap a stamp upon it. Pretty much all require the entrant to fill out an entry form, which range from ultra-simple contact information to demands that you answer essay questions.

Do be aware that every time you fill out one of these, you are tacitly agreeing to be placed upon the sponsoring organization AND every piece of information you give is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so. (Did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?) As with any information you send out, be careful not to provide any information that is not already public knowledge.

How do you know if what is being asked of you is de trop? Well, while a one- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest, a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship. Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information. A fellowship that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front, unless the organization is so well-established that there’s no question of misuse.

As I mentioned above, it’s surprisingly common for fellowship applications (and even some contest entry forms) to ask writers to list character references — an odd request, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes. Would a fellowship committee throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…or disqualify Emily Dickinson’s application to spend a few months locked in a sunny room near a beach somewhere because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside when she was at home?

Actually, residencies often don’t actually check these references, even for fellowship winners; they usually merely ask for names and contact information, not actual letters of reference. My impression is that it’s usually a method of discouraging writers who have not yet taken many writing classes, gone to many conferences, or otherwise gotten involved in a larger writers’ community from applying, on the theory that they might not be as likely to respect other fellows’ working boundaries. I suppose it’s also possible, though, that they want to rule out people whose wins might embarrass the fellowship-granting organization, so they do not wake up one day and read that they gave their highest accolade and a $30,000/year stipend to Ted Bundy.

I guess that’s understandable, but frankly, I would MUCH rather see mass murderers, child molesters, and other violent felons turning their energies to the gentle craft of writing than engaging in their other, more bloody pursuits; some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells. I do not, however, run an organization justifiable fearful of negative publicity.

I sense that the more suspicious-minded among you have come up with yet another reason a fellowship or contest application might request references, haven’t you? “Yes, I can,” a few voices reply. “If an applicant lists someone who has already won that particular fellowship as a reference, or someone on the staff of the artists’ retreat, is the application handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better?”

Only the judging committee knows for sure. But if you can legitimately manage to wrangle permission from a former winner, staff member, or Nobel laureate to use ‘em as a reference, hey, I would be the last to try to stop you.

You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid fellowship applications that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission. Specific typefaces. Fancy paper. Odd margin requirements. Expensive binding. All of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work – all conforming with such requirements really shows is that an applicant can follow directions.

My general rule of thumb is that if a writer can pull together an application or contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of writing time, I consider it a reasonable investment. If an application requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special forms, or wacko binding, I just don’t bother anymore, because to my contest-experienced eyes, these requests are not for my benefit, but theirs.

How is that possible, you cry? Because — and this should sound familiar to those of you have perused my posts on preparing a contest entry — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify applications in a large applicant pool. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers have maximized the number of applications they can simply toss aside, largely unread: the more that they ask you to do to package your application, the more ways you can go wrong. (For a plethora of disturbingly common ways in which fellowship applications and contest entries DO go wrong, please see the CONTEST ENTRY BUGBEARS category on the archive list at right.)

I’m happy to report, though, that this weeding-out strategy is less common in fellowship applications than in literary contests. However, in a tight competition, a professionally-presented manuscript excerpt will almost always edge out one that isn’t. (If you don’t know the cosmetic differences between a professional manuscript and any other kind, please see the posts under HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED on the list at right before you even consider applying for a literary fellowship or residency in North America.)

And for the benefit of all of you who just rolled your eyes at that suggestion: I’m just trying to save you some money here. Including a writing sample that isn’t technically perfect — spell-checked, grammatically impeccable, and in standard format — is virtually always simply a waste of an application fee.

Speaking of saving some money, most fellowship- and residency-seeking writers automatically assume that a retreat that provides its residents with regular meals will automatically be less expensive to attend than one that doesn’t. However, that’s not always the case. Having been in residence at both artists’ retreats that fed their residents and those that left them to their own devices — as well as one that marched the middle ground of asking residents for a shopping list and buying us food for us to prepare ourselves — I can envision several reasons you might want to give the gift horse of three cafeteria meals per day a pretty thorough dental examination before you agree to pay extra for it.

“Wait a minute,” some of you just exclaimed. “What do you mean, pay extra for food? Aren’t we talking about retreats where meals are just included in the price — or as part of the fellowship?”

Well, it all depends upon how you choose to look at it. Retreats that provide meals usually do include them as part of a fat fee. They also tend to charge residents more per day than those that do not.

And not necessarily in cash; many artists’ colonies require residents (yes, even fellowship winners) to participate in meal preparation, serving, and clean-up in addition (or instead of) charging for food. So if you’re looking forward to a retreat as a break from cooking for your kith and kin, you will want to read the fine print in its entirety.

If you are seriously interested in a retreat with a pitching-in requirement, e-mail the retreat’s organizers and ask for an estimate of how many hours per week residents are typically expected to contribute. Since many kitchen tasks involve repetitive motion and hand strain, if you have any history whatsoever with repetitive strain injuries, you might want to ask if there are alternative tasks you could do instead, in order to reserve your hand use time for the writing you went on retreat to do.

Here’s the good news for those with aching hands: surprisingly often, residencies that require chores are open to residents buying their way out of them, provided that not everyone in residence has the same bright idea, and the price tag isn’t always particularly expensive. In fact, I’ve attended residencies where I was downright insulted at just how little the organizers evidently thought my time was worth.

