Pet peeves on parade, part XXIII: the monster always returns…returns…returns…

I’m having a good day, campers: today, I got to delve back into an editing project I’d had to put aside for a while. It’s something that requires my full energy; digging one’s arms up to the elbow in a complex manuscript takes more out of a conscientious editor than writers tend to believe.

You’d be surprised at how deeply those of us who read for a living can bond with the manuscripts we handle. It’s not as though an editor (or an agent, or an agency screener) can plop himself down and read a book like any other reader; it’s our job to be alive to every detail. I like to think of myself as the book’s advocate, trying to figure out all of the little ways to make it as beautiful and marketable as humanly possible.

And no, in response to what a good third of you just thought very loudly, beautiful writing is not always marketable, any more than marketable writing is always beautiful. Ideally, a manuscript should be both. It should also, if I can possibly manage to nudge it in this direction, be written in a voice and vocabulary appropriately challenging for its target readership.

Bringing out any of these laudable traits is not only a matter of critiquing what could be improved; quite a lot of what I do involves helping the author see what is already good and could be made better. Part of being a thoughtful freelance editor — as opposed to a careful copyeditor, the nit-picky soul who concentrates on making sure that the manuscript is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience.

Again, those are not necessarily the same thing, right?

Most aspiring writers do need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, what is good about their work. Or even told what the selling points for their books are.

There’s a pretty good reason for this, actually. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic. But realistically, publishing houses do not acquire books simply because someone went to the trouble to write them. Nor, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, will readers — ones who do not already know the author personally, at any rate — pick up a book simply because somebody happened to write it.

Why does prompt publishers to acquire manuscripts and readers to buy books, you ask? Would I sound like a broken record if I suggested that both sell because of their strengths?

In fact, the length of time it took to write a book is precisely the wrong thing to mention in a query letter or pitch; it’s widely considered unprofessional. Millicent the agency screener is apt to regard queries that include statements like I have spent seven years writing NOVEL, GREAT AMERICAN as not only a waste of page space, but as a studied appeal for her sympathy.

“Why on earth would I care how long this manuscript took to write?” Millicent murmurs into her omnipresent latte. “And why would I be more favorably impressed by a seven-year effort than one that took only six? What matters is on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there.”

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: at the submission stage, manuscripts are evaluated based upon what actually appears on their pages, not the writer’s intentions, effort, or even what the book might look like after a conscientious editor’s had a few rounds with it. Many, many aspiring writers seem to have a hard time accepting this, judging by how often justifications and explanations seem to find their way into queries and pitches. From a professional point of view, this information just isn’t relevant.

But that’s not the only reason that including it could hurt you. Because it’s quite standard for both agents and editors to request revisions after taking on a book project — see my earlier observation about how involved professional readers can get with manuscripts they like — it’s prudent to assume that the pros in your future will expect you to be able to incorporate feedback in a timely and reasonable manner. So if the agent of your dreams’ reaction to a detailed account of the five years you invested in producing the manuscript is less likely to be, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens — if a single draft took five years, how long will any revisions I want take?” is it truly in your interests to mention it?

Save the probably quite interesting story of how you churned out that 400-page novel in the scant ten-minute increments you managed to snatch between your day job and your night job for future interviews. Trust me, your reading public will eat it up.

In your queries and pitches, stick to the information that Millicent actually needs in order to decide whether to request pages. As submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form — agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before, they do not — contrary to the hope of most submitting writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? Think on it, and I shall give you the answer at the end of this post.

Hint: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.

How does this relate to the revision process, you ask? Well, swift judgments mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first 5. (If you are planning to head to a writers’ conference anytime soon, burnishing the first 5 until they shine is imperative: the first five pages of the manuscript are the standard writing sample, the most anyone is at all likely to ask to see within the context of a pitch meeting. But I digress.)

Do I sense an undercurrent of amusement out there? “Are you seriously taking the time to justify doing any revision at all, Anne?” those of you who have followed the Pet Peeves on Parade series closely ask, chuckling. “Isn’t it a bit late in the series for that? We all know what a stickler Millicent can — and indeed, should — be. Or are you once again leading us down the primrose path to some well-concealed eventual point?”

Well, the importance of revision bears repeating, chucklers, but you’re right: my little peroration was warming you up for a pet peeve that I suspect not all of you will agree is problematic on the page. Or so professional readers like yours truly surmise from how pervasive the problem I’m about to mention is in submissions — particularly in openings.

I’m speaking, of course, to invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work. And you thought this post wasn’t going to be a continuation of our discussion on voice!

Invocatory rhythms are one of the most popular tools aspiring writers use to beautify their narratives, a kind of sing-song rhythm that alerts the reader that Something Literary is Going on Here. One of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition. Take a gander at a fairly representative sample:

Musette ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

See the problem? No? Okay, let’s take a peek at it through Millicent’s experience-sharpened peepers.

Musette ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

The problem is clearer now, right? Not only does this innocent-looking paragraph harbor a heck of a lot of word and phrase repetition — enough that our Millie may murmur under her breath, “Wow — doesn’t this writer know any other words?” — but that eye-confusing reiteration is encased in identical sentence structures. The result is a little something we professional readers like to call structural repetition: a percussive repetition of similarly-structured sentences (or sentence fragments) intended to make a rhythmic point.

Why bring this up as a voice and revision problem, in addition to a notorious Millicents’ pet peeve? Because part of the issue here is editorial: merely broadening the vocabulary, the usual fix for word repetition, would not solve this problem. Lookee:

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Better already, is it not? To a professional reader, though, this passage would still read as structurally repetitious, despite the wording being more varied (and thus more interesting) this time around. And that reaction is apt to confuse self-editors, who would tend to see the nice, pulsing rhythm pushing the paragraph forward, rather than the probability that the too-similar sentence structures will cause the reader to zone out a bit as the paragraph goes on.

Not to mention the virtual certainty that Millicent will murmur, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with this narrative trick, but why must this writer foist it on us twice in a single paragraph?”

You’ve got an excellent point there, Millie. Like every other narrative device, structural repetition works best when it is used sparingly.

How sparingly, you ask with fear and trepidation? Two or three times, say, in the course of a manuscript, to draw the reader’s attention to particularly important passages. Even within the context of this short excerpt, see how much more effective the first use of structural repetition is if we remove the second.

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? She longed with the urgency of a sneeze for a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat. Clearly, she had an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever.

Didn’t like it that way? Okay, let’s switch where the structural repetition falls — and while we’re at it, take out the cliché about the wind.

Musette sped through the corridor as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Was that a sudden gust of non-clichéd wind that just made my cat topple over, or did a significant minority of you just sigh gustily?
“I see that there are repeated words in the original version, Anne,” some of you point out, “but frankly, I liked it best. Surely the choice to incorporate structural repetition is a stylistic choice, rather than a matter best left up to an editor. Unless you have just inadvertently proven your point about not every reader’s liking every well-written narrative voice, and you are demonstrating yourself to be the kind of knuckle-dragging troglodyte who eschews the joys of literary fiction in favor of novels that — ugh — feature a plot?”

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge. What’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots and genre fiction that features beautiful language. So there.

But you are obliquely correct, oh sighers, that the original version above was more likely to have dropped from the fingertips of a writer with specifically literary aspirations than one who was aiming for a more mainstream readership. Since invocatory rhythms are quite common in poetry, this style turns up very frequently in novel and memoir submissions, particularly in those that are either literary fiction or are other types of manuscript written with a literary tone. It just sounds pretty, right?

“If the writing’s pretty on an individual sentence level,” sighers everywhere argue, “how could that be problematic in a submission?”

In several ways, actually. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous example of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Yes, I use this particular example fairly frequently, but humor me here: Dickens, bless his now-still heart, has provided us with a lulu of an example of why structural repetition is problematic in print.

Just for kicks, pretend that you have never seen it before, and try to read like an agency screener. To facilitate that laudable endeavor — and to give you the opportunity to judge for yourself whether all of this textual repetition provides a compelling entrée into the story that follows, here is not just the well-known opening, but the next page as well. As always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Now, this voice is certainly distinctive, isn’t it? Hard to conceive of a more memorable opening, rhythmically speaking. But it’s also true that if these were the first two pages of a submission, virtually any modern-day Millicent would have rejected it by line three. Any guesses why?

If your hand instantly shot into the air, alerting me to your trenchant observation that it was because the first paragraph is one interminable run-on sentence — 119 words, connected incorrectly by commas, rather than semicolons, sacre bleu! — give yourself a gold star for the day.

Ditto if you zeroed in upon the apparently random capitalization of nouns, the criminal punctuation choices, the ubiquitous logical contradictions (yes, I know it’s meant to be ironic; think like a screener here and look for reasons to shout, “Next!”), the second paragraph written entirely in the passive voice, and the fact that two paragraphs into the piece, the reader still has absolutely no idea who the protagonist is or what’s going on.

And can’t you just picture an editor furiously scribbling in the margins: “Which was it — the best of times or the worst of times? It could hardly have been both. Commit to one or the other!”

Although any one of those perfectly valid objections might have prompted that cry of “Next!”, the structural repetition is what most pros would have noticed first. To see why, you stand up right now and take two steps backward from your computer monitor.

Notice the visual pattern? Millicent would have spotted it as soon as she pulled the first page of ol’ Charles’ manuscript out of the envelope.

Actually, if you’ve been revising for a while, you might have caught that the structural repetition problem without backing off. A solid tip-off: the verb to be appears 14 times within the first sentence.

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

Yes, this is a level of verb variation that would make Millicent long for the comparatively challenging vocabulary choices of See Dick run, Jane. Run, Jane, run. Remember, though, it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way. No matter how great your high school English teacher told you this particular opening was, it’s dull for the reader to read the same It was X, it was Y sentence structure over and over again.

Or, indeed, any given sentence structure, if it is repeated often enough within too few lines of text.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers just adore structural repetition: it reads a bit like a prayer. It can provide a driving, almost galloping rhythm to a page. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “By gum, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

And they do. Sometimes, they make their paragraphs read like that several times per page.

Don’t mind that loud rapping. It’s merely Millicent pounding her head against a wall, moaning, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”

That’s what happens when perfectly legitimate voice choices run amok. Like any magic trick,, repetitive structure loses its ability to charm when the reader sees it too often. After a surprisingly short while, it can start to come across less as an interesting stylistic choice than as a sort of narrative tic.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: how many iterations of It was… did Dickens put you through before you first thought Oh, come on, Chuck; get on with it?

“But Anne,” lovers of percussive repetition beg piteously, “I just love my structurally repetitious opening page/paragraph/chapter. If I’m careful not to use this trick again anywhere in the manuscript, I can keep it, can’t I?”

I have a news flash from Millicentville: she sees a LOT of structurally repetitious openings; as with anything else she sees a dozen times a week, it’s probably going to be more difficult to impress her by this method. She’s also not particularly likely to believe that an opening redolent with repetition is a one-time narrative choice.

More often than not, when a manuscript opens with repetitive structure, it will continue with repetitive structure. That, alas, renders structural repetition dangerous to use in the first pages of a submission. Or book proposal. Agents and editors are just so used to this tendency that they’re all too likely — fairly or not — to conclude that to read on would be to be treated to the same type of sentence over and over, ad infinitum.

And that, my friends, is not invocatory; it’s soporific. Next time, I shall talk about ways to tell which is which in your writing, to figure out when invocatory rhythms will help your work.

Remember, Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the bottom of page one. That’s not a whole lot of lines in which to establish the originality and power of your voice.

Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VI: the phrase so nice I used it twice, or, hey, look at what I can do!

Nicholas brothers jumping

Have these last two series on self-editing been keeping you up at night, campers? Now that you’re starting to gain a sense of just how closely professional readers (like, say, agents, editors, and people like Millicent who screen submissions for them) peruse pages, have you found yourself gnawing your fingernails up to the elbow, worried about that manuscript you sent out last month? Speculating on just how deeply Millicent’s X-ray eyes will bore into your page 1, are you?

And now aren’t you glad that I spared you a picture of X-ray eyes to top this post? Enjoy the chipper photo of the Nicholas brothers! (Which doesn’t really do that remarkable dance team justice, I must say. If you are even remotely interested in the dance, do yourself a favor and check out any of the many movies from the 1940s that they enlivened.)

Not that I’m in a position to soften how the pros read, but I do worry about the effects of these blogs on you fine people, you know. Knowing the score can be stressful — although I continue to believe that in the long run, having a realistic understanding of how books do and do not get published is actually quite a bit less stressful than the far more popular route of just assuming that any well-written book will inevitably attract an agent and get published.

Presumably, the moment a truly gifted writer types the last word of her first manuscript, an air-raid siren goes off somewhere in Manhattan, alerting agents to swarm. That must be the case, because when the writer sends out her first (and only, doubtless) query, the lucky recipient knows to snap it up right away, regardless of whether that agent happens to represent that kind of book or not.

Or perhaps the Manuscript Fairy makes the introduction. Whatever the magical mechanism, the writer is signed with an agency with a week, sells her manuscript for a six-figure advance within a month, and is smilingly chatting about her newly-published book with Oprah in less than the time it would take to grow nasturtiums from seed to flower.

For the non-gardeners among you, that’s not all that long.

The trouble is, there is no Manuscript Fairy, and good writing often has an exceptionally difficult time finding a home. Believe me, it’s far better for you to know all that before you submit; realistic expectations have kept many a fine fledgling writer from giving up in despair after just a few tries. (Hint: if you can still name every agent you have queried with your latest book, your query list is probably quite a bit too short, given the current market.)

But before I sit you down for some straight talk about Santa Claus, let me hasten to add that the vast majority of submitted manuscripts disqualify themselves from serious professional consideration — and often for reasons that would not even occur to their writers as important to consider. Like, say, how often a particular sentence, image, or insight appears in a manuscript.

Hey, we were just talking about that, weren’t we? And with good reason: as I pointed out last time, professional readers are trained to seek out and deplore redundancy.

Unfortunately, writers — especially those who do not take the time to re-read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD prior to submission — seldom catch repetition of their favorite phrases and ideas. Heck, they’re frequently unaware that they’re leaning on some verbs harder than others…or that Millicent regularly gnashes her teeth over the fact that such a high percentage of submitters apparently all attended the same school of leaning.

