How I Came To Write A Trilogy Without Even Trying, by Michael Stutz

Hello again, campers —

Welcome back to our ongoing Series Series! No, that’s not a typo, as those of you joining us late just thought very loudly indeed: all last weekend, through this week, and into next weekend, I have been, am, and shall continue to invite some of the hardest-working, most creatively-interesting authors I know to talk about the ins and outs of writing a series.

Today’s guest post is very dear to my community-minded heart: it comes to us from a longtime member of the Author! Author! community, the incisive and lyrical literary novelist, Michael Stutz, author of a beautifully-crafted 2011 debut Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume I. In one of those delightful twists of publishing fate that has only become possible due to the explosion of the Internet and the concomitant diversification of publishing, he’s also recently become the proud author of his second literary novel, Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume II. And I have it on pretty good authority that this third book, entitled — wait for it — Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume III will be coming out this summer.

That’s right, those of you who just turned a bright, minty green with envy: it’s literary fiction; it’s a trilogy; all three parts are coming out essentially at once. You literary fiction aficionados are going to want to hear what he has to say, and pronto.

Especially if you happen to be one of the many, many literary novelists chafing against length restrictions. But perhaps I have already said too much.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to set up proper suspense. What Michael has to say on the subject is so delightful — and, I suspect will be so helpfully inspiring (and possibly even inspiringly helpful) to those of you agonizing on how to meet the prevailing expectations for first novel length that I would not dream of spoiling the surprise.

Before I back swiftly off the stage and allow Michael to step to the podium, though, I’d like to introduce him via any writer’s best calling card, his writing. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for his first novel, available, appropriately enough for a story of the ‘Net era, not only in trade paper and as a Kindle download, but also in preview form.

VOLUME ONE of the CIRCUITS OF THE WIND trilogy follows a young Raymond from his ’70s childhood — and first gropings with the telephone — to the home computers and bulletin boards of the ’80s, where he leads a double life as a wanderer of the wires. But when even his virtual best friend unplugs, Raymond might have to leave it, too — because isn’t real life supposed to be offline?

Not your garden-variety literary fiction subject matter, is it? Possibly because Michael honed his craft across a variety of writing categories: starting out as a journalist, he’s also published steampunk short stories, memoir, and short-shorts. (Yes, yes, I know: all of you literary fiction writers are clamoring for insights into carrying a literary voice across venues. Levi Asher recently did such a nice interview on the subject with Michael on Literary Kicks, however, that I’m reluctant to tread the same ground here.)

I find the result a pretty potent blend — but again, as literary fiction is the book category for which it is most true that any sane person should let the writing speak for itself, I’m all for letting Michael get on with doing so toute suite. I’m not averse, however, to letting a few reviewers speak for him:

“A link to the entire world may blind you to the world. Circuits of the Wind is the story of Ray Valentine, who became hooked to the Internet in its infancy, and found his adulthood there. A coming of age tale of the early internet and the impact on an unsuspecting world, Circuits of the Wind provides a very human story set on a backdrop of technology few truly understand, very much recommended.”

Midwest Book Review’s Small Press Bookwatch

“Lyrical and moving, Circuits of the Wind ranges from the nightmarishly detached to the passionately connected. Stutz understands that no matter how many hours we spend alone before our computer screens, we’re still what we’ve always been: desperate human beings longing for acclaim, achievement, friendship, and ultimately,
love.”

Tony D’Souza, author of Whiteman,
The Konkans, and Mule

“As is with the breed of fine American writers, the capacity to dream and hope is as much apart of the writer’s genetic makeup as it is of the literary tradition itself. The desire to reach the unfathomable has always been at the epicentre of the American dream, firmly passing away with the emergence of Modernism.

