“Really?” Millicent says, gaping at her overflowing inbox. “It’s rejection season again?” and other things queriers and submitters don’t want to hear

disaproving gargoyles

 

Did you hear that long, low howl of despair in the early working hours this morning, campers? Did its mournful resonance chill your bones, or at least lightly chill your marrow? Did it prompt you to yank the covers over your head, reasoning that whether that terrible noise came from the wind or the collective resultants of holiday merry-makers returning to work, you wanted no part of it?

If you’re a writer, I hope you obeyed that instinct, at least so far as acting upon that New Year’s resolution to pop that query or submission into the mail (or e-mail) goes. Why, you ask, teeth chattering at the far-off sounds of wailing and the rending of garments? Because today marks the statistically worst day of the year for writers to send off their work electronically — or for an agency or publishing house to receive it in either soft copy or hard.

And it’s the single worst day every year. That’s why the moans of agency screeners — those excellent souls known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that these are human beings with individual literary tastes working for agents with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — invariably beard the heavens on not only the first work day of the year, but for most of January.

“Great Caesar’s ghost,” they cry, or some equivalent, “I’ve never seen so many queries/submissions/literary contest entries in my life!”

Actually, pretty much everyone who reads manuscripts for a living tends to indulge in a bit of moaning right about now, and with good reason: the single most common New Year’s resolution writers make involves sending off a query or finally submitting those requested pages. To toil anywhere in the publishing vineyard is to spend the opening days of every year buried under an avalanche of writers’ dearest hopes.

It’s heartwarming, really, how many writers actually follow through on their determination to make take those intimidating baby steps toward bringing their writing to professional attention. Even back when querying and submission meant typing and retyping one’s baby on an Underwood, hundreds of thousands of bright-eyed resolvers queried and submitted in early January, every year. Since the arrival of the personal computer made these tasks easier, and e-mail sped up communication, the volumes have risen astronomically. For e-mailing queriers and submitters in particular, the first weekend of the year seems just made for keeping those laudable promises to oneself.

“And why not?” aspiring writers proud of themselves for having worked up the not inconsiderable nerve required to hit the SEND key yesterday. “As you like to say here at Author! Author!, the only manuscript that stands absolutely no chance of getting published is the one that never gets sent out, right? So here I go! This is the year I’m going to land an agent/get published/place a short story/fulfill other writing dreams dependent upon the approval of other people!”

I applaud your enthusiasm, SEND-hitters, truly. It’s not an easy thing, offering up your beloved writing to an agent or editor’s judgment. You know the prospects your work is facing: it’s tough for an original story or new voice to break into the current extremely tight literary market. Add to that the tens of thousands of queries a well-established agencies will receive, and those are some pretty long odds for even a great story and wonderful style to surmount.

But you’ll never know unless you try, right? Good for you for putting your talent to the test — many a brilliant writer never finds the courage to let those pages be seen by another human being, much less a professional reader with the power and authority to bring that writing to a broader audience. An audience that might pay to read it, even.

May I make a gentle suggestion about tilting those odds ever so slightly in your favor, however? Would you consider not querying or submitting at precisely the same time as every other New Year’s resolver? Would it really not be fulfilling your resolution if you held off until, say, after Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, when the sheer volume hitting Millicent’s inbox will be significantly lower?

Would you, in short, wait until we’re past the month of the year in which rejection rates are predictably the highest?

I know, I know: you are positively aching to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, but I would urge you to rethink the last. As the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. So woe unto he who hesitates, the prevailing wisdom goes, because as everybody knows, it’s absolutely impossible to begin any new project except immediately after the start of the year. If you miss the resolution boat by so much as a week — or, scare bleu! a month — all of the good New Year’s juju will have been sucked up by others. The laggard’s only recourse will be to sit, sad and glum, until the starting-gun goes off next year.

Unless one’s resolution was to lose weight, in which case the cultural reset button will be slapped sometime in the spring. “You wouldn’t want to miss your chance to get ready for swimsuit season?” the ambient culture will ask breathlessly. And off a significant proportion of the population will run again.

We each know in our heart of hearts, though, that just as surely as beauty is only skin deep, it’s completely untrue that there are only a couple of times per year in which it’s humanly possible to shed a few pounds. Or give up smoking. Or get that query out the door.

News flash: in publishing circles, there’s no special prize for a writer’s query being the first of the year, or even first 100,00th. Ditto with submissions: when a lot come at a time, they just pile up on agency desks. In either case, poor Millicent the agency screener is going to be working some awfully long hours until those volumes decrease a little.

Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst. Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates skyrocket in the first few weeks of January. It thus follows as night the day that this is the time of year when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected.

Yes, you read that correctly. Your agile creative mind probably also leapt to the next correct conclusion: the same query or manuscript rejected in January might not have been had it dropped onto Millicent’s desk at another time of year. At minimum, the average query or submission will receive less reading time now than in, say, March.

That resounding thunk you just heard reverberating throughout the cosmos was the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting their respective floors. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? No matter what else is on Millicent’s desk — or whatever else is going on at the agency, be it wedding, funeral, or just having read a proposal for the single worst nonfiction book since Mein Kampf — the only conceivable response to the advent of a good story well written must be the general dropping of all other work, cries of “Hallelujah!” and capering in the hallways, mustn’t it?

Um, no. I hate to be the one to break it to first-time submitters, but yours is not the only good manuscript that’s been written in English this year. And no true lover of literature should want it to be.

Yet almost without exception, writers responding to requests for manuscript pages act as though the agent or editor asking for it had been standing there, twiddling her thumbs, with nothing else to do until those pages arrived. Startlingly often, aspiring writers just presume that a request for pages, particularly in response to a conference pitch, constitutes a pro’s commitment to cease all work activity the moment those pages show up. Never mind that over half of requested materials never do show up — possibly because the writers in question queried or pitched before the book was done, or are trying to work up nerve to submit, or are waiting for the next new year to roll around — the horror is always the same.

“What do you mean,” indignant submitters everywhere huff, “it’s unrealistic to expect to hear back within a week or two — or a month or two? You don’t understand: the agent asked to read my manuscript!”

Yes, I know. He also asked to see other manuscripts. But apply the same logic earlier in the process, and springs a heck of a lot of holes: if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

The latter is far, far more likely. Inevitable, in fact, if that query arrives anywhere near January first.

And that’s why, boys and girls, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries opened their e-mail inboxes this morning and groaned, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions.

So did the tens of thousands of successful pitchers and queriers from last year who decided that in the immediate wake of December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It won’t have occurred to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of — opening my calendar at random here — February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3rd. Or, really, any time of the year other than the first three weeks of January, when the sheer weight of tradition would guarantee that competition would be stiffest for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but once again, pouring some water into that sieve will show us some holes. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore, after all. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling even well-known authors’ work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume.

Translation: agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run — with fewer trained eyes to do it.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit to land an agent in the new year? Several reasons. High querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets result, inevitably, in less time spent on any given query or submission. The quicker the perusal, typically, the harder it is to impress an agent or an editor — and thus the more likely a time-strapped agency will be to employ Millicents to give queries and submissions the once-over. It’s not at all uncommon for a submission to have to make it past a couple of Millies empowered to say no before landing on the desk of anyone empowered to say yes.

So tell me: would you rather that Millicent had 15 other manuscripts to screen between now and lunch, if yours is No. 12, or 50? Or 150?

Got that appalling image firmly in your mind? Good. Now picture that same overworked, underpaid (or possibly not paid at all; many Millicents are interns) screener opening her e-mail inbox on the first Monday of the new year. Or the second. How much time do you think she’s going to be able to devote to each of the several thousand queries she’ll find deposited there? What about the next thousand arriving in her inbox tomorrow?

Actually, while you’re mentally trying on Millie’s moccasins, try taking a few more steps in them: how dismayed would you be at the prospect of doing ten (or more) times your usual work that day? Wouldn’t you tend to read just a trifle faster, with your fingertips lightly caressing the DELETE key? No matter how much you love literature and the good people who write it — as the overwhelming majority of folks currently working in publishing do — wouldn’t it be understandable if you found yourself screening those thousands of queries looking for quick reasons to reject, rather than eagerly perusing each one for every last clue that there might be talent hidden there?

Did I hear some momentary hesitation prior to your shouting, “By all the Muses’ togas, no! Were I lucky enough to read thousands upon thousands of queries every January, I would treat each and every one with respect — nay, reverence — down to the last semicolon and almost-legible signature!” Or at least before packing up the implied moral dilemma in your old kit bag and murmuring, “Well, if I ran the publishing world, querying wouldn’t be required; writers could simply send their manuscripts. Which agents would read in their entirety…”?

Ah, you just did the mental math, didn’t you? There’s a reason the vast majority of submissions get rejected on page 1.

But let’s get back to Millicent’s agonizing decision about how long to spend reading each query. Yes, it’s her job to find the diamonds amongst the rhinestones; yes, it’s unfair and even rather unreasonable that a writer of gem-like books must also devote time and energy to composing a brilliant query and synopsis. It’s an inescapable fact of our times, however — and you might want to sit down for this one — that the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions. Most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox today if you hit SEND yesterday? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

Or, ‘fess up, were you one of the significant minority of aspiring writers whose first reaction to the idea that the agent of your dreams might be signing only 4 or 5 clients this year ran along the lines of “Apollo’s flame! I’d better make mine the first query he sees this year, then,” followed by a rapid glance at the nearest calendar? If so, relax: it’s not as though most agencies run on quotas, or as though your garden-variety great agent will fill his satchel with fabulous manuscripts for a month or two, then ignore everything else he reads until January 1 rolls around again.

It’s not, in short, as though the publishing world runs on New Year’s resolutions. (Although that’s an interesting idea.)

If you must take steps toward representation within the next few days or weeks, may I suggest something else that might improve your query’s chances? Invest the time in narrowing your querying list to agents with a solid, recent track record of selling books like yours.

Why will that help at the querying stage? Well, performing that research is relatively rare; a staggering number of queries arrive on the desks of people who have never represented a similar book in their professional lives. That’s a positive gift to a time-strapped Millicent, you know: the overwhelming majority of those thousands of New Year’s resolution-generated queries will be quite tempting to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing.

I find it sad that at this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Their logic tends to run thus: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every single reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories. While an individual reader may well enjoy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book share expectations. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if she picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel he’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

As annoying as it may be for aspiring writers to think about limiting their readerships, literary fiction, fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc., are the conceptual containers used to ensure that a particular kind of writing will be marketed to the specific target audience already buying similar books. It’s not (as writers new to the game often assume) that you’re being asked to say who wouldn’t be interested in reading your story, or that (as writers considering for the first time the question of genre frequently fear) that agents don’t understand that creativity can confound readers’ expectations. The goal of labeling your manuscript with a book category — as you should do in your query — is to help match the right book with the right readers in the long run, as well as with the right agent in the short run.

Not only does approaching an agent experienced in working with books in your chosen category maximize the probability that she will enjoy the story you’re telling — it also maximizes the probability that she’ll already have the professional connections to sell it. Since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. Editors and imprints, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

As a direct and sometimes disturbingly swift result, there is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, that story will be a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, if a writer is doing it in January. New Year’s resolvers are frequently in a hurry to see results. You would not believe how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google, e-mailing the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list, usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent.

That’s a pity, because — feel free to sing along; you should know the tune by now — not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books, but that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster than just querying every agent in Christendom.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to finding one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

That’s a good question, one that richly deserves an answer. I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent axiom was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements; it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Sorry about that.

Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information any agent would want to know before requesting pages. Like, say, the title or the book category.

Oh, you think I’m kidding about the title? Millicent’s seen 10 queries missing it today.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of the problems mentioned above could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, agents and editors alike frequently use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course: they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. How could they not, when all throughout the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve?

Not only do the usual post-vacation backlog await them, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Care to revise your answer about how quickly you would be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries if you were Millicent? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you respond to those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence is necessary to clear Millicent’s schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor do they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the resolution-generated flood peters out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (For those who just clutched your hearts: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload over the next few months, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal and expected part of the publication process. Every single author you admire has had to deal with it at some point in the process. Yes, really: just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

That should give you hope, by the way: while it may feel like a single rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s. If you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less rapidly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates are higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing well isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at the sight of a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired, like anyone else. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five misspellings in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be screening within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

Oh, and if you choose to disregard this advice — and I’ve been at this long enough to have accepted that a hefty percentage of you will — please, remember to include not only your manuscript title and book category in your query, but also to tuck your contact information into the letter. If you’re submitting a manuscript, include a title page with your contact information. You want the agent that’s just fallen in love with your voice to be able to tell you so, don’t you?

Stop laughing, please. You would be flabbergasted at how often e-mailing queriers and submitters just assume that all Millicent or her boss would have to do to get in touch would be to hit REPLY. I guess they’ve never heard of a forwarded e-mail.

Best of luck with your New Year’s resolutions — and with implementing them in the way that’s most likely to bring your dreams to fulfillment. Keep up the good work!

“What do you you mean, your book’s not published yet?” and other light-hearted holiday table banter

gingerbread family

While lazily re-reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné, as one so often does at this time of year, I stumbled across a particularly revealing review of a book released several centuries ago. Quoth the great lady:

This Morale of Nicole is admirable, and Cléopatre is going along nicely, but in no hurry; it is for odd moments. Usually, it is reading this that lulls me to sleep — the large print pleases me much more than the style.

That prompted me to cast a hurried eye at the calendar, as you may imagine. “Good gravy!” I exclaimed. “Aspiring writers across this great nation are about to be having Thanksgiving dinner with otherwise charming relatives and friends who wouldn’t know literature if it were floating in the cranberry sauce! It’s time to trot out my annual balm for the souls of writers passing the mashed potatoes while trying to answer well-meant questions like ‘So you’re a writer? What have you published?’ and ‘What — you’re still working on that novel after all this time?’ Not to mention the ever-popular ‘Oh, you’re writing these days? I’d just assumed you’d given up on that dream.’”

And writers throughout the land groan with recognition. There, there, campers — you didn’t think I was going to send you over the river and through the woods without a few words of encouragement, did you?

Yet already, the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. “But Anne,” bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, “aren’t you borrowing trouble here? Everyone loves a dreamer, and everyone adores good writing; therefore, it follows as night the day that everyone must be just wild about a good writer’s pursuing the dream of publication. So what makes you think we need a pep talk prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of our respective families and/or dining rooms of our inevitably supportive friends?”

Experience, mostly. In descending order of probability, a writing blogger, a fellow writer, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders aspiring writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festive eating and good fellowship cease. Heck, this time of year, even relatively well-established authors often beard the heavens with their bootless cries.

“Why,” they demand of the unhearing muses and anybody else who will listen, “can’t Aunt Myra, bless her heart, stop asking me why she regularly sees worse books than yours on the bestseller lists? Why must Cousin Reginald tell me at such length about his co-worker’s experience with self-publishing, as if that were relevant to my more traditional path? And why oh why cannot my beloved fraternal quadruplet Cristobal refrain from accusing me of being lazy because the memoir I wrote six years ago wasn’t out last June as a beach read?”

Excellent questions, all, but ones that can be addressed with a single answer: most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published. They believe, you see, in the Publishing Fairy, that completely fictional entity assigned by a beneficent universe to carry manuscripts directly from first conception to published volume swiftly, easily, and with no effort required from the writer.

Apart from the sheer act of sitting down and writing the darned thing, of course. But Aunt Myra has always suspected that half the time you claim to be spending sitting in front of your computer, wrestling with the muses, you’re actually on Facebook.

I pity Aunt Myra, Cousin Reginald, and your former womb mate Cristobal, though, truly. As a direct result of their implicit belief in the Publication Fairy and her seldom-seen-in-practice ways, they feel compelled to regard the absolutely normal years their beloved writer has spent struggling to learn the craft, wrenching the soul into written form, finding an agent who resonates with a genuinely original voice and vision, alternately waiting and revising while said agent shops the manuscript to publishers, subsequent waiting and revising while the book is in press, and exhausting marketing process as, well, abnormal.

And that, in case you had been shaking your head in wonder over a turkey leg, is why so many honest-to-goodness nice folks who deeply care about you can sound so incredibly awful when they feel forced to inquire about your writing. All of those fears about why the Publication Fairy has passed you by — or, at the very least, hasn’t yet taken you by the hand and led you to Oprah, The Colbert Report, or The New York Times Review of Books, tend to be compressed conversationally at every stage into the same ilk of question: “Why isn’t your book published yet?” They’re trying, in short, to be kind.

That’s not always apparent in the minute, though, is it? And if you’re like the overwhelming majority of writers, you’ve probably tumbled at least once into the bear trap of assuming that it was your fault for talking about your writing at all.

Come on, admit it — you’ve wished in retrospect that you hadn’t brought up your book. How could you not, when, in the course of your detailed account of just how many inches you have gnawed off your fingernails while waiting for that agent who asked for an exclusive to get back to you — it’s been five months! — Grandmamma plucked your sleeve and murmured tenderly, “Honey, why isn’t your novel in the stores? I keep telling my friends that you write” over the pie course? Didn’t you struggle just a bit to come up with a different answer than you had given her the last four times she’d asked?

If it’s any comfort, that bear trap lurks in the shadows later in the publishing process as well. When you’re six days from a hard deadline to get a revision you think is a bad idea to your publisher, Uncle Clark may well chortle, “Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about? You’re not the president.” Bearing in mind that he is fully capable of saying this to you after you have been elected president provides scant comfort, I’m sorry to say.

Or, when you’re over the moon because an agent — a real, live, honest-to-goodness agent! — has agreed to represent your baby, Gertrude-who-doesn’t-have-any-family-locally will boom over her second helping of glazed carrots, “Oh, congratulations! When’s the book coming out?” Invariably, while you are struggling to explain the vital difference between signing a representation contract and a contract with a publisher, the relative responsible for inviting Gertrude will attempt to change the subject. Perhaps violently.

And every writer currently treading the earth’s crust has encountered some form of Cousin Antoinette’s why-isn’t-he-her-ex-husband-yet’s annual passive-aggressive attempt at hearty encouragement. “Still no agent, eh? I’d always thought that the really good books got snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing? A good writer can make a lot of money that way, right?”

Am I correct that you have on occasion kicked yourself for your reaction — or non-reaction — to such outrageous stimuli? I’m sure you’ve told yourself that a sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well have answered: “Why, yes, Roger, I have indeed thought about self-publishing. As I had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up, please, and pass the darned yams.”

Or piped merrily, “Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you’d like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but memorably disagreeable role — a disquisition with which I would be all too happy to bore the entire table — could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?”

Or chirped between courses, “You know, Gertie, that’s a common misconception. If you’d like to learn something about how the publication process actually works, I could refer you to an excellent blog.”

Or, while Grandmamma’s mouth is full of pie, observed suavely, “I so appreciate your drumming up future readers for my novel, dearest; I’m sure that will come in very handy down the road. But no, ‘trying just a little harder this year’ won’t necessarily make the difference between hitting the bestseller lists and obscurity. You might want to try telling your friends that even if I landed an agent for my novel within the next few days — even less likely at this time of year than others, by the way, as the publishing world slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — it could easily be a year or two before you can realistically urge them to buy my novel. Thanks for your reliable support, though; it means a lot to me.”

Most of us aren’t up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, alas. We’re more inclined to get defensive, to tell Dad he doesn’t know whereat he speaks — or to stuff our traitorous mouths with mashed potatoes so we won’t tell Dad he doesn’t know whereat he speaks. In the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can sound very much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin that so loves to lurk in the back of the creative mind.

“If you were truly talented,” that little beastie loves to murmur in the ear of a writer already feeling discouraged, “an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work.”

Admit it — you’re on a first-name basis with that goblin. It’s been whispering in your ear ever since you began to query. Or submit. Or perhaps as soon as you started to write.

Even so, you’re entitled to be a little startled when Bertie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly pleasant person your brother brought along to dinner because he’s new to town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Instead of emptying that conveniently nearby vat of cranberry sauce over his Adonis-like curls, may I suggest trying to be charitable? Your brother’s friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.

“Wait — how?” you ask, cranberry-filled vat already aloft.

Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to argue with a living, breathing person than someone whose base camp is located inside your head. Astonishingly often, an artless question like “Oh, you write? Would I have read any of your work?” from the ignoramus across the table will give voice to a niggling doubt that’s been eating at a talented writer for years.

Or so I surmise, from how frequently writers complain about such questions. “How insensitive can they be?” writers inevitably wail in the wake of holiday gatherings, and who could blame them? “I swear that I heard ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and/or kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer, as opposed to the fantasy kind that writes a book one minute, is instantly and spontaneously solicited by an agent the next, and is chatting on a couch with a late-night TV host immediately thereafter? Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently regarded as the only measure of writing talent?”

The short answer to that extraordinarily well-justified cri de coeur is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing. I’m relatively certain, though, that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove the writers mentioned above to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. They’re just echoing a common misunderstanding of how books do and don’t get published.

Which brings us once again to our old pal, the Publication Fairy. Her pixie dust can blind even the most sensible bystander to the writing process. Not only does popular belief hold that the only good book is a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively gasp with laughter — but also that if a writer were actually gifted, publication would be both swift and inevitable, following with little or no effort hard upon typing THE END on a first draft. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased on a shelf is the quality of the writing, right? Because no one ever buys a book without reading it first.

Are you guffawing yet? More importantly, is Bertie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be rolling on the shag carpet by now.

Yet I sense that you’re not laughing. You’re not even smiling. In fact, if you’re honest about it, you and Bertie may have been nodding silently while reading through that list of risible untruths about publishing.

Because this is such a frequent source of self-doubt, let’s tease out the logic a little. If we accept all of the suppositions as accurate, there are only two conceivable reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). That means, invariably, that a writer complaining about how hard the road is must either need a kick in the rump or gentle dissuasion from pursuing a dream that can’t possibly come true.

Fortunately for dinner-table harmony, most nice folks aren’t up to providing either to a relative they see only once or twice a year. (Although your Aunt Gloria is always up for a little rump-kicking, I hear.) Accordingly, they figure, the only generous response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one’s eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.

Or to change the subject altogether. Really, it isn’t your sister’s coworker’s fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the already-wounded ego of some poor soul writhing under a first query rejection, and who therefore clearly has no talent for writing?

Chuckling yet? You should be. While it is of course conceivable that any of the reasons above could be stifling the publication chances of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Violet?” yet again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or could be adequately measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Print-and-Bind-It-Now wand would cause the pros to choke with mirth.

So would the length of that last sentence, come to think of it. Ol’ Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one. Unless he’s still lingering over the pecan pie with Madame de Sévigné, Noël Coward, and Euripides. (They’re always the last to leave the table.)

Again, though, my finely-tuned antennae tell me that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers everywhere point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike, that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me really, really, REALLY wants to believe that’s not actually the case. Or at least that it will not be in my case.”

See what I mean about the holidays’ capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? Let’s listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something more. Let’s get it all out on the table.

“If the literary universe is fair,” writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason…

(Stop here for every agent, editor, and book promoter who has ever lived to snort with hilarity.)

“…a good manuscript should always find a home. If that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at Thanksgiving is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

Actually, in that instance, you would be fending off injured cries of “Where is my free copy?” But we’ll talk about that later. Your hobgoblins were saying?

“Since it’s an agent’s job to find exciting new talent,” Bernie et al. continue, “and my query — not my manuscript — has been rejected by four agents and I’ve never heard back from the fifth who asked to see the first 30 pages, there’s really no point in continuing to try to find an agent for this book. They all share the same tastes, and anyway, they’d probably only want me to change things in my manuscript. Maybe Roger is right to urge me to self-publish. But then all of the costs and pressures of promotion would fall on me, and…”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely-frustrated writers and their hobgoblins interrupt us. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out work persistently, until he finds the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third demographic and its internal demons shout en masse. “Send out work persistently? Rejected by four agents — and not heard back from a fifth? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any excellent writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. Are you absolutely certain you want to do that?

It’s a dangerous practice for a writer, you know. The Publication Fairy’s long, shallow shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances decrease over time. Following her siren song can lead a writer to believe, for instance, that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, rather than one who already has the connections to sell a particular book. Or that it would be a dandy idea to sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even to every agent in the country, without checking first to see if any of them represent a your kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one, my dear — to give up after just a few rejections.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, would it? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the quality of the writing would be assessed — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if a writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written. You might as well give up after the first rejection. Or before taking a chance on a query.

Why shouldn’t you, when by prevailing logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to expend any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off an initial draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait mere instants until an agent is miraculously wafted to her doorstep.

Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.

Ah, it’s a pretty fantasy, isn’t it? The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire professional career!” A book contract follows instantaneously, promising publication within a week. By the end of a couple of months at the very latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book, pretending to be modest.

“It has been a life-changing struggle,” the writer says brightly, courageously restraining happy tears, “but I felt I had to write this book. As Maya Angelou says, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’”

You would be astonished at the ubiquity this narrative of authorial achievement enjoys amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually handle books in one’s chosen book category. At a gut level, however, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that the manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you’d thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite as it should be.

Otherwise, where’s Mary Poppins? Aunt Myra may have a point.

‘Fess up — you’ve thought this at time or two. Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to become a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night, or at any rate in the throes of being questioned by those with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell in the current market. It could also signify that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that for querying purposes, one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category.

Any of these can result in knee-jerk rejection. Even if a manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent in recent years that few agents can afford to take on as many truly talented new clients as they would like.

But those are not the justifications likely to pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin in the night. Nor are they prone to convince Uncle Clark, or make Grandmamma happy, or to awe Roger into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince until Cousin Antoinette finally gives him the heave-ho. If only there were some short, pithy quip you could trot out at such instants, if not to cajole these excellent souls into active support, at least to stop them from skewering you when you’re feeling vulnerable.

I cannot give you that magical statement, unfortunately. All I can offer you is the truth: offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we’ve been discussing represents a real-life career trajectory.

Sorry, Dad — that’s just not how books get published. More pie?

The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking. All of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile (which no longer exists) to the top of the acceptance heap.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us with false hope. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that the ladies in question do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with undoubted talent.

Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, people. Oscar Wilde was known to have run into a barrier or two. Louisa May Alcott toiled to churn out potboilers and war anecdotes to pay the coal bill for years before turning to YA, and the primary reason that we know the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley is that his wife happened to be a major novelist and the daughter of two major novelists; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was arguably the greatest literary publicist of all time.

And the first novel Jane Austen sold to a publisher? It didn’t come out until after her death.

The muses donate their favors whimsically. I ask you, though, through the lens of that historical perspective: is it really soon enough to judge your writing solely by its immediate commercial prospects? Is it ever?

To non-writers, these perfectly reasonable questions can appear downright delusional, or at the very least confusing. They have no experience having their passions bandied about by the muses, you see. To be fair, you cannot expect otherwise from an upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!”

So we are left to ask ourselves: what can such a sterling soul possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded? Even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy with a tenacity that makes Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy turn chartreuse with envy. If only adults believed in them with such fervor!

If you doubt the strength of the Publication Fairy’s sway, try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers who haven’t asked about it. “So when is your book coming out?” that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never-been-clear will inquire. “And would you mind passing that mysterious grey substance with which your roommate chose to trouble our family meal?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You talked about writing it before Travis here was born, and now he’s on the football squad.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book. Or is this still the first book?”

Your brother’s wife might attempt to be a bit more tactful; Colleen always tries, doesn’t she? “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Do you really want to put yourself through it? I have a friend who’s self-publishing, and…”

Thanks, Colleen — because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dank midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the profits to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, even today — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

Yes, you read that correctly. But the Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

If she can, she certainly doesn’t do it much. Chant it with me now: agents don’t magically appear on good authors’ doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed. But someone predisposed to believe otherwise is also unlikely to understand that when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent? When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house.

We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders. Mary Poppins could have a flat landing-place made out of dimes.

Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.

But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re too smart to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing in the immediate vicinity of pickled beets. I sense, though, that more than a few of you would enjoy having a bit of ammunition at the ready in anticipation for that particular battle, should it arise.

Okay, how might one gird one’s loins for that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about responding to the question “Published yet, Charlie?” by abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent election? Or universal healthcare? Or a certain grand jury verdict in Missouri?

You see the point, don’t you? Just as it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it’s always dangerous to presume that every kind soul there will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually occurs. Accepting the probable reality that even the most eloquent explanation will not necessarily sway hearts and minds from devotion to the Publication Fairy may be your best bet.

So what might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s acolytes do to protect her digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days, Ambrose?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Allison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, Sis. Seriously, though, I don’t want to stultify you with an explanation of how books really get published.”

Think about giving it a rest this year, in short. Don’t try to educate everyone in one fell swoop; it’s not your responsibility, and actually, the lecture you give this year may not be sufficiently remembered the next to help you. (Oh, that’s only my in-laws?) Unless you are willing to resign yourself to the inevitability of annual soapbox-mounting, you might want to consider letting your loved ones’ belief in the Publication Fairy survive another holiday season.

If your inherent sense of justice urges you to convey some small sense of your monumental effort toward writing and/or revising, or to share a glimpse into multitudinous stresses involved in querying, submission, and so forth, I’d advise keeping it brief for the purposes of general discussion. It can be easy to become carried away by a topic close to your creative heart, though. If you find yourself starting to launch into a major speech, a simple “Well, I could go on for hours, Horace, but suffice it to say that it’s really hard. I’m trying to take a day off from it, though” can easily bring it to a close. It can also allow you to control how long you’re on the spot.

Oh, now I hear some of you laughing. Yes? “Oh, Anne,” you say, wiping the tears of hilarity from your rosy cheeks, “it’s obvious you have never met my kith/kin/the relative strangers with whom I propose to spend the holiday. I anticipate being confronted not with the casual double-edged question, but with a level of intensive cross-examination and invasive scrutiny from which Perry Mason himself could glean a few pointers. I’m not worried about getting into the conversation; I despair of ever getting out of it.”

A tougher nut to crack, admittedly. I would recommend cutting it off at the first parry. “Wow, that’s a big subject, Gerard,” can often do the trick. Adding “I could prattle for weeks about the behind-the-scenes trials every author faces along the way, but my dinner would get cold, and I so want to hear about Cousin Blanche’s hysterectomy. Ask me again after the dishes are done, when we can make ourselves cozy in a corner and talk. How about during the football game?”

That last bit will, of course, work best if Gerard happens to be a die-hard football fan. It may feel like a low blow, but hey, all’s fair in love, war, and protecting your passions.

If pressed, you could always murmur, “I’d love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Because everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a novel, right?”

An especially judgmental holiday table might be anticipated by the appearance of such a notebook beside your napkin, in fact. As any journalist or rationally self-protective memoirist could tell you, people are apt to clam up a little when they notice their words are being recorded for posterity. Applying pen to paper proactively, accompanied by a slight, rueful shake of the head and a chuckle, will at least turn the conversation from “Why aren’t you published?” to “What are you writing? What did I just say?”

The latter may well be spoken in a resentful tone, but you might be astonished how often it isn’t. Speaking as a memoirist, I’m here to tell you that it never pays underestimate the flattery inherent in finding people interesting enough to occupy page space. I’ve seldom met the Aunt Myra so iron-hearted that “Oh, wow — I’ve just got to write that quip down, Auntie! Talk amongst yourselves while I do” doesn’t soften her will to criticize, at least a little. And it’s a terrific defense for the moment Aunt Gloria decides your rump would benefit from some well-intentioned kicking about not polishing off your revision fast enough.

You could also call upon most people’s active dislike of boredom. An enthusiastic cry of “Oh, my goodness — you have no idea how happy I am that you want to hear all about my writing! Just a sec, while I power up my laptop. The scene I want to read you is a trifle on the long side, but you don’t mind keeping my food warm for me, do you, Eloise?”

Prepare to be stunned by the urgency with which Uncle George and his — what are they called at that age? — great and good friend Carlotta fling themselves into a discussion of the comparative merits of The Blacklist and White Palace as James Spader vehicles at that particular moment. Or Cousin Tremaine’s burning desire to share the scores of each of his eight children’s soccer games. For the last two years.

As I learned at my mother’s knee, any dinner table seating five or more people naturally breaks up into more than one conversation. (My parents threw a lot of literary dinner parties.) Use it.

If the proposed dramatic reading of your own writing doesn’t induce panic, try a burbling offer to declaim that passage in Melville that changed your life forever. Or Proust — in the original French, if necessary. (See earlier observation about what’s fair in love, war, and ego-preservation.)

Let’s assume for the sake of caution, though, that you’re facing a tableful of kith/kin/well-meaning relative strangers breaking bread with you so committed to showing you the error of your writing ways that there’s no graceful way to evade or shorten the conversation. Or that you are dining with a group whose belief in the Publication Fairy is so unquestioning as to border on the childlike (or imbecilic), and you hate the idea of any one of those people’s feeling sorry for you. Or maybe that your obnoxious brother Graham knows that the agent of your dreams has been sitting on your first 50 pages for nine long weeks, and he just enjoys needling you.

Whichever may be the case, what’s a nice (and most writers are nice) writer to do? I would recommend seizing the moment to engage in a little advance education on the practicalities of occupying the inner circle of a published author’s life. The sooner Great-Uncle Vic learns that there’s more to being a famous author’s relative than bragging rights and free books, the more comfortable everyone will be on the happy day when you do in fact become a famous author.

I find that concentrating upon the details tends to go over better than gentle nudges toward a more supportive attitude while folks are gnawing upon drumsticks. I would recommend, in short, of seizing the opportunity of disabusing them of the notion that they’re not going to have to buy your books.

Be prepared for a certain amount of incredulity: next to the Publication Fairy, the notion that authors’ kith and kin routinely receive free copies is one of your more ubiquitous misconceptions. It’s seldom true, at least not to the extent your relatives will think. Yes, Second-Cousin-Thrice-Removed Myrtle, publishers do generally provide their authors with an extremely limited stock of their books, with the expectation that such will be used for promotion. They’re going to want you to pass them along to book reviewers and bloggers and the clerk at your favorite bookstore, not to endow your relatives’ bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

The number of free copies will almost certainly be considerably smaller than either Great-Uncle Vic or Carlotta have been thinking, too. (Oh, you didn’t think he’d been expecting you to send him a signed copy for Carlotta, too? Think again.) Somewhere between 5 and 50 is the norm.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise scads of free copies — and those of us in the biz are perpetually appalled at how often first-time authors often do — you will be facing some hard choices. To whom will you give those precious few books?

Undoubtedly more important to the folks with whom you are currently enjoying turkey, how many of them will not be on that short list? What about the person sitting across the table from you? To your left? To your right?

Before you answer, you might want to take a quick mental count of all the other people who might make sense as recipients. Will you want to send one to your favorite writing teacher? The lady at the archives who took all that extra time to help you research the book? What about your college roommate? Or that blogger who gave you hope when your relatives criticized you? (Oh, yes, authors constantly send me review copies. As much as I appreciate the gesture, please, don’t waste a book on me that you could send to what are euphemistically called opinion-makers: I’d be more than happy with a beautifully-phrased thank-you card, truly.)

All done toting up? Okay, here are 10 free copies. Are there any left for your relatives?

If the answer is no, trust me, it’s better you know it now. It’s also news that you might want to break with great care to your relatives.

Yes, yes, I know: you don’t want to do it. But tell me: will Myrtle be less hurt to hear about it now, or three days before your book drops? What about Uncle George, Aunt Gloria, or the rest of those quadruplets? Honestly, you would be saving them from future disappointment — and yourself from what can be quite a lot of well-intentioned pressure.

Oh, you want a foretaste? How about “What do you mean, you didn’t save a copy for your brother Ralph? You expect someone with whom you shared a bedroom for a decade to pay for his copy?”

Yes, you do. Or you will. It’s not merely that for every copy you give away, that’s one less copy sold. (Who did you think would buy your book, if not your kith, kin, and everyone who has ever known you?) That ultimately means fewer royalties for you, as well as possibly a harder time convincing a publisher to bring out your next book.

Not that it would be remotely politic to express any of this so bluntly, of course. Phrase it as gently as you know how; it will come as a blow to folks expecting not only never to have to pay a dime for a single word of your writing, but possibly — brace yourself — having also presumed that they would be on the receiving end of copies to distribute to their friends. (Hey, it’s a common fantasy amongst the author-adjacent.)

Just bear in mind that by speaking now, you’re ultimately saving the people you love from chagrin. If that doesn’t do the trick, try recalling that if you recklessly promise free copies — and again, those of us in the biz are positively aghast at how many first-time authors have — you will almost certainly be buying those gift copies yourself.

I don’t mean that conceptually, by the way: it’s exceedingly common for first-time authors to end up actually purchasing individual copies for their relatives and friends. To see why, you need only revisit that mental list of gift recipients.

That’s a difficult reality to accept, isn’t it? I can tell you now that you’re going to feel mean as you convey this information. Feel free to blame me as the source of the bad news: trust me, it would not be the first time “You’re not going to believe what I read on Author! Author!” was used as a blow-softener. I’m tough; I can take it.

More to the point, I’m not having Thanksgiving dinner with you, am I?

I can, however, anticipate your mother’s first tremulous question, and possibly yours: yes, authors do generally receive fairly substantial discounts on their own books, as long as those books are purchased directly from the publisher (and, in many cases, ordered in advance of the release date). Houses like to encourage their authors to carry around copies to resell to anyone who says, “Oh, you have a book out? Cool!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, authors so often show up at reading venues staggering under heavy backpacks or enormous purses. If the venue’s not a bookstore, those authors usually have a box or two of books in their cars, ready to pile in an attractive display next to the podium. (What, you thought the Publication Fairy brought them?)

What may interest you more than your mother to hear, however, is that copies purchased with the author’s discount virtually never count toward a book’s sales totals — and thus not toward royalties. That hefty discount arises from your price’s not reflecting royalty costs or negotiated deals with booksellers, you see. (You’re going to want to check your publishing contract carefully on this point; sometimes, it’s negotiable, as is the number of free copies.) A cost-conscious writer might also like to know before promising copies that one’s agent or acquiring editor might not think to point out that buying a lot of discounted books might not be to the author’s advantage.

They tend to assume that the bit about those copies’ not adding toward sales totals is quite a bit more widely known than it actually is; it’s not unheard-of for this tidbit not to be discussed at all at contract time, or even as the book is moving toward publication. The author usually hears about the number of free copies (“There you go, Mom!”) and the discount (“Okay, Great-Uncle Vic can think that his was free.”), but simply assumes that a book sold is a book sold. Why wouldn’t a discounted copy be included in the overall total and generate royalties?

Don’t believe that often comes as an unpleasant surprise? As recently as last week, I was chatting with a quite successful first-time memoirist. Her excellent book came out earlier this year, and, as is so often the case, she had underestimated the unpaid time, effort, and expense an author at a major house is routinely expected to devote to book promotion. She was particularly annoyed to learn that she had to buy and pay to ship 50 copies of her book to a speaking venue — and then to pay to have the 42 that hadn’t sold at the event shipped to her home. She wasn’t sure, she said, that she would be willing to do it again.

I commiserated. “And to think that after all that effort, those books will have no effect on your book’s sales totals. I’m so sorry.”

“Wait,” she said. “What? I won’t get royalties?”

So no, Mom, your baby’s probably not going to be coughing up the cover price for a copy for you, but it may be costly in other ways. Your in-house author may even be able to shake free a gratis copy for Great-Grandma Midge, who isn’t getting any younger, but please don’t feel guilty. Mom might want to get into the habit of telling more distant relatives — like, say, those cousins she made you invite to your wedding, although you hadn’t seen them since you were six — that they should plan on buying their own copies. You would be delighted to sign them afterward.

Trust the voice of experience: the more special she feels at the prospect of clutching her own free book — the only one in the family, because you’re such a good kid! — the more likely she is to go to bat for you. “Every single copy Tammy sells helps her,” she can say — and she’ll get better with practice. “I’ll understand if you can’t afford it, of course. She’s been working so hard for so many years on this book, but please don’t feel guilty.”