Why, just a month or two ago, I was chatting with Teresa (not her real name, of course, but a cunning pseudonym), an aspiring writer of some promise who’d just had her first run-in with an editor — and thus with the X-ray vision a savvy writer associates with professional readers. “He yelled at me for writing too much in the passive voice,” she fumed. “In fact, he told me that any sentence with the verb to be in it was bad writing.”

I laughed, as I often do at writing rules apparently constructed out of the chewed-up remains of seven or eight genuinely solid pieces of literary advice. “That was a rather common high school English assignment in the 1980s: write an essay or story without using to be even once. It was designed to broaden the array of verbs students were using, not to criminalize was.”

Teresa thought about that. “But he said it was a rule!”

“Matters of style are not really conducive to one-size-fits-all rules. However, I can easily imagine an editor — or any professional reader, for that matter — getting so tired of seeing a particular word or phrase repeated in a manuscript that he would say, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you may never use look again in writing. Heck, I would be relieved if you never used a seeing verb again, because in this manuscript, you have used up your lifetime supply.’ But that doesn’t make it a rule every writer should follow.”

I chose look advisedly, because in this TV-, movie-, and internet-saturated culture, seeing verbs are some of the most overused. After all, most people gain most of their information through their eyes; as a direct result, Millicent sees (see?) many, many submissions on any given day where sight and sound provide virtually all of the information to the reader. This tendency is so pronounced that if an alien from the planet Zarg who knew nothing of human life were suddenly to switch places with Millie (hey, she could use the vacation), it might easily conclude from reading all of those submissions that sight and hearing were the only senses that people possess on Earth.

Hands up if your immediate first response to that was to cry, “From this day forth, by gum, I’m going to gladden Millicent’s heart by incorporating more smell, taste, and touch details into my writing! In fact, just as soon as I finish reading this blog post, I’m off to search through my manuscript for places where the narrative relies too heavily on visual descriptions, so I may mix up the sensory descriptors more,” congratulations. You have already begun to think of revision in professional terms.

First-person and tight third-person narratives are particularly prone to over-reliance on visual detail — and are frequently riddled with seeing verbs. That’s completely understandable: from the writer’s perspective, reminding the reader that Our Hero is in fact seeing everything in the story makes perfect sense. It’s true, for one thing — and at first glance, at least, it can make the protagonist seem involved in action he is in fact merely observing. But upon closer examination, that proves not to be the case:

I watched Billy tear through the contents of my locker, looking for his now-meaningless love letter. I cringed, seeing textbooks, rulers, my pointiest protractor fly over his burly shoulder. Periodically, he glared at me, as if daring me to stop him. Pointedly, I looked away.

I had the strange sense I was being observed. Removing my gaze from the destruction of nearly all of my school supplies, I discovered the source: my nemesis, Stacey, was staring at me from the other end of the locker bay, exchanging amused glances with her friends. Their contemptuous scrutiny made me burn with shame.

Surreptitiously, I eyed the diary hanging from Billy’s back pocket, estimating the number of steps it would take me to rush forward, snatch it, and run away to read it in peace. The look in Billy’s eyes made me hesitate, but having an audience watching me rendered me bold.

“Now see here,” I began nervously…

See? The narrator is involved in the scene, certainly, but until the last line, she isn’t actually an actor in it. Her only action involves looking at this or that. Oh, she’s thinking up a storm for the reader’s benefit, but to an outside observer of the scene, she would be merely passively watching what’s going on.

“Aha!” rules-lawyering revisers of Frankenstein manuscripts will exclaim. “So that’s your real objection here: the narrator is a passive protagonist. I agree that is a problem, but I thought we were talking about textual repetition. This example doesn’t really show that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but each time Our Heroine (or anybody else, for that matter) saw something, the author used a different verb to describe it. How then is it repetitious?”

Good question, rules-lawyers. The repetition here is conceptual — all of that eye use — but to a veteran reader, all of those synonyms for sight might actually leap off the page as if they were all the verb to see. To Millicent’s overworked eyes, it would look like this:

I watched Billy tear through the contents of my locker, looking for his now-meaningless love letter. I cringed, seeing textbooks, rulers, my pointiest protractor fly over his burly shoulder. Periodically, he glared at me, as if daring me to stop him. Pointedly, I looked away.

I had the strange sense I was being observed. Removing my gaze from the destruction of nearly all of my school supplies, I discovered the source: my nemesis, Stacey, was staring at me from the other end of the locker bay, exchanging amused glances with her friends. Their contemptuous scrutiny made me burn with shame.

Surreptitiously, I eyed the diary hanging from Billy’s back pocket, estimating the number of steps it would take me to rush forward, snatch it, and run away to read it in peace. The look in Billy’s eyes made me hesitate, but having an audience watching me rendered me bold.

“Now see here,” I began nervously…

My point, should anybody have started to wonder if I had one, is this: if a writer is going to become a good self-editor, she needs to stop believing in the Manuscript Fairy, learn how to read her own work as critically as Millicent would, and take responsibility for every word in the manuscript. By definition, redundancy doesn’t add anything new to a manuscript — so does it really need to be there at all?

The answer, since not all of you shouted it out in unison, is no — and that’s as true for conceptual repetition like relying exclusively upon seeing verbs as it is for recycled metaphors and self-plagiarism. A redundant text is, among other things, predictable. At the sentence level, varying your word choices and sensory details is as important to keeping a reader guessing as providing good plot twists at the story level.

The trick to sifting through a Frankenstein manuscript, though, is not only identifying and pouncing upon repetition; it also involves learning how to spot, preserve, and highlight what works. That, alas, is a goal that all too often gets swept under the proverbial rug when a writer is suddenly hit with an apparently impossible-to-apply piece of editorial advice like never use the verb to be.

But good revision, like good feedback, isn’t entirely about pointing out broken rules. It’s also about — wait for it — style, and that means, often, that generic rules don’t always apply. Oh, you’re going to want to use punctuation correctly, and you’re going to want to make the voice consistent throughout, but you’re also going to want the to manuscript sound like you.

And that, my friends, is one of the grave dangers of blindly adhering to one-size-fits-all style formulae: there’s no writing rule in the world that’s going to tell you what your individual voice should be. Nor should it, because part of the charm of a great voice is that it is unique.

Was that giant bang I just heard the sound of everybody out there who wants to be handed an infallible set of directions for how to get published slamming the door on his way out?

In order to define and polish personal literary voice, it’s vital to figure out what’s the best part of your writing, so you may draw the reader’s attention to it. That may not involve finding the best scene or paragraph, necessarily, or even your strongest sentence; it may mean identifying a particular strength in your writing. It can be something very general — a good ear for realistic dialogue, for instance, or a gift for helping the reader care about the protagonist — or something very specific, like being a magnificent describer of the interiors of automobiles or a world-class expresser of silent disgruntlement.

Whatever it is — or whatever they are; good writers often start off with many strengths, and build still more through practice — being aware of how it shows up in your text will render revision infinitely easier, particularly if you happen to be dealing with a Frankenstein manuscript. Think about it: without knowing what to emphasize, self-editing is a grueling process of ferreting out mistakes and correcting them. If you can play to your strengths as a writer, however, then revision is a matter of winnowing away anything that obscures them, so your best writing may shine.

Sounds like a whole lot more fun than yelling at yourself for a bunch of mistakes, doesn’t it? Not to mention significantly gentler on the ego.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, a huge part of being a good writing teacher or developmental editor — as opposed to a good copyeditor, who concentrates on making sure that the writing is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, bringing the work to the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience. (And no, Virginia, those three are not all necessarily the same thing, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Aspiring writers frequently do need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, about what is good about their work, other than the fact that they themselves sat down and wrote it. Heck, many apparently need to be told what the selling points for their books are, if the typical responses to the perfectly straightforward questions, “Who is your target audience, and why will your book appeal to those folks?” are any indication.

As is the case for so many pervasive phenomena on the creative side of the submission process, there’s a pretty good reason for this, at least from the writer’s point of view. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic, isn’t it? But realistically, books literally never get acquired and published simply and exclusively because someone went to the trouble to write them.

Okay, so books by celebrities and politicians occasionally do. I’m talking about works of literary merit here.

The vast majority of the time, manuscripts sell because of their strengths — you know, those marvelous things that I urged you earlier to take the time to track down and highlight in your work. This is not a business that gives As for effort, after all. In fact, should you ever happen to find yourself chatting about your book with an agent or editor, the length of time it took you to write a book is precisely the wrong thing to mention in a pitch — or in a query letter, for that matter.

Was that echoing collective gasp of horror a subtle indication that some of you would like to know why? As hard as it might be for any of us to accept, to Millicent and her ilk, the amount of effort that a writer put into a writing project doesn’t really matter. What matters is what’s on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there.

Or, to put it another way, everyone concerned is perfectly aware that every book requires Herculean efforts to bring from conception to completion, much less to publication. So what agents and editors tend to conclude when writers rattle on about those efforts is not, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens — if a single draft took five years, how long will it take this writer to make any revisions I may want?”

I know: it’s unfair. In actual practice, how long it takes to write a book is not a particularly good indicator of how long it would take to revise. Or even how good the writing will be at the end of the process.

But as submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form. Agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before in this very forum, they do not — contrary to the hope of most aspiring writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? (Hint: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.)

How do the business orientation of agents and editors relate to the revision process, you ask, or to this series on Frankenstein manuscripts? Merely this; the swift judgments endemic to agencies, publishing houses, and yes, even contest judging mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first five.

If, say, you were intending to comb your work for any of the many knee-jerk rejection reasons in the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right. Or even just to minimize any redundancy in the manuscript. From a submission perspective, investing your time in culling all of those synonyms for seeing out of your first chapter, then turning your efforts to making absolutely certain that the voice is consistent all the way through that chapter before you pop it in the mail, is better strategy than working and re-working Chapter 10 until it’s perfect before you re-read the opening pages. Especially if the agent of your dreams has only asked to see Chapters 1-3.

Just make sure that after you’ve met your short-term deadline, you go back and implement those changes all the way through the manuscript. Lest we forget, that kind of spot-specific, I-want-to-get-this-in-the-morning-mail type of revision is quite conducive to producing a Frankenstein manuscript.

There, you have your homework: make your opening pages impeccable, then make the rest admirable. Well, my work here is done…

If you should find yourself shaking your head in the dead of night over your very own Frankenstein manuscript, try not to despair. What you have in front of you is not just an unevenly-written story or argument; it’s also potentially a spectacularly rich source of information about what you do well as a writer. If you have the time — and I would urge you to make some, even if you feel as if you’re up against a deadline; does that submission REALLY need to be e-mailed the day after that agent requested it? — it’s well worth your while to cuddle up with your Frankenstein manuscript in a comfortable reading chair.

Who knows? You might just find gold. Or at least a promising site to pan for it.

Yes, in response to what you just thought: that’s going to be a heck of a lot of work. One might even call it a Herculean task. Nobody ever said that writing a great book was easy.

Nobody who didn’t believe in the Manuscript Fairy, at any rate.

Try to think of the work not as the value of the manuscript, but as the training and practice you need to become a master at your art. Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more to this gig than just sitting in front of a keyboard and typing the darned thing. You have to figure out what you write well — which isn’t necessarily what you like to read, right? — and use that skill to tell the story you were born to tell.

That’s a tall order, but the results are worth it. Jumping off a staircase and landing in the splits isn’t the kind of thing most of us can do on the first try, after all. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part IV: the monster always returns, sometimes with a little help from his friends

frankenstein and friends

Before we delve back into the topic at hand, I’d like to point out to those of you who are not inveterate comment-readers that there has been some amazingly helpful discussion going on in the comments section of the last couple of posts, on writers’ conferences and revision, respectively. (That’s here and here, for those of you reading this on Publisher’s Marketplace.) Once commenters get chatting with one another, the discussion sometimes goes on for days, so it’s worth checking back in — and it’s definitely worth chiming in.

I just mention. And while I’m mentioning, allow me to bring up a revision-related matter inspired by one of those discussions.

All of you out there are already aware that a serious writer should never be without paper and a writing implement, right? You never know when a great idea — or turn of phrase — will hit you, after all, and every author in the world has a personal horror story about the perfect midnight inspiration that evaporated because s/he assumed, wrongly, that s/he would remember it in the morning, even if s/he didn’t write it down.

Trust me, you do not want to be like s/him. Keep a pad of paper and pen by the bed — no matter whose bed you happen to be occupying in the dead of night. (Hey, I’m here to give writing advice, not make moral judgments.)

In fact, a good writer should always assume that the only way to preserve a thought for posterity is to jot it down, NOW, before it disappears into the ether.

What does that time-honored axiom have to do with revision, you ask? It has an important corollary: don’t throw away or delete earlier versions of your manuscript; you may want to use some of that material later on. The same holds true for abandoned writing projects: that book that isn’t gelling today may well in five years.

Archiving is a writer’s friend, in short.

I’m not talking about saving a different version of your writing documents after you change each and every comma, of course. (Although while I’m tossing around helpful rules of thumb, a good writer should hit SAVE after every revised paragraph, and make back-ups frequently, unless s/he just loves trying to reconstitute a multitude of micro-changes from memory after a computer crash.) I’m talking about saving your entire manuscript before you begin revision, making a duplicate of it, and storing that duplicate — clearly labeled as DRAFT (date) — as a separate file.

That way, you can revise, comfortable in the knowledge that if you change your mind later on, you can reconstitute your earlier draft in the twinkling of an eye. Rather than, say, trying to reconstruct it from memory.

This is an especially useful strategy for writers who can’t command long stretches of revision time, instead sneaking in twenty minutes here, an hour there, as their schedule permits. It is far, far easier to recall whether you’ve completed revising Chapter 4 if your hard disk (or desk drawer, for the less technology-minded) contains documents entitled Ch 4 May 2010 and Ch 4 revision than if all you can turn up is Ch 4.

It’s also not a bad idea — and you might want to brace yourselves; this one’s quite a bit of work — to get in the habit of keeping a list of major revisions, the date you made them, and the page upon which they occurred. Not only is this an excellent way to make sure that you don’t inadvertently skip the last 10 pages of Ch 4 while you’re going through the manuscript, changing your protagonist’s boss from Edgar to Elvira; it will save you mountains of time if you subsequently decide to change it back.

