Pet peeves on parade, part VIII: details that might give Millicent pause

I feel as though I’ve started a disproportionate number of my posts this year with sorry about the silence of X length, so I’ll spare you another repetition. Suffice it to say that while my spirit is very much with the Author! Author! community every day, the flesh is weak. At least in the wake of cars smashing into it.

As an editor, I can’t help but feel that if recovery was going to take this long, or be anywhere near this energy-sapping, some medical person should have at least dropped a hint of it in the first act, back in the summertime. This is one instance where a plot flare would have been really, really helpful to the protagonist. But no — until January, the major characters (and their major insurers) just kept stringing me along with false suspense.

And we all know how I, Millicent the agency screener, and professional readers everywhere feel about that. “Next!”

Actually, my energy is rather low today, too. However, I figured that getting back on the proverbial horse with an uncharacteristically short post right now was worth two longer posts at some dim, unspecified future point — because, let’s face it, it’s probably going to be as tempting tomorrow to say, “Oh, I’m just not up to it today,” isn’t it?

That’s not a bad rule for writing in general, by the way: it can add years to a writing project if the writer keeps saying, “Oh, I’m not really up to/don’t have time for/just don’t feel like writing today; I’ll wait until I’m feeling better/have an entire day/weekend/month free/am bashed over the head by an indignant muse.” There honestly is value in sitting down to write regularly, rather than only when inspiration happens to strike or the kids are off at fifth grade camp.

Why? Well, I don’t think I’d be giving away a trade secret if I pointed out that while inspiration is undoubtedly important to the writing process, there’s no getting around doing the actual work of putting words on a page.

Shall I assume that breeze ruffling the treetops outside my studio’s window is the collective huff of indignation from those who believe that writing is 99% inspiration, and only 1% conscious effort? Normally, I would pause to point out that one virtually never meets a professional writer who sits down at the keyboard only when s/he’s inspired: after one has been at it a while, and had the experience of incorporating feedback from agents and editors (or a really on-the-ball critique group), one learns that waiting for the muses to clamor isn’t a very efficient way to get a story on paper. Besides, if inspiration produces complex book ideas, it will take intense application to flesh them out. For every second of “Aha!” in the production of a good book, there are hours, days, weeks, or even years of solid, hard work to realize those aha moments beautifully on the page.

As my energies are a bit low, though, I shall resist. Instead, I’m going to devote today’s post to a whole raft of genuinely tiny writing gaffes that set professional readers’ teeth on edge.

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly so, “isn’t that what you’ve been doing throughout this series? We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks now about Millicent’s pet peeves, manuscript ills that might not individually engender instant rejection, but that cumulatively might add up to it. Because, as you so like to point out, few submissions or contest entries are rejected for only one reason: like wolves, manuscript troubles tend to travel in packs.”

How nice that you remember my aphorisms so clearly, campers. We have indeed been discussing consistent Millicent-provokers — which, lest we forget tend to annoy Maury the editorial assistant and Mehitabel the contest judge with equal intensity. As the series have been moving along, though, I’ve noticed that we’ve been drifting toward larger narrative problems.

Today, I want to regale you with honest-to-goodness nit-picks. You know, the stuff that drives editors completely batty, but an ordinary reader might not notice at all.

Oh, you weren’t aware of how differently a professional reader scans a page than everybody else? It’s pretty radical. Take, for instance, the following passage. To a lay reader, as well as the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, it would be fairly innocuous, but to a pro, it’s as irritating as all get-out. See if you can spot why.

Sheila stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, Sheila continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either Sheila’s feet or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, her feet were a blur.

Okay, why might this annoy Millicent after her fourth cup of coffee? After all, it’s not badly written (if I do say so myself): the pacing is tight, the emotion convincing, and only a few of passages is in the passive voice. (I had mentioned that most professional readers are specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently weak prose style, right?) It even produces suspense by showing, rather than telling that Sheila is scared.

So why would Millicent’s angry teeth marks be clearly visible on the rim of her disposable coffee cup by the end of this passage? Let’s look at it again, this time as a professional reader would see it.

Sheila stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, Sheila continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either Sheila‘s feet or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, her feet were a blur.

See it now? All of that name repetition is eye-distracting on the page — and as Sheila is the only person in the scene, not even vaguely necessary for clarity. In fact, if this excerpt is from a close third-person narrative, presumably the entire book up this point has been about Sheila, arguably any unspecified she is going to be presumed to refer to her. So why irritate Millie by inviting her skimming eye to leap from one capital S to the next on the page?

First novels and memoirs are notorious for having the protagonist’s name appear multiple times on a single page. A great test for whether name repetition is actually necessary: if any given repetition of the name could be eliminated, and it would still be perfectly clear what’s going on, the proper noun may not be necessary.

Let’s go ahead and see if that’s the case here. While I’m at it, I’m going to eliminate the other word repetition as well.

She stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, she continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either her descent or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: shoe, shoe, silence, thump from above. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, she was taking stairs three at a time.

Doesn’t change the action much, does it? An argument could be made that the original version’s Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall was a trifle creepier than the revised list; I might well have advised keeping it. Overall, however, this draft is considerably easier on the eyes.

Again, the poor trees outside are being visibly oppressed by gusty sighs from experienced self-editor. “But Anne,” lovers of 19th-century novels protest, “as an aficionado of the passive voice, I feel a bit cheated by the revised version: you seem to have skipped some of the work I would have had to do. You changed only one instance of the passive voice, yet the italics marking the other two vanished. Why, when you didn’t rework those sections?”

Good question, adorers of indirect expressions of fact. I removed the italics because chances are, these uses of the passive voice would not have struck Millicent as particularly irritating.

Why not? Simple: she was not already annoyed by something else in this passage.

Wow — was that a thunderclap, or did half of my readership just simultaneously shout, “Aha!” to the heavens? I can’t say as I blame you: it often throws aspiring writers for a loop to realize that the same sentence might irritate a professional reader in one context, but be perfectly passable in another.

Let’s take a look at another example, a phenomenon almost as common as over-naming. This time, I’m going to leave you to guess what would get Millicent gnawing the edge of that coffee cup like a hyperactive rabbit.

Sheila stopped short, stunned by the beauty of the house before her. Beneath a gabled roof, dormer windows reflected the reds and golds of the sunset back at her like languid eyes staring into a sunset. Gaily-colored curtains wafted gently out of windows on the two lower floors, revealing coy peeks at the life lived inside: overstuffed armchairs, equally overstuffed roll-top desks, a wood-paneled dining room, colorful duckies and bunnies frolicking across the wallpaper of a nursery, austere rows of books up the wall of what was clearly a library, and pies wafting sweet persuasion from the kitchen. The resemblance to the dollhouse she had designed for herself at age 10 could not have been stronger if a genie had blown upon her juvenile sketches and made them jump to life.

Not a bad description, is it? If a bit architecturally unlikely: the windows would have had to be pretty massive to give a lady on the street such a clear view inside. But that’s not what might stop Millicent from giving up on this house by the middle of the paragraph.

Some of your hands have been waving impatiently in the air since that second sentence. Have at it: “Anne, this is a Frankenstein manuscript: the writer repeated the image about the sunset within a single line, something that is exceedingly unlikely to happen either in initial composition — unless it was intended as a narrative joke — or to be the author’s intent in a revised version.”

Give yourselves a gold star for the day, eagle-eyed revisers. You’re quite right: what probably happened here is that the writer began to change that sentence, but did not complete the revision. Cue, if not Dr. Frankenstein, than at least Millicent: “Well, this one is still a work-in-progress. Next!”

Award yourself two if you also caught the red flag in the final sentence: a number under 100 in numerical form, rather than written out. That’s a violation of standard format for manuscripts.

Since either of those gaffes might well have triggered rejection all by themselves — yes, really, especially if either occurred within the first few pages of a submission — let’s revisit this passage with them excised. The lesser pet peeve will still remain.

Sheila stopped short, stunned by the beauty of the house before her. Beneath a gabled roof, dormer windows reflected the reds and golds of the dying day back at her like languid eyes staring into a sunset. Gaily-colored curtains wafted gently out of windows on the two lower floors, revealing coy peeks at the life lived inside: overstuffed armchairs, equally overstuffed roll-top desks, a wood-paneled dining room, colorful duckies and bunnies frolicking across the wallpaper of a nursery, austere rows of books up the wall of what was clearly a library, and pies wafting sweet persuasion from the kitchen. The resemblance to the dollhouse she had designed for herself at age ten could not have been stronger if a genie had blown upon her juvenile sketches and made them jump to life.

Better already, is it not? But did that over-long third sentence give you pause this time around?

It would have stopped Millicent dead, like Sheila, in her tracks, if not made her choke on her last sip of latte. But why? Again, it is showing the house, not just talking about it; the details here are rather interesting. So what is the problem here?

If you instantly shouted, “This information is presented in a list, not in descriptive sentences,” grab another star out of petty cash. While a lay reader might not mind an occasional list of attributes in establishing what a space or a person looks like to a professional reader, that third sentence would read like the notes for a future version of this description, not the description itself.

Generally speaking, a list is the least interesting way to describe, well, anything — and isn’t it the writer’s job to describe things, places, and people beautifully?

To be fair, list sentences like the one above are considered a trifle more acceptable in nonfiction writing, although still not regarded as particularly scintillating prose style. In fiction, however, Millicent tends to read them as what they are: the single quickest way to slap a whole bunch of attributes down on the page.

That might not be especially problematic if such a sentence appeared, say, once or twice in an entire manuscript — although it’s a common enough pet peeve that I would strenuously advise against the use of a list description within the first couple of pages of a submission, or even within the first chapter. Unfortunately, writers fond of this type of sentence will often use it several times within a single scene.

Or even — sacre bleu! — a single page.

That last observation sent some of you scrambling for your manuscript, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised. List descriptions are ubiquitous in physical descriptions of, for instance, the variety indigenous to the opening pages of novels.

Often, several such sentences appear back-to-back, causing Millicent’s fingers to positively itch for a form-letter rejection. And who could blame her, confronted by prose this purple?

Sheila stopped short on the threshold, her long, red hair whipping around her head like an impetuous halo. She was dressed in a purple skirt that hid her fine, well-developed legs, an orange peasant blouse cut low enough to elicit a whistle from Figgis, the butler who opened the door, and a rust-colored belt that left no doubt as to the excellence of her corsetiere. Her lithe waist, elegant arms, and lengthy neck alone bespoke years of painstaking dance training under the tutelage of a bevy of governesses, while the proud tilt of her head, the willful flash of her eye, and imperious gesture at Figgis might have told an onlooker that she must have put those poor governesses through a merry hell throughout her formative years. Only her stout boots, betopped by fringed stockings, and the muddy lace of the pantaloons peeking out from beneath the folds of her gown belied the impression of a fine lady.

I’m not even going to try to revise that one: it’s a laundry list, in some portions literally. Surely, a talented writer could have come up with a more graceful way to introduce Sheila to the reader. At the very least, a writer with some sympathy for how many first pages Millicent sees in a week would not have opened the book with all of that tempestuous red hair.

Only long, blonde hair is more common for heroines. Would it kill you people to treat Millicent to the sight of a Dorothy Hamill pixie or a Louise Brooks bob every now and again, just for variety?

Another way in which lists often torture Millicent’s soul at screening time is in descriptions of physical activity by writers who — how can I put this delicately? — are evidently laboring under the mistaken impression that the primary point of writing is to tell the reader everything that happened, right down to the last twitch of a toe. Although on the page, not every action is equally relevant to what’s going on or even particularly interesting to see mentioned, a hefty proportion of aspiring novelists and memoirists routinely devote line after line to lists of actions that, frankly, the narrative could probably have done without.