Translation: the best thing Aunt Myra could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her the instant she does. If you’re feeling adventurous, extend that promise to visiting her in order to inscribe copies for all of the friends she can cajole, blandish, and/or guilt into purchasing.

I have faith in your Aunt Myra. I think she can push some volumes.

All that being said, don’t kick yourself if you find you don’t have the heart to tell your relatives and friends any of this in the course of the current holiday season. This is big stuff, and even the best of us have people in our lives prone to judging the quality of a book by its position on the bestseller list. You have to pick your battles. You might want to bookmark this page, though, so you have the arguments handy down the line.

Heck, you could just forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. Again, I don’t mind playing the heavy here, if it helps you. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives.

I see no reason to stop now. Your writing deserves it, doesn’t it?

And you have that support within our Author! Author! community. Here, we don’t dismiss every book that doesn’t sell 150,000 copies. We don’t feel that large print contributes more to reading pleasure than the style of the writing. (Take that, Madame de Sévigné!) And most of all, we don’t believe in the Publication Fairy.

It’s sweet, in a way, that so many people do. By that logic, the Followers of the Fairy incur a greater obligation than the rest of us to buy the books of authors they know personally: the Fairy, and the industry, can only reward with success books that readers purchase. Anyone who wants to judge your dream to write by that yardstick should understand that they can, with a good will and the best of intentions, contribute to your sales totals. And thus to their opinion of the value of your writing endeavors.

As always, keep up the good work. Happy digestion to all, and to all a good night.

When “where do I send those requested materials?” is a multiple-choice question

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When last we met, before time so rudely interrupted me by passing in the conventional manner, we were deep in the throes of discussing the thorny issue of exclusive submissions, de facto and otherwise. As flattering as it is to be asked not to send your manuscript elsewhere while an agent or editor at a small press considers your writing, it’s not invariably to a conference pitcher or successful querier’s advantage to give into the almost universal initial impulse to shout, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes!” before it’s entirely clear to what one is agreeing. Sometimes, that happy shout echoes later rather dismally in the ears of the writer caught in the ostensibly enviable situation of having a second agent or editor at a small press say yes to a query whilst the manuscript in question (or a partial) is dallying with the first.

That echo can be especially mournful, if you’ll forgive my bringing it up, to the writer who learned only through first-hand experience that just because an agent or editor asks, usually quite nicely, if she may read the book before any other pro does, it doesn’t necessarily speed up the consideration process. A request for an exclusive does not generally mean that the requester intends to clear his schedule to read those pages the instant they arrive, after all. That’s not too astonishing, considering how rare it is for any single request for an exclusive to be the only one an agent or editor makes in, say, a conference season. Or in six months’ worth of queries.

Oh, dear, did the behemoth thump that just shook the cosmos indicate that I should have advised you to sit down before reading that last paragraph? I’m not altogether flabbergasted, because frankly, misunderstanding — or even misreading — the terms of an exclusive submission request tends to be the norm, rather than the exception. All too often, overjoyed pitchers and queriers will respond to what they think the agent is asking, rather than what she actually says.

Completely understandable, right, when such requests so frequently come as a surprise? In the moment, even a simple “Hey, that was a good pitch; send me the first 30 pages” can sound like winning, if not the lottery, then at least a bet on a long shot at the Kentucky Derby. With every cell in a writer’s brain gurgling, “At last! At last!” it’s not particularly uncommon for conference pitchers to presume that any request for pages could only have been intended as an exclusive.

“But Anne!” those of you who joined me for our last discussion on the topic cry. “How can that be? Such expectations are always stated explicitly. So unless an agent or editor actually asks for an exclusive, or the agency for which the requesting agent works has a clearly-expressed exclusives-only policy posted on its website, why would it ever be to a submitter’s advantage to stop submitting to others while the requesting agent is reading the manuscript? Heck, why would it even be to that writer’s advantage to cease querying in the meantime?”

The short answer is that it wouldn’t — and how gratifying that you caught that, inveterate readers. It almost invariably slows down a manuscript’s search for a professional home to submit, much less query, only one agency at a time. And what does the writer gain by the delay, really? At best, submitting it to only one agent might save the writer from having to query and/or submit further. Not an insignificant conservation of energy, true, but bought at the expense of quite a risk.

“What risk?” those of you delighted by the very notion of having to query and submit only once over the course of a long and doubtless illustrious literary career. “Spending as little time as possible in this stress-fest sounds completely fabulous to me!”

And it could indeed be great — presuming that this agent is in fact the perfect fit for the book, literary market conditions appear to be favorable for that book category, and the manuscript itself is in great shape. Oh, and that our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, happens to be in an exceptionally good mood on the day that the submission crosses her desk. If even one of those elements happens to be slightly off, resulting in Agent #1’s not saying yes, then that eager writer will have to start all over again from scratch.

Which, let’s face it, can require quite a bit more oomph than getting a set of queries out the door the first time around. Post-rejection querying, pitching, and even submission in response to the next yes calls for not only faith in your talent and your work — it also requires telling the hobgoblins of doubt to stop murmuring in the dead of night something that logic tells us cannot possibly be true: that a rejection from one agent must mean that every other agent currently trundling across the earth’s crust would just reject it, too.

“So why bother?” the hobgoblins chortle at 3 a.m. “Why not just write off the book into which you have been pouring your heart and soul for eons? You could always start a new one.”

Fortunately, hobgoblins are notoriously ignorant of the ways of the publishing industry. The next time they rear their ugly heads, inform them that good, even great, manuscripts get rejected all the time. It can take a while to find the right fit for a book. So shut up and let nice writers everywhere sleep, already!

Given that level of querying-, pitching-, and submission-related anxiety, it’s hardly astounding that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers respond to requests for exclusives with an enthusiastic chorus of, “By all of the great heavenly muses, YES! If I overnight it to you, will that be soon enough to get started?” As long as you’re walking into it with a clear mutual understanding of what you and the requesting agent are and are not promising each other by agreeing to an exclusive, go ahead and be as enthusiastic as you please.

What’s that the masses are thinking so loudly? That you’d like a refresher in what the default terms would be? Happy to oblige.

If a writer agrees to grant an exclusive to an agent,

(a) only that agent will have an opportunity to read the requested materials;

(b) no other agent is already looking at it;

(c) the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

(d) in return for these significant advantages (which, after all, mean that the agent will not have to compete with other agents to represent the book), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation, but

(e) if no time restriction is specified in advance, or if the agent always requests exclusives, the manuscript may simply be considered on precisely the same timeframe as every other requested by the agency.

Sometimes, though, even knowing all of that in advance and acting with according wisdom will not prevent a conscientious submitter from running into exclusive-related problems. What happens, for instance, if Agent A, the original requester, hasn’t gotten back to the writer by the time another request for pages arrives? Oh, it could happen, if the writer has been serious enough about landing an agent to send out more than one query at a time.

That trajectory runs something like this: our hero/ine took a deep breath, girded his or her loins, and sent out a truly impressive array of queries to category-appropriate agents. Of those many recipients, several responded, asking to read pages. Response rates are as unique as snowflakes, though, so each agent responded in her own time. So once Agent A was delighted enough with the query to ask for an exclusive peek, it’s entirely possible that our intrepid writer will have already sent out a partial to Agent B, as well as full manuscripts to Agents C and D.

Then, too, sometimes requests for pages come in clumps. If an e-querier sends out a barrage of missives all at once, he might well receive several positive responses withina few days. If nobody asks for an exclusive, no problem: he can just send them all out simultaneously. But what if one of those agents wants to be the only one looking at it?

Are those of you devoted to conference pitching feeling left out? No need: let’s say that prior to a well-stocked writers’ conference, our hero/ine knelt before his or her computer and swore not to allow a single viable (yet polite) opportunity to pitch pass ungrasped. It’s entirely possible that s/he will stride away from those pitch sessions with more than one request. If only Agent A asked for an exclusive, should the our knight grant it, even if that means putting off non-exclusive requests from Agents B-D?

While we’re tossing around rhetorical questions, what is the writer to tell all of those other agents in the meantime? And, at the risk of terrifying you, may I also inquire what happens if the exclusive-requester doesn’t get back to the writer in a timely manner?

None of these are particularly uncommon dilemmas for submitters to face, incidentally. Often, though, writers who find themselves in these awkward positions are too embarrassed to discuss them. They tend to feel, sometimes with some justification, that they should have been prepared for any of these eventualities. After all, an exclusive is serious business, a matter of professional integrity, and therefore probably not the kind of thing to which a savvy writer would, upon mature consideration, grant lightly.

Say, in the midst of an extended fit of alternated giggling and hyperventilation because a REAL, LIVE AGENT has asked to see one’s work. At that particular moment, the other seventeen queries one has out and about might conceivably slip one’s mind.

Especially if, as is often the case, the request for an exclusive is a trifle vague. (“I’d like an exclusive on this, Minette,” is often the extent of it.) In the throes of delight, the impulse to scream “YES!” has occasionally been known to overcome the completely rational urge to ask, “Excuse me, but what precisely would that mean for me?” Or even, “Pardon me, O person who has the power to change my life, but what happens if I don’t say yes immediately?”

I can feel some of you quaking in your jammies over the idea of being bold enough to ask either of those questions. Or, indeed, any at all: follow-up questions in the wake of exclusive requests are as rare as spotting a unicorn having tea with the Loch Ness Monster on a blue moon. That’s unfortunate, since, as junior high school taught so many of us, picking dare in a game of truth-or-dare is dangerous precisely because one does not get to hear all the details of the dare before agreeing to attempt it.

Oh, like I was the only eighth grader who…well, never mind. Suffice it to say that in manuscript submission, as in life, one makes better choices if one knows the options prior to choosing amongst them.

Which is to say: you have more power here than you think, provided you are aware of it in advance. Why? Well, think about it: as flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional.

Before anyone starts jumping up and down, thrilled to the gills at the idea of magnificent concessions writers might wrest from an agent averse to reading competition, the power to which I refer is fairly limited. The writer may say yes to the exclusive, or she may say no. She may also say, “Thanks, but not now.”

Not that the writer is required, or even encouraged, to give any of these responses directly to the agent, mind you. If the answer is anything but yes, don’t contact the agent to explain. Trust me, if your manuscript doesn’t arrive within a few months, Agent A will intuit that you’re not leaping to say yes to an exclusive. Since the manuscript’s arrival (accompanied, ideally, by a cover letter beginning, “Thank you so much for asking to read my pages on an exclusive basis,” or something similar) would be the accepted means of agreeing to an exclusive, there’s no call for the writer to fill Agent A’s inbox with notifications that it’s on its way, explanations that while an exclusive would be great, Agent B will have to respond first, or the most popular option of all: a long, whiny missive complaining that Agent C has had the manuscript for X amount of time without getting back to the writer, so could Agent A please retract that whole insistence-upon-an-exclusive thing?

I can tell you now that none of these communications will be appreciated. It’s hardly news to agents that aspiring writers query and submit widely these days; it’s quite normal for a savvy writer not to be able to grant an exclusive right away. Until that writer can, however, the particulars of who would need to respond simply don’t matter to Agent A.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought so loudly, if Agent A prefers an exclusive, or if his agency does, you’re not going to be able to talk him out of it. Regardless of how stressful you find the multiple-request situation, it’s not fair to expect the agent to solve it for you. If you can’t say yes now, say it when you can.

That doesn’t mean, though, that you need to grant an open-ended exclusive. Whether you already know that Agents B-D want to read pages, that they are considering your query, or just that you wish to keep your options open, it’s always a good idea to set a time limit on an exclusive. You should also reserve granting exclusives your top-choice agents.

What’s that? When two million of you are shouting, it’s hard to hear. Yes, 10,000 closest to me? “But Anne, I just want an agent! How the heck do I, someone brand-new to the business side of publishing, know who should be my top picks? All I really know about Agents A-D is that they represent books in my category!”

Actually, if you’ve done that much research, you’re ahead of the game: it’s not at all uncommon for aspiring writers to query agents without first checking to see what they do and don’t represent. (“An agent’s an agent, right?” they reason, wrongly.) It’s also pretty common for pitchers to approach agents at conferences without having any idea what they represent. That’s just annoying for everybody. It truly is in your book’s best interest to do a bit of homework about what kinds of books an agent has sold recently before trying to interest him in representing yours.

But let’s say that you didn’t, perhaps for a good reason. Perhaps a conference’s organizers simply assigned you to an agent for your pitch session; maybe you just entered thriller into one of those search engines, and it spit out every agent in the country that checked that box on a form. Or you spent most of your time with a guide to agents in the index-by-region section. Regardless of how you ended up with requests for pages from Agents A-D, you certainly have the means of finding out more about them before you submit, enabling you to decide which might be the best fit for you.

Why put in that effort, when all reputable agents sell books? Because, contrary to amazingly popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, no good writer wants to land just any agent; everyone wants the best agent for his or her book. Or should want that, at any rate.

How might a savvy writer figure out which interested agent that’s likely to be? Well, a simple web search isn’t a bad place to start. If the agency has a website — and not all of them do, believe it or not, even at this late date — it will usually list the major clients. Generally, it will also feature at least a brief bio for each of its member agents.

It’s also worth checking whether the agent (or the agency) has a blog or has given interviews about being an agent. Not every agent does, of course, but why not embrace the generosity of those who have taken the time to share their literary preferences with potential clients?

My point: it’s going to be awfully difficult to decide whether you’re already excited enough about Agent A to be positive that she is the agent of your dreams — positive enough that you’re willing to forego, at least for now, submitting to Agents B-D — in the absence of some substantive research about all of them. If, after doing that research, you don’t feel that you would say yes right away if Agent A offered to represent your book, are you sure that you want to give A an exclusive that’s going to limit your ability to show your manuscript to others?

Think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right? By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead.

It’s a win/win — but only if that actually was the school you wanted to attend. (I speak from experience here: once I got into Harvard early, I had a whale of a good time going to group interviews with my high school friends and saying, “Wow, that’s an interesting question, Mr. Alumnus. Allow me to turn that question into an opportunity to discuss the merits of Kathleen here.” And then Kathleen would get all excited, because Mr. Alumnus had the power to admit her to the school of her dreams.

Oh, you thought I woke up one bright day as an adult and suddenly became public-spirited? I regard a broad range of endeavor as team sport.)

If the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might be well advised to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again, as well as irk my erstwhile classmates — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time. That way, you may later decide between those that do admit you.

In the extremely unlikely case that I’m being too subtle here: a request for exclusive is great only in proportion to how much you would like to be represented by the person asking for it. The good news is that you don’t have to wait around passively. Once you have done your homework, you can more easily decide whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it?

If not, I can keep coming up with parallels all day, I assure you. Don’t make me delve into my vast store of zoology metaphors.

Do all of those averted eyes mean that you have no intention of saying no to a REAL, LIVE AGENT that wants to SEE YOUR WORK? Or merely that you’re hoping desperately that the muses have abruptly decided to assign one of their number to make sure that of those 17 agents you have approached, the only one that prefers exclusive submissions contacts you first, swears to get back to you within 48 hours, and offers to sign you in 36?

Well, I wish the best for you, so I hope it’s the latter, too, but let’s assume for the moment that at least one writer out there falls into the former category. If you say yes, lone intender, set a reasonable time limit on the exclusive, so you don’t keep your manuscript or proposal off the market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive a year ago and still hasn’t heard back.

Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Or even — brace yourself — a year or two.

I can neither confirm nor deny this, of course. All I can tell you that since the economic downturn began, such rumors have escalated astronomically.

Set a time limit, politely. Three months is ample. (And no, turning it into three weeks will almost certainly not get your manuscript read any faster. This is no time to be unreasonable in your expectations.)

No need to turn asking for the time limit into an experiment in negotiation, either. Simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next three months.

Simple, direct — and believe me, if Agent A has a problem with the amount of time you’ve specified, you will be receiving a call or an e-mail. It will probably come at the end of those three months, and it will probably be a request for more time, but hey, at least you will have established that you are not expecting to keep your manuscript out of circulation indefinitely.

Before those gusty sighs of relief blow anyone’s pets out of the room, I add hastily: protecting your ability to market your work isn’t always that simple. Negotiation generally isn’t possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts exclusively, for the exceedingly simple reason that the writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to take a gander at some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, exclusive-only agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to approach us, we assume that you have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer. Now squeal with delight and hand over the pages, please.”

Noticing a homework theme running throughout all of these unspoken assumptions? Good. Let me pull out the bullhorn to reiterate: because agents tend to assume that any serious writer would take the time to learn how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work, submitters that don’t do their homework are significantly more likely to get rejected than those who do.

Oh, did some of you want to ask a question? Here, allow me to lower my bullhorn.

“But Anne,” the recently-deafened point out, uncovering their ears, “I don’t get it. Why might an exclusives-only submissions policy be advantageous for an agency to embrace?”

Well, for one thing, it prevents them from feeling pressure to snap up a manuscript before another agency does. If you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be e-mailing them a week later to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider you, so could you drop everything else you might have intended to do for the foreseeable future and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (Please tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of e-mails fairly often: nervous writers often assume, mistakenly, that they should be sending agents who have their manuscripts constant status updates, if not pleading or outright ultimata. A writer’s sense of how long is too long can be awfully short. And agents hate the kind of missive mentioned in the last paragraph, because nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Which is precisely the point. Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in an Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. After the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, requiring exclusives might start to look like a pretty handy policy.

Increased speed is the usual response to multiple offers, note, not to hearing that other agents are reading a book. Since people who work in agencies are perfectly well aware that turn-around times have been expanding exponentially of late, the mere fact that other agents are considering a manuscript isn’t likely to affect its place in the reading queue at all.

All of which again begs the question: what does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, typically, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for her work and she would unquestionably sign with them if they offered representation. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.

Happily, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even the relatively rare will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form-letter replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, in response to that shocked wail your psyche just sent flying in my general direction: positive responses often appear as form letters, too, even when they arrive via e-mail. I sympathize with your dismay.)

If exclusives-only agencies had company T-shirts, in short, they’d probably ask the silk-screener to add an asterisk after the company’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — not very many agencies harbor this requirement.

It limits their applicant pool, you see. Since they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid approaching agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it would be, if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question required solo submissions. Do check their T-shirts in advance, because I assure you, no one concerned is going to have any sympathy for a writer complaining about feeling trapped in an exclusive.

They’ll just assume that he didn’t do his homework. Keep up the good work!

Overcoming those bare-page blues, or, getting those wheels spinning productively

spinning lady

One of the things I miss most about no longer being able to blog on a consistent basis — if not every day or week, then at least as often as I’d like — is constant interaction with aspiring writers and their questions. The Author! Author! community asks such trenchant questions, you see. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are not always seen by the excellent many with the time to read only the most recent posts.

One misses quite a lot that way, from a blogger’s perspective: even when I’m not posting fresh material, I’m often answering questions quietly behind the scenes. Reasonably enough for a blog with archives this extensive, great questions frequently appear in the comments on posts weeks, months, or even years old.

That doesn’t mean that the issues raised might not be of every bit as much interest as those upon which I have written more recently. Take, for instance, a comment reader Firma asked some months back:

First of all, I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.

I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing; however, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

Any suggestions or hints? Thank you!

A very good question about a problem that plagues a great many writers, right? Indeed, it may well sneak up upon all of us from time to time: hands up, everyone who has ever staged at a blank screen or page, feeling it taunting you to fill it up.

I do indeed have a number of suggestions, but first, let’s talk about why this species of writer’s block annoys so many, and why it’s so hard to overcome. Heck, while we’re at it, let’s also take a swing at why, compared to more major forms of I just can’t seem to write today! syndrome, it’s comparatively little discussed in writing circles. And when it is, the sufferer is very often made to feel that a lack of dedication, patience, or even story must be at fault.

Just to clear the air: none of those explanations is necessarily apt, in practice. Plenty of highly dedicated aspiring writers with the patience of medieval saints apply themselves to stories that would knock your socks off — and still find themselves staring helplessly at that blank page for the first twenty minutes of every writing session.