“But Anne,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and rightly, “in that case, couldn’t I just revert to that file I clearly labeled Novel Edgar version? Wouldn’t that save me even more time?”

Well, it would, provided that in that particular revision, you had changed absolutely nothing but Edgar’s name. But come closer, and I’ll whisper a trade secret: it’s practically unheard-of for a reviser to make ONLY the intended major change. S/he’ll spot typos, for instance; the opening of the second paragraph on page 73 will suddenly seem awkward. If s/he subsequently reverts to the earlier draft, those other changes often get lost — changes that the writer in retrospect will swear that s/he made.

Because, of course, s/he did; they merely don’t show up in the older manuscript. Much head-scratching inevitably ensues.

Some of you still aren’t convinced maintaining a revision list is worth the trouble, though, are you? Okay, here’s an even better reason: if you get into the habit now, you will probably be more comfortable working with an agent or editor.

Why? Well, it’s not all that uncommon for either to request specific revisions on a manuscript, either before or after they have signed the author, or for a manuscript to go through several rounds of requested revisions. (Ideally, with the writer’s hanging on to each version in a separate computer file or hard copy, in case the agent or editor changes his/her mind.) If the revisions are minor, or — and this happens more than one might think — if the writer decides to take some revision suggestions and not others, a swiftly-skimming agent or editor might think, erroneously, that the writer simply ignored the suggestions.

Just think how much debate may be avoided if the writer can instantly whip out a list of the revisions s/he made. Or — and I personally would not dream of submitting requested submissions without this — if s/he simply tucked a cover letter listing the changes made in the box with the revised manuscript.

At minimum, such a list will render it simpler to go back and reverse specific changes, in the not-unheard-of event of the agent or editor suddenly saying, “You know, I like this version much better, but how would you feel about making Elvira male?”

Oh, you think I’m joking, do you? Tell you what: the next time you bump into me at a writers’ conference, remind me to introduce you to three or four authors to whom similar requests have been made. Or, increasingly common in recent years, authors whose editors got laid off from their publishing houses after a round of requested revisions, so the authors abruptly found themselves trying to please a new editor with completely different tastes. Trust me, these authors just LOVE to tell their revision horror stories.

Still not convinced that you should take the time to keep a revision diary? I can think of one other very solid reason to get into the habit: if you discover that you have a Frankenstein manuscript on your hands, your revision list will tell you where you should start looking for inconsistencies in the text.

Admittedly, so will reading your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, but that takes significantly longer, at least to find a place to begin revising. Starting a revision journal and maintaining it conscientiously (hey, how much use can it be to you if you can’t trust it?) can not only help you figure out where to tackle the daunting task of revising a Frankenstein manuscript; it can prove invaluable in fending off revision-related panic (how on earth am I ever going to get through this?) and revision burnout.

For those of you just tuning in, a Frankenstein manuscript is a work that — usually inadvertently — is written (and usually revised) in so many different voices, styles, structures, and even quality of writing that it reads as though a committee had written it. Since I have literally never heard a single speaker at a writing conference address this very common problem — but have so often heard agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, and freelance editors complain about it in private — I wanted to alert my readers to it, lest the monster return again.

Because it will, you know. The first rule of horror is that the monster always returns. (Sort of like the mythical s/he in this post, come to think of it.)

In a way, a Frankenstein manuscript is a gift for a busy agent, editor, or judge, because it’s so very easy to reject. While I am generally very much in favor of writers doing everything they can, short of offers to do laundry or slip cash under certain doors in the dead of night, to make their agents’ and editors’ lives easier, trust me, you do not want to be on the donating end of such a gift.

Seriously, from a professional reader’s point of view, it’s no-brainer rejection if ever there was one: clearly, Millicent the agency screener thinks, if the author herself did not catch the Frankensteinish inconsistency of the text, the book needs to go through at least one more major revision.

And believe me, this needs another editing run-through is not something you want Millicent to think while considering whether to pass your submission on to her boss, the agent of your dreams. Remember, in order to reject the manuscript, all she needs to think is, “While it’s an interesting premise,” (or voice, or style, etc.) “the author needs to work on craft, structure, and consistency. We’ll catch this author next time around.”

In other words: “Next!”

Unfortunately, since Millicent usually compresses her expression of this into the standard phraseology of rejection (I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not meet our needs at this time, for instance, or I just don’t think I can place this book successfully in the current market, or the ever-popular I just didn’t fall in love with this story), the writer seldom finds out that she considers it a single revision away from being acceptable. Form-letter rejections are identical when sent to the author of a nearly-perfect manuscript and one where every third word is misspelled, after all.

In fact, agency denizens are often genuinely surprised to hear that aspiring writers with near-miss manuscripts aren’t necessarily aware of how close they are to getting accepted. Why, just last year, I asked my agent about a very talented writer I’d sent his way. He’d rejected her, and since the wording of the rejection had been rather ambiguous (along the lines of while I admire your voice, I just don’t think I can place this book successfully in the current literary market, I gather), I was curious to hear if he would be open to reading her next manuscript, a few months away from completion.

He looked at me blankly. “Next manuscript? She hasn’t dropped the first one, has she?” I assured him she had. “Oh, that’s a shame — it was really interesting. It just needed more work.”

Sound familiar? Or at any rate not surprising?

It shouldn’t be, but aspiring writers tend to overestimate, sometimes radically, the amount of time and energy an agent will be willing to invest in their first books. Think about it: every moment an agent devotes to nursing a new client’s manuscript into a publishable state is a moment that s/he is not spending selling books. Or reading the new works of clients who have already made him money. Or, perhaps closer to the hearts of agent-seekers everywhere, scanning submissions from aspiring writers.

Or having lunch with their current clients, in order to be grilled about what they thought of their friends’ submissions. Networking takes time, too, you know.

My point is, contrary to popular opinion, agencies are very seldom charitable institutions, devoted selflessly to the promotion of great literature. Even agencies that do in fact represent great literature are in the game to make money. In order to do that, they need to sell books.

Which means, in case I’ve been too subtle so far, that they’re looking for manuscripts that they not only could conceivably sell to publishing houses, but sell quickly in the current market. By definition, a manuscript that needs a whole lot of work is not going to be ready to market as soon as one that does not.

Besides, agencies receive too many letter-perfect submissions to devote much time to fixer-uppers. They figure that the fixer-uppers will come back to them eventually, anyway, all cleaned up.

Without their intervention. The average agent’s faith in the tenacity of the talented is unbounded. He honestly does believe that his dream client can figure out what to give him all by herself.

So trust me on this one: you want yours to be the submission that causes Millicent to exclaim, “Oh, this one’s ready to send out to editors right now!”

A Frankenstein manuscript is virtually never going to provoke that last exclamation, because inconsistency of voice, vocabulary, tone, etc. is a pretty sure sign that the writer has not finalized the narrative. Oh, s/he may have revised it until she’s blue in the face, but she hasn’t yet gone through the entire thing and smoothed it out so it reads like a unified story.

Here’s a word to the wise: if you are working on your first novel — or any other writing project — over the course of years, do yourself a favor and check it for stylistic consistency before you submit it to ANY agent, editor, or contest.

If you find that your voice wavers a bit throughout, don’t despair. As I mentioned last time, it’s actually quite rare that writers, even extremely gifted ones, find their specific voices right away; allow for the possibility that yours developed while you were writing the book.

Then embrace a two-part revision goal: find the voice, the style, the structure you like best, then make sure that every sentence in the book reflects it. Which, naturally, is going to be a heck of a lot easier to do if you had the forethought to keep a journal of what you changed where in the manuscript.

Without such a record, it’s quite a bit more difficult to pull off Part I of that tall order by reading your work in screen-sized chunks. In order to make absolutely sure that your book hangs together cohesively, YOU MUST READ IT IN HARD COPY.

In its entirety. Preferably in a few long sessions, and, if you change narrative voice very often, out loud, to ascertain that your various voices remain absolutely distinct throughout.

Although that last piece of advice is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to long-time readers of this blog (or even to those of you who have the attention span to remember as long ago as the opening of this post), I hear some of you grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled protest, “I feel like I’ve been working on this book forever. I’ve revised it so often that I could recite huge chunks of it from memory. And yet you’re telling me to reread the whole thing — aloud, yet?”

Yes, I am. Actually, it may actually be more important for inveterate revisers to read their work IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Why, you gasp in horror? Because the more you revise a novel — or any book — the more likely it is to turn into a Frankenstein manuscript. It is an unintended downside of being conscientious about honing your craft.

Again, think about it: over time, you move passages around; you insert new scenes; you add or subtract subplots, characters, dialogue. All of these inevitably affect other parts of the book. Can you really be sure, for instance, that you remembered to remove your protagonist’s sociopathic sister from EVERY place she has ever appeared, even as a shadow on a wall?

And no, in response to what two-thirds of you just thought: merely doing a search-and-replace on the sister’s name is not sufficient, because if a novel is complex and rich, the spirit of individual characters lingers, even when they do not appear on the page. Necessarily, you would need to write the consciousness of the sociopathic sister out of the psyches of every other character in the family.

And that’s just the fall-out from a single change. The vast majority of revision is minor — which does not mean that any given change might not carry resonance throughout the book.

Starting to see why investing the time to list your revisions might conceivably be a time-saver in the long run? Or at least why I have been harping on the necessity of sitting down and reading your manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, AND getting unbiased readers to look it over before you submit it to an agent, editor, or contest? Yes, it’s the best way to catch grammatical, spelling, and continuity errors — but it is also really the only way to notice where a deleted character or plot point still affects the rest of the book.

While you’re reading your manuscript, do be aware that It is far from uncommon for fledgling writers to incorporate the style, vocabulary, and/or worldview of whatever author they happen to be reading at the moment into their work. It’s sort of like catching an accent when you’re staying in another country: you may not realize that you’re doing it, but others hear and wonder why your accent keeps wandering back and forth between London and Brooklyn.

I’ll admit it: this used to be my personal Frankenstein bête noire. When I was writing the novel my agent is currently marketing, I was reading a whole lot of Noël Coward. An extremely witty writer; I enjoy his work very much. However, he wrote almost exclusively about (a) pre-WWII British people and (b) people who inhabited now-transformed British colonial possessions.

My novel is about the adult lives of children who grew up on an Oregon commune, so obviously, my characters should not talk like Coward’s. (Although it would have been amusing to try: “My dear, your hot tub attire is simply too killing!” “Reginald, I must implore you to desist from taunting the yoga instructor!” “May one inquire whether this tabbouleh is indeed vegan? The most frightful consequences may otherwise ensue.” “While your sincerity is charming on a multiplicity of levels, Felicia, I cannot fail to notice that you have once again neglected your duties in tending to the sauna’s controls.”)

I made a deliberate effort not to incorporate educated British cadences into my dialogue, and in self-editing, deleted any lines of thought that smacked even vaguely of 1920s urbanity. However, being a very experienced editor, I was aware that I would probably miss a few, so not only did I read the entirety of my novel out loud (much to the astonishment of my cats and neighbors), but I also passed it under the eyes of first readers I trust, with the explicit instruction that they should highlight any archaic Briticisms.

And you know what? I had missed three in my on-screen revisions, but caught in my hard-copy read-through — much to the relief, no doubt, of my highlighter-wielding friends.

My point here — other than providing some fascinating footnote material for some graduate student fifty years from now who wants to write her thesis on Noël Coward’s influence upon Gen X American novelists — is that no matter how good you get at self-editing on a page-by-page basis, in order to avoid sending out a Frankenstein manuscript, you simply must take additional steps in screening your work.

Get used to it now: you will never outgrow the need. No writer does.

Partially, it is a focus problem. In the throes of the revision process — especially on a computer screen, which encourages reading in a piecemeal, episodic fashion not conducive to catching overarching patterns — it is terribly easy to lose sight of your book AS A BOOK.

This is where a sharp-eyed writers’ group, a good writing teacher, a freelance editor, or even someone you’ve met at a writers’ conference with whom you can exchange work can be most helpful to you: assisting you in identifying what in the finished book jars with the integrity of the whole. These sources are also great for pointing out continuity errors, such as when the sociopath is named Janet for three chapters in the middle of the book, and Marie-Claire for the rest.

Not only will dependable outside eyes weed out Frankenstein tendencies, but the mere fact of having to defend your authorial choices to them will force you to make all of your deviations from standard narrative conscious, rather than accidental. Lest we forget, such discussions are also terrific practice for wrangling with your future agent and editors.

If you’re going at it alone, my advice comes in four parts.

(1) Once you have read through the whole manuscript, go back and read it again, projecting onto it the style and/or voice you like best. Does it work?

(2a) If the answer is yes, rejoice. Then skip to Step 3.

(2b) If the answer is no, pick another style or voice from the text, and project it through the entire manuscript.

(3) When you find one you like, save the original manuscript as a separate file, so you have the option of changing your mind later, and work through a separate copy, establishing the new style. In some parts, this may require extensive revision; others may need nothing but a few small tweaks.

(4) After you have finished, read the entire thing out loud again, for consistency. Does it work? More importantly, do you like it better than the original draft?

In answer to what half of you just mentally screamed: heck, yes, this is going to take you a lot of time — but few in the publishing industry would prefer to see a half-polished manuscript by a good writer, if the writer could deliver a beautifully consistent manuscript four months hence. (Unless, of course, a contract with a deadline is involved.)

Honestly, it will take you far, far less time, in both the diagnosis and repair stages, if you take your Frankenstein manuscript on a field trip to other readers before you submit it to an agent or editor. If a writing group or class seems too time-consuming, consider hiring a freelance editor; if a freelance editor seems too expensive, join a writing group.

When you are making these calculations, though, do not forget to weigh the value of your time into the equation. If attending a group once a week or paying an editor saves you a year’s worth of solo work, it might well be worth it.

Which brings me to the great question that loyal reader Pam submitted a while back: how does one FIND a freelance editor like me?

Well, Pam, as it happens, I have established a rather extensive set of posts addressing that very question. They may be found collected on the archive list at right, under the startlingly original category title HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? Those posts will give you a sense of what services an editor provides (not all of us do the same thing), what to expect to pay (which varies depending upon the level of editing), and what questions you might want to ask before you sign anything that looks even remotely like a contract.