Michael Stutz introduces us to the Virtual American Dream, a world that exists solely through currents, circuits and waves, but is more alive and teeming with activity than you can ever imagine…Stutz writes with a grandness that exceeds the deadpan expectations that are associated with his generation of writers…The current his boat is against is now the electrical pulse that continues to evolve beyond our human control, showing how we are forever ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’”

Kilimanjaro magazine

That Fitzgerald reference is not entirely coincidental: Michael’s narrative rhythm, a strong heartbeat pulsing through the novel, actually is, in the overworked critical phrase, rather reminiscent of THE GREAT GATSBY. See if you can hear the music in the book’s opening lines:

To know the legend of a world that has been lost, first you must go back. To even catch a meagre glimpse at any cost, first you must go back. You have to take the bow of history, pull it back, project yourself onto an orbic stage with phantom cast; then you will be back.

Not hearing it yet? Okay, here’s the opening to the next chapter:

He knew the telephone early. Where there had once been indifference, when first he’d only noted just an olive-colored blemish on the wall, soon came recognition and finally even curiosity. In time the thing took on great significance.

Pretty distinctive, is it not? And that’s speaking as a jaded professional reader. (Which enables me to point out something that those of us that read for a living have often remarked about first novels: did you notice how many times the term first appeared in those two excerpts? That’s one of the charming, unconscious ways that new writers tend to announce without meaning to that they are approaching the literary world with fresh eyes.)

That driving rhythm and sophisticated narrative touch carry over into Volume II — as you may see for yourself in this preview, or, for those of you better able to commit, in trade paper or as a Kindle download. Or, if you’re in a hurry, you could just read the publisher’s blurb:

In VOLUME TWO of the CIRCUITS OF THE WIND trilogy, the net arrives all glimmering when Ray is starting college: it’s brighter, quicker, better than he ever knew. It’s the early 1990s — a time of golden youth and of joyriding on the growing Internet, where he rises as a leader of the global generation, the ones who saw it as the gilded portal to a fabulous new age everyone was about to enter. But he’s coasting aimlessly — and when his college friends move on and fashions change he sees how real life actually might not be working out.

With no further ado, then, please join me in welcoming one of our own made very good indeed. Take it away, Michael!

Conceiving, writing, refining, and seeing a book — or a series of them — through to publication is laborious and discouraging and hard. What I’ve learned is that if a part of that process isn’t working, you can’t let yourself lock up. What you can’t lose is time. You have to keep moving, try something different, and not be afraid to experiment. Experiments always yield results. They may not be the expected ones, they may be mystifying, or may even appear stupidly obvious, but there will be some kind of outcome — and they have a way of helping you find your way out when you are stuck.

It happened to me when Circuits of the Wind became a trilogy, because it was not originally planned to be one. Technically, it’s still a unified and single work. But as an undivided novel, yes, by current standards, it’s a bit long — I think it’s about 20,000 words longer than The Corrections. The length had been an issue, even as I knew that some books are double that size, or bigger, yet it seemed to be the way I do things; immediately before this I’d written a book five times as long.

Fortunately, there was a way out of this — it turned out to be a matter of possibility. Circuits of the Wind is being published serially in three volumes: Volume 1 came out late last year, Volume 2 has just been published now, and Volume 3 should arrive some time this summer.

Dividing the novel into multiple books for serial publication is not how I’d initially planned it. I hadn’t considered it even when I was urged to try it. I’d never thought of myself as a series author or an author of “trilogies” — and yet, thinking of it now, in some way the germ of it was always there: I’ve always felt that my work fits tightly together as a single legend, the books all interconnected. I like the idea of weaving all the characters and episodes and scenes together through my books, and I see all of my eventual stories as part of an interconnected world.

But the story of how Circuits of the Wind became a trilogy really begins late in the game, when I had already finished it and was trying to sell it.

I was living in a little bungalow at the time, tucked away in an obscure corner of the nation, far from most everything that was going on — this was the house I’d found myself in not long after escaping college, and despite the love that visitors would give it, telling me constantly how they thought it was so comforting and quaint, and with such a warm inviting rustic air, I didn’t like it at all. In fact I deplored it — the neutralizing 90s “updates” of the previous owner, the backwater location far away from the pulse of the world, the weird layout all constantly got to me.