Darned frustrating, even if you didn’t have to fight tooth and nail, as so many committed writers do, to free that writing time from other obligations. No one needs to remind you that you could have used that time more productively. So I have an idea: let’s all agree that informing a writer acutely aware of a ticking clock is, at best, redundant.

At worst, it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? Good writers, after all, tend to be rather sensitive people: to paraphrase H.G. Wells, it takes a mind unusually open to stimulus to produce strong sensations on the page. (Actually, he was talking about matters below the waist at the time, but it’s still a useful principle, is it not?)

Instead of nagging Firma — who, I think we all can agree, has been doing an awfully impressive job of nagging herself — to use her time better, let’s dig into why she and hundreds of thousands of other writers experience difficulty jump-starting that writing session. Part of the problem, in my experience, lies in the expectation that every last second a writer spends with a manuscript should be productive, as if the writing process consisted solely of slapping words on a page. To be fair, there’s certainly a lot of external validation of that attitude; heck, there’s even a month every year devoted to exhorting folks who haven’t found the time to sit down with their stories for the past eleven months to write a whole novel in thirty days.

Why, that month is coming up very soon, isn’t it? What a remarkable coincidence.

As any established author chafing under a deadline can tell you, pressure to produce X number of pages within a short time frame has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. Even if the deadline in question exists only in the mind of the writer — an obligation that can be as nebulous as plan to finish that chapter by the end of the week, or a commitment to try to write X number of words in any given writing session — finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer may not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch. For many, many writers, the biggest challenge emerges from the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. Almost invariably, those newer to the game blame themselves, as if falling prey to writer’s block were a question of character. (Experienced writers know better: they blame the unreasonableness of their deadlines. But that’s another story.)

The demons of self-doubt can be deafening, can’t they? Especially for a creative mind looking for an outlet. Stumped writers worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to justify taking time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are, after all, trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them. By contrast, since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury.

Which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t. Not if the storytelling urge is really in your blood.

That last sentence made half of you feel guilty, didn’t it? I’m not surprised: in the throes of writer’s block, even encouraging statements can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

So do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason they can’t quite define, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you –- if you find that you’re not cozying up to a computer on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

Again, I could parrot other writing advice-givers, blaming every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/DVR/iPod/TiVo/other electronic distractions, but honestly, we live in a world. Things happen. I would be the last person to advise you to be less aware of what is going on around you.

Mr. Wells’ sensitive nervous tissue, you know. Anyway, chances are that by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, and so forth.

I could also echo William Faulkner’s famous advice to Eudora Welty, when she complained about how difficult it was to find writing time while taking care of her ailing mother: I believe his plan involved a window and a flinging action. Somehow, however, I can’t feel that urging you to defenestrate your nearest and dearest would free your mind from clutter when you next pulled up a chair to your writing desk.

Besides, where would that leave you when you wanted to take Mr. Wells’ advice literally? After a productive writing session, some human contact can be very nice. Best to keep supportive folks on this side of the sill, I say.

That being said, and as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It may seem suspiciously simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the moment you sit down to write.

As in every time you sit down to write. Not just the same album — they still make those, right? –but the same song. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

Do select something you like, because it’s going to be your book’s soundtrack for a while. And do pick more than one song to play — always in the same order, please. It’s fine to create a playlist, or you can listen to the same CD beginning to end. You’re going to want at least half an hour’s worth of music, enough to play in the background until well past the point at which your brain generally starts switching into writing mode.

Here’s the trick, though: if inspiration does not come winging to you immediately, don’t do anything else but write. Stay there in front of that blank screen and think about your story. It’s fine to write something other than the scene you planned, as long as it remains within the world of your book. Go ahead and write character sketches, if you like. Brainstorm an outline for a future scene. Write a hunk of dialogue that doesn’t currently have a place in the storyline. Picture taking your protagonist and antagonist out to a four-course meal at the restaurant of their choice. It’s up to you.

Oh, stop groaning: it’s better than berating yourself in silence for those first ten minutes of trying to write, isn’t it?

What you may not do, if you want to give this experiment a valid try, is plan out other books in your series. Don’t write on another project. And, of course, don’t give up and start answering e-mails. Don’t surf the net. Don’t check Facebook.

I’m serious: don’t do anything else for at least half an hour. The time is going to pass slowly, but don’t give up. It doesn’t matter if you’re bored — in fact, for the purposes of correcting the problem, it would be great to bore yourself in this manner.

Why, you ask in horror? You’re prompting the creative part of your mind to get cracking — and that you’re willing to sit there until it stops resisting getting to work on the darned interesting book you’re writing.

“But Anne,” I hear the blocked cry, and who could blame you? “Won’t this take a lot of time? I mean, I’ve already been flogging myself mentally for not beginning to write the instant my writing time begins — won’t this just feel like punishing myself further?”

Ah, but isn’t part of the problem that your creative urges have been taking their time to start flowing? This is a way to make it pellucidly clear to those pesky Muses that you are indeed committed to your writing process — not merely to the story itself. There is a difference, you know, on the composition level, necessarily so if what you are writing is a book-length piece.

Why? Well, contrary to what the hobgoblins may have been hissing at you in the wee hours, no author, no matter how gifted, writes an entire book in one sitting. (Not a good one, anyway.) Nor do talented authors typically whip off a first draft that’s published as is. That means, in practice, that committing to writing a good book entails a long, hard effort over time.

“Aha!” the part of your brain eager to procrastinate announces triumphantly. “In other words, what I do today doesn’t matter. Maybe, if I resist plunging into the task of writing for another three minutes, the rest of my mind will get frustrated and decide to do something else.”

Sound familiar? And see why it might take a firm resolve to keep staring at that blank screen to convince that truant portion of your mind to stop skylarking?

Both the wait time and the musical repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — and with spending some serious time not doing anything but writing. That in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. Be consistent, and do be prepared to keep it up for a good dozen writing sessions, to set the pattern.

“But not forever, right?” you ask nervously. “I’m not committing myself to a lifetime of listening to nothing but John Denver’s greatest hits, just so I can write productively, am I?”

Naturally, you can play other music later on, but I would recommend always beginning with the same song for at least a few months. Until your brain has become accustomed to snapping immediately into creative mode, not yielding to the temptation of playing something else in those early minutes. You want the message to sink into every synapse: hearing this means it’s time to write.

Stick with it. And do be aware that if this trick works — and it usually does, if a writer gives it a solid chance — you will forever associate that music with the book. There are worse fates. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

Do I see some timid raised hands out there in the ether? Yes? “But Anne,” some of you murmur, “I’m already pretty easily distracted; that’s part of my problem. Hadn’t it occurred to you that if I don’t write to music, that might have been a sensible, deliberate choice?”

It did, actually; thus the swiftness of my snappy comeback: it actually doesn’t matter what your getting-started-writing ritual is, so long as you perform it consistently. The point is to provide all of that sensitive nervous tissue with a set of nonverbal clues that it’s time to get down to writing.

You’re a creative person — experiment. If music’s not your thing, try lighting the same scented candle just before you sit down to write, if you can do it safely. (Make sure it’s set in a fireproof holder.) Burn some incense. Drink a particular flavor of tea. Always wear the same pair of socks.

At least for the duration of that particular writing project. You might want to set up a different set of stimuli for your next book. Why? Well, it will help you at revision time: a fringe benefit of establishing a ritual for the first draft is that it can make getting back into that book’s mindset a snap.

“Oh,” the creative parts of your noggin will shout, “that’s Alice Cooper singing Cheek to Cheek. It must be time to write about the planet Targ again.”

And another forest of hands has sprouted. “But Anne,” timorous writers everywhere protest, “I’m willing to try these wacky things, because I’m desperate. I can’t even begin to imagine how crazy it’s going to drive my spouse/significant other/neighbors/particularly judgmental cat to hear All the Single Ladies six times a week, but I’ll risk it.

“I’m scared, though: what do I do if this doesn’t work for me? Hand myself over to the hobgoblins of self-doubt then and there?”

No, no, fearful ones; this certainly isn’t the only way of approaching the problem. My sleeves are positively stuffed with fresh cards to toss into the game.

Before I start whipping ‘em out, though, I would like to ask of you coping with the writer’s-block blues: what other ways have you been experiencing it? Dead-of-night self-critique? Backspacing over half of what you’ve written in a day? The impulse to toss completed manuscripts into the nearest geyser?

There are many different strains of the phenomenon, after all, and sometimes, coming up with a specific diagnosis provides half the cure. In the meantime, pressing forward — and not just because you resolved to do it, or because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

Please raise a glass (or three) to my 1600th post!

lit-up champagne 2lit-up champagne 2lit-up champagne 2

A few weeks ago, while I was deep in the throes of contemplating what subject I should tackle for this, my 1600th post at Author! Author!, a non-writer — or so I surmise, from the bent of her discourse — abruptly flung a rather profound question in my direction. It was, happily for today’s post, one of those questions that would never, ever occur to anyone who had devoted serious time to courting a Muse.

“You’ve been blogging for 7 1/2 years on the same subject?” she gasped, practically indignant with incredulity. “You’ve posted hundreds of times, haven’t you? It’s only writing — what could you possibly still have to say?”

I know, I know: I was sorely tempted to laugh, too. From a writer’s or editor’s perspective, the notion that everything an aspiring writer could possibly need or want to know about the ins and outs of writing and revising a manuscript, let alone how to land an agent, work with a publishing house, promote a book, and/or launch into one’s next writing project, could be covered adequately in a mere 1599 blog posts borders on the absurd. Writing a compelling book constitutes one of the most challenging endeavors life offers to a creative persons mind, heart, and soul; it’s not as though there’s a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for literary success.

At the same time, I could hear in her question an echo of a quite ubiquitous compound misconception about writing. It runs a little something like this: if people are born with certain talents, then good writers are born, not made; if true writers tumble onto this terrestrial sphere already knowing deep down how to write, then all a gifted person needs to do is put pen to paper and let the Muse speak in order to produce a solid piece of writing; since all solid pieces of writing inevitably find a home — an old-fashioned publishing euphemism for being offered a contract by an agent or publishing house — if a writer has been experiencing any difficulty whatsoever getting her book published, she must not be talented. Q.E.D.

With a slight caveat: all of those presumptions are false. Demonstrably so — egregiously so, even. Just ask virtually any author of an overnight bestseller: good books are typically years, or even decades, in the making.

What could I possibly still want to say to writers to help them improve their manuscripts’ chances of success? How long have you got?

We’ve come a long way together, campers: when Author! Author! first took its baby steps back in August, 2005, in its original incarnation as the Resident Writer spot on the nation’s largest writers’ association’s website, little did I — or, I imagine, my earliest readers, some of whom are still loyal commenters, bless ‘em — imagine that I will still be dreaming up post for you all so many years into the future.

Heck, at the outset, I had only envisioned a matter of months. The Organization that Shall Remain Nameless had projected even less: when it first recruited me to churn out advice for aspiring writers everywhere, my brief was to do it a couple of times per week for a month, to see how it went. They didn’t want me to blog, per se — in order to comment, intrepid souls had to e-mail the organization, which then forwarded questions it deemed appropriate to me.

As your contributions flew in and my posts flew up, I have to confess, the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless seemed rather taken aback. Who knew, its president asked, and frequently, that there were so many writers out there longing for some straightforward, practical-minded advice on how to navigate a Byzantine and apparently sometimes arbitrary system? What publishing professional could have sensed the confusion so many first-time writers felt when faced with the welter of advice barked at them online? What do you mean, the guidelines found on the web often directly contradict one another?

And what on earth was the insidious source of this bizarre preference for the advice-giver’s being nice to writers while explaining things to them? It wasn’t as though much of the online advisors actually in the know — as opposed to the vast majority of writing advice that stems from opinion, rumor, and something that somebody may have heard an agent say at a conference somewhere once — were ever huffy, standoffish, or dismissive when they explained what a query letter was, right?

That rolling thunderclap you just heard bouncing off the edges of the universe was, of course, the roars of laughter from every writer who tried to find credible guidance for their writing careers online around about 2006.

Yet the officers of the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless were not the only ones mystified that there was any audience at all for, say, my posts on how to format a manuscript professionally. Or how to give a pitch. Or how to spot editor-irritating red flags in your own writing. They actually tried to talk me out of blogging about some of these things — because every writer serious about getting published already knows all of that, right?

So why precisely did I think it would be valuable for my readers to be able to see one another’s questions and comments? If I was so interested in building writing community, they suggested, why didn’t I join them in transforming what had arguably been the writers’ association best at helping its members get published into a force to help those already in print find a wider audience? Wouldn’t that be, you know, more upbeat and, well, inspirational than giving all of that pesky and potentially depressing practical advice?

Almost a year and many brisk arguments about respect for writers later, I decided to start my own website. That enabled me to turn Author! Author! into a true blog, a space that welcomed writers struggling and established to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and, sometimes, their often quite justified irritation at the apparently increasing number of hoops through which good writing — and, consequently, good writers — were being expected to jump prior to publication.

Oh, those of you new to searching for an agent have no idea how tough things were back then. A few of the larger agencies had just started not responding to queries if the answer was no — can you believe it? Some agencies, although far from all, agents had begun accepting e-mailed queries, but naturally, your chances were generally better if your approached them by letter. And I don’t want to shock you, but occasionally, an agent would request a full manuscript, but send a form-letter rejection.

Picture the horror: a book turned down, and the writer had no idea why!

Ah, those days seem so innocent now, do they not? How time flies when you don’t know whether your manuscript is moldering third from the top in a backlogged submission pile, has been rejected without comment, or simply got lost in the mail. Sometimes, it feels as though those much-vaunted hoops have not only gotten smaller, but have been set on fire.

Let’s face it: the always long and generally bumpy road to publication has gotten longer and bumpier in recent years. Not that it was ever true that all that was necessary in order to see your work in print was to write a good book, of course; that’s a pretty myth that has been making folks in publishing circles roll their eyes since approximately fifteen minutes after Gutenberg came rushing out of his workshop, waving a mechanically-printed piece of paper. Timing, what’s currently selling well, what is expected to sell well a couple of years hence, when a book acquired now by a traditional publisher would actual come out, the agent of your dreams’ experience with trying to sell a book similar to yours — all of this, and even just plain, dumb luck, have pretty much always affected what readers found beckoning them from the shelves.

But you’d never know that from most of what people say about how books get published, would you? To hear folks talk, you’d think that the only factor involved was writing talent. Or that agencies and publishing houses were charitable organizations, selflessly devoted to the noble task of bringing the best books written every year to an admiring public.

Because, of course, there is universal agreement about what constitutes good writing, right? And good writing in one genre is identical to good writing for every type of book, isn’t it?

None of that is true, of course — and honestly, no one who works with manuscripts for a living could survive long believing it. The daily heartbreak would be too painful to bear.

But I don’t need to explain that to those of you who have been at this writing gig for a while, do I? I’m sure you recall vividly how you felt the day when you realized that not every good, or even great, manuscript written got published, my friends. Or has that terrible sense of betrayal long since receded into the dim realm of memory? Or, as we discussed over the holidays, does it spring to gory life afresh each time some well-meaning soul who has never put pen to paper asks, “What, you still haven’t published your book? But you’ve been at it for years!”

Now, you could answer those questions literally, I suppose, grimly listing every obstacle even the best manuscript faces on its way to traditional publication. You could, too, explain at length why you have chosen to pursue traditional publishing, if you have, or why you have decided to self-publish, if that’s your route.

I could also have given that flabbergasted lady who asked me why I thought there was anything left to say about writing a stirring speech about the vital importance of craft to fine literature. Or regaled her with horror stories about good memoirs suddenly slapped with gratuitous lawsuits. I could even, I suppose, have launched into a two-hour lecture on common misuses of the semicolon without running out of examples, but honestly, what would have been the point? If wonderful writing conveys the impression of having been the first set of words to travel from a talented author’s fingertips to a keyboard, why dispel that illusion?

Instead of quibbling over whether it’s ever likely — or possible — for a first draft to take the literary world by storm, may I suggest that those of us who write could use our time together more productively? For today, at least, let’s tune out all of the insistent voices telling us that if only we were really talented, our work would already be gracing the shelves of the nearest public library, and settle down into a nice, serious discussion of craft.

Humor me: I’ve been at this more than 7 1/2 years. In the blogging realm, that makes me a great-grandmother.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m 105 — the number of candles on my own great-grandmother’s last cake, incidentally; the women in my family are cookies of great toughness — I’d like to turn our collective attention to a craft problem that seldom gets discussed in these decadent days: how movies and television have caused many manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, to introduce their characters in a specific manner.

Do I hear peals of laughter bouncing off the corners of the cosmos again? “Oh, come on, Anne,” readers not old enough to have followed Walter Winchell snicker, “isn’t it a trifle late in the day to be focusing on such a problem? At this juncture, I feel it safe to say that TV and movies are here to stay.”

Ah, but that’s just my point: they are here to stay, and the fact that those forms of storytelling are limited to exploiting only two of the audience’s senses — vision and hearing — for creating their effects has, as we have discussed many times before, prompted generation after generation of novelists and memoirists to create narratives that call upon no other sense. If, at the end of a hard day of reading submissions, an alien from the planet Targ were to appear to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener and ask her how many senses the average Earthling possesses, a good 95% of the pages she had seen recently would prompt her to answer, “Two.”

A swift glance at the human head, however, would prove her wrong. Why, I’ve seen people sporting noses and tongues, in addition to eyes and ears, and I’m not ashamed to say it. If you’re willing to cast those overworked peepers down our subject’s body, you might even catch the hands, skin, muscles, and so forth responding to external stimuli.

So would it really be so outrageous to incorporate some sensations your characters acquire through other sensible organs, as Jane Austen liked to call them? Millicent would be so pleased.

If you’d really like to make her happy — and it would behoove you to consider her felicity: her perception of your writing, after all, is what stands between your manuscript and a reading by the agent or editor of your dreams — how about bucking another trend ushered in by the advent of movies and television? What about introducing a new character’s physical characteristics slowly, over the course of a scene or even several, rather than describing the fresh arrival top to toe the instant he enters the book?

Sacre bleu!” I hear the overwhelming majority of hopeful novelists and memoirists shouting. “Are you mad? The other characters in the scene — including, if I’m writing in either the first or the tight third person, my protagonist — will first experience that new person visually! Naturally, I must stop the ongoing action dead in its tracks in order to show the reader what s/he looks like. If I didn’t, the reader might — gasp! — form a mental image that’s different from what I’m seeing in my head!”

Why, yes, that’s possible. Indeed, it’s probable. But I ask you: is that necessarily a problem? No narrative describes a character down to the last mitochondrion in his last cell, after all; something is always left to the reader’s imagination.

Which is, if we’re being truthful about it, a reflection of real life, is it not? Rarely, for instance, would an initial glance reveal everything about a character’s looks. Clothes hide a lot, if they’re doing their job, and distance can be quite a concealer. And really, do you count every freckle on the face of each person passing you on the street?

You might be surprised by how many narratives do, especially in the opening pages of a book. Take a gander at how Millicent all too often makes a protagonist’s acquaintance.

A lean man loped into the distance, shading the horizon with his length even from eighty yards away. Tall as his hero, Abe Lincoln, Jake’s narrow face was hidden by a full beard as red as the hair he had cut himself without a mirror. Calluses deformed his hands, speaking eloquently of years spent yanking on ropes as touch as he was. That those ropes had harnessed the wind for merchant ships was apparent from his bow-legged gait. Pointy of elbow and knee, his body seemed to be moving more slowly than the rest of him as he strode toward the Arbogasts’ encampment.

Henriette eyed him as he approached. His eyes were blue, as washed-out as the baked sky above. Bushy eyebrows punctuated his thoughts. Clearly, those thoughts were deep; how else could she have spotted his anger at twenty paces?

His long nose stretched as he spoke. “Good day, madam,” he said, his dry lips cracking under the strain of speech, “but could I interest you in some life insurance?”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this description, as descriptions go. Millicent might legitimately wonder if Henriette is secretly Superman, given how sharp her vision seems to be at such great distances (has anybody ever seen Henriette and Superman together?), and it goes on for quite some time, but she might well forgive that: the scene does call for Henriette to watch Jake walking toward her. Millie be less likely to overlook the five uses of as in the first paragraph, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed them? Any professional reader undoubtedly would, and for good reason: as is as common in the average submission as…well, anything you’d care to name is anywhere it’s common.