And that’s unfortunate at submission time, as Hades hath no fury like a Millicent bored. It’s hard to blame her, either. See for yourself.

Sheila stopped short, contemplating the task ahead of her. In order to rescue that puppy, she would have to roll up her sleeves, hike up her skirt, and risk her manicure, but she couldn’t abandon Aunt Gertie’s favorite pet. Slapping a brave smile onto her face, she lifted the police tape, stepped onto the wobbly wooden planks covering the chasm where the porch once greeted visitors, shimmied across, and jumped lightly across the threshold. It was dark inside, cobwebby, dusty, and generally uncared-for. Reaching into her pocket — not the one concealed under her skirt, holding her identification papers, but the one just under the lapel of her close-fitting jacket — she felt around until her fingertips made contact with her great-grandfather’s trusty lighter, drew it forth, and struck it with the pad of her dainty thumb seven times until flame spurted from its top. Holding it high above her head so none of her long, red hair would catch fire, she placed one foot in front of another, moved out of the doorway, edged her way across the foyer, and walked toward the living room.

It’s not many lines of text, but ‘fess up: by the middle of the paragraph, you were ready to scream, “Get on with it, already!”

Millicent would be only too glad to join you in that refrain. Especially since all of the actually interesting and plot-relevant information in this passage could have been neatly summarized thus — and better still, shown, not told:

Rescuing that puppy would endanger her manicure, but she couldn’t abandon Aunt Gertie’s favorite pet. Slapping a brave smile onto her face, she lifted the police tape and stepped onto the wobbly wooden planks covering the chasm where the porch had once been. She brushed aside the cobwebs concealing half the doorway. It took seven tries to convince her grandfather’s battered gold lighter to produce flame. Holding it high above her head, she edged her way toward the living room.

Still not the happiest of phrasing, admittedly — but isn’t it astonishing how little taking out all of that extra activity detracts from the reader’s sense of what is going on? Now, Sheila appears to make up her mind, then take quick, decisive action.

One last pop quiz on Millicent-irking, then I shall sign off for the day. Assuming that all of these excerpts came from the same manuscript, why might a harried screener have been shouting, “Next!” by the time her overworked eyeballs encountered the first sentence of the last example, regardless of what followed it?

If you slapped your desk and exclaimed, “By jingo, it would be darned annoying to see Sheila stopping short anywhere after the first couple of times,” consider your quiz so covered with gold stars that your mom will post it on the fridge for weeks. Because reading one’s manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD is so very, very rare (except among you fine people, of course), aspiring writers tend not to notice how fond they are of showing their characters engaged in particular actions.

Nodding, for instance. Head-shaking. Turning. Walking. Or, in this case, not walking — stopping short.

Oh, come on — weren’t you wondering by the third repetition in this blog why I was so fond of the phrase? Imagine Millicent’s chagrin when Sheila stops short every ten or fifteen pages throughout the entire manuscript. Then picture her reaction when the next submission she screens has its own pet phrase, as does the one seven down the stack.

You would start gnawing on the edge of your coffee cup, too. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XIX: the end of the line this time, really. Unless anyone has any more questions?

Poet Wislawa Szymborska clutching her Nobel Prize for literature medal

Poet Wislawa Szymborska clutching her Nobel Prize for literature medal

Sincere congratulations, campers, for making it all the way through this extended series on standard format for manuscripts — book manuscripts, that is; once again, let me remind you that short stories, magazine articles, theses, dissertations, and other types of writing are subject to other restrictions — as well as January and February’s intensive examination of how a manuscript moves from a writer’s fingertips all the way to publication. We’ve been tackling the big stuff so far this year, and I’m proud of all of you for having the gumption, not to mention the faith in your writing, to work through it with me.

Next week, it’s back to craft, after a brief stopover in the hows and whys of partials. We’ve earned a respite from hard-and-fast rules, I think.

Besides, you won me a nickel. It’s not the Nobel Prize, but hey, I’m grateful.

Yes, an entire nickel: an agent of my acquaintance, a tireless advocate for my giving up this blog in order to rechannel the considerable time and energy I devote to it into my other writing, My readers’ consistent devotion to improving both their writing skills and ability to present them professionally, wagered that you would be so tired of formatting after my revisiting repeatedly it for four and a half years that the posts this time around would pass relatively uncommented-upon.

Actually, he didn’t suggest betting on it until after I stopped laughing at his contention. “What’s so funny?” he demanded. “It’s not as though your past posts on the subject aren’t well-marked. Why can’t readers just go there to find out what to do?”

Because I like the guy and I’m not in the habit of lecturing agents, I restrained myself from suggesting that he just didn’t understand how a blog works. “Some will, but many of my readers don’t have the time to comb the archives.” (See? I honestly am aware of that.) “And the writers brand-new to the game may not yet know that there is a standard format at all. By going over it two or three times a year, I’m doing my part to make sure that everyone’s writing can look its best for you. You should be grateful.”

He was not. “Did you spend your last three lifetimes blithely violating the rules of grammar and structure, condemning yourself to the Sisyphean task of explaining them over and over again this time around? You’re dreaming, my friend — your readership doesn’t need this. I’ll bet you twenty bucks that you get fewer comments this time than last.”

Well, great as my faith in my readers undoubtedly is, I seldom bet more than a nickel (although I did win a quarter off my mother during the last campaign season for predicting the vice presidential nominees correctly), so he had to settle for that. “You’ll see,” I told him. “Not only will readers comment more than usual, but they’ll come up with questions neither you nor I would have thought of addressing.”

He handed over the nickel after Part III. One of you asked a perfectly reasonable about indentation he’d never heard before.

So now I’m jangling a nickel happily in my pocket, and I have yet another convert to what I have long held is the truth about aspiring writers: contrary to practically universal opinion amongst professional readers, deviations from standard format are not usually the result of writers’ being too lazy to find out how to present a manuscript. Most of the aspiring writers I encounter are downright starved for accurate information on the subject; the underlying problem is that there isn’t enough authoritative information out there to combat all of the inaccurate rumors.

I’ve always been a big proponent of agency websites simply posting a page with the formatting rules, in fact, so I could devote our shared time here to craft. Which is why, in case any of you long-term readers have been speculating on the subject, I used to end extended series on standard format with a rather peevish little discussion about why, in the face of so much conflicting information about submission requirements floating around these days, professional advice-givers like me don’t either:

(a) check out every other source out there to make sure that we’re all saying precisely the same thing (which would be so time-consuming that none of us would have time to give any further advice),

(b) take it upon ourselves to force every single individual who is empowered to pass judgment upon a manuscript within the confines of North America to agree upon a single (and preferably single-page) set of rules to which everyone without exception would adhere (which would require a convention so large that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would turn pale at the very thought), or

(c) shut up entirely and let those new to the biz try to figure out some genuinely counter-intuitive rules all by themselves.

I can’t speak for everyone currently giving advice on the subject, of course, but in my own case, the answer is really pretty straightforward: the norms I’ve been explaining throughout this series are in fact the ones I have used successfully myself for many, many years. Since neither I, any of my editing clients, or (as far as I know) any reader of this blog who has followed this advice to the letter has ever been asked by an agent or editor to make a single purely formatting change to his/her manuscript (with the sole exception of the few agents who are now post clear instructions to submitters not to use the requisite two spaces after periods, but we’ve already talked about that, right?), I feel quite confident in continuing to give this particular set of advice.

But I will say something that one seldom hears advice-givers say: whether you choose to adhere to the rules of standard format I’ve set out here is ultimately up to you. But once you choose to follow a particular rule, you must obey it 100% of the time in your manuscript.

Let me repeat that, because it’s monumentally important: it’s not enough to adhere to a formatting rule most of the time; you must cleave to it in every single applicable instance in the text.

Why? You should know the words to the song by now: because inconsistency isn’t going to look professional to people who read manuscripts for a living.

I used to think that I didn’t actually need to state this requirement, as did the agent who lost the nickel to me. After all, isn’t the part of the point of a rule that it should be followed on a regular basis, rather than just periodically? However, I’ve seen enough manuscripts and contest entries (yes, I still judge from time to time) by good writers who sometimes use a single dash and sometimes a doubled one (if you’re not absolutely certain which is correct, I can only suggest that you reread this post from earlier in this series), or whose Chapters 1-3, 6, and 17 have a (ugh) single space after periods and colons, whereas Chs. 4, 5, and 10-12 have two, and the rest feature both…

Well, you get the picture. Apparently, the need for consistency is not as self-evident as I — or certainly my friend, the agent — had previously believed.

I would point the finger at a few culprits for this astonishingly pervasive problem. First — and I’m quite positive that those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while have felt this one coming practically since the top of this post — the vast majority of aspiring writers simply do not reread their own work enough.

I’m not talking about revision here (although most submissions could use more liberal helpings of that, frankly), but rather actually sitting down and reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

What tips me off that very few writers actually do this before submitting their pages to an agent or a contest? Well, for starters, inconsistent formatting. And spelling errors. And repeated words. And scenes where characters do or say things that they’ve done or said half a page before.

You know, the kind of stuff that any reader would catch if she sat down with the actual pages and read them closely.

Often, such errors are not the result of compositional carelessness, but of repeated revision –the second culprit I’m dragging before the court in irons today. Zeroing in on the same page, paragraph, or even sentence over and over again without re-reading the entire section can easily result in what I like to call a Frankenstein manuscript, one that reads in hard copy as though it were cobbled together from the corpses of several drafts, sometimes ones written in different voices.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly.

A sure narrative voice is a consistent one. That’s why writers brand-new to the writing game so often labor under the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (one assumes) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision: because a the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency.

Awfully hard. Seamlessness is no accident, you know.

So what do you think a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel the veteran contest judge thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present? Or a character named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127?

“Inconsistency,” they breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If not after every major revision, then at least prior to submitting it.

There’s just no substitute for this. Sorry about that.

Third, all of us simply see a great many more grammatical errors and formatting oddities than we did, say, ten years ago. Remember back when everyone thought it was so funny that the vice president at the time (I didn’t call that one) corrected a child at a spelling bee who had spelled potato correctly, causing him to change it to potatoe?

At the time, the literate world rocked with laughter over it. Now, we routinely see supermarket signs advertising potatoe and tomatoe prices. And that’s a bad thing for literacy, because the more you see the error, the more likely is to make it yourself.

Why? Like Millicent and standard formatting, sheer repetition makes it start to look right to you.

Especially when you spot such errors in ostensibly credible sources. It used to be a rarity to see a spelling mistake in a newspaper or magazine article, because they were so closely edited; since the advent of on-screen editing, it’s now not uncommon to see a misspelling or grammatical error in a published book.

Had I mentioned that there’s just no substitute for reading a piece of writing IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD? The eye is simply too likely to skip an error on-screen, partially because people read about 70% faster.

Then, too, AP standards — i.e., what governs what is considered correct in a newspaper or magazine — have, as we have discussed, recently adopted a number of practices that would not be kosher according to the dictates of standard format. The aforementioned single space after the period or colon, for instance, or capitalizing the first word after a colon.

All together now: sacre bleu!

While eliminating the extra space has been seen in published books for a while (but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily proper in a manuscript, right?), post-period capitalization was practically unheard-of in published books until just a couple of years ago. Now, one sees it periodically (often, not entirely coincidentally, in books by journalists), along with some rather peculiar interpretations of the semicolon and the ellipsis.

And what happens, class, when you see rules routinely bent in this manner?