(My feelings on this have since mellowed: that little town now feels inviting and homey when I’m passing through it, and the townies I knew from back in the day all have kids now but are still happily leading their wooded-lot lives with nights under the fluorescent yellows of the roadside bar, and I see that from the road that house does hold a kind of warmth and agrestic quaintness.)

But even back then I’d admit to anyone that the place had a few great benefits — the first being proximity to airport and highway.

What it also gave, and which was best of all, was a quiet place in which to work. The house was built at the edge of an enchanted wood, where the stone wall of an ancient footbridge lay sunken, broke-backed, into the ditch, and through the daylight hours there would be the varied song and call of many birds.

I had a workroom in the back corner of the house, tiny as a cell, with the same bare, pearl-white walls as the rest of the place. A window overlooked the woods. It had new carpet. This was the perfect place for me to spend my days in work.

The other propitious asset of the place was the neighbor, a bookish retired woman who spent her days reading, talking on the phone and gardening — but mostly reading. She was aware of my work and struggles.

When I’d begun sending out the completed manuscript, I told her about my new dilemma: according to all the rules, first novels “had to be” between about 80,000 and 120,000 words. Anything more was seriously pushing it even for an established novelist, and something nearly three times that length was not so much pushing it anymore as it was thrusting it off in jet-fueled insanity.

She spoke before I was finished with my breath: “Can’t you cut it up into a trilogy? Can’t you make a series out of it?”

I laughed, agreed that at least then I’d have three normal-sized books, but I admit that I didn’t consider it in the least. Trilogies? Series books? That’s genre fiction: bodice-rippers, medieval fantasies, dystopian sci-fi epics, vampire sagas, grisly detective thrillers. They all had their successful trilogies and series books, but my book didn’t fit in with any of those genres or worlds. I was writing something else, what I thought of as mainstream literary fiction — reality fiction — so I shut the door on the idea and didn’t allow myself to even consider it.

It seemed plain that I was right — the world of contemporary literary fiction, at least, didn’t have a place for plot-centered trilogies or series books. And at the time I was latching onto the “literary fiction” tag pretty hard, not out of any special community or bond but because I was attempting to create something outside of those other genres, something that wasn’t in vogue at all. I couldn’t point to another current book as a good concrete example of what I was trying to do; I just knew that it was exactly the kind of book that I desperately wanted to read.

I kept the faith with it, but it eventually turned out that my former neighbor was much more right than I had thought, and it took the help of another friend to see that and to make me realize what I had been doing wrong.

He’s an interesting character, an American slacker archetype: in his twenties he’d lived in New York and LA, dated the daughter of a famous Beat figure, hung out with punk bands and cult filmmakers, seemed to have connections to everyone, he always knew about everything. And then what he chose to do when settling down into his thirties was incredible: he moved to a groggy coastal resort town — one of those places with a picturesque little harbor, a walkable Main Street of tiny boutiques, miles of cottages surrounding it, and brochures on the interstate to let you know which exit to take so that you don’t miss it. He went out there and took a job as the night clerk at the tiny Dari Mart at the far edge of town.

He spends his time on the net, still learning about everything, posting on forums, and he’s always reading a book. Every time I find myself out there, I’ll step into the Dari Mart to pick something up and it ends up being four hours before I walk back out the door. I imagine how the store security cameras record us having these big literary conversations all night, trading references and links across the counter while meanwhile the cottagers are streaming in and out for their smokes and six packs.

One night over a year ago I was telling him about my then-current struggle with the book — how the length had been constantly a dealbreaker, and yet how on the other hand it was structured so symphonically that the entire movement of the book fit into a tight, planned scheme from the first word to the last.

He didn’t even blink. “It’s a trilogy.”

“What?”

“A trilogy. You’ve got a trilogy. You’ve got to cut it up into three separate books. It’s all there.”