That means — and it’s a perpetual astonishment to those of us who read for a living how seldom aspiring writers seem to think of this — that by definition, over-reliance on as cannot be a matter of individual authorial voice. Voice consists of how an author’s narratives differ from how other writers’ work reads on the page, not in how it’s similar. Nor can it sound just like ordinary people talk, another extremely popular narrative choice. For a new voice to strike Millicent and her boss as original, it must be unique to the author.

The same holds true, by the way, for the ultra-common narrative practice of blurting out everything there is to know about a character visually at his initial appearance: it’s not an original or creative means of slipping the guy into the story. It can’t possibly be, since that tactic has over the past half-century struck a hefty proportion of the writing population as the right or even the only way to bring a new character into a story.

Don’t believe that someone who reads manuscripts all day, every day would quickly tire of how fond writers are of this method. Okay, let’s take a peek at the next few paragraphs of Henriette’s saga.

She backed away, her brown suede skirt catching on the nearby sagebrush. She tossed her long, blonde hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes, just the color of the trim on her prim, gray high-necked blouse, so appropriate for the schoolmarm/demolitions expert that she was, snapped as strongly as her voice. A pleasing contralto, when she was not furious, but Jake might never get a chance to hear her sing.

“On your way, mister,” she hissed, adjusting her two-inch leather belt with the fetching iron clasp. Marvin had forged that clasp for her, just before he was carried off by a pack of angry rattlesnakes. She could still envision his tuxedo-clad body rolling above its stripy captors, his black patent leather shoes shining in the harsh midday sun. “We don’t cotton to your kind here.”

An unspecified sound of vague origin came from behind her. She whirled around, scuffing her stylish mid-calf boots. She almost broke one of her lengthy, scarlet-polished fingernails while drawing her gun.

Morris grinned back at her, his tanned, rugged face scrunching into a sea of sun-bleached stubble. His pine-green eyes blinked at the reflection from the full-length mirror Jake had whipped out from under his tattered corduroy coat. It showed her trim backside admirably, or at least as much as was visible under her violet bustle. Her hair — which could be described no other way than as long and blonde — tumbled down her back, confined only by her late mother’s cherished magenta hair ribbon.

Morris caught sight of himself in the mirror. My, he was looking the worse for wear. He wore an open-collared poet’s shirt as red as the previous day’s sunset over a well-cut pant of vermillion velvet. Dust obscured the paisley pattern at the cuff and neck, embroidered by his half-sister, Marguerite, who could be spotted across the street at a second-floor window, playing the cello. Her ebony locks trailed over her bare shoulder as her loosely-cut orange tea gown slipped from its accustomed place.

Had enough yet? Millicent would — and we’re still on page 1. So could you really blame her if she cried over this manuscript, “For heaven’s sake, stop showing me what these people look like and have them do something!”

To which I would like to add my own editorial cri de coeur: would somebody please tell this writer that while clothes may make the man in some real-world contexts, it’s really not all that character-revealing to describe a person’s outfit on the page? Come on, admit it: after a while, Henriette’s story started to read like a clothing catalogue. But since it’s a novel set in 1872, long before any of the characters could reasonably have been expected to watch Project Runway marathons, could we possibly spring for another consonant and let the man wear what most people call them, pants, instead of a pant?

Does that slumped posture and defeated moaning mean that some of you manuscript-revisers are finding seeing these storytelling habits from Millicent’s perspective convincing? “Okay, Anne,” you sigh, “you got me. Swayed by the cultural dominance of visual storytelling, I’ve grown accustomed to describing a face, a body, a hank of hair, etc., as soon as I reveal a character’s existence to the refer. But honestly, I’m not sure how to structure these descriptions differently. Unless you’re suggesting that Henriette should have smelled or tasted each new arrival?”

Well, that would be an interesting approach. It would also, I suspect, be a quite different book, one not aimed at the middle grade reader, if you catch my drift.

Your options are legion, you will be happy to hear: once a writer breaks free of the perceived necessity to run a narrative camera, so to speak, over each character as she traipses onto the page, how to reveal what appearance-related detail becomes a matter of style. And that, my friends, should be as original as your voice.

If my goal in blogging were merely to be inspirational, as Author! Author!’s original hosts had hoped, that would have been a dandy place to end the post, wouldn’t it? That last paragraph, while undoubtedly possessed of some sterling writing truths, did not cough up much actual guidance. And you fine people, I know from long experience, come to this site for practical advice, illustrated by examples.

For insight into how breaking up a physical description for a new character can knock the style ball out of the proverbial park, I can do no better than to direct your attention to that much-copied miracle of authorial originality, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. To render this example even more frantically literary, I have transcribed these excerpts from the 1908 F.F. Collier and Son edition (W. Blaydes, translator) Philip K. Dick gave me for my eleventh birthday.

Why that particular edition, for a reader so young? Because the Colliers had the foresight to corral another novelist in whose work Philip had been trying to interest me, into writing the introduction. Henry James was considered a real up-and-comer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Feeling sufficiently highbrow? Excellent. Here’s the reader’s first glimpse of the immortal Emma Bovary:

A young woman, clad in a dress of blue merino trimmed with three flounces, came to the threshold of the house to receive M. Bovary, whom she introduced into the kitchen where there blazed a big fire. The breakfast of the household was ready prepared and boiling hot, in little pots of unequal size, distributed about. Damp clothes were drying within the chimney-place…

That’s it. Rather sparse as physical descriptions go, isn’t it, considering that this novel’s account of this woman’s passions is arguably one of the most acclaimed in Western literature? Yet at this moment, set amongst the various objects and activities in M. Roulaut’s household, she almost seems to get lost among the furniture.

Ah, but just look at the next time she appears. Charles, the hero of the book so far, now begins to notice her, but not entirely positively.

To provide splints, someone went to fetch a bundle of laths from under the carts. Charles selected one of them, cut it in pieces and polished it with a splinter of glass, while the servant tore up sheets to make bandages and Mlle. Emma tried to sew the necessary bolsters. As she was a long time finding her needle-case, her father grew impatient; she made no reply to him, but, as she sewed, she pricked her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth and sucked.

That’s a nice hunk of character development, isn’t it? Very space-efficient, too: in those few lines, we learn her first name, that she’s not very good at sewing, and that she’s not especially well-organized, as well as quite a lot about her relationship with her father. Could a minute description of her face, figure, and petticoat have accomplished as much so quickly?

But wait: there’s more. Watch how the extreme specificity of Flaubert’s choice of an ostensibly practically-employed body part draws Charles’ sudden observation. At this point in the novel, he and Emma have known each other for two pages.

Charles was surprised by the whiteness of her nails. They were bright, fine at the tips, ore polished than the ivories of Dieppe, and cut almond-shape. Her hand, however, was not beautiful: hardly, perhaps, pale enough, and rather lean about the finger joints; it was too long, also, and without soft inflections of line in the contours.

His being so critical of her caught you off guard, did it not? The paragraph continues:

A feature really beautiful in her was her eyes; although they were brown, they seemed black by reason of their lashes, and her glance came to you frankly with a candid assurance.

This passage reveals as much about Charles as about Emma, I think: how brilliant to show the reader only what happens to catch this rather limited man’s notice. Because his observation has so far been almost entirely limited to the physical, it isn’t until half a page later that the reader gains any sense that he’s ever heard her speak. Even then, the reader only gets to hear Charles’ vague summaries of what she says, rather than seeing her choice of words.

The conversation at first turned on the sick man, then on the weather, the extreme cold, the wolves that scoured the fields at night. Mlle. Rouault did not find a country life very amusing, now especially that the care of the farm devolved almost entirely on herself alone. As the room was chilly, she shivered as she ate, and the shivering caused her full lips, which in her moments of silence she had a habit of biting, to part slightly.

Didn’t take Charles — or the narrative — long to slip back to the external, did it? Now, and only now, is the reader allowed the kind of unfettered, close-up look at her that Millicent so often finds beginning in the first sentence in the book that mentions the character.

Her neck issued from a white turned-down collar. Her hair, so smooth and glossy that each of the two black fillets in which it was arranged seemed a single solid mass, was divided by a fine parting in the middle, which rose or sank slightly as it followed the curve of her skull; and, covering all but the lobe of the ears, it was gathered behind into a large chignon, with a waved spring towards the temples, which the country doctor now observed for the first time in his life. Her cheeks were pink over the bones. She carried, passed in masculine style between two buttons of her bodice, eye-glasses of tortoise-shell.

Quite a sensuous means of tipping the reader off that she’s a fellow reader, isn’t it? Two paragraphs later, we hear her speak for the first time:

“Are you looking for something?” she asked.

The initial words a major character speaks in a story, I’ve found, are often key to developing character on the page. Choose them carefully: in a third-person narrative, it’s the first time that this person can speak for herself. Make them count.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not urging any of you to copy Flaubert. His narrative voice would be pretty hard to sell in the current literary market, for one thing — did you catch all of those which clauses that would have been edited out today? — and, frankly, his work has been so well-loved for so long that a novel that aped his word use would instantly strike most Millicents as derivative. As some wise person once said, a strong authorial voice is unique.

Oh, wait, that was me, and it was just a few minutes ago. How time flies when we’re talking craft.

I hear those gusty sighs out there, and you’re quite right: developing an individual voice and polishing your style can be time-consuming. It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary.

Take that, naysayers who cling to the notion that the only true measure of talent is whether a first draft is publishable. The Muses love the writer willing to roll up her sleeves, take a long, hard look at her own work, and invest some serious effort in making sure that all of that glorious inspiration shows up on the page.

So what, in the end, did I say to the lady who exclaimed over the notion that I could possibly have spent more than seven years writing about writing? Oh, I treated to her the usual explanation of how tastes change, trends waver, and the demands of professional writing differ from year to year, if not day to day. If the expression in her stark blue eyes was any indication, she lost interest midway through my third sentence.

The true answer, however, came to me later: in all of these years, and in 1599 posts, I had never shared my favorite depiction of falling in love with you charming people. A shallow love, to be sure, but a memorable description. And for the prompt to whip out this volume, I owe that lady some thanks.

Do I have more to say about writing? Just try to stop me. Keep up the good work!

Avoiding the writer’s classic holiday blues, or, what to say when Aunt Myrna exclaims, “What? You’re still working on that book? I thought you’d have it published by now!”

potato star

My apologies for the long, long posting hiatus, my friends. I’ve been on crutches since July 4, and it turns out that, contrary to what Tiny Tim may have led even the best of us to expect, hobbling is not necessarily conducive to comedy writing. At least not to the type of bright, witty banter about deadly serious topics we like to cultivate here at Author! Author! Yet another major holiday is upon us, however, so it’s time to dust off the keyboard and get cracking again.

Why so surprised? You didn’t think I was going to send you into Thanksgiving dinner without a few words of encouragement, did you?

Already, the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. “But Anne,” bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, and who could blame you? “What makes you think that writers, of all people, would need to gird their loins prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of their respective families and/or dining rooms of their invariably supportive friends?”

Experience, mostly. In descending order of probability, a fellow writer, a writing blogger, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders aspiring writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festivities cease. Heck, established authors often beard the heavens with their bootless cries this time of year.

Why, those new to the game ask breathlessly? Because, let’s face it, most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published.

Don’t believe me? Okay, what do make of it when Aunt Myrna plucks your sleeve and asks tenderly, “Honey, why isn’t your novel out yet? I keep telling my friends that you write.”

Or when Uncle Clark chortles, “Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about?”

Or, heaven help us, when Cousin Ritchie wheels out his annual passive-aggressive attempt at encouragement: “Still no agent, eh? I had really thought that a book as good as yours would get snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing?”

A sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well answer: “Why, yes, Ritchie, I have. As I had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up and pass the darned yams.”

Or pipe merrily, “Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you’d like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but disagreeable role, could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?”

Or, while Aunt Myrna’s mouth is full of pie, observing suavely, “I so appreciate your drumming up future readers for my novel; I’m sure that will come in very handy down the road. But no, ‘trying just a little harder this year’ won’t necessarily make the difference between hitting the bestseller lists and obscurity. You might want to try telling your friends that even if I landed an agent for my novel within the next few days — even less likely at this time of year than others, by the way, as the publishing world slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — it could easily be a year or two before you can urge them to buy my novel.”

But most of us aren’t up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, are we? And for good reason, too: in the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can sound very much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin living in the back of the creative mind.

“If you were truly talented,” that little beastie loves to murmur in moments when we’re already feeling discouraged, “an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work.”

Come on, admit it — you’re on a first-name basis with that goblin. It’s been whispering in your ear ever since you began to query. Or submit. Or perhaps even as soon as you started to write.

Even so, you’re entitled to be a little startled when Bernie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly nice person your brother brought along to dinner because she’s new in town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Try to be charitable: your brother’s friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.

How? Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to argue with a living, breathing person than someone whose base camp is located inside your head. Astonishingly often, an artless question like “Oh, you write? Would I have read any of your work?” from the ignoramus across the table will give voice to a niggling doubt that’s been eating at a good writer for years.

Or so I surmise, from how writers tend to complain about such questions. “How insensitive can they be?” writers inevitably wail in the wake of holiday gatherings, and who could blame them? “I swear that I heard, ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer, as opposed to the fantasy kind that writes a book one minute, is instantly and spontaneously solicited by an agent the next, and is chatting on a couch with a late-night TV host the next? Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently held as the only measure of writing talent?”

I’m relatively certain that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove these writers to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. However, the short answer to that well-justified wail is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing.

I know, I know: I don’t like it, either, but it’s pervasive. Not only does popular misconception holed that the only good book a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively choke with mirth — but also that if a writer were really talented, publication would be both swift and inevitable. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased is the quality of the writing, right?

Are you laughing yet? More importantly, is Bernie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be.

Yet I sense that you’re not laughing. Okay, let’s tease this logic out a little. If all of those suppositions are true, there are only two possible reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). Accordingly, the only kind response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one’s eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.

Or to change the subject altogether. Because, honestly, it isn’t your sister’s coworker’s fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the wound of someone who clearly has no talent for writing?

Chuckling yet? You should be. While it is of course conceivable that any of the reasons above could be stifling the publication chances of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Gladys?” again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or even could be measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Bind-It-Now wand would cause the pros to choke with mirth.

So would the length of that last sentence, come to think of it. Ol’ Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one.

Yet I sense that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me wants to believe that’s not really the case. Or at least that it will not be the case in my case.”

See what I mean about the holiday table’s capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? Let’s listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something.

“If the literary universe is fair,” writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason, “a good manuscript should always find a home, right? And if that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at the Thanksgiving table is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely-frustrated writers roar. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out his work persistently, until he find the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third sector shouts. “Send out work persistently? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any talented writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. Are you certain you want to do that?

It’s a dangerous practice for a writer, you know. The Publication Fairy’s long, long shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances rather difficult. Following her specter can lead a writer to believe, for instance, that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, for instance, rather than one who already has the connections to sell the book. Or that it would be a dandy idea to sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even every agent in the country, without checking to see if any of them represent a particular kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one, my dear — give up after just a few queries or submissions.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, right? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the writing quality would count — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if that writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written.

Heck, by this logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to make any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book, is it? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off a first draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait patiently until an agent is magically wafted to her doorstep. (Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.)

Ah, it’s a pretty fantasy, isn’t it? The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire career!” A book contract follows instantly, promising publication with in a few weeks. By the end of a couple of months at the very latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book.

“It has been a life-changing struggle, Oprah,” the writer says brightly, courageously restraining tears, “but I felt I had to write this book. As Maya Angelou says, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’”

You would be astonished at how pervasive this narrative of authorial success actually is amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category — but at a gut level, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that your manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite as it should be. So Aunt Myrna may have a point.

Come on, admit it — you’ve thought this at least once, haven’t you? Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to be a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell. It could also mean that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category.

Either can often result in knee-jerk rejection. Or, even if the manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent that the agent cannot afford to take on as many talented new clients as she would like.

But those are not the justifications that pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin in the dead of night, are they? Nor are they likely to convince Uncle Clark, or to awe Cousin Ritchie into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince. Which is interesting, as offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we’ve been discussing represents an actual career trajectory.

If you have fallen prey to these feelings, especially after having spent even a few minutes having to defend one’s writing habit to non-writers with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening, try not to be too hard on yourself. The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking.

There’s a reason for that, I suspect: all of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile to the top of the acceptance heap.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the Muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that they do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with talent. (Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, people.)

In non-writers, though, this attitude can seem a bit less reasonably derived. What, after all, does an otherwise upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!” possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded?

Yet even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often seem to cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy. If you doubt that, try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers.

“So when is your book coming out?” that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never been clear will ask. “And would you mind passing the gravy?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You’ve been working on it for years.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book.

Your cousin’s wife might try to be a bit more tactful. “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Have you considered self-publishing?”

Because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dark midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing — at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the royalties to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, still — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Over half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

The Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

Contrary to what some intrepid readers might be beginning to suspect, I’m not bringing all of this up in order to depress everyone into a stupor about just how difficult it is for a first-time author to bring a book to publication, or even as a precursor to breaking the sad, sad news that a good 80% of the fine folks who don’t now get that agents don’t magically appear on good authors’ doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed also won’t understand when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity.

Yes, really. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent? When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house. We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders.

No, I’m raising these unpleasant realities to provide a bit of ego salve for the many, many aspiring writers whose otherwise charming Thanksgiving table partners might not have been as supportive of their writing aspirations as they might have liked. Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.

But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re too smart to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing. In fact, I’ve been deliberately delaying my own foray into the kitchen in order to help you avoid that particular argument — or, more likely because writers tend to be awfully nice people, avoid the hurt feelings that those unwilling to fight often find hard to swallow.

How might one side-step that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent government shutdown? Or universal healthcare?

You see the point, don’t you? Just as it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it is always dangerous to presume that everyone at an agency or publishing house will share the worldview or life experiences of the submitter. Or that everyone around the holiday table will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually happens.

So how might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s adherents do to protect his digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to, “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days, Ambrose?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Allison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, brother. Seriously, though, I don’t want to bore you with an explanation of how books actually get published.”

If pressed, you could always add, “I’d love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a manuscript, right?”

If you do feel compelled to try to nudge your loved ones toward a more supportive attitude while they are gnawing upon drumsticks, dinner might be an excellent time to disabuse them of the also quite ubiquitous notion that author’s kith and kin routinely receive free copies of books. Yes, publishers do generally provide their authors an extremely limited stock of their books, but it’s with the expectation those will be used for promotion, not to grace one’s mother’s bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise free copies, you will almost certainly be buying them yourself. And to answer your mother’s next question: yes, Mom, authors do often receive a discount upon their own books, but the books the author buys do not count toward sales totals.

Translation: the best thing Aunt Myrna could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her when she does. If you’re feeling adventurous, extend that promise to visiting her in order to inscribe copies for all of the friends she can cajole, blandish, and/or guilt into purchasing.

Or just bookmark this page and forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. I don’t mind playing the heavy here. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives. I see no reason to stop now.

Your writing deserves that support, doesn’t it? Happy digestion to all, and to all a good night. And, as always, keep up the good work!

Yet another typo prone to distracting the professional reader’s eye just a trifle

Okay, I’ll confess it: I find writing for an audience as diverse as the Author! Author! community more gratifying than I would addressing a readership more uniformly familiar with the ins and outs of the writing world. I particularly like how differently all of you respond to my discussions of fundamentals; it keeps me coming back to the basics with fresh eyes.

I constantly hear from those new to querying and synopsis-writing, for instance, that the challenge of summarizing a 400-page manuscript in a paragraph — or a page, or five — strikes them as almost as difficult as writing the book they’re describing; from the other direction, those of us who read for a living frequently wonder aloud why someone aiming to become a professional writer would complain about being expected to write something. A post on proofreading might as easily draw a behind-the-scenes peek at a published author’s frustration because the changes she made in her galleys did not make it into her book’s first edition as a straightforward request from a writer new to the challenges of dialogue that I devote a few days to explaining how to punctuate it.