That’s right: confusion. Inevitably resulting, no matter what my agent friend says, in good writers raising questions like this:

I tried searching for this, but didn’t find an answer. Ellipses! Is the proper format:?.[space].[space].?or … with no spaces? Thanks as always.

This is a perfectly reasonable question now, of course, but it’s not one that was at all likely to come up even five years ago. Prior to that, pretty much any printed source would have adhered to the traditional rules governing ellipses, with the natural result that fewer writers were confused. Heck, they might even have learned the contextual rules governing ellipses in school.

Oh, you want to know what those rules are, since I’ve brought them up? An excellent thought.

1. Ellipses are most commonly used mid-sentence, to mark a pause in speech. In this context, the periods in the ellipse should appear without spaces between them — and without spaces between them and the surrounding words, either. In other words, they should look like this:

“I’m appalled,” Jennifer said. “More than appalled. I’m…horrified.”

2. Ellipses are also used to alert the reader to skipped text in the middle of a quote. In these instance, whether an ellipse should have a space between its end and the end of the next word is entirely dependent upon whether the beginning of the next quoted part is a new sentence. Thus, if the original quotation was,

“I am in no way endorsing this policy or any other, because I feel it would be bad for the nation. I cannot be held responsible for its unhappy results.”

It would be proper to reproduce excerpts as:

The prime minister’s statement was unequivocal: “I am in no way endorsing this policy…because I feel it would be bad for the nation.”

And as:

The prime minister’s statement was unequivocal: “I am in no way endorsing this policy… I cannot be held responsible for its unhappy results.”

3. Ellipses are also used to show where the narration expects the reader to fill in the subsequent logic, as well as when speaker’s voice has trailed off into silence. As in:

Jeremy smiled, slipping one arm out of a sleeve that didn’t cover too much of his arm in the first place. A quick wiggle, and the rest of his shirt was off. Then he reached for his belt…

As much as some of you might want me to complete that paragraph, this is a family-friendly website. Besides, you’re perfectly capable of imagining the rest for yourself, are you not? In this case, the ellipse indicates my faith in your imaginative powers. As would this, if I were writing dialogue:

“My, it’s hot in here.” Coyly, Jeremy shrugged his Flashdance-style sweater off one shoulder. “If only there were a way we could cool off…”

4. In reproducing a quote, an ellipse can tell the reader that the quote continued, despite the fact that the writer chose not to show it in its entirety. This can come in handy, especially when writing about the kind of speaker who drones on and on:

“I deny the allegations,” the senator said. “I deny them absolutely, unequivocally, and in every other way. I deny that I cavorted in the House; I deny that I cavorted with a mouse. I deny that I cavorted in socks; I deny that I cavorted with a fox…”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? (And just between us, wasn’t this a clever way of me to answer a reader’s question in a post that’s really about a larger issue?)

The fourth culprit — yes, I’m back on my justifying the confusion kick — may surprise you a little. As so often happens, I have excellent reader questions to thank for reminding me to bring it to your attention: as nit-picky as all of these rules are, sometimes, good writers over-think them. So much so that they sometimes extrapolate extra rules of their own.

Yes, you read that correctly. In my experience, most aspiring writers are very good about following the rules, once they know about them. In fact, really conscientious writers are quite a bit more likely to subject their manuscripts to extra restrictions than to ignore any of the established rules.

What kind of extra rules, you ask? Well, I can give you a great example from this time around the standard format merry-go-round. Two different readers — my agent friend still can’t get over the fact that even one brought it up — asked how to format apostrophes and quotation marks. Ripped ruthlessly from their original context:

Could you in one of your really wonderful (and I really mean wonderful) posts on standard manuscript formatting devote a paragraph to quote marks and apostrophes? Times New Roman can have them both straight and curly, so which should I use? Or should I just make sure I’m consistent and leave it at that?

and

A related problem I have is in trying to place an apostrophe at the beginning of a word, particularly when writing dialogue and attempting to add a bit of the vernacular. To just type it, the apostrophe ends up being a “front-end” single quotation mark. I have to resort to some spacing and deleting shenanigans to get to appear correctly.

I freely admit it: I’m always a bit nonplused when I get a question like this, one that assumes a rule that just isn’t observed in professional manuscripts. As tempting as it might be to dust off my personal preferences on the subject and present them as a binding rule — which, as we’ve discussed before, is not an unheard-of thing for either a professional reader or a writing advice-giver to do — but the fact is, the expectations about both apostrophes and quotation marks in manuscripts have remained unchanged since the days when every submission was produced on a manual typewriter.

Which, in case you haven’t seen one lately, provided precisely one option for an apostrophe (‘) and exactly one for a quotation mark (“). On the same key, on most typewriters.

What does this mean for manuscript format? Good news, insofar as it translates into less work for writers: as long as the format is consistent, Millicent’s not going to care one way or the other. Pick the one you prefer, and stick to it.

I can completely understand why the two writers who brought it up — or any aspiring writer — would have wondered about this point: as readers, we do see various styles of apostrophe and quotation mark turning up in published books. And given how counter-intuitive some of the rules of standard format are, it would not, let’s face it, be at all astonishing if the publishing industry harbored some formatting preference that half of the writers in the world had heard nothing about.

But that’s not the case here. You have my full permission never to think about it again. Go sleep the undisturbed sleep of the just.

Before you go, though, one more piece of formatting advice: as you make your way through the bewildering forest of advice out there, toting your massive grain of salt, be aware of the fact that many seemingly authoritative sources out there disagree on certain points for the very simple reason that they’re talking about different things, although they often do not say so explicitly. Bear in mind that because such a high percentage of the aspiring writers’ market wants easy answers, preferably in the form of a single-page list of rules universally applicable to every writing venue, the temptation to produce a short, one-size-fits-all list of rules is considerable.

That doesn’t mean you should disregard such lists entirely, of course. Just keep in mind that any list that purports to cover every type is necessarily going to run afoul of some established standard somewhere — and that occasionally, rules pop up online and at conferences that would make my agent friend’s eyes pop out of their sockets with astonishment.

Which is why, in case you’ve been curious, I have been going over even the simplest of the actual rules in such great detail, and with practical illustrations; I want all of you not only to adhere to the strictures of standard format, but to understand why each rule is to your advantage to embrace. That’s why I keep asking (and asking, and asking) if anybody has any questions. I just don’t think handing creative-minded people a brief list of mysterious orders is the best means of helping you become comfortable with the industry’s expectations.

So if anyone is looking for terse, bullet-pointed to-do lists for writers, I think any of my long-term readers can tell you that this blog is NOT the place to start. As the thousands of pages of archived posts here can attest, I am the queen of elaboration. Lots and lots of elaboration.

Speaking of elaboration, there’s a final formatting issue I should address before I draw this series to a close.

While we’re on the subject of unnecessary doohickeys writers are sometimes told to shoehorn into their book manuscripts and proposals, let’s talk about what should happen on the last page. Here, too, aspiring writers often give themselves extra trouble.

For a book manuscript, the proper way to end it is simply to end it. No bells, no whistles, no # # #, no -86-. Just stop writing.

Even the ever-popular THE END is not needed. In fact, I know plenty of Millicents (and their bosses, and editors, and contest judges) who routinely giggle at the use of THE END to indicate that a manuscript is not, in fact, going to continue. “What is this writer thinking?” they ask one another, amused. “That I’m going to keep reading all of that blank space after the last paragraph, wondering where all of the ink went? That I’m incapable of understanding why there aren’t any more pages in the submission? Please!”

Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about professional critique being harsh? Don’t even get me started on professional ridicule.

Personally, I have sympathy for how confusing all of the various advice out there must be for those who have never seen a professional manuscript up close and personal. But honestly, some of the rules that commenters have asked about over the last three years must be from sources that predate World War II, or perhaps the Boer War. I’ve been editing book manuscripts for most of my adult life (and proofing galleys since early junior high school), and I have to say, I’ve literally never seen a single one that ended with “-86-”

So truth compels me to admit that I can sort of see where Millicent might find it amusing to see in a submission.

But you can sort of see her point of view here, can’t you? To people who read book manuscripts for a living in the US, the very notion of there NOT being a consensus is downright odd: why, the evidence that there is a consensus is sitting right in front of them. The mailman brings stacks of it, every single day.

“Oh, come on — everyone doesn’t already know these rules?” my agent friend asked, incredulous. “This information is widely available, isn’t it?”

That’s a quote, people — but as someone who regularly works with folks on both sides of the submission aisle, I have come to believe that the wide availability of the information is actually part of the problem here. The rules governing book manuscripts haven’t changed all that much over the years, from an insider’s perspective, but from the point of view of someone new to the game, the fact that they have changed at all, ever — coupled with these rules not being applicable to every conceivable type of professional writing — can look an awful lot like inconsistency.

And we all know how Millie, Maury, and Mehitabel feel about that, don’t we?

If the flurry of rules starts to seem overwhelming, remind yourself that although submissions do indeed get rejected for very small reasons all the time, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only one problem. Like ants, manuscript red flags seldom travel alone.

So I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the only reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem — which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written. The notion that changing only one thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof is not particularly easy for a professional reader to swallow.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know. While it would indeed be dandy if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent out there, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much. Not to mention the fact that the slow economy is making most agents and editors really, really cautious about picking up any manuscript at all right now.

This is vital to understand about standard format: it’s not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it. But it is a basic means of presenting your writing professionally, so your garden-variety Millicent will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits.

All I can claim for standard format — and this isn’t insignificant — is that adhering to it will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis. However, I’m not going to lie to you: even a perfectly-formatted manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough.

Why? Because every agent out there, just like every editor, harbors quirky, individuated ideas about how the perfect book should be written.

Sorry. If I ran the universe…

Well, you know the rest. Try not to lose too much sleep through trying to second-guess what Millicent and her ilk want to see. Just do your best: writing well and presenting a clean manuscript honestly is how pretty much all of us landed our agents.

Keep moving ahead — the Nobel committee is counting upon all of us to provide the laureates of tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part III: close enough is not nearly good enough, or, pardon me while I fling this brick through a nearby window

brick through a window

I’m completely exhausted today, campers. For the past couple of days, I have been sneaking revision tips into my ongoing series on how books do and don’t get published in the United States these days. I was being clever, you see: I had been running a series on self-editing all throughout December, and since I know that many of you are planning to rush requested manuscripts and queries out the door just as soon as the annual New Year’s Resolution Querying Avalanche wraps up in a few weeks, I didn’t want those who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while to get bored while I was running through the basics for the benefit of all of those New Year’s resolution queriers.

Welcome, those of you new to the game, by the way. I’m delighted that you have decided to join us. Pull up a chair and stay a while.

The result of my trying to address both audiences has been some marathon posts, as you may have noticed over the last couple of days. And frankly, some of my means of marrying these disparate topics have been less than subtle; yesterday, if memory serves, I simply started a new section in boldface.

So today, I’m not even going to try to find a clever way to spring editing advice upon you. Today, we’re going to be opening with it, because it’s one of the most important things for any aspiring writer — new to the game or old hand — to understand about how submission works.

Professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges do not read like other people; their eyes are trained to zero in on typos, redundancies, and grammatical problems. Unlike regular readers, who tend to note problems and move on, the pros usually just stop reading when they encounter a writing concern.

Why is this vital for every writer who ever intends to query an agent, submit to an editor, or enter a literary contest to know? Because it means that if page 1 is full of typos, it just doesn’t matter if the writing on page 50 is magnificent. A professional reader like Millicent the agency screener is not very likely to keep reading long enough to find out.