As soon as he said that, I thought back to where I used to live, and remembered the advice of my former neighbor who had then just passed away, and I realized how completely dense I’d been: I’d been so adamant to say that no, of course this wasn’t genre work, it had to come out as one big fat literary doorstopper (with deckled edge and dust jacket, naturally, and no trade paperback at all), that I failed to see exactly where I could go, or what I was doing wrong.

The dust jacket and the deckled edge were not important — getting the story out and in front of appreciative readers was the important thing, and I’d lost sight of that. Once I had that realization, everything went easy. Or no — it was still hard, and the road was still long and lonesome, but I was finally moving forward once again.

After I became willing to cut the book into volumes, I’d also realized that many works of literature had been published like that, works that had even influenced me and were in the same vein I’d been writing in, and in fact were even — d’oh! — by some of my favorite authors!

I’m talking about Honoré de Balzac, certainly, and Marcel Proust, and Henry Fielding, and Compton Mackenzie, and even (in some paperback editions) the best of Thomas Wolfe.

The chapters of Circuits of the Wind had been arranged into titled sections called “books,” six total plus an epilogue, and I’d kept looking at them and not seeing the greater structure. I’d wondered with some dismay at first whether I’d have to remove these “books” and find some other points to divide it.

It actually turned out to be much simpler than that. In the process of “serializing” it, no changes were made to the manuscript at all — it was simply cut into three neat sections, but kept exactly as it had been written.

I saw that those “books” clustered into three main movements of the story — each even has its own voice and inflection, its own time granularity and theme. You have the first hunk, which is the hero’s childhood through to the end of high school, and then comes the quick chaotic rush of his college years, and finally it ends with the first several years in the work world; all of these periods in the hero’s life also coincide perfectly with major periods in the life of the net: the ancient days of home computers, the fever of the early UNIX-based net, and then the huge dialup dot-com explosion of the Web. The volumes reflect and complement each other perfectly, and if you omit the final epilogue they might even function as standalone works.

When I saw that, and realized what I had, the manuscript broke into three piles almost with the sudden force and guidance of an outside power: it was like the parting of the Red Sea. And then getting through it was a cakewalk.

MICHAEL STUTZ coined the phrase “net generation” while working as a reporter for Wired News — and in the early 1990s kicked off the Wikipedia era by being the first to take “open source” beyond software. He lives in Space Age Central, the former home of the NASA rocket scientist who planned the Apollo Project.

Pitchingpalooza, part VII: identifying why precisely the world needs YOUR book, as opposed to any other, or, how to make it plain to even Mr. Magoo what you’re holding out to him

mr-magoo-in-danger

Yesterday, I ran into a local author who drops by Author! Author! on a fairly regular basis. Appropriately enough, I bumped into him in a bookstore. “I loved your latest blog,” Jack told me, chuckling. “You really made the poor souls who hear pitches sound out-of-touch with reality.” Since it has been his considered professional opinion for years that the version of reality as understood by the business side of writing and the version in which the rest of us live have little in common but a shared respect for the force of gravity, he was, he said, pretty psyched to forward the link to that post to half of the writers he knew. “You get ‘em, tiger!”

Tiger wasn’t entirely pleased to hear this reaction. It was flattering, of course. Except that view of pitch-hearers had not been precisely what I’d been trying to convey in my last post.

For those of you who missed it, I devoted part of it to the concept of a niche market, the publishing industry’s term for a target readership that really isn’t big enough to buy significant numbers of books. Agents tend to be leery of manuscripts that they think will appeal to only a niche market, since the book sales are unlikely to yield much in the way of commission.

Lest we forget, few agencies are non-profit organizations, at least intentionally. Contrary to what far too many aspiring writers believe, the business of selling art is in fact a business, not a charitable enterprise devoted to seeking out and publishing the best writing currently occupying the world’s computers. An agent or editor at a writers’ conference is looking for projects that he believes she can sell.