For writers in the Pacific Northwest, another great resource is the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild’s website. For each member editor, there’s a small blurb and contact information. You can search by geographic region, the type of book you want edited, even preferred style manual, or you can post your job for editors to see.

You’re going to want either to go through an organization or get a referral to find a reputable editor, because emotionally, handing your book over to a total stranger for criticism is a difficult thing; you will want to make sure in advance that you can trust the recipient. NWIEG verifies that each member has significant editorial experience — and believe it or not, we actually do argue about punctuation on our members’ forum — so you can feel relatively secure that any editor listed will have the skills and background s/he claims s/he does.

Do take the time to have a conversation or e-mail exchange with any freelance editor before you make a commitment, however. A good personality fit is very important, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask a potential editor whether s/he has ever edited your type of book before. Just as no agent represents every variety of book under the sun, no freelance editor will have experience with every book category. While there are plenty of editors out there who are willing to take pretty much anything (for a price), working with someone who is intimately familiar with the particular demands of your book category in the current market is probably going to be more helpful to you than working with a generalist.

One final word on the subject: if you are thinking about asking a freelance editor to work on a tight deadline, do not wait until the deadline is imminent. Good freelance editors are often booked up months in advance, and if you want a careful, thoughtful, professional read, you need to allow time for the editor to do her job.

Thanks for the good question, Pam — and keep up the good work, everybody!

Let’s continue with the basics: how do professional writers format manuscripts, anyway?

Buster Keaton reading

Some of you are already yawning, aren’t you? “Manuscript formatting?” I hear many an aspiring writer grumbling. “What on earth does that have to do with landing an agent and/or getting my book published?”

Plenty, actually; submitting the way professional authors do gives an aspiring writer a competitive advantage in submission. Before I go into why, bear with me for a moment while I share a little editorial anecdote.

Remember how I was telling you that a hefty percentage of the aspiring writers of North America tend to gird their loins, ratchet up their nerves, and send out queries and requested materials in early January of each year, in fulfillment of New Year’s resolutions to get cracking on getting published? These same resolutions lead freelance editors’ desks, or at any rate their e-mail inboxes, to groan under the weight of clients eager to seek their counsel. It’s also the time of year when we can get a preview of what Millicent the agency screener is likely to see for the next eleven months.

I can already tell you this year’s trend, alas: not double-spacing manuscripts. Last year, it was not indenting paragraphs.

A few of my fellow editors laughed at me when I brought it up at lunch last month, deploring that so many aspiring writers had apparently not done their homework on how manuscripts should be formatted. “Oh, come on, Anne,” they scoffed. “The formatting isn’t really the problem for most of those writers. Most of the manuscripts you’re talking about would have gotten rejected by agencies, anyway; the ones who don’t double-space tend not to spell-check, either.”

I sensed a bit of buck-passing. “But what about the ones who do spell-check — and proof-read, and take the time to get feedback on their work before sending it out? Improper formatting can as easily be the result of simple ignorance as of authorial laziness. I’m constantly meeting good writers new to the biz who haven’t the vaguest idea about what a professional manuscript looks like, for the exceedingly simple reason that they’ve never seen one.”

More scoffing. One of the editors even trotted out that old agents’ truism: “If a writer’s serious about getting published, he’ll take the time to learn what the formatting norms are. There are books that explain how to do it.”

“Not to mention your blog, Anne,” another quipped. “How often are you revisiting the rules of standard format these days? Once a year? Twice?”

Actually, it used to be three, but that was before I learned to keep reminding readers to check the archive lists. Still, I wasn’t about to let my friends off that easy. “I’m not denying that it’s possible to learn how to do it right; I’m just pointing out that most of the time, the writers whose manuscripts get rejected unread because of formatting problems have no idea that they’re not getting rejected on the writing itself.” Half the table looked skeptical. “Okay, fine — let’s do a little survey. Hands up: how many of you would read a single-spaced manuscript, if a potential client sent it to you? Or even one-and-a-half spacing? What about non-indented paragraphs?”

Crickets.

And that, my friends, should tell you a lot about just how seriously people who read manuscripts for a living take formatting. Even amongst the open-minded, there is a deep, pervasive prejudice against manuscripts that don’t look right cosmetically. Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, Mehitabel the contest judge: all of these readers whose approval a manuscript must get in order to land an agent, get picked up by a publisher, or make the finals of a contest are so conditioned to expect professional formatting that when they see one that deviates from the rules in any significant respect, they tend to assume, as did the editors above, that the writer is falling down on the job in other respects.

What does that mean in practical terms? Usually, that incorrectly-formatted manuscripts and contest entries are rejected unread.

Why? Well, it’s one of the easiest ways conceivable to narrow the submission pool — which is, if you think about it, job #1 for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel. Do the math: if the average agent receives 800-1200 queries per week and agrees to read even five percent of the manuscripts (high for most agents, by the way), that’s 40-60 manuscripts per week, and thus somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000-3,000 per year. Since even a very successful agent could take on, at most, 4-5 new clients per year, Millicent had better narrow down that applicant pool, pronto, hadn’t she?

So had Maury. So had Mehitabel. Isn’t it fortunate, then, that the vast majority of submitters help these first readers out by presenting their writing unprofessionally?

Yes — really: the majority of submissions are not professionally formatted. They either resemble published books (which is not correct for a manuscript submission), short stories (ditto), or just whatever the submitter happens to think looks nice on the page (extrapolate the answer from the previous two).

All of which makes Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel shout, “Hallelujah,” especially of late, when both query and submission rates have been skyrocketing. A lot of closet writers for whom writing a book has always been plan B — and with the economy in its current state, many folks seem to be pulling partially-finished manuscripts out of desk drawers these days. (Well, okay, off their hard disks, but it amounts to the same thing.) Because of the aforementioned books coming out of drawers, agencies and small publishing houses are seeing more queries than usual right now. The timing’s a tad unfortunate, since this is also a period where publishing houses have been laying off editors and other staff.

Translation: you know how fierce the competition to get picked up by an agent already was before the economy went south? It’s become even tougher.

While those of you who have been at it awhile are still reeling from the implications of that last statement, let me slip a few hard facts under the noses of those who have yet to submit for the first time:

(1) There exists a standard format for manuscripts to which US-based agents and editors expect submissions to adhere, regardless of whether those manuscripts are produced by seasoned pros with many book sales under their belts or those brand-new to the biz, and thus

(2) using fancy typefaces, including cover artwork, printing manuscript pages on colored paper, and/or any other deviations from standard format in one’s submission will NOT be regarded as interesting expressions of the author’s individual point of view, but rather as evidence that the author doesn’t know about (1). As a result,

(3) manuscripts submitted in standard format tend to be treated with SUBSTANTIALLY more respect by agency screeners, editorial assistants, contest judges, and pretty much everyone who happens to read unpublished prose for a living. Despite this fact,

(4) one does occasionally hear agents and editors ask for deviations from standard format; one should definitely give them precisely what they ask to see. However, it’s never advisable to generalize what one individual says s/he wants into a brand-new trend sweeping the industry. Nor is it a good idea to ape the formatting choices one sees in a published book, because

(5) book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, and for many excellent, practical reasons. That being the case, those who screen manuscripts for a living tend to draw unfavorable conclusions about submissions that do aspire to book formatting, much as they do when aspiring writers are not aware that

(6) standard format for book-length manuscripts is NOT business format, either, and just using what you learned about short stories won’t do, either. Nor is it necessarily identical to what your word processor’s grammar checker will ask you to do, or even the AP style one sees in newspapers and magazines. None of these will look correct to an agent or editor who deals with book manuscripts, because the norms there are very specific. This may seem nit-picky and irrelevant to the quality of the writing in question, but think about it:

(7) if a host asks you to a formal dinner, it’s only polite to wear formal attire; a guest who shows up in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt is going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. (If it’s not clear to you why, review point 2.) Similarly, when placed side-by-side with professional manuscripts, as a successful submission inevitably will, a wackily put-together manuscript will stand out as unprofessional, a phenomenon that all too often leads to

(8) most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Not always because it deviates from standard format — although the vast majority of submissions do — but because an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript already has one strike against it, and who needs that? Ultimately,

(9) it’s just not worth your while to try to fudge your way out of these standards, since the price of a submission’s annoying a professional reader can be so high. And as I mentioned above, no matter how many times my readers, students, and editing clients ask me if agents, editors, and contest judges are REALLY serious about them, I’m not going to give you permission to ignore any single one of the standard format strictures. No way. Stop asking, already.

Why might knowing all this — and, more importantly, acting upon this knowledge — translate into higher acceptance rates, typically? Well, the aspiring writer who acts upon this information conscientiously is probably producing submissions within the top 2% of what crosses Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day.

Yes, really. So if any of the information on the list above came as a surprise to you in any way, it’s incredibly important that you should join me on a tiptoe through the intricacies of standard format.

I implore those of you who have been through this material with me before: don’t just skip these posts on standard format. I see manuscripts all the time by experienced albeit unpublished writers that contain standard format violations; heck, they occasionally turn up in the work of published writers, if the complaints their agents and editors make in those bars that are never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America are to be believed.

Seriously, all of us could use a review from time to time — say, the twice per year I bring the matter up here. Because, you see, I am far from the only professional reader who takes umbrage, when manuscripts deviate from certain time-honored restrictions. Trust me, Millicent started twitching at the very sight of them before she’d had her job three weeks.

Yes, even if the formatting in question would be perfectly legitimate in other writing environments. (See points 2, 3, 5, and 6 above, for instance.) And yes, yes, oh, yes, even if the deviation is precisely what some agent, editor, writing guru, or darned fool writing expert like me has suddenly announced to the world is the new norm.

Millicent didn’t get that memo.

Think about it: why would she, unless she happens to work for the agent-who-blogs or editor-who-is-trying-to-be-helpful who promulgated the new advice? Indeed, why would anyone who works with manuscripts for a living go out looking to see what folks outside the industry — or, at minimum, outside her agency’s office — are demanding of writers these days, when the basics of standard format have actually changed very little for decades?

Actually, it would be very much against her self-interest to go trolling for such information, because –chant it with e now — it’s so much easier just to regard submissions that don’t adhere to standard format as inherently unprofessional, and thus (by implication) less likely to contain writing destined to take the publishing world by storm.

To put it bluntly, it would slow her per-submission rejection time.

I hope no one out there fainted, because this is a vital fact for any submitting writer to understand: the folks who read submissions (and queries) in order to decide who gets a break and who doesn’t are in a HURRY. Remember the stats above; these people have a heck of a lot of reading to do.

As we saw in our series on how manuscripts get published, in the face of that many pieces of paper to plow through, even the reading of submissions tends to be awfully rushed: the goal becomes to weed out as many as possible as quickly as possible, rather than seeking out gems. Once a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for a while, s/he will usually develop a knack for coming to a conclusion about a piece of writing within the first paragraph or two.

Sometimes even within the first line or two. (For a fairly frightening run-down of the common first-page rejection reasons, you might want to check out the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the list at right.)

What does this trigger-happiness mean for aspiring writers who scoff at standard format, or just don’t know about it? Well, it’s not good: agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not).

And unfortunately for writers unaware of the rules, a non-standard manuscript is child’s play to spot from the moment a professional reader lays eyes upon it. That can be an extremely serious problem for a submission, because — wait for it — being identified as not professionally formatted renders it FAR more likely to be rejected.

Why? Shout it with me now: agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that a screener’s primary goal is to weed out the one she is reading at the moment.

The faster she can do that, the better, to move through that mountain of paper on her desk. So a first page that cries out the moment Millicent lays eyes on it, “This writer is brand-new to the game and will require quite a bit of your boss’ time to coach into being able to produce a manuscript that an agent would be comfortable submitting to an editor!” is a downright gift to her: she can feel completely comfortable rejecting it at the very first typo, cliché, or word choice she doesn’t happen to like.

Heck, she might not even wait to spot any of the above. She might just say, “Oh, look — single-spacing. Next!”

This dark, dark cloud is not without its proverbial silver lining, however. By logical extension, the more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be read with interest by a screener in a hurry.

See now why aspiring writers cognizant of points (1) – (9) enjoy a considerable competitive advantage at submission time?

I don’t know about you, but I’m all for anything that helps a good writer’s work get taken more seriously, especially in the current super-tight submission environment, which is more rejection-happy than I’ve ever seen it — and I’ve been listening to writers, agents, and editors complain about the state of the literary market since I was in my cradle. (Literally. Long story.)

Right now, Harry Houdini himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on extricating oneself from tight situations. (And if that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your industry-speak.)

So to help give you that competitive edge, I’m going to start running though the rules of standard format — and no, Virginia, none of them are negotiable.

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY asks you to do otherwise. And I’m dead serious about using ONLY white paper: ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes.

Yes, yes, buff or parchment can look very nice, but there’s a strategic reason to use bright white paper: very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader out there, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.

The ONLY colored paper that should ever go anywhere near a manuscript is the single sheet that separates one copy of a submission or book proposal from the next, so it is easy for an agent to see where to break the stack. (But you don’t need to know about that until your agent asks you to send 15 copies of your book for submitting to editors. Put it out of your mind for now.)

Nice, clear, dark print is optimal here, so do spring for a new printer cartridge. You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; it’s as though the author dunked in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping it in the mail.

Which is sad, because submissions with poor print quality are — you’re ahead of me on this one, aren’t you? — almost never read.

Speaking of never, never, ever, eversubmit a dim photocopy; print out an original, every time, You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; it’s as though the author dunked in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping it in the mail.

Oh, you may chuckle at the notion of sending out a grainy photocopy, but believe me, any contest judge has seen many, many entries submitted that way. Mehitabel likes them, actually: for every one that pops up, her reading time is shortened. Any guesses why?

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way (again, unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise)

Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the literally millions of pages of submissions that go flying into the agencies and publishing houses every month. Most agencies do not even recycle; as I mentioned in my last series, the vast majority of agencies did not even consider accepting e-mailed queries at all until the anthrax-in-envelopes scare.

I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory. Also, writers would all be granted an extra month a year in which to write, excellent and inexpensive child care while writing, a cedar-lined cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in which to do it, and a pineapple upside-down cake on Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. Perhaps some hard candies on Agatha Christie’s birthday as well, in affluent years, and dancing on Mme. de Staël’s.

But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe (see disclaimer above), we shall all have to live with the status quo.