That massive sideways shift in the airspace above the English-speaking world was legions of long-time queriers and submitters rolling their respective eyes. “That’s today’s self-editing tip, Anne?” they scoff collectively. “That I should proofread every single syllable of every page I plan to submit, including my query letter, before sending it out? Isn’t that, you know, How to Get Published 101?”

Yes and no, eye-rollers. Yes, I am bringing this up because I must assume that at least some of the writers reading this are new to the information. No, because I’m about to raise the proofreading bar:

Proofread — not just spell-check — every syllable of every page intended to be seen by professional readers. Read it IN HARD COPY. Not just immediately after you complete writing it, but after every revision as well.

Seem like a lot of work? It is, but it’s the only way to assure that any revision is complete.

Rolling your eyes again? Go ahead, but you wouldn’t believe how often Millicent finds herself confronted with paragraphs that begin in one tense and end in another, pages from UK- and Canada-based writers that sometimes exhibit British spellings and sometimes American, and stories set in Slovenia for the first 30 pages and Slovakia thereafter.

And don’t even get me started on how frequently contest entries have obviously not even been spell-checked since their last revision. Or, indeed, at all.

Since I toil in an industry where every detail is expected to be correct before anyone else claps eyes on one’s work — and so do you, incidentally, if you intend your writing for publication — I am perpetually astonished by this kind of “Oh, well, close enough!” attitude. Close enough is not good enough.

Why, campers? Shout it along with me now: missing words, typos, and formatting inconsistencies drive people who read manuscripts for a living completely nuts.

The ones who are good at their jobs, anyway. To a detail-oriented professional reader, a misspelled word or grammatical error is just as jarring as a brick thrown through his office window or long fingernails drawn down a blackboard.

Worse, actually: to him, those types of easily-preventable errors just seem unprofessional, the sign of a writer who thinks, “Oh, well, close enough!”

Admittedly, that may not be an entirely fair assessment of a submission or contest entry, since writers who care a great deal about their work are often in a terrible hurry to get them out the door and into the mail, but nevertheless, I can guarantee you that on any given minute of any given New York City workday, some Millicent screening submissions (or even queries, sacre bleu!) will be muttering, “Doesn’t this writer ever read his own work?”

Astonishingly, many don’t. Aspiring writers savvy enough to sit down with a hard copy of their manuscripts, a sharp pencil, and a warm, possibly caffeinated beverage represent a tiny minority of the submitting public, I’m sorry to report.

Oh, most will take a gander at a scene or chapter immediately after they compose it, of course, but not necessarily after revising it. Let’s face it, writers are prone to tinkering with already-composed pages, moving text around, sharpening dialogue, tightening pacing, and so forth. There’s nothing inherently wrong with tendency, of course, but the cumulative result of even a handful of miniscule changes in a scene can often be a paragraph, scene, or chapter that does not read with the consistency of a smooth, continuous narrative.

Consistency of voice is one of the hallmarks of the professional writer, so it genuinely pains me to report just how infrequently revising writers make larger changes with absolute accuracy throughout a manuscript. Every editor — and Millicent, and contest judge — has a few amusing stories about the protagonist’s brother named Joe in Chs. 1, 4, and 6, Jim in Chs. 2, 3, and 17, and Jack everywhere else.

As I said, I’m including the editing tips primarily for those at the submission stage, but please do not shrug off this advice if you happen to be in the early writing stages of a book. The sooner you start setting aside some serious time to read your own work, the better — and the less likely you are to fall into the trap of assuming, as too many submitters and contest entrants apparently do, that what you think is on the page is precisely what is there, despite all of that tinkering.

For a professional writer, constant re-reading is simply part of the writing process. Clutching a warm beverage while you peruse is optional, naturally.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to toss this handy brick through that fetching window, to alert you that I’m about to switch the subject back to the basics.

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been attempting to give writers brand-new to the daunting challenge of trying to get their books published — and writers at every other stage of experience as well — an overview of how a book’s interaction with a major publisher actually works. Too many aspiring writers believe, mistakenly, that all that’s necessary for a book to get published is to write it — and not all that grammatically. However, as any author whose first book came out within the last decade could tell you, bringing one’s writing to the publishing industry’s attention can be almost as much work as the composition process — and has been known to take just as long or longer.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s vital to understand that extended, frustrating, and difficult roads to publication are the norm for first books these days, not the exception, regardless of the writing quality of the manuscript.

Although, naturally, those free of typos enjoy a considerable advantage. I just mention.

Those of you who have been rejected before have been shaking your heads in disbelief for the last couple of paragraphs, haven’t you? Please don’t: clinging to the common writerly misconception that if writing is any good, it will always be picked up by the first or second agent who sees it, or that a manuscript that doesn’t find a publisher within the first few submissions must not be well-written, is a sure road to discouragement. Since the competition in the book market is fierce by the standards of any industry, realistic expectations are immensely helpful in equipping even the most gifted writer for the long haul.

Knowing how tough the competition and how closely professional readers scan pages can also be hugely beneficial in tracking down and working well with the helpful friend who will be toting your manuscript to publishers for you, your agent. You know, that helpful soul that a writer needs these days in order to have any realistic hope of getting published by a major U.S. publishing house.

So how does a writer go about acquiring this valuable assistant? Unless one happens already to be intimate friends with a great many well-established authors, one has two options: verbally and in writing. Since most aspiring writers take the written route, I’m going to talk about it first.

Before we begin, another brick-through-the-window interruption: the following are an aspiring writer’s only options for calling a US-based agent’s attention to his or her work. Picking up the phone and calling, stopping them on the street, or other informal means of approach are considered quite rude in the industry.

As is mailing or e-mailing a manuscript to an agent without asking first if s/he would like to see it, by the way; this is generally considered an instant-rejection offense. Unlike in the old days we’ve been discussing over the last couple of posts, simply sending to an agent who has never heard of you will only result in your work being rejected unread: uniformly, agencies reject submissions they did not actually ask to see (known as unsolicited submissions).

Is everyone clear on why appearing rude is not in a writer’s interest? Good. Let’s move on to the accepted courteous means of introducing yourself and your book.

Approaching an agent in writing: the query letter
The classic means of introducing one’s book to an agent is by sending a formal letter, known in the trade as a query. Contrary to popular belief, the query’s goal is not to convince an agent to represent the book in question — no agent is going to offer to represent a book or proposal before she’s read it — but to prompt the agent to ask the writer to send either the opening pages of the manuscript or the whole thing. After that, your good writing can speak for itself, right?

Think of the query as your book’s personal ad, intended to pique an agent’s interest, not as the first date.

Always limited to a single page in length, the query letter briefly presents the agent with the bare-bones information s/he will need in order to determine whether s/he wants to read any or all of the manuscript the writer is offering. A good query should include, but is not limited to, the following — and no, none of these are optional:

*Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.
You’d be surprised at how often queriers forget to mention which.

*The book category.
Basically, the part of the bookstore where the publishing book will occupy shelf space. Since no agent represents every kind of book, this information is essential: if an agent doesn’t have connections with editors who publish the type of book you’re querying, he’s not going to waste either your time or his by asking to see it. (For guidance on how to determine your book’s category, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES listing.)

It’s also a good idea, but not strictly required, to point out who might be interested in reading your book and why; an agent is going to want to know that at some point, anyway. Of course, I’m not talking about boasting predictions like, “Oh, Random House would love this!” or “This is a natural for Oprah!” (you wouldn’t believe how often agents hear that last one) or sweeping generalizations like, “Every woman in America needs to read this book!” Instead, try describing it the way a marketing professional might: “This book will appeal to girls aged 13-16, because it deals with issues they face in their everyday lives. (For tips on figuring out who your book’s audience might be with this much specificity, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right.)

*A one- or two-paragraph description of the book’s argument or plot.
No need to summarize the entire plot here, merely the premise, but do make sure that the writing is vivid. For a novel or memoir, this paragraph should introduce the book’s protagonist, the main conflict or obstacles she faces, and what’s at stake if she does or does not overcome them. For a nonfiction book, this paragraph should present the central question the book addresses and suggest, briefly, how the book will address it.

*The writer’s previous publishing credentials or awards, if any, and/or expertise that renders her an expert on the book’s topic.
Although not necessarily indicative of the quality of a book’s writing, to an agent, these are some of your book’s selling points; the writer’s expertise is what’s known as aplatform. For tips on figuring out what to include here, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category. (In case I’m being too subtle here: the archive list is your friend; please consult it.)

*Some indication of why the writer thinks the agent to whom the letter is addressed would be a good representative for the book.
Agents don’t represent books in general: they represent specific varieties. Since they so often receive queries from aspiring writers who are apparently sending exactly the same letter indiscriminately to every agent in the country, stating up front why you chose to pick THIS agent is an excellent idea. No need to indulge in gratuitous flattery: a simple since you so ably represented Book X or since you represent literary fiction (or whatever your book category is) will do.

Should any of you have been considering querying every agent in the country, be warned: it’s a sure route to rejection, especially if a writer makes the mistake of addressing the letter not to a specific person, but Dear Agent. Trust me on this one.

*The writer’s contact information.
Another one that you might be astonished to learn is often omitted. Yet if the agent can’t get ahold of you, she cannot possibly ask to you to send her your manuscript, can she?

*A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the agent’s reply.
This isn’t part of the letter, strictly speaking, but it absolutely must be included in the envelope in which you send your query. Yes, even if you tell the agent in the query that you would prefer to be contacted via e-mail.

Why is this rule inviolable? Queries that arrive without SASEs are almost universally rejected unread.

So no exceptions, unless the agent actually tells you not to include it. (As some agencies now do; check the agency’s website. Oh, and for tips on the hows and whys of producing perfect SASEs, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category on the list at right.)

Is there more to constructing a successful query letter than this? of course there is — no matter what anybody tells you, there’s no such thing as a foolproof query formula that will successfully pitch any book it is possible for a writer to conceive. Yet since I’ve written extensively about querying (posts you will find under the intuitively-named HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the archive list, if you’re interested) and how it should look (QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED), the list above is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to how to write one.

Speaking of realistic expectations, do not be disappointed if you do not receive an instantaneous response to your query. Because a well-established agent may receive 800 to upwards of 1500 queries per week (yes, you read that correctly), it’s not uncommon for a regularly mailed query not to hear back for six or eight weeks. Some agencies do not respond at all if the answer is no. For these reasons, it’s poor strategy to query agents one at a time. (For a fuller explanation of that last point, please see the QUERYING MULTIPLE AGENTS AT ONCE category at right.)

Approaching an agent in writing, part II: the electronic or website-based query
Most of the time, e-querying involves sending pretty much exactly the letter I mentioned above in the body of an e-mail. (For an explanation of some ways e-querying differs from paper querying, please see E-MAILING QUERIES category at right.) Do not send it as an attachment; it will not be opened.

There are advantages to doing it this way: because of the aforementioned slow turn-around times for queries sent via regular mail, increasing numbers of aspiring writers are choosing to send their query letters via e-mail. It’s a significantly less expensive option for writers querying US-based agents from other countries. More importantly for most queriers, if an agency does indeed accept e-mailed queries, the querier tends to hear back a trifle more quickly.

Did the Internet-lovers out there just do a double-take? Yes, it’s true: there are agents who will not read e-mailed queries.

Actually, until quite recently, the VAST majority of US-based agents refused to accept e-mailed queries or submissions; this is, after all, a paper-based business. However, after the anthrax scare of a few years back, many agencies reconsidered this policy, so they would not need to open as many potentially-hazardous envelopes; still others jumped on the bandwagon after e-mail became more popular. However, even today, not all agencies will allow electronic querying: check one of the standard agency guides (if you are unfamiliar with what these are and how to use them, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category at right) or the agency’s website.

If it has one.