So when an agent dismisses a pitch with an airy, “Oh, that will only appeal to a niche market,” she’s not saying that it’s a bad idea for a book; she’s saying that it would be difficult for her to convince an editor at a major publishing house that there are very many readers out there who will spot it on a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it to the cash register.

See the difference? I hope so, because understanding that subtle distinction can often mean ending a pitch meeting on a cordial note, rather than with the writer weeping into the hallway, feeling as though he’s just been told his book concept is terrible and no one in his right mind would want to read his book.

To be clear, being dismissed as having only niche appeal is most emphatically not a comment on the book concept’s quality. It’s not even the same as saying the book won’t sell well. A book that appeals to a niche market does actually have a recognizable audience; it’s merely a smaller audience than the agent is hoping her clients will serve.

That in turn will usually make it harder for the agent to sell it to an editor, unless that editor and publishing house already have a track record selling to that particular niche market. Even if they do, the initial print run is probably going to be small — and since the advance is typically calculated as a function of the size of the initial print run, that generally adds up to a relatively small sale. And since reputable agents make their livings solely by taking a percentage of their clients’ sales…

So if you chose to hear, “Oh, that will only appeal to a niche market,” as “Oh, I don’t think I can make any money on that,” no one could blame you. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you should take either to mean that your book doesn’t have significant market appeal — or that it’s not worth your while to keep pitching and querying it.

Why not? Well, as I mentioned last time, though, sometimes agents and editors are wrong about a book concept’s having only niche market appeal. Sometimes, that belief springs from a pro’s having handled a similar project recently that flopped; sometimes, it’s a function of having taken on a book like yours and broken his heart by not being able to sell it; sometimes, it’s a matter of not being psychic enough to know what will be the hot seller next year. But sometimes, he just isn’t aware of how many potential readers there are for a certain subject.

And sometimes, it must be said, their conceptions of particular demographics are years or even decades out of date. “Soccer?” they scoff, wrinkling their collective noses. “Nobody in the United States is interested in that.

Except, of course, for the 18.2 million Americans who played soccer at least once in 1998. (Speaking of outdated statistics; it just happened to be the one I had at my fingertips, but it’s really too old to be of much use in a pitch or query letter. Do as I say, not as I do: try to stick to statistics generated within the last five years. )

Because the person to whom you will be pitching will not necessarily be an expert on your subject matter, it’s a really, really good idea to do a bit of homework on your target demographic before walking into a pitch appointment, so you may point out — politely and preemptively — just how immense it actually is. However, please do not fall into the same trap that Jack did: don’t automatically assume that any agent or editor unfamiliar with your subject matter is out-of-touch or –as all too many conference-goers are apt to conclude — just not very bright.

Actually, the opposite is usually true — both agencies and publishing houses tend to attract genuinely smart people. Very smart English majors, typically.

See why they might not as a group know much about soccer? Or model train-building? Or lion-taming? Or how many Americans are currently supporting a loved one battling cancer?

That’s likely to be true, incidentally, even if there are quite lot of books on the market on any of these subjects right now. Remember, no agent or editor works with every kind of book; no agency professes to cover the entire literary marketplace, for the exceedingly simple reason that it would be impossible. They are specialists, and once a writer lands a contract with them, that’s good for everybody. However, one side effect of that praiseworthy concentration on a particular type of book can be myopia.

And I’m not just talking about needing to wear glasses because they read too much, if you catch my drift.

Before anyone out there starts feeling superior about her own far-ranging reading habits, let’s put that particular stripe of myopia in perspective: hands up, everyone who is an expert in a whole lot of subjects that don’t interest him.

Oh, you may laugh, but most pitchers’ expectations about their hearers’ interests are both unrealistic and unfair. In the world outside the publishing industry, we don’t generally expect a pipelayer to be conversant with the ins and outs of oral surgery, or an oral surgeon to know much about floral arrangement, or a florist to be an expert in particle physics. Yet at conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are shocked to discover that agents and editors aren’t all that up on the subject matters of their particular books.