How little, you ask? Well, they expected me to rearrange my writing schedule so I could be awake enough to wield a chef’s knife at 6 am four days per week for a month-long residency, regularly requesting my shift to stay on until lunch was served, so we’re talking about a half-time job. Even if they’d calculated it at minimum wage, it probably would have been worth my while to scrape the bottom of bank account to save myself the wrist strain. But in their excellent judgment, digging that deeply into my writing schedule was worth about a third of that.

I would just love to answer that question that half of you just howled at your computer screen, but it’s against my policy to use Author! Author! space for undeserved free advertising. Suffice it to say that if you ask writers who have won fellowships to this particular artists’ colony, most say that they would not consider returning, even though I understand that now the writers’ building does boast some windows, and not all of us had to buy air mattresses to render the mattresses on top of plywood bed frames possible to sleep upon. My bedroom was the only one that had an active hornet’s nest in it, but honestly, I only needed to worry about being dive-bombed when the heater was working.

But that hardly ever happened.

None of that is exaggeration; see my earlier comment about how much fellowship offerings vary. You’d have thought that the fact that it was an expensive artists’ retreat — one of the largest in the United States; it may now actually be the largest — would have dictated better conditions, but believe it or not, the competition to put up with these conditions was extremely stiff.

Incidentally, that particular retreat looked very, very good in its brochures, as well as on its website. As I recall, the food situation was described to potential fellowship applicants a little something like this: Our chef provides three meals per day. Meals feature fresh breads, homemade desserts, soups and a full salad bar. Fresh produce from local, organic farms is used whenever possible. Vegetarian main courses are offered several times a week, but not daily. Regrettably, we are not able to provide for special dietary needs.

Did those last couple of sentences startle some of you? You might want to keep an eye out for similar statements in we-feed-you residencies, but such sentiments provide a clue that been fed might prove more expensive for some attendees than others. Not only were vegetarians and vegans reduced to relying almost exclusively on a not especially exciting salad bar (the object of my early-morning chopping efforts, so I became intimately familiar with its never-changing options), but anyone with problems digesting wheat, dairy, sugar, gluten, peanuts, soy, MSG (present, as nearly as I could tell, in every soup served), or any of the other most common food allergens simply had to eat someplace else.

Why? Because when the chef assumes that anyone who can’t eat something in the entree he’s serving twice per week will simply make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk, anyone with any of the first five restrictions listed is left without an option that won’t make her ill. And although the fresh bread was tasty, the chopping board was immediately adjacent to the salad bar, so the greens were continually dusted with crumbs. (If that last sentence didn’t make you instinctively clutch at your entrails, you probably neither have nor know anyone with celiac disease.)

Would you have guessed all that from a quick glance at the blurb above? Or budgeted for the necessary additional meals?

Even if you don’t have any dietary restrictions, unless a retreat is well-known for yummy food, being fed doesn’t necessarily mean being fed well. Although retreat food is almost invariably cafeteria-quality food (washed down with, alas, cafeteria-quality coffee), it may not be priced accordingly; if you are not a three-meal-per-day person or not a great lover of dry lasagna, you might actually save money by opting out of the meal plan — or by choosing a residency that doesn’t insist upon feeding you.

Feeding yourself does have its drawbacks, of course: it can be time-consuming, especially if there isn’t a well-stocked grocery store or inexpensive restaurant close to the retreat. (Since retreats are often plopped down in remote places, not having a store or café within easy walking distance is not out of the question.) Even if residents have access to a kitchen, it may not be well-equipped, so you may end up needing to import basics like a good chopping knife — I’ve never known a retreat to be home to a decent one — or a whisk.

Interestingly, good cooks can find feed-yourself retreats a bit trying. Due to some divine oversight, cooking skills are not equally distributed across the human population, so the culinary gifted often find themselves and their plates on the receiving end of puppy-like stares from fellow residents incapable of boiling water successfully. After three or four straight days of watching a nice fellow resident dine on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, I usually can’t stand it anymore and start cooking vats of vegetables for communal consumption.

Time-consuming? Potentially, but at least it’s a matter of personal choice. If I don’t feel like helping the cooking-impaired stave off imminent malnutrition, I can always just walk away from the kitchen whenever the peanut butter jar is open.

Which brings me to one of the main reasons I’m not a huge fan of we-feed-you residencies: you have to eat at specific times. If you are feeding yourself, you don’t have to interrupt your work to rush to the dining hall.

To be fair, for writers who already habitually eat at the predetermined hours, this may not represent much of an interruption, but I usually find the mealtimes inconvenient. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. Although a hefty percentage of writers are at their most creative at night, for some reason beyond my ken, meals at retreats tend all to be during the daylight hours, say 8-9 am for breakfast, 12-1 for lunch, and 6-7 pm for dinner. Great if you happen to arise at the crack of dawn and hit the hay by 10 pm, but downright disruptive should you be a night owl.

The fact that I’m posting this at midnight should give you some hint into which category yours truly is likely to fall. Hoot, hoot — and what do you mean, my pitching-in shift starts at 6 am?

More on the day-to-day practicalities of life at a formal writing retreat follows in the days to come. Keep up the good work!