Yes, seriously. Contrary to widespread assumption, not every agency has a site posted on the web. This means that simply doing a web search under literary agency will not necessarily provide you with an exhaustive list of all of your representation possibilities. (For tips on how to come up with a list of agents to query, check out the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right. How do I come up with these obscure category titles, anyway?)

If an agency does have a website, it may be set up for queriers to fill out an electronic form that includes some or all of the information that’s in a traditional query letter. While some aspiring writers have landed agents in this manner, I tend to discourage this route, since typically, the word count allowed is sharply limited. (Some agency sites permit as few as 50 words for plot summaries, for instance.) Also, most writers just copy and paste material from their query letters into the boxes of these forms, substantially increasing the likelihood of cut-off words, missed punctuation, and formatting errors.

If you just cringed, remembering what I said above about how people who read manuscripts for a living tend to react to these types of tiny errors: congratulations. Your chances of querying successfully are substantially higher than someone who doesn’t know to conduct intense proofreading upon ANYTHING that’s s/he sends an agent.

Remember, literally every sentence you send a potential agent is a sample of how good your writing is. Regardless of whether you choose to query electronically or via regular mail, it’s in your best interests to make sure that every syllable is impeccably presented.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, written queries were the only means of approaching agents until just a few years ago, and still the means that most of them prefer. (Short of a personal introduction, of course. Writers whose college roommates or best friends from elementary school grew up to be agents enjoy an undeniable advantage in obtaining representation that the rest of us do not enjoy.) If a potential client has trouble expressing himself in writing, is ignorant of the basic rules of grammar, or is just plain inattentive to those itsy-bitsy details I mentioned above, a written query will tend to show it.

To be fair, aspiring writers often prefer to query in writing, because that, after all, is presumably their strength. Besides, there are a lot of very talented but shy writers out there who would infinitely prefer to present their work from a distance, rather than in person. However, direct interaction with an agent is sometimes an option.

Approaching an agent verbally: the pitch
A face-to-face presentation of a book concept to an agent is called a pitch, and it’s actually not indigenous to publishing; it’s borrowed from the movie industry, where screenwriters pitch their work verbally all the time. The reason that the publishing industry has been rather reluctant to follow suit is a corollary of the proof-is-in-the-pudding reason I mentioned above: not everyone who can talk about a book well can write one successfully, just as not every writer capable of producing magnificent prose is equally adept at describing it in conversation.

However, since writers’ conferences often import agents to speak, many set up formal pitching sessions for attendees. Sometimes they charge extra for the privilege; sometimes it’s included in the conference fee. (It’s also occasionally possible to buttonhole an agent after a seminar or in a hallway, but many conference organizers frown upon that. And no matter how much you want a particular agent to represent you, it’s NEVER considered acceptable to attempt to pitch in a conference or literary event’s bathroom. Don’t let me catch you doing it.)

Like the query letter, the purpose of the pitch is not to convince the agent to sign a writer to a long-term representation contract on the spot, but to get the agent to ask the writer to mail him or her chapters of the book. (Contrary to what conference brochures often imply, agents virtually never ask a pitcher to produce anything longer than a five-page writing sample on the spot. Since manuscripts are heavy, they almost universally prefer to have writers either mail or e-mail requested pages.) In order to achieve that, you’re going to need to describe your book compellingly and in terms that will make sense to the business side of the industry.

In essence, then, a pitch is a verbal query letter.

Thus, it should contain the same information: whether it is fiction or nonfiction, the book category, the target audience, any writing credentials or experience you might have that might provide selling points for the book, and a BRIEF plot summary. Most conference organizers are adamant about the brief part: their guidelines will commonly specify that the summary portion should take no more than 2 minutes.

Did I just hear all of you novelists out there gulp? You honestly do not have a lot of time here: pitch sessions may range in length anywhere from 2-15 minutes, but most are 5-10.

Usually, they are one-on-one meetings in a cramped space where many other writers are noisily engaged in pitching to many other agents, not exactly an environment conducive to intimate chat. At some conferences, though, a number of writers will sit around a table with an agent, pitching one after the other.

Yes, that’s right: as if this situation weren’t already stressful enough, you might have to be doing this in front of an audience.

While the opportunity to spend telling a real, live agent about your book I’m going to be honest with you: the vast majority of aspiring writers find pitching absolutely terrifying, at least the first time they do it. Like writing a good query letter, constructing and delivering a strong pitch is not something any talented writer is magically born knowing how to do: it’s a learned skill. For some help in learning how to do it, please see the HOW TO PREPARE A PITCH category on the list at right.

Those are the basic three ways for writers to approach agents; next time, I’ll talk a bit about what happens to a query after it arrives at an agency, how agents decide whether to ask to see a manuscript, and the submission process. After that, we’ll loop the agent segment of this series back into the earlier discussion of how the big publishing houses acquire books, before moving on to brief overviews of how smaller and independent publishing houses work differently (and how they work similarly) and self-publishing.

Sounds like fun, right? As always, if you are looking for in-depth analysis on any of these subjects or step-by-step how-tos, try perusing the category list at right. Since I usually tackle these issues on a much more detail-oriented basis — a hazard of my calling, I’m afraid — I’m finding it quite interesting to paint the picture in these broad strokes.

Yes, this is a lot of information to absorb at once, but this is too complicated a process to be covered adequately in a single-page checklist. Keep up the good work!

The New Year’s resolution a savvy writer definitely shouldn’t keep, or, the necromancer’s out right now, but could I interest you in a date in mid-February?

gazing into a crystal ball

Time for a quick poll for all of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one within the last month who confided that that his new year’s resolution was — wait for it — to get those long-delayed queries out the door. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2007, 2006, 2005, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Why on earth do we writers do this to ourselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Due to social conditioning that encourages us to believe, usually wrongly, that it’s easier to begin a new project at a time of year so energy-sapping that even the sun appears to be least interested in doing its job with any particular vim, millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spend the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, stuffing those requested materials into envelopes, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

So again, I ask: why do writers impose New Year’s resolutions on themselves that dictate sending out queries or submissions on the first Monday of January?

Oh, I completely understand the impulse, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, after their last set of New Year’s resolutions. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break.

Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again. Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it.

For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to my earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “About that whole more likely to be rejected thing. Mind if I ask why that might be the case? Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’”

An excellent question, oh nervous quaverers: why might the rejection rate tend to be higher at some times than others?

To answer that question in depth, I invite you yourself in the trodden-down heels of our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, the fortunate soul charged with both opening all of those query letters and giving a first reading to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria. At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk.

We all understand why agencies employ Millicents, right? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, most simply don’t have the time. A reasonably well-respected agent might receive 1200 queries in any given week; if Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week.

Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent. Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, sugar. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries they need to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than most submitters assume: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” Since her desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading, right?

You can feel the bad news coming, right?

Given the imperative to plow through them all with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense — or even be handed a list — of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat?

You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. They were rhetorical.

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 2!”

While naturally, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book — place yourself once again in Millicent’s loafers. If you walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual right about now. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?

This is the primary reason, in case I had not made it clear enough over the last couple of months, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year. Let Millie dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

How long is it advisable to wait? Well, in previous years, I have suggested holding off on sending anything to a North American agency for a full three weeks. I did not select that length of time arbitrarily: the average New Year’s resolution lasts three weeks, so the queries and submissions tend to drop off around then. Conveniently enough, US citizens get a long weekend at that point in January, the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, to start stamping those SASEs.

This year, I am not recommending holding off for three weeks. In 2010, I am urging every writer within the sound of my voice to hold off for six.

No, in answer to that question 33% of my readers just shouted indignantly at my screen, I have not taken leave of my senses, thank you; I am merely trying to help you maximize your query or submission’s chances of success. I have my fingers crossed, hoping madly that by mid-February — say, just after Valentine’s Day, a holiday few aspiring writers are likely to commemorate by sending roses or chocolates to Millicent, anyway — Millie, her boss the agent, her agent’s boss who owns the agency, the editors to whom the agent habitually pitches, and those editors’ bosses will have finished freaking out at the stunning news that for the first time, e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas.

Okay, so those sales figures were just on Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before. But that’s not what the headlines screamed the next day, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America has spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

Once again, I invite you to step into Millicent’s ballet flats. She’s been hearing such dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us while she’s been off work for the past week or two. When she steps across the agency threshold on Monday, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the Kindle news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads Monday morning? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

Quick disclaimer: six weeks may well not be long enough for this particular shock to pass. I am not a necromancer of any stripe; please don’t imagine that I am typing this with one hand and clutching a crystal ball with the other. I picked six weeks because, by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of January. Might as well wait until the stressed people have one less reason to be stressed, right?

Will another two weeks honestly make any difference? Again, I don’t have a crystal ball — but by then, those of you who each year stubbornly reject my annual admonition to eschew writing-related New Year’s resolutions will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter.

Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

If you must resolve, resolve to set an achievable goal, one that you can pull off without wearing yourself out quickly. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier than twenty. Heck, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off for the night.

Except to say: because so many aspiring writers will be acting on their (sigh) New Year’s resolutions, and thus may be relied upon to be surfing the net rabidly for sensible guidance, I’m going to take a break from self-editing issues for the next couple of weeks to deal with the absolute basics that every writer needs to know. What a query is, for instance, and why a novelist typically needs an agent. Why generic queries seldom work. How to format a manuscript.

You know, the kind of things folks in the publishing industry assume that talented writers already know. Presumably because the muses showed up next to each of our cradles and gave us the knowledge at birth. Just in case the muses are thirty or forty years behind schedule, I’m going to start filling in the gaps with Monday’s post.

Please keep those craft and revision questions, coming, though — I’m far from done talking about how to get the best out of a manuscript. Just let me get all of these New Year’s resolutions out of the way first.

As always, keep up the good work!

SIOA! Part III, in which your humble hostess takes on the “what if” demons on your behalf

attacked by squid

For the last couple of days, I have been urging those of you who received requests to submit all or part of your manuscripts to an agent or editor more than a season ago to take some swift steps to get them out the door as soon as possible. And I could feel a great many of you tensing up more each time I mentioned it.

I understand the hesitancy, believe me. Naturally, you want your work to be in tip-top shape before you slide it under a hyper-critical reader’s nose — lest we forget, agency screeners who are not hyper-critical tend to lose their jobs with a rapidity that would make a cheetah’s head spin — but once you’ve shifted from your summer to winter wardrobe without popping that those pages requested when your Fourth of July decorations were up into the mail, it’s easy to keep sliding down the slippery slope toward never sending it out at all.

Whoa, Nelly, that was a long sentence! Henry James would be so proud. But you get my point.

I also understand the temptation to put off those last few revisions until you have some serious time to devote to them — like, say, the upcoming Thanksgiving long weekend or a Christmas vacation. Even if we disregard for the moment the distinct possibility that days off from work during family-oriented holidays might get filled up with, say, family activities, the wait-until-I-have-time strategy tends to backfire.

Why? Well, for many aspiring writers, holding on to requested materials too long allows an increasing sense of shortcoming to develop. Over time, as-yet-to-be-done revisions loom larger and larger in the mind, necessitating (the writer thinks) setting aside more and more future time to take care of them. So what started out as a few hours to carve out of a busy schedule transmogrifies into a few days, or even a few weeks.

Hands up, if you habitually can take that much unbroken time off work at a stretch. Working Americans typically cannot.

What I’m about to say may make working writers everywhere break into gales of hysterical laughter, but sometimes, a deadline is a writer’s friend. When you have too long to consider how to polish a manuscript, the process can easily mushroom. While giving serious thought to manuscript changes is good, extended fretting prior to sitting down and making those alterations can easily start to color the editing process — rendering it MORE difficult to make those last-minute changes as time goes on, not less.