Go figure. If it makes you feel better about having to go to the trouble to prove just how many potential readers are demonstrably interested in the subject matter of your book, pretend that you are going to be pitching to an optometrist, not an agent. (Unless your book happens to be intimately concerned with the workings of the eye, that is.)

One more reason that it would behoove you to compile a few statistics before you write your pitch or query: any number in the hundreds of thousands or millions will jump out at the hearer, a serious advantage when addressing an agent or editor suffering from pitch fatigue, that mind-numbing species of tiredness that stems from hearing pitch after pitch several days in a row.

Heck, even your fellow conference attendees may start to succumb by the last day of the conference. After the tenth response to, “So what do you write?” even rather dissimilar books can start to sound sort of the same.

Let’s face it, tired people in any profession tend to be rather poor listeners. Actually, if my recent odyssey through the medical establishment is any indication, many perfectly alert people are lousy listeners.

“Which knee was it again?” I have been asked countless times.

In a medical office as well as a pitch meeting, sarcasm is the least effective way to deal with inattentiveness. No matter how tempting it may be to say, “Gee, Sherlock, do you think it could it be the one in the meter-long brace?” the way to win friends and influence people is generally to pretend with all of one’s might that one has never heard that particular question before.

Oh, you may laugh now. You will thank me, however, when you step into an agent’s seventh pitch meeting of the day and find yourself asked by a weary listener, “So this is a mystery, right?” after you have just spent five minutes describing a plot containing fifteen grisly murders, a vivid description of a detective’s frantic search for the killer, and a blow-by-blow of a suspense-filled trial of the wrong man. Instead of blurting out, “Weren’t you listening? I spent six years writing this thing!” you will know to say politely, “Why, yes, it is a mystery.”

Leave it at that. Your mother will be proud of your nice manners, and so will I.

Because it is so very easy for even the most intelligent, market-savvy, and demographically-minded of pitch-hearers to succumb to pitch fatigue, it is in your best interest to make it as easy as possible for the exhausted (or, in the case of a query, for a bleary-eyed agency screener) to see the huge market appeal of your book concept. The best way by far: quantify it.

Yes, I am talking actual digits here. Because anything above half a percent of the US population will translate into some pretty significant numbers, you should use the concrete sums, wherever possible. Statistics are easier to dismiss. Besides, citing the numbers rather than the percentages allows for the possibility that your listener might not be up on the latest headcounts of the citizenry.

Oh, you don’t think that might be a problem? Quick, what’s the population of the US?

According to the US census’ population clock a moment ago, the answer was 311,836,375. How can you make that number work for you? Well, if you happened to be writing a ghost story, you might be thinking of bringing up in your pitch that oft-cited statistic that 1 in 3 Americans believes in ghosts, and thus might arguably be predisposed to be interested in your book.

You could state it that way, of course, and sound like every other pitcher aware of that particular survey. It is indeed an impressive percentage — if you happen to know how many people there are currently residing within the nation’s borders. Do you really want to predicate your pitch on the assumption that your hearer will be (a) aware of the size of the population, (b) able to do long division in his head, and (c) not too groggy to perform (b) correctly?

“That’s a lot of people,” the pitch-fatigued pro murmurs, rubbing his aching forehead; those fluorescent lights in conference centers have been known to trigger migraines. “Keep on talking — I’m just going to chug this entire carafe of coffee.”

In the blink of a bloodshot eye, what should have been a show-stopping statistic falls by the wayside. Let’s try another means of incorporating it into the pitch, to see if we can render it a trifle more memorable.

One-third of 311,836,375 is 103,945,458. Let’s assume for the moment that the ghost survey is correct (and it may no longer be; it was conducted quite some time ago). Let’s also set aside the undeniable fact that no survey actually covers the entire population (just try to elicit a baby’s opinions on the debt ceiling) and ignore what any sociologist would happily tell you, that how a question is asked can have a profound effect on the answer. (“Do you believe in ghosts?” would undoubtedly provoke a different response than simply screaming, “AAAAGH! Behind you! Is that a ghost?” and counting everyone who turned around as a believer.) Let’s proceed, in short, as if this statistic were 100% reliable.