Which is to say: the publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

Unbound means precisely what it says: no binding of any kind. You’d be surprised at how often writers violate the thou-shalt-not-bind rule, including paper clips, rubber bands, or even binders with their submissions. Since agents always circulate manuscripts without any sort of binding, these doohickeys just scream, “I’m unfamiliar with the industry.”

SASE, open wide: here comes a returned manuscript.

The ONLY exception to this rule is a nonfiction book proposal — not the manuscript, just the proposal — which is typically presented UNBOUND in a black folder, the kind with horizontal pockets. (For tips on how a book proposal should be presented, please see the aptly-titled BOOK PROPOSALS category on the list at right.)

Which doesn’t mean that you aren’t perfectly welcome to print double-sided or bind copies for your own purposes; just don’t show your work to the pros that way. As Author! Author!’s very first commenter Dave tends to chime in when I bring this up — and helpfully — if you wish to make double-sided, 3-hole-punched, be-bindered drafts for circulating to your first readers for ease of toting around, be my guest.

But NEVER submit in that manner to a professional reader unless s/he has asked you to do so. Trust me on this one.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified, as published books, e-mails, business letters, and online writing tend to be.

Translation: the left margin should be straight; the right margin should not.

Many fledgling writers find (3) nearly impossible to accept, because it is one of the most visually obvious ways in which a professional manuscript differs from a printed book. They believe, wrongly, that anything that makes their submission look more like what’s on the shelves at Barnes & Noble is inherently professional. In practice, quite the opposite is true.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program can replicate that practically effortlessly, if you ask it nicely to do so. Bully for it.

But don’t take advantage of that pleasing capacity, I beg you: the straight margin should be the left one; the right should be ragged, as if you had produced the manuscript on a typewriter.

Fear not if you’re having trouble picturing this: I shall be showing you concrete examples later in this series. For now, you’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you that block-justifying your submission is going to appeal to your garden-variety Millicent about as much as a slap in the face.

Speaking of things I’m going to demonstrate in the days to come, NEVER format a query or cover letter to someone in the industry in business format: indent those paragraphs. (And yes, now that you bring it up, I do intend to show you why. Hold your proverbial horses, already.)

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New; pick one and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Even if you have a strong preference for the lettering in your book when it is published, use one of these typefaces for submission purposes. Personally, I would never dream of allowing a client of mine to submit a manuscript in anything but Times New Roman, nor would I ever submit any of my work in anything else. It is the standard typeface of the publishing industry, just as Courier is the norm of screenwriting.

A tad silly, you say? Perhaps, but it’s one of the bizarre facts of publishing life that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously, and with good reason: these are the typefaces upon which the most commonly-used word count estimations are based. (Psst: if you don’t know why you should be estimating the length of your manuscript rather than using actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

To forestall the usual question someone brings up at this point: yes, most published books ARE in typefaces other than Times or Courier, but typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author. Submission time is not the appropriate period for making your preferences known.

Why? Shout it with me now, understanders of point (5) at the top of this post — MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME.

If you’re very nice down the line, after a publishing house has acquired your book, they may listen to your suggestions. They may giggle a little, true, but they might listen. Ditto with the cover and the title, which are — brace yourselves — almost never under the author’s control.

Why? Because these are considered matters of packaging and marketing, not content.

All of which begs the question, of course: why do word processing programs tempt us so many typefaces from which to choose, if we’re not supposed to use them?

Answer: because the people who make word processing programs are not the same people who decide what books get published in North America. Which is why, in case you’re wondering, what Microsoft Word means by word count and what the average agent or editor does are not typically the same thing.

Again, so there.

There are a few agents out there who have their own font preferences (usually Courier, and usually because they also represent screenplays) so do check their websites and/or listings in the standard agency guides. As ever, the golden rule of dealing with an agent you want to represent you is GIVE ‘EM PRECISELY WHAT THEY ASK TO SEE, not what you would like them to see.

Fair warning: if you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Yes, one sees this in a published book occasionally, but I assure you, the choice to indulge in these formatting differences was the editor’s, not the author’s.

Sorry. (See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.)

I’m still sensing some skepticism out there on the font issue, but that may be a hangover from reader reactions to previous series on standard format. Almost invariably, around the time that I bring up Rule #4, someone posts a comment informing me huffily that website X advises something different, that this agent said at a conference she doesn’t care what typeface you use, that a certain manual said that standards have changed from the traditional guidelines I set out here, or some other observation presumably intended to make me rend my garments and cry, “Finally, I see the error of my ways! I guess I’ll disregard the fact that I’ve never seen the change you mention actually in use in a professional manuscript and declare it to be the new norm!”

To save you the trouble and sound like a broken record at the same time: it’s not gonna happen.

I have no doubt that all of these comments are indeed pointing out legitimate differences in advice, but it is not my purpose here to police the net for standardization of advice. If you like guidelines you find elsewhere better, by all means follow them.

All I claim for these rules — and it is not an insubstantial claim — is that nothing I advise here will EVER strike an agent or editor as unprofessional; even if any give agent, editor, or contest judge should happen to harbor personal preferences for other formatting choices, anyone who has been in the biz for a while will recognize pages in standard format as the industry norm.

Why is that important? Adhering to these rules will mean that your writing is going to be judged on your writing, not your formatting. And that, my friends, is nothing at which to sneeze.

Speaking of which: my apologies for being a trifle slow to get to this topic, campers — that flu I had last week has developed into bronchitis, and I try not to post when I’m feverish. Tends to make me a trifle testy. So if I’m a trifle slow in answering questions left in the comments over the next week or so, I’m sure you’ll understand. Rest assured, I’ll get to them just as soon as I stop coughing.

More rules follow next time, of course, as well as buckets more explanation. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Another query packet classic: ladies and gentlemen, I give you the dreaded synopsis

Yes Virginia text

Did that title make some of you cringe? Curl into a little ball and whimper? Dash screaming from the room?

That’s right, folks: it’s once again time for my yearly foray into the mysteries of synopsis-writing. You didn’t think I was going to let you send off those query letters you’ve just perfected with just a so-so synopsis, did you?

I’m kind of excited to be exploring the subject again, to tell you the truth. Having recently had to produce several synopses on a tight deadline myself — yes, Virginia: unlike query letters, agented writers still have to produce synopses on a regular basis — I’m fresh from that oh, God, how can I possibly give any sense of my book in so short a space? feeling this time around. So I’ve been overhauling my classic advice on the subject, fine-tuning it so what I say is in fact what I do.

Before I launch into the resulting avalanche of insights, however, I want to give you all a heads-up about some alternate reading material that might help everyone understand the culture within which synopses, queries, and manuscript submissions tend to be read.

A bit surprised? I don’t blame you; this is sort of out of character for me. As the proprietor of a self-consciously practical blog on all things writerly, I seldom use this space to urge my readers to click elsewhere and read any of the many articles out there about the state of the publishing business. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that most of my readers don’t come to Author! Author! primarily because they a little extra time to kill: as those of you who stuck with me through my recent How to Write a Really Good Query Letter series, I tend to operate on the proposition that we’re all here to work.

Not that we don’t have a quite a bit of lighthearted fun on the way, of course. But I figure that those of you deeply interested in the dire predictions that keep cropping up about the future of books can track them down on your own. (As, I must admit, I do on a regular basis.)

Today, I’m going to make an exception. In the last week or so, a couple of really informative essays have popped up on the web. The first, a series of observations in the Barnes & Noble Review about, you guessed it, the state of modern publishing, is by former Random House executive editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker. I think it’s essential reading for any aspiring writer — or published one, for that matter — seeking to understand why getting a good book published isn’t as simple as just writing and submitting it.

In the midst of some jaw-dropping statements like, “Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors,” Menaker gives a particularly strong explanation for why, contrary to prevailing writerly rumor, editors expect the books they acquire not to require much editing, raising the submission bar to the point that some agency websites now suggest in their guidelines that queriers have their books freelance-edited before even beginning to look for an agent. Quoth Mssr. Menaker:

The sheer book-length nature of books combined with the seemingly inexorable reductions in editorial staffs and the number of submissions most editors receive, to say nothing of the welter of non-editorial tasks that most editors have to perform, including holding the hands of intensely self-absorbed and insecure writers, fielding frequently irate calls from agents, attending endless and vapid and ritualistic meetings, having one largely empty ceremonial lunch after another, supplementing publicity efforts, writing or revising flap copy, ditto catalog copy, refereeing jacket-design disputes, and so on — all these conditions taken together make the job of a trade-book acquisitions editor these days fundamentally impossible. The shrift given to actual close and considered editing almost has to be short and is growing shorter, another very old and evergreen publishing story but truer now than ever before. (Speaking of shortness, the attention-distraction of the Internet and the intrusion of work into everyday life, by means of electronic devices, appear to me to have worked, maybe on a subliminal level, to reduce the length of the average trade hardcover book.)?

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Which made your stomach knot tighter, the bit about book length or that slap about writers’ insecurities?

It’s a bit of a depressing read, admittedly, but I cannot emphasize enough how essential it is to a career writer’s long-term happiness to gain a realistic conception of how the publishing industry works. Since rejection feels so personal, it can be hard for an isolated writer to differentiate between rebuffs based upon a weakness in the manuscript itself, a book concept that’s just not likely to sell well in the current market, and a knee-jerk reaction to something as basic as length. It’s far, far too easy to become bitter or to assume, wrongly, that one’s writing can be the only possible reason for rejection.

Don’t do that to yourself, I implore you. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your writing.

The second piece I’d like to call to your attention is a fascinating discussion of ethnic diversity (or lack thereof) in the children’s book market by children’s author, poet, and playwright Zetta Elliott. An excerpt would not really do justice to her passionate and persuasive argument against the homogenization of literature — children’s, YA, and adult — but if you’re even vaguely interested in how publishers define who their target markets are and aren’t, and how that can limit where they look for new authorial voices, I would strongly recommend checking out her post.

Back to the business at hand: some of your hands have been waving in the air since the third paragraph of this post. “What on earth do you mean, Anne?” shout impatient hand-raisers everywhere. “I thought synopsis-writing was just yet another annoying hoop through which I was going to need to jump in order to land an agent, a skill to be instrumentally acquired, then swiftly forgotten because I’d never have to use it again. Why would I ever need to write one other than to tuck into a query or submission packet?”

You’re sitting down, I hope? It may come as a surprise to some of you, but synopsis-writing is a task that dogs a professional writer at pretty much every step of her career. Just a few examples how:

* An aspiring writer almost always has to produce one at either the querying or submission stages of finding an agent.

* A nonfiction writer penning a proposal needs to synopsize the book she’s trying to sell, regardless of whether s/he is already represented by an agent.

* Agented writers are often asked to produce a synopsis of a new book projects before they invest much time in writing them, so their agents can assess the concepts’ marketability and start to think about editors who might be interested.

Because the more successful you are as a writer of books, the more often you are likely be asked to produce one of the darned things, synopsis-writing is a fabulous skill to add to your writer’s tool kit as early in your career as possible. Amazingly frequently, though, writers both aspiring and agented avoid even thinking about the methodology of constructing one of the darned things until the last possible nanosecond before they need one, as if writing an effective synopsis were purely a matter of luck or inspiration.

It isn’t. It’s a learned skill. We’re going to be spending this segment of the query packet contents series learning it.

What makes me so sure that pretty much every writer out there could use a crash course in the craft of synopsis writing, or at the very least a refresher? A couple of reasons. First, let me ask you something: if you had only an hour to produce a synopsis for your current book project, could you do it?

Okay, what if I asked you for a 1-page synopsis and gave you only 15 minutes?

I’m not asking to be cruel, I assure you: as a working professional writer, I’ve actually had to work under deadlines that short. And even when I had longer to crank something out, why would I want to squander my scarce writing time producing a document that will never be seen by my readers, since it’s only for internal agency or publishing house use? I’d rather just do a quick, competent job and get on with the rest of my work.

I’m guessing that chorus of small whimpering sounds means that some of you share the same aspiration.

The second reason I suspect even those of you who have written them before could stand a refresher is that you can’t throw a piece of bread at any good-sized writers’ conference in the English-speaking world without hitting at least one writer complaining vociferously about how awful it is to have to summarize a 500-page book in just a couple of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer at any stage of the game who actually LIKES to write them, but those of us farther along tend to regard them as a necessary evil, a professional obligation to be met quickly and with a minimum of fuss, to get it out of the way.

Judging by conference talk (and, if I’m honest, by the reaction of some of my students when I teach synopsis-writing classes), aspiring writers are more likely to respond with frustration, often to the point of feeling downright insulted by the necessity of synopses for their books at all.

Most often, the complaints center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier shakes his fist at the heavens and cries, need it be so cruelly short? What on earth could be the practical difference between reading a 5-page synopsis and a 6-page one, if not to make a higher hurdle for those trying to break into a notoriously hard-to-break-into business? And how much more could even the sharpest-eyed Millicent learn from a 1-page synopsis that she could glean from a descriptive paragraph in a query letter?

I can answer that last one: about three times as much, usually.

As we’ve already seen with so many aspects of the querying and submission process, confusion about what is required and why often adds considerably to synopsis-writers’ stress. While the tiny teasers required for pitches and query letters are short for practical, easily-understood reasons — time and the necessity for the letter’s being a single page, which also boils down to a time issue, since the single-page restriction exists to speed up Millicent the agency screener’s progress — it’s less clear why, say, an agent would ask to see a synopsis of a manuscript he is ostensibly planning to read.

I sympathize with the confusion, but I must say, I always cringe a little when I hear writers express such resentments. I want to take them aside and say, “Honey, you really need to be careful that attitude doesn’t show up on the page — because, honestly, that happens more than you’d think, and it’s never, ever, EVER helpful to the writer.”

Not to say that these feelings are not completely legitimate in and of themselves, or even a healthy, natural response to a task perceived to be enormous. Let’s face it, the first time most of us sit down to do it, it feels as though we’ve been asked to rewrite our entire books from scratch, but in miniature. From a writerly point of view, if a story takes an entire book-length manuscript to tell well, boiling it down to 5 or 3 or even — sacre bleu!1 page seems completely unreasonable, if not actually impossible.

Which it would be, if that were what a synopsis was universally expected to achieve. Fortunately for writers everywhere, it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Aren’t you glad you were already sitting down?