Even if task escalation does not assault your project like the giant squid in the photo above (native to the cold, murky waters bordering Seattle!), the demons of self-doubt just love a delayed deadline. It allows them so much more time to apply their pitchforks to writers’ latent insecurities.

“If my pitch/query were really so wonderful,” a nasty little voice starts to murmur in writers’ heads, “why hasn’t that agent followed up with me, to see why I haven’t sent it? Maybe s/he was just being nice, and didn’t want to see it at all.”

Little voice, I can tell you with absolute certainty why that agent or editor hasn’t followed up: BECAUSE THE INDUSTRY DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. It has exactly nothing to do with what the requester did or did not think of you or your book, then or now. Period.

You wanna know why I can say that with such assurance? Because at the point your manuscript arrives for an agent’s perusal, his office looks like this:

agent's office

And not, as aspiring writers worldwide would prefer to believe, like this:

cherubs reading

Yes, Virginia, all of those fuzzy piles in the first photo are precisely what you think they are: manuscripts waiting to be read. Trust me on this one: the agent who requested your manuscript seven months ago is not currently staring listlessly out her office window, wishing she had something to read. She’s been keeping herself occupied with those thousands of pages already blocking her way to her filing cabinet.

Which is why a writer who is waiting, Sally Field-like, to be told that the agent likes her, really, really likes her before submitting is in for a vigil that would make Penelope think that Odysseus didn’t take all that long to meander back from the Trojan War.

I hate to disillusion anybody (although admittedly, that does seem to be a large part of what I do in this forum), but unless you are already a celebrity in your own right, no agent in the biz is going to take the initiative to ask a second time about ANY book that she has already requested, no matter how marvelous the premise or how much she liked the writer — or even how great the query letter was.

And before you even form the thought completely: no, Virginia, there ISN’T a pitch you could have given or a query you could have sent that would have convinced her to make YOUR book her sole lifetime exception to this rule. The Archangel Gabriel could have descended in a pillar of flame three months ago to pitch his concept for a cozy mystery, and it still would not occur to the slightly singed agent who heard the pitch to send a follow-up skyward now to find out why the manuscript has never arrived.

Gabriel got sidetracked at work, apparently. I suspect it’s due to all those manuscripts he has to read.

So while that agent who legitimately fell in love with your pitch five months ago might well bemoan over cocktails with her friends that great book concept that the flaky writer never finished writing — which is, incidentally, what she will probably conclude happened — but she is far more likely to take up being a human fly, scaling the skyscrapers of Manhattan on her lunch hour on a daily basis than to pick up the phone and call you to ask for your manuscript again.

Sorry. If I ran the universe, she would start calling after three weeks, overflowing with helpful hints and encouraging words. She would also order your boss to give you paid time off to finish polishing, bring you chicken soup when you are feeling under the weather, and scatter joy and pixie dust wherever she tread.

But as I believe I have pointed out before, due to some insane bureaucratic error at the cosmic level, I do not, evidently, rule the universe. Will somebody look into that, please?

By the same token, however, the agently expectation that the writer should be the one to take the initiative to reestablish contact after an extended lull can be freeing to someone caught in a SIOA-avoidance spiral. If you have not yet sent requested materials, it’s very, very unlikely that the requesting agent is angry — or will be angry when the material arrives later than she originally expected it.

What makes me so sure of that? Because agents learn pretty quickly that holding their breath, waiting for requested manuscripts to arrive, would equal a lifetime of turning many shades of blue. SIOA-avoidance is awfully common, after all.

Oh, didn’t you know that? Hadn’t I mentioned that about 70% of requested materials never show up on the agent’s desk at all?

So a writer who has hesitated for six months before sending in requested materials can mail them off with relative confidence that a tongue-lashing is not imminent. 99.998% of the time, the agent in question’s first response upon receiving the envelope WON’T be: “Oh, finally. I asked for this MONTHS ago. Well, too late now…”

I hate to break this to everyone’s egos, but in all probability, there won’t be any commentary upon its late arrival at all — or, at any rate, no commentary that will make its way back to you. But that is a subject best left for a later post.

For now, suffice it to say that even if it has been four or five months since an agent requested your manuscript, I would still strongly advise sending it out anyway — with perhaps a brief apology included in your “Thank you so much for requesting this material” cover letter. (You HAVE been sending polite cover letters with your submissions, right?) And I would recommend this not only because the agent might pick it up, but because it’s important to break the SIOA-avoidance pattern before it becomes habitual.

Think about it: once you have put your ego on the line enough to pitch or query a book and then talked yourself out of sending it, do you honestly think either the pitch/query or submission processes are going to be emotionally easier the next time around?

For most aspiring writers, the opposite is true: after one round of SIOA-avoidance, working up the gumption to send out requested materials, or even query again, is considerably harder, because the last time set up the possibility of not following through as a viable option. The psyche already knows that nothing terrible will happen in the short term if the writer, to use the vernacular, chickens out.

Yet in the long term, something terrible can and often does occur: a good book doesn’t find the right agent to represent it, nor the right editor to publish it, because its writer didn’t want to risk sending it out until it was 100% perfect.

Whatever that means when we’re talking about a work of art.

Please don’t take any of this personally, should you happen to be in the midst of a SOIA-avoidance spiral. It is a legitimate occupational hazard in our profession: I know literally hundreds of good writers who have been in pitch/reedit/talk self out of submitting yet/reedit/pitch again at next year’s conference cycles for years. One meets them at conferences all over North America, alas: always pitching, always revising, never submitting.

Please, I implore you, do not set up such a pattern in your writing life. SIOA. And if you have already fallen into SIOA-avoidance, break free the only way that is truly effective: SIOA now.

As in stop reading this and start spell-checking.

I can tell that all of this begging is not flying with some of you. “But Anne,” the recalcitrant protest (blogging gives one very sensitive ears, capable of discerning the dimmest of cries out there in the ether), “what if I’ve been feeling ambivalent toward sending my manuscript out because there is actually something seriously wrong with it? Shouldn’t I listen to my gut, and hang onto my book until I feel really good about showing it to the pros?”

Yes and no, reluctant submitters; if a manuscript is indeed deeply flawed, I would be the last person on earth (although I know other professional readers who would arm-wrestle me for the title) who would advise the writer against taking serious steps to rectify it. Joining a first-rate writers’ group, for instance, or hiring a freelance editor to whip it into shape. Almost any such steps, however, are going to take some time.

Before anyone screams, “AHA! Then I shouldn’t send it out yet!” let me hasten to add: your garden-variety agent tends to assume that a conscientious writer will have implemented some kind of extensive long-term strategy to improve a manuscript before querying or pitching it, not after.

So if you are already certain that your manuscript is free of spelling and grammatical errors and formatted correctly (if you’re not absolutely positive about the latter, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at the bottom-right side of this page), go ahead and send it now anyway, just in case your sense of shortcoming is misplaced, AND take steps to improve it thereafter. It might be accepted, you know.

And even if it isn’t, there’s nothing to prevent you from querying the agent again in a year or two with a new draft, gleaming with all of that additional polishing.

(For the benefit of those of you who have heard that apparently immortal writers’ conference circuit rumor: no, agencies do NOT keep such meticulous records that in 2012, the Millicent du jour will take one glance at a query, go rushing to a database, and say, “Oh, God, THIS book again; we saw another version of it in the autumn of 2009. I need to reject it instantly.” Although she might start to think it if you submitted the same manuscript three times within the same year.)

Again, PLEASE do not be hard on yourself if you wake up in a cold sweat tomorrow morning, screaming, “Wait — she was talking about ME! I’m in SIOA-avoidance mode!” (For your ease in waking your bedmates, I pronounce it SEE-OH-AH.) The important thing is to recognize it when it is happening — and to take steps to break the pattern before it solidifies.

Whatever you do, don’t panic — SIOA-avoidance can be overcome. Before I’m done with this topic, I’ll give you some pointers on how to phrase a cover letter to accompany a much-delayed submission without sounding like you’re groveling or requiring you to pretend that you’ve been in a coma for the last six months, unable to type.

You can move on with dignity, I promise. No one’s going to scream at you, and no one is going to laugh at you, but your book will be grateful. I promise.

Keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part V: alone time, communal festivities, and speaking the lingua franca

la-muse-signage

Today is the last installment of my multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. Kerry and John were kind enough — or foolish enough, depending upon how one chooses to regard the time commitment involved — to agree to sit down and answer all of the questions I thought my readers might have about the ins and outs of running an artists’ retreat.

As will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while, I did not suffer from an inability to come up with trenchant questions, or a whole lot of ‘em.

I did, however, forget to ask a rather important one until the interview was nearly over — an omission that I’m kind of surprised, frankly, none of you fine readers has left a comment pointing out. Let’s rejoin the conversation already in progress to see just how gracefully I covered for this little oversight.

another-la-muse-window-view

Anne: There’s one question that I know will have been preying on the minds of literally every English-speaking reader of my blog since I first mentioned that I was going to travel to France for a writing retreat: How much French would someone actually have to speak to get by at La Muse?

To be blunt about it, all of the travel guides say that this is the part of France where the fewest people speak the least English. do you think that someone who didn’t speak any French at all could do well here?

Kerry: No French is necessary. We are bilingual, so we can provide assistance there. And we do arrange for the French lessons for those who’d like to have the basics or improve more advanced French.

John: Hand gestures work well, too. The locals are very friendly and helpful.

Anne: That’s true, but in my limited experience, very few of them have English as a second language, even in Carcassonne (the nearest city). Traveling in packs helps; since there were a couple of my fellow residents who spoke no French at all, mine certainly improved by leaps and bounds while I was in residence.

One thing that seemed to bring villagers and retreatants together was the daily walk to get water at La Source.

Kerry: It’s a great daily outing, a natural ritual that makes people connected to the land and to the rhythm of this place.

Anne: For those of you who have never been to the village of Labastide Esparbaïrenque, La Source is a famous local mountain spring. (Sorry, campers; I seem to have neglected to take a photograph of it.) Many La Muse residents choose to take the not inconsiderable walk every day to obtain their drinking water from it, something that 21rst-century Westerners don’t do all that often. What’s the attraction, do you think?

Kerry: Charm, exercise and free spring water. It’s healthier, more economical and more environmentally sound than either tap water or bottled spring water. People have been getting drinking water from that spot for centuries, and come from miles around to fill up on water for the week. They claim it’s why there are so many old, old people here!

John: We encourage people to go to the source so that they can get out of the house and refresh themselves. That way. they can get more work done instead of staying in their rooms burning themselves out.

hallway-at-la-muse
Anne: Which is a genuine danger at a good artists’ retreat, I’ve noticed, especially for writers. A lot of us become so excited at the idea of having an entire 24 hours per day free to write that we actually try to spend every waking hour doing it. It’s important to establish reasonable expectations, so you don’t end up writing for three days straight, then collapsing for a week.

John: Everyone has a different process. Some writers are like Auden and get up at the crack of dawn and others are like Dostoyevsky, they write all night…

Anne: And some are like Graham Greene, and write 147 words per day until they get a book done.

John: We feel that whichever you are, you really need to get away from your laptop or canvass during the day, to have a ritual, that allows you to get out of your own head so that you can be even more lucid when you get back to your work.