You are going to be stressed out when you pitch, though, right? I’m guessing that you will not want to rely upon your recall of a nine-digit number. So what easy-to-remember alternative might you try? How about this: “Over a hundred million Americans believe in ghosts, and there are surprisingly few realistic ghost stories currently on the market.”

You could also say, “33% of the population might arguably be predisposed to be interested in my subject matter,” but that’s not nearly as impressive. Trust me on this one: to a former English major, 103.9 million people is going to sound a heck of a lot larger than a third of the population.

Now that I have you all excited about figuring out just how big your target market could possibly be, I suppose I should throw a bucket of cold water on the proceedings by pointing out that nobody in the publishing industry will seriously believe that 103.9 million Americans will actually rush out and buy every ghost book on the market. The last time I checked, the entire Harry Potter series collectively had accounted for only 450 million sales worldwide, and that’s counting the translations into 67 languages.

Hold it right there — you were fantasizing about a hundred million people buying three copies of your book each, were you not? I hope for your sake that turns out to be the case, but to an agent or editor, that kind of expectation is just going to sound like wishful thinking.

You don’t need to argue that all of those 103.9 million will buy your book — just that as a group, they will be predisposed to be interested in a ghost story. Trust the intelligence of the pitch hearer to be able to conclude that if even a tiny fraction of the believers in ghosts act upon that initial interest, you could have a runaway bestseller on your hands.

Was that blinding flash an indication that light bulbs are appearing over my readers’ heads? “But Anne,” some of you newly-eager book marketers exclaim, “how do I get those millions of people to act upon that wholly admirable impulse to buy my book even once? Or, if that’s jumping the gun at this juncture, how do I convince the agent or editor to whom I happen to be pitching at the moment that my book has a genuine shot at attracting a hefty percentage of those potential readers?

Glad you asked, gun-jumpers. Let’s talk about something pitching classes very seldom address, identifying a book’s selling points.

Oh, stop groaning; this is going to make you feel better about your book’s chances. Over the next couple of days, I’m going to be asking you to work on developing a list of selling points for the book you are planning to pitch or query. Specifically, I’m going to ask you to prepare a page’s worth of single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that would render the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread to the right reader.

Why bullet-pointed, rather than paragraphs, you ask? So you can retrieve precisely the piece of information you need at any given moment of a pitch, without fumbling for it. Even if sweat is pouring down your face into your eyes and your heart is palpitating, you will be able to sound professional.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, so you won’t forget any of the reasons that your book will appeal to readers, even if you should happen — heaven forbid!– to have a panic attack during your pitch appointment.

I can sense that some of you who have attended pitching classes are feeling a trifle skeptical about this suggestion. “Yeah, right, Anne,” these already-instructed few are scoffing, “I should put in still more effort into preparing to prepare to write my pitch. If having selling points at the ready is so darned useful, why doesn’t every pitching teacher out there advise it? Or why isn’t doesn’t that list pop up in every how-to for writing a good query letter? Isn’t this in fact just another manifestation of your overwhelming ongoing desire to have all of us over-prepare for approaching agents and editors so that the Author! Author! community takes the literary world by storm and we can all sit around celebrating together? Wait — what was my objection again?”

Frankly, I don’t have any idea why other pitching teachers don’t recommend this, because in my experience, taking the time to prepare such a list works very well as a tool for improving pretty much any pitch, query, or book proposal. In fact, I generally recommend to my nonfiction-writing clients that they include a bulleted list of selling points in their proposals. True, it’s unusual to include, but both times I’ve sold nonfiction books, the editors have raved about how much they wished every proposer would include a similar page. Both times, the agent in question found her/himself reaching for that page while talking about the books on the phone.

Think of it this way: a well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes. And whose manuscript couldn’t benefit from a little good P.R.?