And then there are days like today, when my inbox is crammed to overflowing with suggestions from all across the writing spectrum that I blog about a topic I’ve just covered — and approach it in a completely different way, please. All told, within the last week, I’ve been urged to re-tackle the topic in about thirty mutually-exclusive different ways. In response to this barrage of missives, this evening’s post will be devoted to the imperative task of repairing a rent in the fabric of the writing universe that some of you felt I left flapping in the breeze.

In my appropriately peevish post earlier this week about the importance of proofreading your queries — and, indeed, everything in your query packet — down to the last syllable in order to head off, you guessed it, Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves in the typo department, my list of examples apparently omitted a doozy or two. Fortunately, my acquaintance amongst Millicents, the Mehitabels who judge writing contests, the Maurys that provide such able assistance to editors, and the fine folks employing all three is sufficiently vast that approximately a dozen literature-loving souls introduced my ribcage to their pointy elbows in the interim, gently reminding me to let you know about another common faux pas that routinely makes them stop reading, clutch their respective pearls, and wonder about the literacy of the writer in question.

And if a small army of publishing types and literature aficionados blackened-and-blued my tender sides with additional suggestions for spelling and grammar problems they would like to see me to address in the very near future, well, that’s a matter between me, them, and my chiropractor, is it not? This evening, I shall be concentrating upon a gaffe that confronts Millicent and her cohorts so often in queries, synopses, book proposals, manuscripts, and contest entries that as a group, they have begun to suspect that English teachers just aren’t covering it in class anymore.

Which, I gather, makes it my problem. Since the mantle of analysis is also evidently mine, let me state up front that I think it’s too easy to blame the English department for the popularity of the more pervasive faux pas. Yes, many writers do miss learning many of the rules governing our beloved language, but that’s been the norm for most of my lifetime. Students have often been expected to pick up their grammar at home. Strange to relate, though, houses like the Mini abode, in which children and adults alike were expected to be able to diagram sentences at the dinner table, have evidently never been as common as this teaching philosophy would imply.

Or so I surmise from my friends’ reactions when I would bring them home to Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine my surprise upon learning that households existed in which it was possible for a diner without a working knowledge of the its/it’s distinction to pour gravy over mashed potatoes, or for someone who couldn’t tell a subject from a predicate to ask for — and, I’m incredulous to hear, receive — a second piece of pumpkin pie. Garnished with whipped cream, even.

So where, one might reasonably wonder, were aspiring writers not taught to climb the grammatical ropes either at home or at school supposed to pick them up? In the street? Ah, the argument used to go, that’s easy: they could simply turn to a book to see the language correctly wielded. Or a newspaper. Or the type of magazine known to print the occasional short story.

An aspiring writer could do that, of course — but now that AP standards have changed so newspaper and magazine articles do not resemble what’s considered acceptable writing within the book publishing world (the former, I tremble to report, capitalizes the first letter after a colon, for instance; the latter typically does not), even the most conscientious reader might be hard-pressed to derive the rules by osmosis. Add in the regrettable reality that newspapers, magazines, and even published books now routinely contain typos, toss in a dash of hastily-constructed e-mails and the wildly inconsistent styles of writing floating about the Internet, and stir.

Voil? ! The aspiring writer seeking patterns to emulate finds herself confronted with a welter of options. The only trouble: while we all see the rules applied inconsistently all the time, the rules themselves have not changed very much.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, if your literary intake weren’t fairly selective. Take, for instance, the radically under-discussed societal decision to throw subject-object agreement in everyday conversation out with both the baby and the bathwater — contrary to popular practice, it should be everyone threw his baby out with the bathwater, not everyone threw their baby out with the bathwater, unless everyone shared collective responsibility for a single baby and hoisted it from its moist settee with a joint effort. This has left many otherwise talented writers with the vague sense that neither the correct usage nor the incorrect look right on the page.

It’s also worth noting that as compound sentences the length of this one have become more common in professional writing, particularly in conversational-voiced first person pieces, the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees paragraph- or even page-long sentences strung together with seemingly endless series of ands, buts, and/or ors , has skyrocketed, no doubt due to an understandable cognitive dissonance causing some of the aforementioned gifted many to believe, falsely, that the prohibitions against run-on sentences no longer apply — or even, scare bleu, that it’s actually more stylish to cram an entire thought into a single overstuffed sentence than to break it up into a series of shorter sentences that a human gullet might conceivably be able to croak out within a single breath.

May I consider that last point made and move on? Or would you prefer that I continue to ransack my conjunctions closet so I can tack on more clauses? My neighborhood watch group has its shared baby to bathe, people.

It’s my considered opinion that the ubiquity of grammatical errors in queries and submissions to agencies may be attributable to not one cause, but two. Yes, some writers may never have learned the relevant rules, but others’ conceptions of what those rules are may have become blunted by continually seeing them misapplied.

Wait — you’re just going to take my word for that? Really? Have you lovely people become too jaded by the pervasiveness or sweeping generalizations regarding the decline of grammar in English to find damning analysis presented without a shred of corroborative evidence eye-popping? Or to consider lack of adequate explanation of what I’m talking about even a trifle eyebrow-raising?

Welcome to Millicent’s world, my friends. You wouldn’t believe how queries, synopses, and opening pages of manuscripts seem to have been written with the express intention of hiding more information from a screener than they divulge. They also, unfortunately, often contain enough spelling, grammar, and even clarity problems that poor Millie’s left perplexed.

Doubt that? Okay, let’s examine a not-uncommon take on the book description paragraph from a query letter:

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty eight year old out of work pop diva turned hash slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself. Fiercely pursuing her dreams despite a dizzying array of obstacles, she struggles to have it all in a world seemingly determined to take it all away. Can she find her way through her maze of options while still being true to herself?

Excuse me, but if no one minds my asking, what is this book about? You must admit, other than that long string of descriptors in the first sentence, it’s all pretty vague. Where is this story set? What is its central conflict? What is Pandora running from — or towards — and why? And what about this story is better conveyed through hackneyed phrasing — running from her past, true to herself — than could be expressed through original writing?

On the bright side, Millicent might not stick with this query long through enough to identify the clich? use and maddening vagueness as red flags. Chances are, the level of hyphen abuse in that first sentence would cause her to turn pale, draw unflattering conclusions about the punctuation in the manuscript being offered, and murmur, “Next!”

I sense some of you turning pale at the notion that she might read so little of an otherwise well-crafted query, but be honest, please. Are you wondering uneasily how she could possibly make up her mind so fast — or wondering what about that first sentence would strike a professional reader as that off-putting?

If it’s the latter, here’s a hint: she might well have lasted to be irritated by the later ambiguity if the first sentence had been punctuated like this.

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty-eight-year-old out-of-work pop-diva-turned-hash-slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself.

Better, isn’t it? While we’re nit-picking, the TITLE is the story of… is now widely regarded as a rather ungraceful introduction to a query’s descriptive paragraph. Or as an opening for a synopsis, for that matter. Since Millicent and her boss already know that the purpose of both is — wait for it — to describe the book, why waste valuable page space telling them that what is about to appear in the place they expect to see a book description is in fact a book description?

There’s a larger descriptive problem here, though. If the querier had not attempted to shove all of those multi-part descriptive clauses out of the main body of the sentence, the question of whether to add hyphens or not would have been less pressing. Simply moving the title to the query’s opening paragraph, too, would help relieve the opening sentence of its heavy conceptual load. While we’re at it, why not give a stronger indication of the book’s subject matter?

As a great admirer of your client, A. New Author, I am writing in the hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction manuscript, OPAQUE. Like Author’s wonderful debut, ABSTRUSE, my novel follows a powerful, resourceful woman from the public spotlight to obscurity and back again.

By the tender age of twenty-eight, pop sensation Pandora has already become a has-been. Unable to book a single gig, she drives around the back roads of Pennsylvania in disguise until she finds refuge slinging hash in a roadside diner.

Hooray — Millicent’s no longer left to speculate what the book’s about! Now that the generalities and stock phrases have been replaced with specifics and original wording, she can concentrate upon the story being told. Equally important, she can read on without having to wonder uneasily if the manuscript will be stuffed to the proverbial gills with typos, and thus would not be ready for her boss, the agent of your dreams, to circulate to publishing houses.

While I appreciate the refreshing breeze coming from so many heads being shaken simultaneously, I suspect it indicates that not everyone instantly spotted why a professional reader would so vastly prefer the revised versions to the original. “I do like how you’ve unpacked that overburdened first sentence, Anne,” some brave souls volunteer, “but I have to say, the way you have been moving hyphens around puzzles me. Sometimes, I’ve seen similar phrases hyphenated, but sometimes, they’re not. I thought we were striving for consistency here!”

Ah, a common source of confusion: we’re aiming for consistency in applying the rules, not trying, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, to force the same set of words to appear identically on the page every time it is used. The first involves learning the theory so you can use it appropriately across a wide variety of sentences; the second entails an attempt to memorize how certain phrases appear in print, in an attempt to avoid having to learn the theory.

Trust me, learning the rules will be substantially less time-consuming in the long run than guessing. Not to mention more likely to yield consistent results. Oh, and in the case of hyphens, just trying to reproduce how you saw a phrase used elsewhere will often steer you wrong.

Why? Stop me if this sounds familiar: anyone who reads much these days, especially online, routinely sees more than his share of hyphen abuse. Hyphens crop up where they don’t belong; even more frequently, they are omitted where their inclusion would clarify compound phrasing. No wonder writers — who, after all, tend to read quite a bit more than most people, and certainly read with a closer eye for picking up style tips — sometimes become confused.

And frankly, queries, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts reflect that confusion. You’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers will, on a single page, hyphenate a phrase correctly on line 5, yet neglect to add a hyphen to a similar phrase on line 18. Or even, believe it or not, present the same phrase used in precisely the same manner in two different ways.

Which raises an intriguing question, doesn’t it? Based on that page, how could Millicent tell whether a sentence was improperly punctuated because the writer was in a hurry and just didn’t notice a one-time typo in line 18 — or if the writer didn’t know the rule in the first place, but guessed correctly on line 5? The fact is, she can’t.

That’s a shame, really, as this type of typo/rule wobbling/dizzying confusion can distract the reader from the substance and style of the writing. To see how and why, take a gander at a sterling little passage in which this inadvertent eye-attractor abounds.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. ”

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Okay, okay, so Millicent seldom sees so many birds of a feather flocking together (While I’m at it, you look mahvalous, you wild and crazy guy, and that’s hot. And had I mentioned that Millie, like virtually every professional reader, has come to hate clich?s with a passion most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, waiting in line at the D.M.V., and any form of criticism of their writing skills?) In queries and synopses, our gaffe du jour is be spotted traveling solo, often in summary statements like this:

At eight-years-old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Or as its evil twin:

Alphonse was an eight year old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Am I correct in assuming that if either of these sentences appeared before your bloodshot eyes in the course of an ordinary day’s reading, a hefty majority of you would simply shrug and read on? May I further presume that if at least a few of you noticed one or both of these sentences whilst reading your own query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, as one does, you might either shrug again or not be certain how to revise it?

Do I hear you laughing, or is Tyrone at it again? “I know what the problem is, Anne!” experienced query- and synopsis-writers everywhere shout, chuckling. “Savvy writers everywhere know that in a query’s book description, it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce a character like this:

Alphonse (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk.

“As you will notice, it’s also in the present tense, as the norms of query book descriptions dictate. By the same token, the proper way to alert Millicent that a new character has just cropped up in a synopsis involves presenting his or her name in all capital letters the first time it appears, followed by his or her age in parentheses. While I’m sure you’d like to linger to admire our impeccable subject-object agreement in that last sentence, I’m sure readers new to synopsis-writing would like to see what the technique described in the first sentence of this paragraph would look like in print, so here it is:

ALPHONSE (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk — and now that a tragic Tonka Toy accident has left him temporarily unable to walk or swim, what is he going to do with his time?

I’m impressed at how clearly you’ve managed to indicate what is and is not an example in your verbal statements, experienced ones, but we’re straying from the point a little, are we not? Not using parentheses to show a character’s age in a book description is hardly an instant-rejection offense, and eschewing the ALL CAPS (age) convention is unlikely to derail a well-constructed synopsis at submission time. (Sorry, lovers of absolute pronouncements: both of these are matters of style.)

Those are sophisticated critiques, however; I was hoping you would spot the basic errors here. Basically, the writer immortalizing Alphonse’s triumphs and tribulations has gotten the rule backwards. Those first two examples should have read like this:

At eight years old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Alphonse was an eight-year-old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Does that look right to you? If so, can you tell me why it looks right to you?

And no, Virginia, neither “Because you said it was right, Anne!” nor “I just know correct punctuation when I see it!” would constitute useful responses here. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.

The answer, I hope you will not be astonished to hear, depends upon the role the logically-connected words are playing in an individual sentence. The non-hyphenated version is a simple statement of fact: Alphonse is, we are told, eight years old. Or, to put it another way, in neither that last sentence or our first example does eight years old modify a noun.

In our second example, though, eight-year-old is acting as a compound adjective, modifying boy, right? The hyphens tell the reader that the entire phrase should be taken as a conceptual whole, then applied to the noun. If the writer wanted three distinct and unrelated adjectives to be applied to the noun, he should have separated them with commas.

The small, freckle-faced, and tenacious boy flung himself into the pool, eager to join the fray.

Are you wondering why I hyphenated freckle-faced? Glad you asked. The intended meaning arises from the combination of these two words: freckle-faced is describing the boy here. If I had wanted the reader to apply the two words independently to the noun, I could have separated them by commas, but it would be nonsensical to say the freckle, faced boy, right?

Applying the same set of principles to our old friend Pandora, then, we could legitimately say:

Pandora is an out-of-work diva.

The diva is a has-been; she is out of work.

Out-of-work has-been seeks singing opportunity.

Let’s talk about why. In the first sentence, the hyphens tell the reader that Pandora isn’t an out diva and an of diva and a work diva — she’s an out-of-work diva. In the second sentence, though, out of work does not modify diva; it stands alone. Has-been, however, stands together in Sentence #2: the hyphen transforms the two verbs into a single noun. In the third sentence, that same noun is modified by out-of-work.

Getting the hang of it? Okay, let’s gather our proofreading tools and revisit Tyrone, Hortense, and Ghislaine, a couple of paragraphs at a time.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

Some of that punctuation looked pretty strange to you, I hope. Let’s try applying the rules.

“All of this build-up we’ve talked about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the tabletop build-up of wax at the drive-in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed in on the sign-in sheet. “I know she’s stepped in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick up my backpack and run away through my back door to my back yard. ”

Hortense revved her pick-up truck’s engine, the better to drive through and thence to drive into the parking space. “That’s because Anne built up your hopes in a much-talked-about runaway attempt to back up her argument.”

All of those changes made sense, I hope. Since drive-in is used as a noun — twice, even — it takes a hyphen, but when the same words are operating as a verb plus a preposition (Hortense is driving into a parking space), a hyphen would just be confusing. Similarly, when Tyrone signed in, he’s performing the act of signing upon the sign-in sheet. He and his friends talked about the build-up, but Hortense uses much-talked-about to describe my runaway attempt. Here, back is modifying the nouns door and yard, but if we were talking about a backdoor argument or a backyard fence, the words would combine to form an adjective.

And a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. “But Anne, I notice that some of the compound adjectives are hyphenated, but some become single words. Why runaway, backpack, and backyard, but pick-up truck and sign-in sheet?”

Because English is a language of exceptions, that’s why. It’s all part of our rich and wonderful linguistic heritage.

Which is why, speaking of matters people standing on either side of the publishing wall often regard differently, it so often comes as a genuine shock to agents and editors when they meet an aspiring writer who says he doesn’t have time to read. To a writer, this may seem like a simple matter of time management — those of us in favor with the Muses don’t magically gain extra hours in the day, alas — but from the editorial side of the conversation, it sounds like a serious drawback to being a working writer. How on earth, the pros wonder, can a writer hope to become conversant with not only the stylistic norms and storytelling conventions of his chosen book category, but the ins and outs of our wildly diverse language, unless he reads a great deal?

While you’re weighing both sides of that potent issue, I’m going to slip the next set of uncorrected text in front of you. Where would you make changes?

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

Have your edits firmly in mind? Compare them to this:

At her lived-in post at the drive-through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick-up sticks. “Hey, lay off. You mean build-up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head into this head-in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned-out coworker could tune out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the backdoor logic — it’s the runaway pace.”

How did you do? Admittedly, the result is still a bit awkward — and wasn’t it interesting how much more obvious the style shortcomings are now that the punctuation has been cleaned up? That’s the way it is with revision: lift off one layer of the onion, and another waits underneath.

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, polishing all of the relevant layers often does require repeated revision. Contrary to popular myth, most professional writing goes through multiple drafts before it hits print — and professional readers tend to be specifically trained to read for several different types of problem at the same time. So as tempting as it might be to conclude that if Millicent is distracted by offbeat punctuation, she might overlook, say, a characterization issue, it’s unlikely to work out that way in practice.

With that sobering reality in mind, let’s move on to the next section.

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. “

I broke the excerpt there for a reason: did you happen to catch the unwarranted space between the final period and the quotation marks? A trifle hard to spot on a backlit screen, was it not? See why I’m always urging you to read your work IN HARD COPY and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you slip it under Millicent’s notoriously sharp-but-overworked eyes?

And see what I did there? Believe me, once you get into the compound adjectival phrase habit, it’s addictive.

I sense some of you continue to shake off the idea that proofing in hard copy (and preferably by reading your work OUT LOUD) is more productive than scanning it on a computer screen. Okay, doubters: did you notice the partially deleted word in that last excerpt’s second sentence? Did you spot it the first time you went through this scene, when I presented it as an unbroken run of dialogue?

The nit-picky stuff counts, folks. Here’s that passage again, with the small matters resolved. This time, I’m going to tighten the text a bit as well.

“Oh, pick up your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick-up’s back door behind her — a good trick, as she had previously been sitting in the driver’s seat. “We’re due to do over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back-up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste to the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed up! “Just give me time to back out of the room. I have lived in too many places where people walk into built-in walk-in closets, and wham! They’re trapped. “

Still not precisely Shakespeare, but at least the punctuation is no longer screaming at Millicent, “Run away! Run away!” (And in case the three times this advice has already floated through the post today didn’t sink in, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Do you have a recent back-up stored somewhere other than your home?)

The text is also no longer pointing out — and pretty vehemently, too — that if her boss did take on this manuscript, someone at the agency would have to be assigned to proofread every draft of it. That’s time-consuming, and to be blunt about it, not really the agent’s job. And while it is indeed the copyeditor’s job to catch typos before the book goes to press, generally speaking, agents and editors both routinely expect manuscripts to be thoroughly proofread before they first.

Which once again leads us to different expectations prevailing in each of the concentric circles surrounding publishing. To many, if not most, aspiring writers, the notion that they would be responsible for freeing their manuscripts of typos, checking the spelling, and making sure the grammar is impeccable seems, well, just a trifle crazy. Isn’t that what editors do?

From the professional reader’s side of the equation, though, it’s practically incomprehensible that any good writer would be willing to send out pages — or a query — before ascertaining that it was free of typos. Everyone makes ‘em, so why not set aside time to weed ‘em out? You want your writing to appear to its best advantage, right?

Hey, I’m walking you through this long exercise for a reason. Let’s take another stab at developing those proofreading skills.

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Did you catch the extra space in the last sentence, after the comma? Wouldn’t that have been easier to spot in hard copy?

Admit it: now that you’re concentrating upon it, the hyphen abuse is beginning to annoy you a bit, isn’t it? Congratulations: that means you are starting to read like a professional. You’ll pardon me, then, if I not only correct the punctuation this time around, but clear out some of the conceptual redundancy as well. While I’m at it, I’ll throw a logical follow-up question into the dialogue.

“Can we have a do-over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in line for in-line skates.”

“What do skates have to do with anything?” Tyrone snapped.

“To escape if we run into overtime. At this rate, our boss will walk in with that pasted-on grin, take one look at our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay-off list.”