Anne: Speaking of daily rituals, although e-mail and web surfing is now a constant part of most writers’ lives, artists’ retreats have been very slow to jump on the internet bandwagon. It’s still not all that uncommon to have to travel to the nearest town to get online. I can understand wanting to render too-easy access less of a temptation, since e-mail and the web can be so distracting and time-consuming, but I frequently meet writers — and other artists, for that matter — who say that being completely cut off is a deal-breaker on a long retreat. I hate to admit it, but as both a blogger and a freelance editor with ever-clamoring (charmingly, of course) clients, I wouldn’t have been able to stay as long at La Muse had the internet connection not been available.

You’ve recently expanded the internet connection, so it may be used all over the La Muse, rather than in a dedicated internet space. How has that been working out?

Kerry: We have WIFI. We used to not have any because we used dial-up — ADSL has only been possible in this village for two years.

John: People usually don’t use the Internet much at all. They just need to know it’s available to them. Bloggers use it a lot, obviously, but most of the time people use it after quiet hours because they are really into finishing or moving forward with their projects.

Anne: Since the walls are so thick (note: since it began life as a medieval structure, La Muse’s external walls are a meter deep; see next set of photos), I’m not sure there’s any way of knowing for sure who is doing what, or when, in the various rooms. The privacy level’s awfully high.

La Muse's kitchen window, as seen from without...

La Muse’s kitchen window, as seen from without…

...and from within.

…and from within.

Anne: What I was really asking was do you think that a retreat with easy internet access is different from one that doesn’t have it?

Kerry: It has changed the vibe. The monastic nature of a retreat is sort of interrupted by daily emails, the odd job offer, the business of swapping favorite music and movies, Skype… pop culture and the stress of life back home has more openings through which to seep into a person’s experience here and to interrupt their flow, which is too bad.

That said, many people use the Net for research, and we found it actually alleviated stress just to make it available for everyone. So, we remind people to try to stay focused on their projects, and I think they do.

Anne: Which leads me to a delicate subject, something that writers who have been on retreat talk about a lot amongst themselves, but retreat organizations tend to downplay as a possibility. Do you get writers or artists who come to La Muse and just don’t work?

Kerry: People who come here are just dying for the time to focus on their work. Sometimes we have people who read and research and unwind, and that’s fine. We just ask that they not interfere with other people’s work. If they do interfere, we have a talk. It has very rarely happened.

Anne: That’s encouraging to hear, since it’s such a common retreat phenomenon; it’s rare to meet a writer freshly back from any retreat, anywhere, who doesn’t complain about another resident’s loafing around, being a distraction. Not out of spite or anything, but just because the sole unoccupied person in the midst of a dozen with their noses to the grindstone is bound to stand out.

Maybe the fact that many of your attendees travel so far to get here minimizes the temptation to use the time for non-artistic pursuits. Or that so many of your residents are already professional artists of one sort or another, and thus already have good work habits.

John: Lots of established writers who come actually use the retreat to decompress from their writing life back home. They come here to read and eat good food. They come to be around other creative people but without the pressure of their home office. They are researching, but more importantly they are retreating from their lives back home so that they can think about their writing, so that they can be inspired about what they are working on.

As we say all the time, every one has their own process. Once that process is not getting in the way of other attendees. we are happy.

reading-retreater-at-la-muse

Anne: Okay, let’s flip the scenario around, then: do you get attendees who just disappear into their rooms and are never heard from again?

John: Like I just said, everyone has their own process. Everyone is at different stages of their projects, careers, and lives, so that affects what their process is. If someone needs to stay in their room all day, that’s their choice. We accept and respect a person’s process.

Kerry: If they want seclusion, that’s their call. We check on people when we haven’t seen them in awhile to make sure they’re okay, but that’s about it.

Anne: Retreats can be rather lonely experiences for a writer, especially the first time around. No matter how long one longs to be absolutely alone with one’s book, the actual fact of it can be a bit overwhelming.

John: The writing life is by its nature lonely. You sit in a room with four walls with the door closed. You do the same at La Muse, but without having to worry about the telephone ringing, changing nappies, answering the mail, going out.

Also, La Muse allows you to go through this with people on the same wavelength as you. How many times in your normal life can you be surrounded by other creative people all day for three weeks? Attendees really love this aspect of a retreat, being able to talk about what they’ve done at the end of a day over a glass of wine on the terrace.

Kerry: Basically, we gave the house a structure: a time to work and a time to eat. So most people eat together, which makes for structured social time.

writers-on-the-terrace-at-la-muse

Anne: I guess that brings us back to your earlier point: La Muse gives retreaters more options to personalize their retreat experiences than most artists’ colonies do. In my first cohort, for instance, most of the retreatants left after the originally-planned three-week session, but two of us were able to remain for another couple of weeks in order to complete our projects.

Kerry: We do accept shorter stays, but when possible we ask that people arrive on the first day of each retreat so everyone can settle in at the same time. There’s less upheaval in the house that way.

For 2010, we plan to have a different calendar that will offer two-week retreats, three week retreats – those who wish to stay for a month or more can come for two consecutive retreats.

Anne: That’s great. Much, much more flexible than the vast majority of retreats.

Kerry: We will also have two periods of the year (probably two months in the fall and two months in early spring) when people can come and go on whichever dates they please, to stay for however long. The calendar in 2011 will reflect how well that works.

Anne: So La Muse is still evolving.

John: We have been keeping notes on the genesis of La Muse and all the crazy things that have happened to us over the years in La France Profonde. An editor friend thinks it would make a great book and has told us we need to pitch a part of it to The New Yorker or somewhere like that, but we are pretty busy right now.

Anne: No kidding!

John: We have our attendees and kids and other writing to take care of first but would love to eventually get that book out there. There’d be a huge market for it.

Anne: I suspect it’s not an uncommon writerly fantasy: move someplace beautiful, peaceful, and exotic to write, with another space to be able to welcome other writers who want to do the same.

Not to mention doing it in the company of someone you love. How is collaborating on running a retreat different than working on any other kind of project together?

Kerry: It’s alive and 3-D. Much more multi-tasking involved.

John: It’s everything at the same time. To use the cliché, you wear many hats and a lot of them are funny ones.

Anne: But in the face of all that it takes to keep an artists’ retreat running — more than a full-time job, by anyone’s standards –how on earth do you have time to write yourselves?

Kerry: Late at night or in the wee hours… just like when we had full-time jobs in NYC.

John: I write a lot at the train station waiting for people to arrive or when I bring people down to Carcassonne for the weekly ride package. The collection of short stories I’ve been writing this year have been mostly written in cafes and in our old Chrysler Voyager. I usually type my stuff up in the dead of night.

Anne: I suppose this question should have topped the interview, but please tell us a bit about your backgrounds and what each of you writes. Kerry, why don’t you go first?

Kerry: I come from a military family, and lived in Europe for part of my childhood and it was probably back then that I fell in love with tiny old villages with their little stone houses with big gardens. I always wanted to be a writer, but these days I wish I were a painter. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and received a BA in Comparative Literature, and had a concentration in creative writing. My focus then was poetry.

During and after university, I lived in Paris for three years, where I did an internship at the French ELLE magazine, and the Paris office of 60 Minutes/CBS News. After that, I landed an editorial and news assistant job at the Paris bureau of The New York Times. When my visa ran out, I moved to NYC. There, I worked as the assistant to the Editorial Director of Conde Nast Publications, then went on to write and edit for various glossies and dailies, ghostwrite alternative health books, a coffee table book, and two screenplays. I am currently turning back to pitching article ideas, and have two novels in progress.

Anne: What about you, John?

John: I’m the eldest of seven kids. I was born in rural Ireland. My Dad worked in farming as an agricultural advisor for the Irish government. My jobs have included working on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse – my first paycheck – selling windows door to door, managing a bar in Camden Town in London, working in a coffee shop in New York’s East Village, writing marketing materials, travel guides and fact-checking. I most recently worked as a researcher/reporter for Vanity Fair in New York City.

I’m primarily a novelist, but I’ve written short stories, screenplays and plays. My master’s degree was in modern European Drama. My fourth novel, A Brave Man Dead, is currently being sent out by my agent, Angharad Kowal at Writers’ House in London, and my fifth, A Murder of Crows, is being read. I’m working on a collection of short stories right now based around the Stations of the Cross and I’m really enjoying the process.

picnic-in-montolieu

Anne: Okay, one last question, then I’ll let the two of you get back to running the retreat. If you could wave a magic wand and the perfect La Muse attendee would appear before you, what would that writer be like.

You’ll notice that I’m assuming it would be a writer!

Kerry: Either someone who loves everything we do, or someone who can tell us what they don’t love about what we do so we can do it better for that person.

Anne: I’ll let my readers guess into which category I tended to fall on any given day.

Kerry: Also, someone who refers La Muse to their peers, and who returns to La Muse with their peers, someone who respects the guidelines we provide, and someone with the patience to understand that in the South of France it can take awhile to fix something that’s broken.

Anne: Which can come as a surprise to a big city person born and bred.

John: Plumbers and electricians, etc., down here are as laid back as everyone else. They could give a dam about making money. They want their two-hour lunch breaks and they will not do overtime. It’s a joke to them. People need to understand that. Everything down here is very relaxed and very slow.

That’s why people choose to come here. To get away from the frenzy of life back home. So, attendees that can understand this way of life and that not only accept but fall in love with that relaxed ethos tend to be the ones that get the most out of a retreat at La Muse. They tend to be the attendees that get the most work done.

Anne: I would imagine that would be true with small retreats in general, wouldn’t it? I mean, a retreater who wanted something closer to a big-city atmosphere could always seek out one of the massive artists’ colonies like the Vermont Studio Center, where there are 50 people at every meal. When I was in residence, there were so many New Yorkers that a good third of my fellow retreaters met for brunch a month later in Brooklyn. It’s not really my idea of retreating, but it’s a lot of people’s proverbial cup of tea.

Since places like VSC do tend to boast about what their former residents have gone on to do, let me ask: how does retreating at La Muse seem to affect attendees’ careers?

John: We have many writers and artists that have acknowledged La Muse in their books and shows.

Anne: I guess that speaks for itself. I also noticed that you seem to have a much higher returning resident rate than most artists’ retreats, which also says something.

Okay, I lied: I have one more question. If you could tell potential attendees only one thing about La Muse before they got here, what would it be?

Kerry: That La Muse is a retreat. They are retreating from their lives back home so that they can finally get done what they need to get done. It’s as simple as that.

Anne: That’s a great place to end the interview, I think. Thanks, Kerry and John, for being generous enough to answer all of my questions and give writers out there curious about formal writing retreats so much insight into what they’re like behind the scenes.

And, as I always say to my readers, 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.

las-tours-2
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!

An inside view of a formal writing retreat: an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse

la-muse-full-side

Since I had been contemplating quite a few posts on the joys, trials, and logistics of formal writing retreats for, well, the entirety of my most recent writing retreat, I have been busily jotting down questions I wanted to address for a couple of months now. After I returned, it occurred to me: instead of attacking the resulting raft of issues entirely from the retreater’s perspective — which, let’s face it, has been my approach every time I have blogged about retreats in the past — why not hand this excellent list to some kind people who actually RUN an artists’ retreat, so my readers could have the benefit of a less-often-heard perspective?

So although I am not much in the habit of packing up my troubles in my old kit bag and handing it to other people, I instantly got busy blandishing my favorite retreat organizers, Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse in Labastide Esparbaïrenque, in the remote Montagne Noir of southwestern France.

If that sounds pretty far off the beaten path, that’s because it is. La Muse is concealed in a miniscule village nestled onto a mountainside far, far away from both the madding crowd and anyplace that it would even occur for a tourist to visit, despite the fact that you can’t drive for fifteen minutes in any direction without stumbling upon some ruined castle so picturesque that I kept walking up to touch the stonework to reassure myself that it wasn’t just a painted backdrop for a romantic film about the Knights Templar.