As I’m going to illustrate over the next week or two, an aspiring writer’s impression of what a synopsis is supposed to be is often quite different from what the pros have become resigned to producing, just as producing a master’s thesis seems like a much, much larger task to those who haven’t written one than those of us who have.

And don’t even get me started on dissertations.

Once a writer comes to understand the actual purpose and uses of the synopsis — some of which are far from self-evident — s/he usually finds it considerably easier to write. So, explanation maven that I am, I’m going to devote this series to clarifying just what it is you are and aren’t being asked to do in a synopsis, why, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Relax; you can do this. Since I haven’t talked about synopses in depth for a good, long while, let’s start with the absolute basics:

A synopsis is a brief overview IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Unlike an outline, which presents a story arc in a series of bullet points (essentially), a synopsis is fully fleshed-out prose. Ideally, it should be written in a similar voice and tone to the book it summarizes, but even for a first-person novel, it should be written in the third person.

The lone exception on the voice front: a memoir’s synopsis can be written in both the past tense and should be written in the first person. Go figure. (Don’t worry — I’ll be showing you concrete examples of both in the days to come.)

Typically, professional synopses are 5 pages in standard manuscript format (and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces; see my parenthetical comment in the examples to come). Querying or submission synopses may be the standard 5 pages or shorter, depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest — so do make sure to double-check any written guidelines an agency’s website, small press’ submission standards, or contest’s rules might provide.

Yes, Virginia, in the series to come, I will be discussing how to write both long and short versions.

That’s new for me: for the first few years I blogged, I merely talked about the long form, since it was the industry standard; much shorter, and you’re really talking about a book concept (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, please see the BOOK CONCEPT category at right) or a longish pitch, rather than a plot overview. However, over the last couple of years (not entirely uncoincidentally, as more and more agents began accepting e-queries), agencies began to request shorter synopses from queriers, often as little as a single page. There’s nothing like an industry standard for a shorter length, though. Sometimes, an agent will ask for 3, or a contest for 2. It varies.

Let me repeat that a third time, just in case anyone out there missed the vital point: not every agent wants the same length synopsis; there isn’t an absolute industry standard length for a querying, submission, or contest synopsis. So if any of you had been hoping to write a single version to use in every conceivable context, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

That resentment I mentioned earlier is starting to rise like steam, isn’t it? Yes, in response to that great unspoken shout that just rose from my readership, it would indeed be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet that would fly at any agency in the land.

Feel free to find that maddening — it’s far, far healthier not to deny the emotion. While you’re grumbling, however, let’s take a look at why an agency or contest might want a shorter synopsis.

Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, Millicent really is overworked — and often not paid very much to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. And obviously, a 1-page synopsis takes less time to read than a 5-page one.

“Well, duh, Anne,” our Virginia huffs, clearly irate at being used as every essayist’s straw woman for decades. “I also understand the time-saving imperative; you’ve certainly hammered on it often enough. What I don’t understand is, if the goal is to save time in screening submissions, why would anyone ever ask for a synopsis that was longer than a page? And if Millicent is so darned harried, why wouldn’t she just go off the descriptive paragraph in the query letter?”

Fabulous questions, Virginia. You’ve come a long way since that question about the existence of Santa Claus.

Remember, though, Ms. V, it’s not as though the average agency or small publishing house reads the query letter and submission side-by-side: they’re often read by different people, under different circumstances. Synopses are often read by people (the marketing department in a publishing house, for instance) who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. Frequently, if an agent has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll scan the synopsis to see what happens in the rest of the book. Ditto with contest judges, who have only the synopsis and a few pages of a book in front of them.

And, of course, some agents will use a synopsis promotionally, to cajole an editor into reading a manuscript — but again, 5-page synopses are traditional for this purpose. As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses that have recently become so popular typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all.

Why not? Well, realistically, a 1-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?”

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? Let’s let Virginia be your spokesperson: “Wait — this makes it sound as though my novel synopsis is never going to see the light of day outside the agency. If I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why don’t all agents just forward it to editors who might be interested, rather than the entire manuscript of my novel?”

Ah, that would be logical, wouldn’t it? But as with so many other flawed human institutions, logic does not necessarily dictate why things are done the way they are within the industry; much of the time, tradition does.

Thus, the argument often heard against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear. Publishing houses buy on the manuscript itself, not the summary. Nonfiction, by contrast, is seldom sold on a finished manuscript.

So for a novel, the synopsis is primarily a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. (This is not true of nonfiction, where the synopsis is part of the book proposal. For some helpful how-to on constructing one, check out the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL on the archive list at right.)

I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request from a novelist — indications of target market, author bio, etc. (For nonfiction, of course, all of these would be included within the aforementioned book proposal.)

Requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents — you guessed it — time. Since the tendency in recent years has been to transfer as much of the agents’ work to potential clients as possible, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if agents started asking for the full NF packet from novelists within the next few years.

Crunching a dry cracker should help quell the nausea that prospect induced, Virginia. Let’s not worry about that dread day until it happens, shall we? For now, let’s stick to the current requirements.

Why is the 5-page synopsis more popular than, say, 3 pages? Well, 5 pages in standard format is roughly 1250 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake: publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy.

And in a query packet synopsis, praise for a manuscript or book proposal, rather than an actual description of its plot or premise, is not going to help Millicent decide whether her boss is likely to be interested in the book in question. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what industry professionals want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but a summary of what the book is ABOUT.

In other words, like the query, the synopsis is a poor place to boast. Since the jacket blurb-type synopsis is so common, many agencies use it as — wait for it, Virginia — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.

Yes, that’s a trifle unfair to those new to the biz, but the industry logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably also unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (they reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it.

With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away.

“In heaven’s name,” Virginia cries, “WHY? They must let a huge number of really talented writers who don’t happen to know the ropes slip through their nets!”

To borrow your metaphor, Virginia, there are a whole lot of fish in the submission sea — and exponentially more in the querying ocean. as I MAY have pointed out once or twice before in this forum, agencies (and contests) typically receive so many well-written submissions that their screeners are actively looking for reasons to reject them, not to accept them. An unprofessional synopsis is an easy excuse to thin the ranks of the contenders.

Before anyone begins pouting: as always, I’m pointing out the intensity of the competition not to depress or intimidate you, but to help you understand just how often good writers get rejected for, well, reasons other than the one we all tend to assume. That fact alone strikes me as excellent incentive to learn what an agency, contest, or small publisher wants to see in a synopsis.

And let him have it just that way, to quote the late, great Fats Waller.

The hard fact is, they receive so many queries in any given week that they can afford to be as selective as they like about synopses — and ask for any length they want. Which explains the variation in requested length: every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

I know: it’s awful to think of one’s own work — or indeed, that of any dedicated writer — being treated that way. If I ran the universe, synopses would not be treated this way. Instead, each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent the agency screener would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with that clear, concise list.

Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.

Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed in recent months, I do not run the universe, so we writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. However much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Sounds a bit familiar? It should — the same principle applies to query letters.

As convenient as it would be for aspiring writers everywhere if you could just write the darned things once and make copies as needed, it’s seldom in your interest to do so. Literally the only pressure for standardization comes from writers, who pretty uniformly wish that there were a single formula for the darned thing, so they could write it once and never think about it again.

You could make the argument that there should be an industry standard until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that, in the long run, you will be far, far better off if you give each what s/he asks to see. Just that way.

Well, so much for synopses. Tomorrow, we’ll move on to author bios.

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you through both its construction and past its most common pitfalls. In a couple of weeks, you’ll be advising other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit.

Keep asking those probing questions, Virginia: this process is far from intuitive. And, as always, keep up the good work!

The Frankenstein manuscript, part III: the monster always returns

la-cite-at-night
Yes, I really did take this photo myself — and yes, I really did take it within the last few weeks. Cathar country is positively rife with castles of various descriptions.

Not that one positively requires castles nearby in order to enjoy a productive writing retreat, of course. But I have to say, it doesn’t seem to hurt.

Well, I got sidetracked in my last post, didn’t I? I got you all excited about the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon, promised to tell you how to work through it — and then wrote about other things for a couple of days.

Sorry about that; I’m back in the saddle today.

For those of you just tuning in, a Frankenstein manuscript is a work that — usually inadvertently — is written in so many different voices, styles, structures, and even quality of writing that it reads as though it had been written by a committee. Since I have literally never heard a single speaker at a writing conference address this very common problem — but have so often heard agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, and freelance editors complain about it in private — I wanted to alert my readers to it, lest the monster return again.

Because it will, you know. The first rule of horror is that the monster always returns.

In a way, a Frankenstein manuscript is a gift for a busy agent, editor, or judge, because it’s so very easy to reject. While I am generally very much in favor of writers doing everything they can, short of laundry or house-painting, to make their agents’ and editors’ lives easier, trust me, you do not want to be on the donating end of such a gift.

Seriously, from a professional reader’s point of view, it’s no-brainer rejection if ever there was one: clearly, Millicent the agency screener thinks, if the author herself did not catch the Frankensteinish inconsistency of the text, the book needs to go through at least one more major edit.

And believe me, this needs another editing run-through is not something you want Millicent to think while considering whether to pass your submission on to her boss, the agent of your dreams. Remember, in order to reject the manuscript, all she needs to think is, “While it’s an interesting premise,” (or voice, or style, etc.) “the author needs to work on craft, structure, and consistency.”

In other words: “Next!”

I know I say this a lot, but it bears repeating: aspiring writers tend to overestimate, sometimes radically, the amount of time and energy an agent will be willing to invest in their first books. Think about it: every moment an agent devotes to nursing a new client’s manuscript into a publishable state is a moment that he is not spending selling books. Or reading the new works of clients who have already made him money. Or, perhaps closer to the hearts of agent-seekers everywhere, scanning submissions from aspiring writers.

Contrary to popular opinion, agencies are very seldom charitable institutions, devoted selflessly to the promotion of great literature. Even agencies that do in fact represent great literature are in the game to make money. In order to do that, they need to sell books.

Which means, in case I’ve been too subtle so far, that they’re looking for manuscripts that they not only could conceivably sell to publishing houses, but sell quickly in the current market. By definition, a manuscript that needs a whole lot of work is not going to be ready to market as soon as one that does not.

Besides, agencies receive too many letter-perfect submissions to devote much time to fixer-uppers. They figure that the fixer-uppers will come back to them eventually, anyway, all cleaned up.

Without their intervention. The average agent’s faith in the tenacity of the talented is unbounded. He honestly does believe that his dream client can figure out what to give him all by herself.

So trust me on this one: you want yours to be the submission that causes Millicent to exclaim, “Oh, this one’s ready to go out to editors right now!”

A Frankenstein manuscript is virtually never going to provoke that last exclamation, because inconsistency of voice, vocabulary, tone, etc. is a pretty sure sign that the writer has not finalized the narrative. Oh, she may have revised it until she’s blue in the face, but she hasn’t yet gone through the entire thing and smoothed it out so it reads like a unified story.

Here’s a word to the wise: if you are working on your first novel — or any other writing project — over the course of years, do yourself a favor and check it for stylistic consistency before you submit it to ANY agent, editor, or contest.

If you find that your voice wavers a bit throughout, don’t despair. It’s actually quite rare that writers, even extremely gifted ones, find their specific voices right away; allow for the possibility that yours developed while you were writing the book.

Then embrace a two-part revision goal: find the voice, the style, the structure you like best, then make sure that every sentence in the book reflects it.

Incidentally, you simply cannot pull off Part I of that tall order by reading your work in screen-sized chunks. In order to make absolutely sure that your book hangs together cohesively, YOU MUST READ IT IN HARD COPY.

In its entirety. Preferably in a few long sessions, and, if you change narrative voice very often, out loud, to ascertain that your various voices remain absolutely distinct throughout.

Although that last piece of advice is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to long-time readers of this blog, I hear some of you grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled protest, “I feel like I’ve been working on this book forever. I’ve revised it so often that I could recite huge chunks of it from memory. And yet you’re telling me to reread the whole thing — aloud, yet?”

Yes, I am. Actually, it may actually be more important for inveterate revisers to read their work IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Why, you gasp in horror? Because the more you revise a novel — or any book — the more likely it is to turn into a Frankenstein manuscript. It is an unintended downside of being conscientious about honing your craft.

Allow me to repeat that: the MORE you work on a novel, the MORE likely you are to end up with a Frankenstein manuscript.

Think about it: over time, you move passages around; you insert new scenes; you add or subtract subplots, characters, dialogue. All of these inevitably affect other parts of the book. Can you really be sure, for instance, that you remembered to remove your protagonist’s sociopathic sister from EVERY place she has ever appeared, even as a shadow on a wall?

And no, in response to what two-thirds of you just thought: merely doing a search-and-replace on the sister’s name is not sufficient, because if a novel is complex and rich, the spirit of individual characters lingers, even when they do not appear on the page. Necessarily, you would need to write the consciousness of the sociopathic sister out of the psyches of every other character in the family.

And that’s just the fall-out from a single change. The vast majority of revision is minor — which does not mean that any given change might not carry resonance throughout the book.

See now why I have been harping on the necessity of sitting down and reading your manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, AND getting unbiased readers to look it over before you submit it to an agent, editor, or contest? Yes, it’s the best way to catch grammatical, spelling, and continuity errors — but it is also really the only way to notice where a deleted character or plot point still affects the rest of the book.

While you’re reading, do be aware that It is far from uncommon for fledgling writers to incorporate the style, vocabulary, and/or worldview of whatever author they happen to be reading at the moment into their work. It’s sort of like catching an accent when you’re staying in another country: you may not realize that you’re doing it, but others hear and wonder why your accent keeps wandering back and forth between London and Brooklyn.

I’ll admit it: this is my personal Frankenstein bête noire. When I was writing the novel my agent is currently marketing, I was reading a whole lot of Noël Coward. An extremely witty writer; I enjoy his work very much. However, he wrote almost exclusively about (a) pre-WWII British people and (b) people who inhabited now-transformed British colonial possessions. My novel is about the adult lives of children who grew up on an Oregon commune, so obviously, my characters should not talk like Coward’s.