Hey, just because we’re concentrating on the punctuation layer of the textual onion doesn’t mean we can’t also give a good scrub to some of the lower layers. Let’s keep peeling, shall we?

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Quite a bit to trim there, eh? Notice, please, how my initial desire to be cute by maximizing phrase repetition drags down the pace on subsequent readings. It’s quite common for a writer’s goals for a scene to change from draft to draft; to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein manuscript, inconsistently voiced due to multiple partial revisions, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of rereading every scene — chant it with me now, folks — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD after each revision.

Here’s how it might read after a switch in authorial agenda — and an increase of faith in the reader’s intelligence. If Hortense is able to walk into the closet and stay there for paragraphs on end, mightn’t the reader be trusted to pick up that it’s a walk-in closet?

Hortense vanished into the closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut-rate social analyst, is the lounge where we lounge in our loungewear? I’d hate to cut through the rules and regulations.”

“Has she gone nuts?” Tyrone whispered.

“That’s what you get,” Ghislaine muttered under her breath, “for complaining about Anne’s advice. She’s only trying to help writers like us identify patterns in our work, you know.”

A button-down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “I don’t think the build-up for Anne’s larger point is our greatest problem at the moment. Right now, I’m worried that she’s trapped us in a scene with a maniac.”

“Don’t forget to button your shirt to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grab you a jacket.”

“Tremendous,” she called back. Scooting close to Tyrone, she added in an undertone, “If Anne doesn’t end the scene soon, we can always lock Hortense in the closet. That would force an abrupt end to the scene.”

“I vote for a more dramatic resolution.” He caught her in his arms. “Run away with me to Timbuktu.”

She kissed him enthusiastically. “Well, I didn’t see that coming in previous drafts”.

The moral, should you care to know it, is that a writer needn’t think of proofreading, much less revision, as a sterile, boring process in revisiting what’s already completely conceived. Every time you reread your own writing, be it in a manuscript draft or query, contest entry or synopsis, provides you with another opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Rather than clinging stubbornly to your initial vision for the scene, why not let the scene evolve, if it likes?

That’s hard for any part of a manuscript to do, though, if its writer tosses off an initial draft without going back to it from time to time. Particularly in a first book, storylines tend to alter as the writing progresses; narrative voices grow and change. Getting into the habit of proofreading can provide not only protection against the ravages of Millicent’s gimlet eye, but also make it easier to notice if one part of the manuscript to reflect different authorial goals and voice choices than other parts.

How’s the writer to know that if he hasn’t read his own book lately? Or, for that matter, his own query?

This is not, I suspect, the conclusion any of the fine people who suggested I examine hyphen abuse presumed my post would have. But that’s what keeps the conversation interesting: continually revisiting the same topics of common interest from fresh angles. Keep up the good work!

Fear of revision, by guest blogger Julie Wu — and some news I’m particularly overjoyed to announce

Okay, I’ll confess it: I’m known for my enthusiasm about fabulous writing and the fine people that produce it. Guilty as charged. I’m also, I hear, notorious for waxing especially rhapsodic when a good writer who has paid her dues first breaks into print. Yet even for me, a phrase like particularly overjoyed is a rarity.

What’s sent me into overjoy overload, you ask? This time, I’m announcing a fabulous novel by a great writer who has paid her dues — and who also happens to have been my college roommate. So if you think I’m not going to be tap-dancing on the rooftops about this one, well, all I can say is that my neighbors have been anxiously spreading nets under their eaves for weeks, in anticipation of this moment.

Ahem: Julie Wu’s first novel, THE THIRD SON, is now available for presale at Amazon! Congratulations, Julie!

Algonquin Books will be bringing the book out in April. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

It’s 1943. As air-raid sirens blare in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, eight-year-old Saburo walks through the peach forests of Taoyuan. The least favored son of a Taiwanese politician, Saburo is in no hurry to get home to the taunting and abuse he suffers at the hands of his parents and older brother. In the forest he meets Yoshiko, whose descriptions of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise. Meeting her is a moment he will remember forever, and for years he will try to find her again. When he finally does, she is by the side of his oldest brother and greatest rival.

Set in a tumultuous and violent period of Taiwanese history — as the Chinese Nationalist Army lays claim to the island and one autocracy replaces another–The Third Son tells the story of lives governed by the inheritance of family and the legacy of culture, and of a young man determined to free himself from both.

In Saburo, author Julie Wu has created an extraordinary character, a gentle soul forced to fight for everything he’s ever wanted: food, an education, and his first love, Yoshiko. A sparkling, evocative debut, it will have readers cheering for this young boy with his head in the clouds who, against all odds, finds himself on the frontier of America’s space program.

Having gotten a sneak peek at this lyrical novel, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Double that recommendation for those of you currently pursuing the difficult-but-rewarding path of literary fiction: I think you’re going to be interested in the lovely things the language does in Julie’s talented hands.

I’m just a trifle excited, in short, that her work is about to be available to a wider audience. To celebrate, I’ve decided to rerun one of my all-time favorite guest posts, by, you guessed it, Julie Wu’s. I first ran it in 2011, soon after Algonquin acquired the novel.

I think it might resonate particularly well right now, as I know so many of you have spent the first three weeks of January (insert martyred sigh here) frantically querying agencies already dealing with what I like to call the New Year’s Resolution Avalanche. Still others have, bless your hearts, been champing at the bit, waiting for half the aspiring writers in North America to work that first querying enthusiasm of the year out of collective system.

But I’m correct, am I not, in saying that every single one of you has been gnawing your nails, worrying about whether your manuscript or book proposal is polished enough to make the grade? That’s completely normal; even the best books have to run the rejection gamut. Yet it’s amazing how seldom published authors speak frankly to those facing the prospect for the first time about something everyone who writes for a living knows is the case: facing rejection is an inescapable fact of the writing life.

Stop shaking your head — it’s true. Every single living author you admire has had to deal with it. What’s more, every living author you admire has been precisely where you are now.

Don’t believe me? Ask Julie. Not only in the guest post below, but in her wonderful essay on rejection and literary success. Those of you struggling to free regular writing time in your schedule might also want to check out this interesting interview on Book Architecture; first-time authors rarely talk so openly about this perennial challenge, either.

If you doubt that any of these writing woes have been under-discussed, let me ask you: when’s the last time you heard a writer mention rejection or struggling to wrest writing time from his busy schedule as anything but a complaint?

What I like so much about today’s post is how unblinkingly it examines something else writers published and unpublished alike seldom like to admit: many a great premise has been lost to posterity for lack of necessary revision. It’s easy to lose faith in mid-revision — and even easier to reject the notion of revision at all.

Advance disclaimer: I’m not the roommate mentioned in the piece; I couldn’t throw a pot to save my life. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should tell you that Julie is the kind soul that first introduced me to that modern miracle, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a fact that in no way affects my estimation of her literary talents. A Boston-area native, she also probably saved my life by instructing this rural California girl on the delicate art of crossing Massachusetts Avenue on foot without being flattened like a pancake.

The local joke at the time was that Cambridge traffic tended to separate Harvard students into two categories: the quick and the dead. So if you have ever enjoyed a post here at Author! Author!, Julie’s teaching me to dash through traffic unscathed is partially to thank.

Please join me, then, in welcoming Julie Wu. Take it away, Julie!

My roommate once made a clay pot in art school. Threw it on the wheel, drew up its walls between the tips of her fingers, fired it, glazed it. When she and her classmates held up their finished pots, gleaming and beautiful, the instructor led the students to a pit and ordered them to throw down their pots. The point was, he said, not to become attached to a particular piece of work. You can always make more.

Some students cried. My roommate was traumatized, still bitter about the experience years later when she told me about it.

Hearing her story made my stomach twist. I had written a few short stories, and they were my precious babies, conjured up as I sat cross-legged in the dark in an apartment overlooking the Hudson River. My stories were praised in student workshops, but their strengths were no more robust or reproducible than the street lights’ glinting on the water’s surface. Even after the literary magazine rejections came in, I revised only a sentence here or there, hoping that would be enough.

Because I was afraid that if I revised more, I would ruin what was good and never get it back again. I was one of those art students, crying and clutching my pot at the edge of the pit.

Here’s the thing: that instructor was right. It has taken me ten years to understand that. Make one beautiful pot–maybe you were lucky. Make another from the ground up, and another, still more beautiful, and you are an artist. It takes practice, study, the making and smashing of many pots beautiful, average, and ugly, to really know that clay, to know exactly how to push your hands into it to get what you want.

It took me ten years to understand, because it took me ten years to write my first novel. I revised it countless times–a little when it first didn’t sell, then more and more. Eventually, I changed its structure, its point of view, its tone, its style. With each revision I received comments and started over, page one. Each time, I learned more, until I could revise without fear. And it was then that I sold the book.

In writing we have a safety net: the computer. Open a new file and you have smashed your pot and kept a picture of it at the same time. How to proceed at that point is a study in humility, in open-mindedness, in self-examination. It’s remembering all the advice you read about in the craft books–that you must have an interesting protagonist, a need, lots of conflict–and admitting you need to take that advice yourself. It’s hearing all the feedback from your readers–that the protagonist is unsympathetic, that nothing happens, that what happens is implausible–and admitting that they are true. It’s realizing that there’s power in depth, and that depth is a function of your narrative arc. It’s an equation of equal parts emotion and mechanics, and it’s fueled by that elusive beast, imagination.

After so many years, book one is done. I’m thinking about book two. I’ve got clay in my hands again, but I feel different now. Because I’m not afraid. Because I know now I can make a pretty good pot. And because if it doesn’t turn out well, I don’t have to cry. I can throw it into the pit, and make something better.

Julie Wu‘s novel, The Third Son, won a short-listing in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and will be published by Algonquin Books in April, 2013. Her short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine. Also a physician, she has published a personal essay in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago.

There’s more to writing a memoir than sitting down and telling the truth?

Surprised not to see a post on formatting occupying this space, campers? You should be: for the past seven years, I have embraced the decline of the old year and the advent of the new as an opportunity to provide the members of the Author! Author! community with a solid explanation of something that new writers are simply expected to know how to do before they even consider approaching an agent. For some reason that defies human understanding, formatting a book manuscript or proposal as the pros do is implicitly regarded as piece of practical know-how the Literature Fairy bestows on talented writers at birth.

Perhaps my decades of experience as a writer and editor have skewed my sample, but in my experience, approximately no one is born with that knowledge. Innate literary talent has nothing to do with the learned skill of presenting one’s writing professionally, any more than having a naturally good ear for dialogue correlates with the ability to place a comma in the right place or wield a semicolon correctly.

Contrary to popular belief, quite a lot goes into writing a book other than inspiration, patience, and the willingness to sit in one place, typing your little heart out, for a year or two. So don’t panic, rookies: I shall be reviving my annual explanatory tradition next week.

For the next few days, though, I’d like to talk with those of you writing about reality — as memoir, as narrative nonfiction, as everyday life interpreted on the pages of a novel. It’s some of the most difficult writing to do well, yet strangely, we writers tend to discuss walking the truth tightrope far less amongst ourselves than the more fanciful aspects of craft.

Why? Well, fact-based fiction is considerably in less popular than it used to be, for one thing. While 30 or 40 years ago, someone who burned to write would have tended to churn out a slice-of-life piece the first time out — and, in all likelihood, seen it treated as a more serious literary production than a nonfiction piece covering precisely the same subject matter — new writers in recent years have been turning in greater numbers to genre fiction. It’s not that Millicent the agency screener no longer sees the vividly-rendered descriptions of living room slipcovers, meaningful glances, and tense non-verbal exchanges over WASPy Thanksgiving dinners of yesteryear cross her desk; it’s that realism in fiction has very largely been supplanted by fast-paced street fighting, a little light bondage, and sparkling vampires who, in defiance of tradition, wander about freely in daylight.

Nothing wrong with that, of course: publishing has always been a trend-oriented business. The explosion of YA, paranormal, and fantasy in recent years has brought incredible richness to all of those categories, partially through definitional expansion — YA in particular now regularly takes up subject matter that would have made even the most hardened high school librarian blush in the 1970s — and partially, let’s face it, through good writers rushing toward those readerships. Since the economic downturn began, even quite well-established mainstream and adult fiction authors have found themselves gravitating toward these categories — and if they haven’t of their own accords, their agents may well have suggested it. Trends, you see.

Memoir, too, has seen quite a sea change in recent years — and that has generated some immensely positive effects for memoir aficionados and writers alike. My personal favorite: like genre fiction, good memoir writing has very largely lost the stigma it once carried.

Does that sharp collective intake of breath indicate that those of you new to the joys and challenges of memoir were not aware that for many years, it was not considered high literary writing? While there have always been wonderfully-written memoirs, it used to be routine for fiction-lovers to sniff at them as literary efforts — and not only in private. It was an accepted species of snobbery. Blame Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Parker, and their ilk: for a good century or more, even the most beautifully-composed first-hand nonfiction account was generally dismissed in literary circles as a less serious endeavor — or at least one that deserved to be taken less seriously — than garden-variety slice-of-life fiction. Even, interestingly enough, if they covered essentially the same subject matter at a similar level of characterization.

Oh, you may laugh, but writers of promise (what ever happened to that lovely phrase?) were often actively discouraged from writing nonfiction accounts. “That’s journalism,” the literati would say. “You would have to approach your subject matter with absolute objectivity. If you wrote it as fiction, you could be as subjective as you liked! Not to mention using nicer language.”

Today, however, if a novelist snorts derisively at the very notion of telling some aspect of his life story in nonfiction form — or, to put it a bit more bluntly, by being up front about his being a character in his own book — readers and interviewers alike tend to respond in much the same way they would if he said that genre fiction contains no legitimate character development. They’d just assume that he doesn’t read very widely.

Because, let’s face it, there is great writing in every book category. Being a well-read person no longer means reading only certain types of books; the average reader’s tastes are now recognized as being fairly eclectic.

And hallelujah for that, I say. Pretending that consumers of literary fiction never cracked a graphic novel or fantasy was a strain on everybody, was it not? Although watching a literary snob swiftly shove the paperback he was avidly reading into a copy of PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT did constitute one of the great amusements of modern life, it’s one that I readily gave up in the service of an expansion of what counts as good writing.

The rehabilitation of the memoir also owes a debt to the narrative nonfiction revolution. Largely the brainchild of novelists, narrative nonfiction brought fiction techniques to real-world subject matter, presenting actual events accurately (ideally, verifiably so) while casting the storyline as a novel would, with a distinct narrative arc, intensive character development, and fleshed-out scenes. Like literary fiction, narrative nonfiction’s language not only conveys the facts; it evokes a mood. And, unlike objective journalism, narrative nonfiction voice often contains a distinct authorial point of view.

Admittedly, as is so often the case in the literary world, definitions of narrative (also known as creative or literary) nonfiction vary. There is a certain amount of debate, for instance, about how much factual research must go into narrative nonfiction: need it be sourced as exhaustively as a journalistic treatment of the same story? If the writer was not physically present for certain scenes, how much can she legitimately make up? How extensively can she embellish a scene? If the storyline includes dull or dramatically unsatisfying sections, may they ethically be glossed over?

A question that does not crop up much in the publishing world, however, but one often hears aspiring writers of the real asking at literary conferences: should a first-person narrative dealing primarily with events in the author’s own life should be categorized as narrative nonfiction or memoir? The confusion is understandable, of course — while a cookbook containing travelogue or extensive personal stories is fairly obviously a cookbook (the recipes are a dead giveaway), where the precise line falls between a personal essay (a distinct sub-category of narrative nonfiction) and memoir can be less clear-cut.

So why don’t the pros get thrown by the question? While a narrative nonfiction book and a memoir might well share a distinct story arc, a strong authorial voice and point of view, and pretty writing, narrative nonfiction tends to be more concept-oriented than memoir. While a personal essay might bring in scenes, events, and characters from the author’s life to speak to an overall philosophical, analytical, or even political point, a memoir would concentrate primarily upon telling the story.

Still confused, writers of the real? Let me put it another way: while the writer can be a character in both memoir and narrative nonfiction, a memoir is first and foremost that character’s tale. A narrative nonfiction treatment of the same set of events might well include the author’s activities, but it’s often as an observer of larger events. Think MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL or IN COLD BLOOD, or, better still, if you happen to be a Capote fan, HANDCARVED COFFINS: while the reader does learn quite a bit about the writer over the course of those narratives, the narrator is an observer of a larger play.

In a good memoir, however, the reader gets not only to see through the narrator’s eyes, but live through her flesh — not only for individual scenes tucked within a mostly descriptive narrative, but throughout the entire storyline. Indeed, a memoir can hardly be said to be successful on a writing level if the reader isn’t drawn into the action sufficiently to feel and think along with the protagonist.

Some eyebrows just hit some hairlines, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” sputter flabbergasted memoirists the English-speaking world over, “I hadn’t been thinking of myself as the protagonist of my story, as if I were writing a novel. I’m the narrator in a nonfiction book — naturally, I’m bound by the truth, but I’m telling the reader what happened, the way I would recount my adventures to a friend. Or to someone I met at a party. Or, ideally, to the agent of my dreams, shortly after she claps eyes on my query letter.”

That may well be your intent, memoirists, but to an editorial eye, those three audiences would call for three completely different levels of narrative intimacy. You would almost certainly include more personal details in regaling your friend with your adventures, would you not, than a total stranger at some dubious social gathering? And wouldn’t you be more inclined to make yourself look good as a character if you were trying to impress the hearer?

I get what you’re saying, though: aiming for a chatty, anecdotal-style voice is a fairly common memoir tactic. Common enough, unfortunately, that it can be a problematic narrative choice at submission time. I’ve said it before and shall no doubt say it again: just as real-life dialogue is often stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page, the storytelling norms of everyday speech tend to be rather boring to read.

For starters, spoken sentence structure and word choice typically fall far below the standards of good memoir writing. Everyday speech also leans pretty heavily on stock phrases. New writers often don’t think about this, but using the same words, phrases, and kinds of sentences over and over again, as most of us routinely do when chatting with our friends, is rather tiring for the reader. Take, for instance, how I might legitimately describe something that happened to me recently should you be unfortunate enough to allow me to buttonholed you at a cocktail party whilst I was still miffed:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading: THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Not precisely Dickens, is it? Or perhaps it is, if we consider the notoriously word-repetitious opening sentence of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

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 — the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted upon its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Funny, certainly, but equally certainly stuffed with sweeping generalizations and eye-distracting word, phrase, and structural repetition. Not to mention being one lulu of a run-on sentence. Poor old Charles would have a heck of a time getting this opening past Millicent today — and not only because anything that read remotely like this would now be immediately dismissed as derivative of Dickens. That’s the trouble with those much-vaunted experiments in which disgruntled writers submit the opening pages of something like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to agencies in an attempt to prove that good, solid writing no longer stands a chance, by the way: any Millicent who has been at it a while would recognize, if not the first few lines of P&P itself, then at least a manuscript attempting to copy Austen’s well-known satirical voice.

What was fresh in 1813 can hardly be called the cutting edge of literary style today. Had I mentioned that this has always been a trend-driven business?

My point, should we all care to veer back to it, is that while some stalwart soul with magnificent lungs might conceivably be able to utter Dickens’ epic opening sentence within a single breath to a crowd of hearers who would not necessarily wince at all of that textual repetition, it would be significantly harder for a reader to plow through a similar speech on the page. (As perhaps you recall from sophomore English class.) People in publishing would find it even more difficult: because most adult readers become bored and/or distracted by repetitious prose — if you don’t believe that, consider how annoying it’s been that I’ve kept using various forms of repetition throughout the last few paragraphs — agents and editors develop a sharp eye for it.

So, as it happens, do experienced Millicents. Now that Uncle Charles has been kind enough to irritate you into noticing repetition (there’s that darned word again!), let’s take a peek at how our favorite screener would read our earlier example of ordinary-voiced memoir writing:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading : THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Awfully hard to follow what’s going on in the face of all of that visual noise, isn’t it? And that’s not even factoring in how high the generalization to detail ratio is here: as is so often the case with verbal storytelling, this paragraph is a festival of telling, not showing. That’s entirely appropriate for interpersonal communication, but not necessarily the best tactic for sharing a real-world story in print.