It is, in other words, the material embodiment of the concept of getting away from it all. When my phone is ringing off the hook while I’m trying to polish off that last chapter of a novel, I automatically start looking for a place like La Muse.

So Kerry and John don’t just operate a retreat; they operate a retreat.

Who better, then, to ask to enlighten us on the ins and outs of serious writers’ retreats, or to answer my questions pertinent and impertinent? Or, to continue yesterday’s discussion, to enlighten us on what differentiates a successful fellowship application from an unsuccessful one.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are now or ever intend to apply for a residency, you’re going to want to take some notes on this extended interview.

Welcome, John and Kerry, to Author! Author!, and thanks so much for agreeing to share your insights with us!

kerry-eielson-and-john-fanning

Anne: Let’s start with the basics. What made you want to open La Muse in the first place?

Kerry: The first reason we started La Muse was because WE needed a retreat to go to, as did other writers like us: young people with full-time jobs that didn’t allow much time for writing.

Anne: Oh, I know so many aspiring and established writers who fall into that category.

Kerry: We were not all that connected, not all that pedigreed, not established in the world of creative writing. We were “writers” working in stimulating and exciting jobs but without time or space for our own creative writing projects and ambitions. There was nothing out there in terms of retreats that was simple and affordable, that focused on the process of writing without lots of talks and readings and workshops, without the groupie-vibe of some conferences.

We just needed a place to go to be able to write: La Muse!

Anne: It’s astonishing how seldom time to write seems to be built into workshops. I often come away all excited about my writing, but too exhausted to do any of it for the foreseeable future.

But enough about me: why not pursue the standard great big institutional artist colony route?

Kerry: We also felt the Catch-22 of not being established writers, and so not being able to benefit from grant-funded institutions or retreats that are more accessible to established writers or writers in the MFA system or cottage industry. We weren’t on “the track” and, believe it or not, it is mighty difficult for two full-time staffers at relatively high-powered magazine jobs in NYC to get on it.

We were lucky to have great jobs, which we appreciated and took seriously, were working more than that great American standard of 60 hours a week. I got up at 4:30 AM to have two hours of my own writing, and time to jog every day. John did the opposite, staying up until about that time to get his writing done. We didn’t sleep, didn’t see each other and though we were happy, motivated and exhilarated, we knew we couldn’t keep it up forever.

We wanted to write. We wanted to have a family life with the kids we hoped to have some day, AND we wanted to own our home–not an option with our low publishing salaries in New York City.

Anne: I see; you wanted to write AND have a life.

Kerry: And so, two newly-weds, we were talking about how we could make it all work. We decided to leave NYC and in dreaming about where we might go from there, we went online and found La Muse, then a huge run-down old manor house for next-to-nothing. We started dreaming out loud, planning this hypothetical life and next thing we knew; it was ours!

Anne: Wait — you bought a retreat online?

John: Kerry pretty much summed it up there, except for the fact that we did it all on credit cards. We also stripped layers of wallpaper from the ceilings, threw out about ten truckloads of junk — I mean truck truckloads, not van loads. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff that was in here.

Anne: For the benefit of those who have not yet been there, I should point out that I’ve lived in towns with smaller courthouses than La Muse’s main building. Some of the rooms are immense. And didn’t you lay the stones of the patio yourselves?

la-muse-writing-roomthalia-at-la-muse

John: Let’s just say the renovation process was an experience.

Anne: Given how beautiful both the building and the locale are, I’m sure that it wasn’t easy at first to establish La Muse as an artists’ retreat, rather than just a gorgeous vacation spot. Just to nip in the bud any possible misconceptions, how is a residency at La Muse different from a vacation?

Kerry: The focus of a stay at a writers’ retreat is on writing, not tourism.

John: Exactly. A writer’s retreat is just that, a retreat. You retreat from all the bustle of telephone calls, email, appointments, work etc. to connect with whatever it is you need to connect with to get your project finished, started, researched.

Anne: That last is why La Muse has wireless internet access, presumably. As much as I love a get-away-from-everything retreat, I actually couldn’t have done the necessary research on my novel without the occasional web crawl.

Since you’re both writers yourselves, I understand the impetus to create a writers’ retreat. So why does La Muse welcome many kinds of artist, instead of just writers?

Kerry: We saw no reason to limit our attendee to one kind of artist, and it happened organically. Visual artists asked if they could come. I love painting and drawing, and this place, with its rich light, is a heaven to visual artists. In fact, I’m more often inspired to draw here than write.

Anne: Having run a mixed retreat for a while now, what do you think different kinds of artists get from retreating together? Or, perhaps more to the point for my readership, what do writers gain from sharing retreat time and space with other types of artist?

Kerry: There is a nice exchange between the visual artists, composers and writers; a lot of artists are multidisciplinary-talented and they come away from conversations with artists in other mediums feeling inspired.

John: Artists generally regard the world around them more than writers. They have to concentrate on the colors, the shapes, on the lines all around them, not the ones inside their heads, so both groups really add to each other’s process.

Anne: Is that why you have been expanding the studio space?

Kerry: The same kind of informal, small-scale retreat seemed to be missing for visual artists. So, we made a studio, and then another studio.

Anne: I suspect that most people have a pretty easy time picturing the kind of studio space that might appeal to a painter or a sculptor, but I’ve noticed that there isn’t really a strong cultural conception of what kind of space might be conducive to writing, other than a desk and a chair in someplace quiet. How do the facilities for writers differ from those for other kinds of artist at La Muse?

Kerry: Writers work in their own rooms. Artists working on drawing projects do, too. But artists working in oil paints or mediums that smell, make noise, stain or need lots of space use the studios.

John: Writers also use the library and artists will go out into the woods to paint or photograph a lot.

Anne: I know from personal experience that the weather also plays a role in where the residents choose to work. The weather was gorgeous for the last few weeks I was there, and there were hours at a time when I seemed to be the only one writing inside.

writer-on-la-muse-terrace

Anne: But as tempting as it is to dwell on the physical environment, let’s talk about the less concrete part of the retreat — or at any rate, less of what is literally set in stone. What do you think writers retreating at La Muse find there that they couldn’t possibly discover anyplace else?

Kerry: It’s a serious yet familial setting. Attendees can’t help but to get to know each other and us, and that creates a great opportunity for exchange.

John: Yes. We’re not a huge institution like Yaddo or the Doris Duke Foundation. We are small and we like it that way. It’s what people always tell us they love about La Muse.

Kerry: We are accessible, affordable, multi-disciplinary and non-institutional but also professional about what we do.

Anne: Since most of my readership lives in North America, I suspect that some of them might be surprised to hear a retreat on a remote mountain in France described as accessible. What does that mean, precisely?

Kerry: The intimate, familial setting is unique. Normally, La Muse has between four to eight attendees of a wide range of ages, backgrounds, nationalities and artistic mediums, at different stages in their careers, and they have a lot to offer each other. The shared kitchen and meals allow for unique exchanges. People forge friendships and collaborations here. People help each other on their work, and support each other in other areas.

Former attendees have said that the fact La Muse is structured (due to the quiet hours) but not rigid (there’s no other structure in place) actually creates time, more time than at other retreats.

Anne: We should probably explain to everyone about the quiet hours. Technically, attendees are supposed to limit noise-making within the house — talking, playing music, Skyping — to a very limited number of hours per day, so that 9 am to noon, 1 to 5:30 pm, and 10 pm to 7 am are quiet times, designed for devotion to work or sleep.

I’ve never attended a retreat that didn’t maintain at least the pretense of quiet times or spaces, though; I don’t think they could attract writers otherwise. Because the claims are so similar — I mean, doesn’t every retreat’s website claim it’s the least distracting place on earth? — it’s really, really hard for writers honestly looking for uninterrupted writing time to tell them apart.

The difference to work time, it seems to me, usually lies less in whether such rules exist than in how they are enforced — and in how many other distractions there are. In a village like Labastide, where you might bump into perhaps three residents on a heavy traffic day, there’s not a whole lot of ambient noise or activity to interrupt one’s work. And I just loved that you didn’t clutter up residents’ weeks with a whole lot of structured events, as so many of the larger retreats do.

John: We leave people to do what it is they have come here to do as opposed to having workshops and classes, etc.

Anne: Personally, I found that very respectful of my decision to retreat in the first place. But you do occasionally host groups that come together for a workshop, right? (Note to readers: this was not an entirely fair question; I’ve been toying with the idea of teaching an intensive novel seminar there.)

John: Although we have hosted Study Abroad programs, such as Iowa University’s, we leave the teaching to the organization that comes to organize. We help set up guidelines and orientation, but most of the time we leave people to their own process.

Anne: Which can make for some pretty intriguing interactions, since every artists’ process is different. Is that why you accept writers at all stages of their careers, rather than just the established — as many of the ritzier artists’ colonies do — or only those starting out?

Kerry: We accept attendees based on the seriousness of their intent and the quality of their application. Period.

John: Yes, and it really works out well for both parties. One rubs off the other, just the way those of different disciplines help each other.

Anne: Not to mention making it more fun for everyone concerned. Although I spent the vast majority of my waking time at La Muse writing, I’ve noticed that when I talk about it now that I’m back home, I often dwell on the social aspects, the trips out into the countryside, the cherries that were in season while I was there, and the like. It’s definitely unusual for a writer’s retreat to offer as many cultural exchange opportunities for retreatants who want to take advantage of them.

Kerry: We arrange French lessons, art-hikes with a local watercolor artist. We introduce our attendees to local artists whose work may inform theirs. We bring attendees on a wine-tasting, and a visit to nearby towns. So maybe on a logistical level, too, the “extras” make us unique.

Anne: You took one of my groups (note: I was there for two retreat sessions) to a fabulous traditional book town called Montolieu, where practically every building housed a book shop, library, or museum devoted to some aspect of printing. I’ll have to do a post on that, so more traveling writers know about it; I never would have made it there as a tourist on my own.

livres

Kerry: There’s also an emphasis on well-being for those who are interested; we supply yoga mats, blocks, straps, and books, and arrange sessions for our attendees with a variety of therapists in the area.

Anne: Including massage and chiropractic for writers prone to repetitive strain injuries. Because I’m on my keyboard so much of the time on retreat — it’s not at all unusual for me to write 50 hours per week at an artists’ colony, although I think I averaged closer to 60 at La Muse — I always budget for some sort of bodywork.

It’s also kind of a fun way to meet the locals. Most of the villagers I met were very into the La Muse concept; a lot of them seemed to be artists themselves.

John: La Muse has a work ethos and a relaxed, community based structure that people have found very beneficial.

Anne: Since I’m guessing that most of my readers probably won’t have spent much time in 12th-century villages, let’s talk a bit more about Labastide Esparbaïrenque. What about it is conducive to retreating?

John: Labastide lends itself perfectly to a retreat because of its location off the main road – most villages have a main road going through them – as well as the fact that it hasn’t been tarnished by over modernization. The fact that it’s in a beautiful part of Southern France has got a lot to do with it, too.

Kerry: It’s a quiet village in a special place. The village is snuggled into a very curvy little valley, and there are no bars or cafés or boutiques to tempt people away from their work tables. With only 72 full-time habitants, there’s no noise except the elated screeching of diving swallows and a helpful rooster or two during the day and, at night, the muffled flow of the river and the rustling of leaves in the trees.

Anne: That’s such an evocative image that I’m going to leave it hanging in my readers’ minds and sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John!

Next time, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of what is actually involved in running a writers’ retreat like La Muse — and just what kind of application package it takes to land a spot in a retreat like this. Happy daydreaming, everyone, and 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!