(Although it would have been amusing to try: “My dear, your hot tub attire is simply too killing!” “Reginald, I must implore you to desist from taunting the yoga instructor!” “May one inquire whether this tabbouleh is indeed vegan? The most frightful consequences may ensue otherwise.” “While your sincerity is charming on a multiplicity of levels, Felicia, I cannot fail to notice that you have once again evaded your duties in tending to the sauna’s controls.”)

I made a deliberate effort not to incorporate educated British cadences into my dialogue, and in self-editing, deleted any lines of thought that smacked even vaguely of 1920s urbanity. However, being a very experienced editor, I was aware that I would probably miss a few, so not only did I read the entirety of my novel out loud (much to the astonishment of my cats and neighbors), but I also passed it under the eyes of first readers I trust, with the instruction to keep an eye out for Britishisms.

And you know what? I had missed three in my on-screen revisions.

My point here — other than providing some fascinating footnote material for some graduate student fifty years from now who wants to write her thesis on Noël Coward’s influence upon American novelists — is that no matter how good you get at self-editing on a page-by-page basis, in order to avoid sending out a Frankenstein manuscript, you simply must take additional steps in screening your work.

Get used to it now: you will never outgrow the need. No writer does.

Partially, it is a focus problem. In the throes of the revision process – especially on a computer screen, which encourages reading in a piecemeal, episodic fashion not conducive to catching overarching patterns — it is terribly easy to lose sight of your book AS A BOOK.

This is where a writers’ group, a good writing teacher, a freelance editor, or even someone you’ve met at a writers’ conference with whom you can exchange work can be most helpful to you: helping you identify what in the finished book jars with the integrity of the whole. These sources are also great for pointing out continuity errors, such as when the sociopath is named Janet for three chapters in the middle of the book, and Marie-Claire for the rest.

Not only will dependable outside eyes weed out Frankenstein tendencies, but the mere fact of having to defend your authorial choices to them will force you to make all of your deviations from standard narrative conscious, rather than accidental.

Such discussions are also terrific practice for wrangling with your future agent and editors, by the way.

If you’re going at it alone, my advice is this. Once you have read through the whole manuscript, go back and read it again, projecting onto it the style and/or voice you like best.

Does it work? If not, pick another style or voice from the text, and project it through the entire manuscript.

When you find one you like, save the original manuscript as a separate file (so you have the option of changing your mind later; it’s been known to happen), and work through a separate copy, establishing the new style. Then, after you have finished, read the entire thing out loud again, for consistency.

Heck, yes, this is going to take you a lot of time. Honestly, it will take you far, far less time, in both the diagnosis and repair stages, if you take your Frankenstein manuscript on a field trip to other readers before you submit it to an agent or editor. If a writing group or class seems too time-consuming, consider hiring a freelance editor; if a freelance editor seems too expensive, join a writing group.

When you are making these calculations, do not forget to weigh the value of your time into the equation. If joining a group or paying an editor saves you a year’s worth of solo work, it might well be worth it.

Which brings me to the great question that loyal reader Pam submitted sometime back: how does one FIND a freelance editor like me?

Well, Pam, as it happens, I have established a rather extensive set of posts addressing that very question. They may be found collected on the archive list at right, under the startlingly original category title HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? Those posts will give you a sense of what services an editor provides (not all of us do the same thing), what to expect to pay (which varies depending upon the level of editing), and what questions you might want to ask before you sign anything that looks even remotely like a contract.

For writers in the Pacific Northwest, another great resource is the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild’s website. For each member editor, there’s a small blurb and contact information. You can search by geographic region, the type of book you want edited, even preferred style manual, or you can post your job for editors to see.

You’re going to want either to go through an organization or get a referral to find a reputable editor, because emotionally, handing your book over to a total stranger for criticism is a difficult thing; you will want to make sure in advance that you can trust the recipient. NWIEG verifies that each member has significant editorial experience — and believe it or not, we actually do argue about punctuation on our members’ forum — so you can feel relatively secure that any editor listed will have the skills and background s/he claims s/he does.

Do take the time to have a conversation or e-mail exchange with any freelance editor before you make a commitment, however. A good personality fit is very important, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask a potential editor whether s/he has ever edited your type of book before.

Just as no agent represents every variety of book under the sun, no freelance editor will have experience with every book category. While there are plenty of editors out there who are willing to take pretty much anything (for a price), working with someone who is intimately familiar with the particular demands of your book category in the current market is probably going to be more helpful to you than working with a generalist.

One more word on the subject: if you are thinking about asking a freelance editor to work on a tight deadline, do not wait until the deadline is imminent. Good freelance editors are often booked up months in advance, and if you want a careful, thoughtful, professional read, you need to allow time for the editor to do her job.

Thanks for the good question, Pam — and keep up the good work, everybody!

PS: in case anyone missed Monday’s announcement, the deadline for submitting entries to the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence is now Monday, June 1, at midnight wherever you are. Follow this link to the rules and descriptions of the fabulous prizes, and may the best writer win the ECQLC! (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, that is.)

The Frankenstein manuscript, part II: when you should be wary about following in the footsteps of the greats

moat-at-la-cite
Isn’t this a great horror movie castle? It’s the (dry) moat around La Cité in Carcassonne, a 19th-century reconstruction of a medieval walled city. Not just any medieval walled city, mind you — the one that used to be on that very spot.

It’s also, and probably more to the point at the moment, a half-hour drive from La Muse, where I am currently enjoying a particularly productive writing retreat.

Speaking of which: I begin today by repeating yesterday’s announcement about the new deadline for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence: entries are no longer due yesterday. Although as those of you who are already working with agents and editors can probably attest, I need it yesterday actually isn’t all that unusual a request in the publishing industry (which seems to run on two speeds: delay and panic; alternate and repeat as necessary), as you may have heard someplace, I’m on a writing retreat.

In fact, I’ve decided to extend the retreat another couple of weeks. I’m writing up a storm, and where there’s such great support for writing AND magnificent cheese…

So l’m also extending the contest deadline. Entries are due via e-mailed by midnight on Monday, June 1.

Yesterday, I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript, the frightening entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. To professional readers — e.g., agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal Millicent, the agency screener — this kind of patched-together manuscript is a sign of a not-yet-fully-developed authorial voice.

And why is that, boys and girls? Chant it with me now: because a fully-developed voice is consistent throughout the entire narrative.

Unfortunately for those who like to experiment with multiple voices, such meandering manuscripts are common enough that tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly — at least, if those manuscripts were produced by first-time authors. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally receive in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.

There are many fine examples of good books where writers have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. If you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE. In this novel-cum-historical account-cum narrative nonfiction book, Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person point of view (POV, for the rest of this post), straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession.

It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she, Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.

Which is, in case you were wondering, one of the primary reasons Millicents usually object to narrative shifts: in multiple POV manuscript submissions, it’s not always clear when the perspective switches from one character to another. It’s especially confusing if the different viewpoints — or worse, various narrators in a multiple first-person narrative — are written in too-similar voices.

Is everyone clear on the distinction I’m making here? A Frankenstein manuscript often displays unintentionally displays a multiplicity of voices, tones, vocabulary levels, etc. A well-written multiple POV novel, by contrast, presents each point of view and/or first-person narrative voice as distinctly different, so the reader doesn’t have any trouble following who is in the driver’s seat when, plot-wise.

Or, to put it another way, the Frankenstein manuscript is evidence of a lack of authorial control, consistency, and often, proofreading; a good multiple POV narrative is beautiful evidence of a sure authorial touch, a strong sense of character, and great attention to detail.

That being said, it is just a hard fact of submission that it’s a whole lot easier for an established author to impress professional readers with a multiple POV novel — or, indeed, any sort of experimental writing — than someone trying to break into the biz. I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its arguably Frankenstein structure.

Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance.

The result, I must admit, might confuse a reader who wasn’t already in love with his writing from other books. One might be tempted, upon encountering the third or fourth startlingly radical shift in tone, vocabulary, and apparently intended audience, to conclude that this is just a Frankenstein manuscript by a writer who couldn’t make up his mind what the book is about.

Personally, I admire Vargas Llosa’s dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about…well, you can probably guess. (He lost the election, incidentally.) He, too, has been rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time.

But if he were trying to market AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER right now as a first novel…well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?

The moral here is this: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. So please don’t kid yourself that just because your favorite author got away with an experiment, you can necessarily do so as well.

Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize. In SEEING, José Saramago treated us to an entire narrative devoid of punctuation that I, for one, consider necessary to clear communication, and he won the Nobel Prize.

But that doesn’t mean you should try either of these things at home. It’s just too likely that Millicent will take one look at your fascinating experiment and exclaim, “Here’s another one who doesn’t know how to use a semicolon!” or “Criminy, what makes this guy think I’m going to read more than two sentences of a book without any periods?”

Sad, but true. In your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules — and even those need to be immistakably marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance.

Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee seriously believed that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.

“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. By the end, it will seem downright clever to the reader. Do you mean to say that if it is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, take a moment to consider the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.

It’s not a pretty sight, I assure you; stitched-together corpses seldom are.

As a freelance editor, when I receive a Frankenstein manuscript, I have the option of sitting down with the author, having a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and helping guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process entails identifying and compiling a list of all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author.

It takes time, and it’s generally worth the effort. But had I mentioned that freelance editors are generally paid by the hour?

However, when a screener at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript — and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in just the first chapter or first 50 pages — she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if she absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation.

She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or she can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.

With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think she’ll select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. The judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is.

Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck – and first readers – next year.

The moral, I devoutly hope, is obvious. If you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is pellucidly clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess what you’re up to, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.

Also, consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky – and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.

To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion.

But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.

The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part IX: things change

As illustration: before:
a-windchime-in-the-snow

And after:
crabtree-blossoms-and-windchime

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

Bear that in mind for the rest of this post, will you, please? This series has, after all, been all about perspective.

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

Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: writers used to be able to approach editors at GBNYCBPH directly; until not very long ago, nonfiction writers still could. Instead, writers seeking publication at GBNYCBPH invest months — or, more commonly, years — in attracting the agent who can perform the necessary introduction. So a historically-minded observer could conclude that over time, the road to publication has become significantly longer for the average published author, or at any rate more time-consuming.

Should we writers rend our garments over this? Well, we could, and one can hardly walk into any writers’ conference in North America without tripping over a knot of writers commiserating about it. Certainly, you can’t Google how to get a book published without pulling up an intriguingly intense list of how-to sites and fora where aspiring writers complain about their experiences, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not.

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

Personally, although I am never averse to a little light self-inflicted clothing damage if the situation warranted it, I am inclined to think that most aspiring writers expend too much energy on resentment. Certainly, most take it too personally, given that the GBNYCBPH didn’t suddenly rearrange their submission policies the day before yesterday in order to avoid having to deal with any individual submission they might otherwise have received within the next six months. Using agents as their manuscript screeners, effectively, has been going on for quite some time.

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

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

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

I’m guessing that you haven’t, because seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH. Why, the agent-seekers out there gasp, aghast? Because typically, signing with an agent doesn’t mean just handing the manuscript over to another party who is going to do all the work; it means taking on a whole host of other obligations, frequently including biting one’s lip and not screaming while absolutely nothing happens with a manuscript for months at a time.

Working with an agent is work. Just not the same work that a writer was doing before.

In other words: things change.

Okay, so what is it like to work with an agent?
The main change most newly-agented writers report is no longer feeling that they have control over what happens to their books. It’s an accurate perception, usually: the agent, not the writer will be the one making decisions about:

*when the manuscript is ready for submission to editors at GBNYCBPH, and, given that the initial answer will almost certainly be no, what revisions need to be made in order to render it so;

*when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s in a serious recession);

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

*which editors should see it and in what order;

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

*how soon to follow up with editors who have been sitting on the submission for a while;

*whether it’s even worth bothering to follow up with certain editors (especially if it’s rumored that they’re about to be laid off);

*whether to pass along the reasons that an editor gave for rejecting the manuscript (not all agents do);

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

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

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

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

Oh, you would rather not have known about this until after you signed the contract?

Take another gander at the list above, taking note of just how much the writer actually does under this arrangement: produces the manuscript or proposal, revises it according to the agent’s specifications, writes any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider taking a weekend now to go through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), makes any subsequent revisions (editors have been known to ask for some BEFORE they’ll acquire a book)…and all the while, you’re supposed to be working on your next book project.

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

So you might want to start working on it during that seemingly endless period while your agent is shopping your book around — or getting ready to shop your book around. It’s a far, far more productive use of all of that nervous energy than rending your garments. Trust me on this one.

Wait — so what does the agent actually do with my manuscript once s/he deems it ready to go?
Okay, let’s assume that you’ve already made the changes your agent requests, and both you and he have pulled it off in record time: let’s say that he’s taken only three months to give you a list of the changes he wanted, and you’ve been able to make them successfully in another three. (And if that first bit sounds like a long time to you, remember how impatient you were after you submitted your manuscript to the agent? The agent has to read all of his current clients’ work AND all of those new submissions; it can take a long time to get around to any particular manuscript.) What happens next?

Well, it depends upon how the agency operates. Some agencies, like mine, will ask the writer to send them 8-15 clean copies of the entire manuscript for submission; other agencies will simply photocopy the manuscript they have to send it out and deduct the cost of copying from the advance. (Sometimes the per-page fee can be rather steep with this second type of agency; if it is, ask if you can make the copies yourself and mail them.) Some agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

I can feel some of you starting to get excited out there. “Oh, boy, Anne!” a happy few squeal. “This is the part I’ve been waiting for — the agent takes my writing to the editors at the GBNYCBPH!”

Well, probably not right away: agencies tend to run on submission schedules, so as not to overtax the mailroom staff, and in a large agency, it may take a while for a new client’s book to make its way up the queue. Also, not all times of the year are equally good for submission: remember how I mentioned a few days ago that much of the publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? And that it’s virtually impossible to get an editorial committee together between Thanksgiving and the end of the year? Not to mention intervening events that draw editors away from their desks, like the spring-summer writers’ conference season and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn.

In short, you may be in for a wait. Depending upon your relationship with your new agent, you may or may not receive an explanation for any delays.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that your book’s submission date has arrived: your agent has made up a list of editors likely to be interested in it, and either spoken with each editor or communicated by letter or e-mail; the manuscript is thus expected. The agency then sends it out. As I mentioned above, submission strategies differ:

(a) Some agents like to give a manuscript to their top pick for the book and leave it there until the editor in question (or the person in-house to whom the editor passes it; that happens quite a lot) has said yea or nay. Since editors have every bit as much material to read as agents do, this can take months; since most publishing houses employ editorial assistants to screen submissions, it can take a long time for a manuscript to make it up the ladder, as it were. If the answer is no, the agent will send the book out to the next, and the process is repeated elsewhere.