Why? Well, verbal anecdotes tend to be light on specifics, relying on swiftness of telling and sudden reversals to maintain momentum. As a result, they often don’t work well when translated directly to the page, which cries out for detail and fully fleshed-out interactions.

That often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time memoirists — especially if they happen to be funny people. They expect, and with good reason, that the same story told in the same words will evoke the same reaction in any context. Yet as Millicent knows to her sorrow, many an anecdote that’s been slaying ‘em at parties for decades falls completely flat on the printed page.

A spoken anecdote’s success with hearers is frequently dependent upon the teller’s storytelling skills — a different set of skills than a writer wields, and requiring a significantly different sense of timing. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, a reader with a personal relationship with a writer of memoir (or personal essay, for that matter) will often have a significantly more positive response to reading that memoir or essay than a stranger would. The writer’s kith and/or kin will be mentally hearing the prose on the page in the writer’s spoken voice.

That’s impossible, obviously, for readers who don’t already know the author — a group which for your garden-variety aspiring writer includes Millicent, the agent of his dreams, his future acquiring editor, and, if we’re being honest, virtually everybody who will ever buy his book. I wish more aspiring memoirists thought about that; I can’t even begin to count how often I’ve seen great personal stories not be able to fly as memoir, simply because the narratives relied upon the reader to imagine tone and delivery style that just didn’t show up on the page.

Celebrity memoirs, particularly those written by comedians, are notoriously susceptible to this pitfall: if the reader can imagine the text read in the celebrity’s voice, it’s funny, but otherwise, the prose just sits on the page, unremarkable, crying out for a dramatic reading. These literary efforts represent, I think, a fundamental pessimism about the possibilities of readership. Presumably, the celebrity, the acquiring editor, and any ghost who might happen to have contributed some text to the festivities (allegedly) all believe in their heart of hearts that absolutely no one who has not heard the author’s speaking voice often enough to be able to produce a spontaneous and reasonably accurate impression would ever consider picking up his book. Were I a celebrity with something to say, I might find that a trifle depressing.

While stand-up comics and their ilk can indeed sell books that suffer under this presumption, it’s not the best strategic move for writers trying to make a name for themselves. Millicent does not use a smile for her umbrella, typically; she’s seen too many attempts at humor die a miserable death on the submission page. Unless you are absolutely positive that something is funny — and would be funny to a complete stranger who had never heard you utter a syllable out loud — you might want to consider punching it up. If you’re not sure, track down some objective feedback.

And don’t try to wiggle out of it by saying that your witticisms left your kith and kin rolling in the aisles. “But my mother thought it was hilarious!” has literally never convinced an agent or editor — or anyone else, for that matter — that an anecdote was funny if it didn’t elicit a chuckle on a first read. If there’s any rule to which those who work with writers cling tenaciously, it’s that the person who gave a writer birth — or shares his bed, or has been her best friend since the second grade — is not the ideal first reader for a memoirist. They’re simply too likely to read something into the text that isn’t actually on the page.

That’s true to a lesser extent of any form of writing, of course, but for memoir, the response of someone who knows the writer is likely to deviate even more wildly from the average reader’s. Even if your chum/relative/guy unwise enough to say, “Oh, you write? I’d love to read something of yours sometime,” isn’t actually a character in your memoir, s/he will already have formed opinions about you as a person, right? That relieves the narrative of the burden of character development for you, at least for that particular reader. Ongoing relationships also, more often than not, cause too-close first readers to peruse the text with a too-indulgent eye — or a too-critical one.

And although your kith and kin are no doubt delightful people, charming to know in any other context, when they are reading your memoir, they will probably also fill in necessary logic, should your narrative have happened to omit it. Indeed, many first-time memoirists so firmly picture their kith and kin’s past reactions to their verbal anecdotes that they elect to leave out connective logic, description, and character development requisite for an impartial reader to follow what’s happening.

Much to Millicent’s chagrin, many of these well-meaning writers — who, after all, are quite sensibly, they think, relying upon their past storytelling experience in constructing their memoir voices — will believe that telling their tales in a conversational manner will be an asset to the story. You wouldn’t believe how many memoir submissions open something like this, as if the narrator were addressing a close friend:

You’re not going to believe this, but that crazy UPS man appeared on my doorstep again. You know, the one who believes that the only physical space in the universe where it’s possible for a human being to sign for a package is the front doorstep?

I could go on, but why? There’s nothing wrong with the phrasing here, but already, the anecdote is predicated on the assumption that the reader will be willing to accept this rushed, limited back-story as a legitimate means of setting up what’s about to happen. Instead of showing us precisely how and why the guy’s nutty — or giving us enough insight into the narrator’s character to be able to discern whether we should take her word for this casual diagnosis — the text just expects us to try to picture what’s already happened before the story began, even though we don’t have access to enough information to be able to guess.

But that’s not the usual narrative presumption in a verbal anecdote, is it? We seldom assume that total strangers will already know what’s been going on in our lives, but fortunately for speed in storytelling, we’re often in the comparatively easy narrative position of relating our anecdotes to people who have already heard about our earlier interactions with the same characters. In this case, if I were actually telling this story to a friend (let’s call her Antoinette) I would have already regaled with my earlier interactions with the UPS man (which were positively hair-raising, incidentally). She also might have seen first-hand that since I’ve been walking with a cane since a car crash, hobbling down a flight of stairs, much less two, might be a trifle dangerous.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that any of the three times I shared this anecdote as memoir text? Changes your mental image of what’s going on, doesn’t it? An objective first reader might have caught that, but Antoinette probably wouldn’t.

That expectation of familiarity frequently haunts the anecdote-teller committing her tales to the page: the verbal anecdotalist can legitimately construct a tale under the assumption that the hearer will remember past accounts. Had Antoinette chatted with me on any day since midsummer, she might well have stood, glassy-eyed, while I treated her to a vivid account of how this sterling deliveryman raised my hair, as well as my hackles.

In essence, I am expecting Antoinette to follow a serial already in progress; woe to her if she had not paid attention to the earlier installments. She might have, but I can tell you now that Millicent hasn’t.

Yet you’d be astonished at how many memoir submissions toss poor Millie into the middle of an ongoing series of anecdotes. Perhaps not as obviously as Antoinette was, but honestly, would a screener not need to have pre-knowledge of the writer’s life to be able to make sense of a first paragraph like this?

I walked into my usual bar, ordered my usual drink, smiled at the lady who’s always sitting on that stool where the bar bends. So far, a completely ordinary day.

“I have no doubt of that,” Millicent sighs, “but since neither the reader nor I have any idea what your ordinary days are like, you’re leaving us in the dark here, narratively speaking. I suppose I could make the effort of conjuring up what the bar looked like, smelled like, and felt like underfoot, but that’s not the reader’s job, is it? Nor does my job description compel me to guess what you like to drink, the lady’s back-story, or even what time it is when you walked into the bar, so I can form no opinion about whether I should draw any conclusion whatsoever from your day’s including this activity. Next!”

Why, yes, that’s quite a bit of reaction to only two sentences of text, now that you mention it. But tell me truthfully: if you were Millicent, would you keep reading?

Yes, yes, I know: that’s an extremely difficult question for a memoirist to answer, and probably one that calls up an emotional response. Not only does it require an objective assessment of how the story’s being told here — an objective assessment which, by definition, no memoirist can possibly derive from her kith and kin, who will automatically bring their knowledge of you to the text — but it implies a critique of the events described, too, doesn’t it?

“How dare you?” the memoirist shouts. “Are you calling my story too boring to maintain anyone’s interest? Or are you saying that it’s badly written?”

Neither, necessarily. From Millicent’s perspective — which, lest we forget, will be shared by her boss, an acquiring editor, and the future readers of your book — the question of whether to read on past this paragraph has nothing to do with what’s actually going on in the scene. So far, all that’s happened is that the narrator has walked into a bar and ordered a drink: not a lot to judge there. The narrative style is plain, but perhaps that’s appropriate for the book’s subject matter and target audience.

“Wait a sec,” our beleaguered memoirist interrupts. “Target audience? What does that even mean for a memoir?”

Glad you asked. Most first-time memoirists don’t give any thought at all to who will want to read their books, much less who will be willing to shell out cash to read them. Or, if they do ponder it, the audience they have in mind consists largely of, you guessed it, the array of kith and kin who have already heard at least some of the memoir’s storyline in anecdotal form.

Now, I’m not saying that your Aunt Sadie, your best friend from work, and your significant other won’t be delighted enough to see you in print at last to rush out and buy your book. They probably will — especially if you’re clever enough to explain to them now that published authors get very few free copies; any you distribute to your loved ones gratis will not count toward your sales totals, and you may actually have to purchase them yourself. The sooner the fine folks who love you come to accept that the best way to support an author one happens to know personally is to buy their work, the happier you will be as a working writer.

But as your literary cheerleader and friend in the biz, is it wrong of me to hope that the people who already know you will not make up the entirety of the readership for your memoir? You want complete strangers to be enchanted with your prose, right? Presumably, if you didn’t want to reach readers outside your doubtless warm intimate circle, you would not be going to the effort and taking the considerable emotional risk of sending your work out to agents.

Especially because that risk is quite a bit higher when it’s your own story told as nonfiction, isn’t it, memoirists? I’m inclined to think, then, that you’re pretty committed to reaching some sympathetic strangers.

I applaud your bravery, but that means, in practice, that objective readers’ opinions of your memoir matter. Inevitably, like any book, your memoir will appeal to some readers and not others.

And before you get your mouth fully open to retort, let me stop you from asserting that anyone interested in good writing will like your book because it is a good story well written. I can tell you now that your future agent and editor will be amused, not convinced, by that argument.

Why? Well, from a publishing perspective, there is no such thing as a universally-appealing piece of writing. Some readers are drawn to one type of story, others another. That’s just a fact of pushing books. Even if you happen to have produced a memoir that both taps into an under-mined literary niche and catches the public imagination at just the right time (like, say, ANGELA’S ASHES), your future agent and editor will not think of it as just good writing about your life.

How will they think of it? As a memoir about a specific place and time, told in a specific voice — and as a book that will need to be sold to readers already in the habit of reading similar books.

“Similar books!” memoirists everywhere shout, insulted. “But my story’s unique! So is my narrative voice. How could any reader possibly form a sense of whether he will like it without reading it?”

Yes, yes, you’re a snowflake, but think about it: don’t you decide whether to pick up a book in a bookstore or search for it online without having read it? Don’t you as a reader gravitate toward certain types of narrative, particular varieties of story, a specific species of tone? Don’t you in fact do it all the time?

So does everybody else — including agents, editors, and anyone in a position to help you get your book published traditionally. No agent or editor, even those who handle nothing but memoir, will be attracted to every conceivable personal story that’s written well. Like every other individual reader currently milling about the earth’s crust, they have individual preferences.

And — brace yourselves; this next bit often comes as a shock to first-time memoirists — not all of those preferences concern writing style, or even having a compelling story to tell. Agents, editors, and memoir readers in general also tend to gravitate toward stories about specific types of experiences. From the publisher’s point of view — and thus an agent’s — memoirs are always about something other than the author’s life.

Mostly, I suspect, because to anyone familiar with the concept of a memoir, the statement “What’s the book about? Why, it’s about the author’s life!” is self-evident. It’s also self-evident to Millicent that not every interesting life translates easily into a page-turning memoir.

All of that can be difficult for writers fond of slice-of-life fiction to accept. “Isn’t the point of memoir,” they demand, and who could blame them? “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature? Good books about ordinary life are valuable. If a well-written story happens to be true, it’s automatically going to appeal to memoir readers, right?

Actually, no: thousands of memoirs come out every year, and by definition, all are about real events, yet only a few capture large readerships. Partially, that’s a matter of scarce marketing resources; it’s also often a matter of luck. Sometimes, it’s a function of the writing, but again, no publisher with her head screwed on straight would dream of promoting a memoir by saying, “Oh, it’s really well written. And had I mentioned that it was about the author’s life?”

Of course it is, but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, you thought I’d dropped my earlier point about textual repetition?), not every true story is equally appealing to every reader. Truth is a necessary attribute of memoir, not an optional extra. So are solid, clear writing and a dramatically-satisfying story arc.

If that last paragraph left you grumbling, well, you’re not alone. Most aspiring memoirists think of their books primarily as opportunities to share their life stories with a potentially admiring world. To them, the fact that they are telling their truth couldn’t possibly be more important: who in her right mind would put herself through the genuinely emotion-wracking process of reliving her ups and downs vividly enough to write about them well unless she felt her story burning inside her?

I’m entirely sympathetic to that yearning to shout the truth to the skies. However, as a memoirist myself — and as an author who has written a minor political celebrity’s memoir as well, a fascinating exercise in mind-melding — I know that there’s considerably more to constructing an emotionally and factually truthful memoir than simply telling the reader what happened. It’s not as though one can simply provide a list of events and expect the reader to extrapolate human feeling. A memoirist has to dig deep, be profoundly honest with himself — and then figure out what does and does not belong in the book.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? As much as we memoirists like to claim the mantle of truth, not everything that occurs in even the most fascinating person’s life will be gripping on the page. Part of the art of memoir lies in selectivity — a good memoir tells the story of a particular part of a particular life, not everything that happened. That means, at both the book structuring and writing stages, you will need to weed out actual events that undoubtedly happened, ones that may in themselves be interesting, but do not advance the story arc of the book.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider that; it’s is an aspect of memoir-writing that often confuses those new to the game. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth may work admirably on the witness stand, but the goal of a memoir is not simply to provide the reader with either a complete transcript or general summary of the author’s life. It’s to recount a specific set of connected events in a truthful, well-written, and entertaining manner, in a narrative voice likable enough that the reader will want to accompany the narrator on that absorbing journey.

That’s necessarily the case, because, let’s face it, the alternative would not be much fun for the reader. In fact, it could be a heck of a lot of work: in an indiscriminate, sprawling memoir, the reader must try to determine which of many protagonist-centered activities are important to the central storyline. Indeed, it’s not at all uncommon for a loosely-organized memoir manuscript not to have a clearly-defined central storyline at all, for the exceedingly simple reason that most new memoirists don’t think of their lives that way.

But if you, the narrator, don’t know what the core story arc of your memoir is, how can a reader possibly figure it out? And is it really the reader’s job?

So I ask you again: what is your memoir about?

While you’re pondering that gargantuan and quite possibly terrifying question, let me share my favorite analogy for creative selectivity in nonfiction: throwing a stone into an otherwise still pond. That will cause a series of concentric ripples, right, altering the surface of the pond over time? A well thought-out memoir will depict the pond, as well as the thrower and the flinging process, following those many small waves as they change everything in their path.

How might that translate into a story arc derived from a rich and diverse life story? Think of the pond and its environs as your day-to-day life prior to a defining moment or decision. In order to gain a clear sense of just how much throwing that stone disturbed the pond, the reader is going to need to experience it as you did: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings, what you loved and wanted, what you feared and avoided.

You could simply summarize all of that, I suppose, but wouldn’t the reader gain a stronger impression of what it was like to be you standing on the shore, weighing whether to toss that rock, if you conveyed your experiences via small, evocative details and fully fleshed-out scenes? With all of those sensations filtered through your psyche and perceptions, wouldn’t the reader get to know you pretty well as the protagonist of your own story?

Once you’ve established yourself as an interesting person in an interesting situation, and an intriguingly observant one at that, the reader is going to care about where and whether you cast that rock — or, in a story about being overwhelmed by larger events, about how you were flung bodily into the middle of that pond. How did your life change as a result? What did you do in response? What did you want to have happen, and what barriers did you face?

Starting to sound much more like a cohesive storyline, isn’t it? Much as in fiction, figuring out what is and isn’t central to the overall story you’re telling is not merely a matter of explaining what happened: it’s a matter of identifying the most important conflict the protagonist faces, what obstacles she must overcome, and showing the reader how that conflict played out.

That conflict, my friend, is what your memoir is about. It’s every bit as unique as you had originally thought; it’s merely structured in a manner that’s easier for a reader who doesn’t already know you to follow.

Does it make more sense now that “What is your memoir about?” would be the first thing Millicent, her boss, your acquiring editor, and the reader who will ultimately buy your book would want to know? At least, unless you have had the foresight to have established yourself as a celebrity, giving rise to a reasonable expectation that the very sight of your name on a book jacket will make your target reader gasp with incredulous pleasure and reach for the volume. Barring that kind of extremely helpful platform, it honestly does make sense that your future publisher will want to aim your book at readers most likely to respond positively to it.

Which is why, in the extremely likely event that those of you grumbling your way through writing a book proposal had been wondering, agents and editors expect memoirists, like all hopeful nonfiction writers, to give some serious advance thought to who is likely to buy the book and why. It’s also part of the reason memoirs — again, like other nonfiction — are typically sold in the U.S. not based upon a full manuscript, but merely upon a book proposal and a sample chapter. In all likelihood, your acquiring editor will want to have some input into the selection process, to help define your story arc in the manner most likely to capture the interest of readers already buying similar stories.

But let me guess: you’d been thinking of the proposal as just an annoying hoop through which you would have to leap in order to land an agent for your story, right? Believe it or not, the proposal’s requirements genuinely are intended to help nonfiction writers think about their books — and for memoirists to think of their life stories — not merely as writing about facts, but as gripping stories aimed at a specific readership predisposed to like ‘em.

I wouldn’t lie to you about that; I’m a memoirist, selectively drawing from the world as I find it to create a narrative true on a wide variety of levels. Keep up the good work!

Before you pop that first query or submission of the year into the mail, may I have a word?

And would you mind very much, New Year’s resolvers, if that word were wait?

I know, I know: you want to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, especially the last: as the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst.

Or, at the very least, the time when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected. Why? Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates go up in the first few weeks of January.

Was that resounding thunk that just reverberated throughout the cosmos the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting the floor? I’m not entirely surprised. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? By the same logic, if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

Meanwhile, tomorrow morning, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries will open their e-mail inboxes and moan, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions, you see.

So did the tens of thousands of successful queriers from last year who decided that after December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It doesn’t occur to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of, say, February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3. Or, really, any time of the year that the sheer weight of numbers would guarantee that competition would be stiffer for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but in practical terms, it would be impossible. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling their work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume. That means agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit? First, high querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets translate, inevitably, to less time spent on each query and submission. Equally inevitable — and you might want to sit down for this one: the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions, most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox tomorrow if you hit SEND today? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

To be fair, the overwhelming majority of those queries will be easy for the screener — known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that she’s a human being with individual literary tastes working for an agent with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing. At this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Out comes that logic we saw earlier: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories: fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc.; it’s a matter of reaching a specific target audience. While an individual reader may well buy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book tend to share expectations, and publishers market categories accordingly. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if he picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel she’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

Acquiring editors also harbor those expectations — and since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. They, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

Again, why should this trouble a writer longing to land an agent, any agent, as quickly as possible? There is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, it’s a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, in January. New Year’s resolvers, after all, are frequently in a hurry to see results. Too much of a hurry, often, to do much research on any given agent before sending off a query. You would not believe, for instance, how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google and e-mail the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list.

Usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent. And that’s a pity, because not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books — that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to landing one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent advice was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements — it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or, as is even more common, if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information an agent would want to know before requesting pages.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of these problems could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, it’s fairly common for agents and editors alike to use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course; they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. All through the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve.

Picture, then, what will greet your garden-variety Millicent when she walks into the office on the first working day of January. Not only will the usual post-vacation backlog await her, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Tell me, if you were Millicent, how quickly would you be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for, to pluck an example out of thin air, the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you answer any of those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence clear her schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor does they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the New Year’s resolution energy tends to peter out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (An increasingly common agency policy, by the way: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal part of the publication process. Just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

Translation: it may feel like a rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s: if you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less quickly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates tend to be higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for all of their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five typos in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be perusing it within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

I raise my glass to toast those dreams. As always, my New Year’s resolution is to help good writers realize theirs, not just through general encouragement, but also practical advice. Keep up the good work!