If you’re thinking that it could conceivably take a couple of years for a book to make the rounds of the relevant editors at the GBNYCBPH, congratulations: you’re beginning to understand the inherent slowness of the submission process.

(b) Some agents like to generate competition over a manuscript by sending it out to a whole list of editors at once. Since the editors are aware that other editors are reading it at the same time, the process tends to run a bit faster, but still, the manuscript is going to need to make it past those editorial assistants.

If you’re now thinking that because there are so few major publishers — and the mid-sized presses keep getting gobbled up by larger concerns — an agent who chose strategy (b) could conceivably exhaust a fairly extensive submission list in quite a short time, and thus might give up on the book earlier than an agent who embraced strategy (a), congratulations are again in order. The options honestly aren’t unlimited here.

(c) Some especially impatient agents will send out a client’s work to a short list of editors — say, 3 or 4 — who are especially hot for this kind of material, or with whom the agent already enjoys a close relationship. If none of those 3 or 4 is interested in acquiring it, the agent will lose interest and want to move on to the writer’s next project.

Agents who pride themselves on keeping up with the latest publishing trends, where speed of submission is of the essence, tend to embrace this strategy; unfortunately for some writers, it’s also popular with agents who are looking to break into selling the latest hot book category, regardless of what they have had been selling before. And if the book happens to sell quickly, this strategy can work out well for the client, but otherwise, the writer who signs on for this had better have quite a few other projects up her sleeve.

The problem is, agents who embrace this strategy are seldom very communicative about it with prospective clients. If you’ve been to many writers’ conferences, you’ve probably met a writer or two who has been on the creative end of an agent-client relationship like this; they’ll be the ones rending their garments and wailing about how they didn’t know that the agent who fell in love with their chick lit manuscript had previously sold only how-to books.

Make a point of listening to these people — they have cautionary tales to tell. Part of the reason to attend a writers’ conference is to benefit from other writers’ experience, right?

One of the things they are likely to tell you: short attention spans are a very good reason to ask an agent interested in representing your work if you may have a chat with a couple of his clients before signing the contract. If that seems audacious to you, remember: a savvy writer isn’t looking for just any agent to represent her work; she’s looking for the RIGHT agent.

(d) If a manuscript generates a lot of editorial interest — known as buzz — an agent may choose to bypass the regular submission process altogether and sell the book at auction. This means just what you think it does: a bunch of representatives from GBNYCBPH get together in a room and bid against each other to see who is willing to come up with the largest advance.

I can’t come up with any down side for the writer on this one. Sorry.

Regardless of the strategy an agent selects, if he has gone all the way through his planned submission list without any nibbles from editors, one of four things can happen next. First, the agent can choose to submit the work to small publishing houses; many agents are reluctant to do this, as small publishers can seldom afford to pay significant advances. Second, the agent can choose to shelve the manuscript and move on to the client’s next project, assuming that the first book might sell better in a different market.

Say, in a year or two. Remember, things change.

Third, the agent may ask the writer to perform extensive further revision before sending it out again. Fourth — and this is the one most favored by advocates of strategy (c) — the agent may drop the client from his representation list. It’s not at all unusual for agents fond of this fourth strategy not to notify their clients that they’ve been dropped. The writer simply never hears from them again.

Yes, this last is lousy to live through — but in the long run, a writer is going to be better off with an agent who believes enough in her work to stick with her than one who just thinks of a first book as a one-off that isn’t worth a long try at submission.

I’m mentioning this not to depress you, but so if your agent suddenly stops answering e-mails, you will not torture yourself with useless recriminations. Start querying other agents right away, preferably with your next book. (It can be more difficult to land an agent for a project that has already been shopped around for a while.)

Enough concentration on the worst-case scenario. On to happier topics!

What happens if an editor decides that she wants to acquire my manuscript?
Within a GBNYCBPH, it’s seldom a unilateral decision: an editor would need to be pretty powerful and well-established not to have to check with higher-ups. The vast majority of the time, an editor who falls in love with a book will take it to editorial committee, where every editor will have a favorite book project to pitch. Since we discussed editorial committees earlier in this series, I shan’t recap now; suffice it to say that approval by the committee is not the only prerequisite for acquiring a book.

But let’s assume for the sake of brevity that the editorial committee, marketing department, legal department, and those above the acquiring editor in the food chain have all decided to run with the book. How do they decide how much of an advance to offer?

If you have been paying close attention throughout this series, you should already know: by figuring out how much it would cost to produce the book in the desired format, the cover price, how many books in the initial print run, and what percentage of that first printing they are relatively certain they could sell. Then they calculate what the author’s royalty would be on that number of books — and offer some fraction of that amount as the advance.

All that remains then is for the editor to pick up the phone and convey the offer to the agent representing the book.

What happens next really depends on the submission strategy that’s been used so far. If the agent has been submitting one at a time, she may haggle a little with the editor over particulars, but generally speaking, the offer tends not to change much; the agent will then contact the writer to discuss whether to take it or to keep submitting.

With a multiple-submission strategy, events get a little more exciting at this juncture. If there are other editors still considering the manuscript, the agent will contact them to say there’s an offer on the table and to give them a deadline for submitting offers of their own. It’s often quite a short deadline, as little as a week or two — you wouldn’t believe how much receiving the news that another publisher has made an offer can speed up reading rates. If there are competing offers, bidding will ensue.

If not — or once someone wins the bidding — the agent and the editor will hammer out the terms of the publication contract and produce what is known as a deal memo that lays out the general terms. Among the information the deal memo will specify: the amount of the advance, the date the editor expects delivery of the manuscript (which, for a nonfiction book, can be a year or two after the contract is signed), an approximate word count, the month of intended release, and any other business-related details.

Basically, it’s a dry run for the publication contract. After all of the details are set in stone, the publisher’s legal department will handle that — or, more commonly, they’ll use a boilerplate from a similar book.

What neither the deal memo nor the contract will say is how (or if) the author needs to make changes to the book already seen or proposed. Typically, if the editor wants revisions, she will spell those out in an editorial memo either after the contract is signed (for fiction) or after the author delivers the manuscript (for nonfiction). Until the ink is dry on the contract, though, it’s unlikely that your agent will allow you to sit down and have an unmediated conversation with the editor — which is for your benefit: it’s your agent’s job to make sure that you get paid for your work and that the contract is fulfilled.

Which brings us full-circle, doesn’t it? The publisher has the book, the writer has the contract, the agent has her 15%, and all is right in the literary world. I could tell get into the ins and outs of post-contract life — dealing with a publisher’s marketing department, the various stages a manuscript passes through on its way to the print queue, how publishers work with distributors, how authors are expected to promote their books — but those vary quire a bit more than the earlier steps to publication do. Frankly, I think those are topics for another day, if not another series.

And besides, things are changing so much in the publishing world right now that I’d hate to predict how the author’s experience will be different even a year from now. All any of us can say for certain is that writers will keep writing books, agents will keep representing them, and publishing houses will keep bringing them out. As the author’s responsibilities for the business side of promoting her own work continue to increase — it’s now not at all unusual for a first-time author to foot the bill both for freelance editing and for at least some of the promotion for the released book — how much publishing with a GBNYCBPH will differ from going with a smaller press five or ten years from now remains to be seen.

Conveniently enough, that brings me to our next topic. Next time, I shall talk about some of the other means of getting a book into print: small presses and the various stripes of self-publication.

As always, keep up the good work!

While we’re on the subject of repetition, let’s keep talking about redundancy. Again and again and again.

heracles-vase-painting

Did you find my recent series on character names enlightening? Mildly entertaining? Did I at least talk you out of naming your protagonist and his five brothers Harold, Harry (as a nickname for Henry, natch), Herbert, Norbert, Bertrand, and Humbert?

No? Well, did I manage to convince you not to refer to each of them by name fifteen times per page?

Even if you chose to blow off 99.2% of my advice in the series, please tell me that you checked the first five pages of your manuscript for these problems. Or that you will definitely do so before even thinking about slipping them into an envelope with a SASE and mailing them off to an agent, editor, or contest.

Don’t just make a vague, affirmative-sounding noise: I’m waiting for an actual promise here. Aspiring writers who are lax about checking for this type of repetition keep book doctors like me up at night.

Part of being a good developmental editor — as opposed to a good copyeditor, who concentrates on making sure that the writing is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, bringing the work to the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience.

(And no, Virginia, those are not necessarily the same thing — but that’s a topic for another day.)

Most aspiring writers DO need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, what is good about their work, other than the fact that they themselves sat down and wrote it. Heck, many apparently need to be told what the selling points for their books are, if the typical responses to the perfectly straightforward questions, “Who is your target audience, and why will your book appeal to those folks?” are any indication.

There’s a pretty good reason for this, actually. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic, isn’t it? But realistically, books literally never get acquired and published simply because someone went to the trouble to write them.

Okay, so books by celebrities and politicians occasionally do. I’m talking about works of literary merit here.

The vast majority of the time, though, manuscripts sell because of their strengths. In fact, should you ever happen to find yourself chatting about your work with an agent or editor, the length of time it took you to write a book is precisely the WRONG thing to mention in a pitch — or in a query letter, for that matter.

Why? Well, from a professional point of view, what matters is what’s on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there. Or, to put it another way, everyone concerned is perfectly aware that every book requires Herculean efforts to bring from conception to completion, much less to publication.

So what agents and editors tend to conclude when writers rattle on about those efforts is not, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens – if a single draft took five years, how long will any revisions I want take?”

I know: it’s unfair; in actual practice, how long it takes to write a book is not a particularly good indicator of how long it would take to revise.

But as submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form — agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before, they do not — contrary to the hope of most submitting writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? For those of you who started reading this blog in February or later: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.

How does this relate to the revision process, you ask, or to yesterday’s insights about the perils of name repetition on the manuscript page? Well, the swift judgments endemic to agencies, publishing houses, and yes, even contest judging mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first 5.

If, say, you were intending to comb your work for any of the many knee-jerk rejection reasons in the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right. Or even just to minimize the name repetition.

And yes, in response to what you just thought: that’s going to be a heck of a lot of work. One might even call it a Herculean task. Sorry about that.

While you’re rolling up your proverbial sleeves to launch into it, you might want to keep an eye out for a very, very common type of textual repetition, especially in book openings end endings: invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work.

Invocatory rhythms are one of the most popular tools aspiring writers use to beautify their narratives, a kind of sing-song rhythm that alerts the reader that Something Literary is Going on Here. As so many writers have been delighted to discover, one of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition:

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

That’s a relatively moderate use of invocatory rhythm. Here’s a galloping case of it:

Bewildered, Paul hung his head in shame. Not in shame, precisely: he hung his head partially in pride, a fierce pride that he had done the right thing, made the brave choice, under extremely trying circumstances. No, it was not in shame that he hung his head — that much was clear to him, even in the midst of the wilds of bewilderment. He was proud, pleased-proud, surprised-proud, PROUD in capital letters. He wouldn’t have canceled out his supposed shame even if he could have turned back time with a wave of his hand.

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

Bewildered, Paul hung his head in shame. Not in shame, precisely: he hung his head partially in pride, a fierce pride that he had done the right thing, made the brave choice, under extremely trying circumstances. No, it was not in shame that he hung his head — that much was clear to him, even in the midst of the wilds of bewilderment. He was proud, pleased-proud, surprised-proud, PROUD in capital letters. He wouldn’t have canceled out his supposed shame even if he could have turned back time with a wave of his hand.

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

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

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

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge — and what’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots AND genre fiction that features beautiful language. So there.

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

It just SOUNDS pretty, somehow.

“If the writing’s pretty,” the head-shakers argue, “how could THAT be problematic in a submission?”

In many ways, believe it or not. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous piece of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. (Yes, yes, I know: I’m fond of this particular example, but honestly, it’s one of the best examples of how not to write a first page ever written. Bear with me here.) Just for kicks, pretend that you have never seen it before, and try to read like an agency screener:

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

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

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

2-cities-good

Now, this voice is certainly distinctive, isn’t it? Hard to conceive of a more memorable opening, rhythmically speaking. (Clearly, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head, since I used it as an example of something else entirely not too long ago.) But it’s also true that if these were the first two paragraphs of a submission, pretty much any professional reader today would have rejected it by line three.

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

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

Ditto if you zeroed in upon the apparently random capitalization of nouns, the criminal punctuation choices, the ubiquitous logical contradictions (yes, I know Dickens meant it to be ironic; stop parroting your high school English teacher and think like a screener for a moment), and the fact that two paragraphs into the piece, the reader still has absolutely no idea who the protagonist is or what’s going on.

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

However, there is a subtler reason — which will be abundantly apparent if you stand up right now, take two steps backward from your computer monitor, and take another look at Dickens’ opening.

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

If you’ve been revising for a while (or if you paid close attention to the title of this post), you might have caught that the problem was repetition without backing away: the first ten verbs are identical, after all. But it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the structural repetition, the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way.

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

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

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

Unfortunately, a lot of writers really LIKE structural repetition: it reads a bit like a prayer — or if your tastes are more secular, like a poem. As we saw in all of today’s examples, it can provide a driving, almost galloping rhythm to a page. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “Wow, that’s cool. By jingo, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

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

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

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

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

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for a professional reader to sit bolt upright in the middle of page 172, exclaiming indignantly, “Hey, this writer is reusing sentences!” if the first iteration occurred on page 3. Millicents tend to have good memories for text.

So do agents, editors, contest judges, writing coaches, and pretty much everyone else who reads work-in-progress for a living. Which is why, in case you’ve spent years wondering, recipients of professional feedback are so often stunned by assertions that their manuscripts use particular words or phrases constantly. To someone with a memory trained for editing, four times in a 300-page submission may feel pretty constant.

Don’t repeat yourself more than is absolutely necessary.

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

Well, the easy answer is something that we spent most of last January discussing: Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the end of page one. She’s not in the habit of reading on until she gets to a patch of text she likes. (Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh?)

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

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

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

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