But to be clear: a list of selling points is not something you absolutely need to prepare before you pitch or query; it’s merely a spectacularly good idea. It’s unlikely to the point of hilarity, though, that an agent is going to look at you expectantly as soon as you walk into a pitch meeting and say, “Well? Where’s your list of selling points?”

Unless, of course, you happen to be pitching to an agent who habitually reads this blog — or did when she was a Millicent. I hear from readers in all walks of life.

But I digress. Even if you are not planning to pitch, query, or propose anytime soon, it is still worth your time to constructing a list of selling points for your book. Heck, it’s even worth doing if you are still in the throes of writing the book: the exercise forces you to picture your ideal reader and her reading preferences.

Another fringe benefit: pulling together such a document forces you to come up with specific reasons that an agent or editor should be interested in your book. Other than, of course, the fact that you wrote it.

I’m only partially kidding about that last point. Nonfiction writers accept it as a matter of course that they are going to need to explain explicitly why the book is marketable and why precisely they are the best people in the known universe to write it — that mysterious entity called platform. These are specific elements in a standard nonfiction book proposal, even.

Yet ask your garden-variety fiction writer why his book will interest readers, let alone the publishing industry, and 9 times out of 10, he will act insulted. Why the discrepancy? As I mentioned earlier in this series, a lot of writers, perhaps even the majority, do not seem to give a great deal of thought to why the publishing industry might be excited about their particular book, as opposed to any other.

Interestingly, though, many do seem to have thought long and hard about why the industry might NOT want to pick it up. As a battle-scarred pitching coach and veteran of more writers’ conferences than readily come to mind, I cannot even begin to tote up how many pitches I’ve heard that began with a three-minute description of every rejection the book has ever received.

Sometimes, tears accompany these accounts. “…and after getting rejected 17 lines, I had more or less given up on the book, but then I thought I would try one last query. When the agent asked for pages, I got so excited that I sent out the requested pages by overnight mail, so they would get there before the agent changed her mind, and then I waited eight months! Eight! All that time, I didn’t want to send out any more queries, just in case this agent wanted my book. So by the time she wrote and said that she just didn’t think she could sell it in the current market, I barely had the energy to completely rewrite the thing before sending out another flotilla of queries. But since 18 agents have said that the book is no good…”

Stop. Take a deep breath. In the first place, submissions get rejected for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with whether the writing is any good. So do queries, and so do pitches. (In fact, rejections based upon last two cannot possibly be reflection of the book’s writing, unless the agency’s submission requirements asked you to send a few pages or the agent asked on the spot to see a writing sample.) In the second place, no one who handles manuscripts for a living seriously believes anymore that the number of times a book has been rejected is a particularly good predictor of what will happen with its next pitch or query.

And third, complaining about your rejection history is what your fellow writers are for; cultivate them, for only they will understand the pain of a rejection completely. When discussing your work with the pros, the last thing on earth you should mention is how difficult the submission process has been for you emotionally. This is not a therapy session. It may seem harmless enough, venting to a seemingly sympathetic stranger, but remember, you are in a pitch meeting in order to try to convince the agent or editor in front of you that you are a serious writer, one whose professional future she should take seriously. A tearful or resentful writer who would apparently rather waste time complaining than discussing his book is, while hardly uncommon, is more likely to be remembered for histrionics than for even the most brilliantly-conceived storyline.

Yet conference after conference, pitchers get so worked up over having to talk about their books that they flat-out forget why they are there. Especially if the agent in question happens to be nice to them; it’s very, very common to mistake a sympathetic listener for a potential friend. Let the jabbering begin!

On second thought, let’s not. Not only will constructing a list help you avoid the pitfall of getting off track– it will also aid you in steering clear of the sweeping generalizations writers tend to pull out of their back pockets when agents and editors ask follow-up questions.

Did that gigantic gulping sound I just heard ripping across the cosmos indicate a certain level of surprise? “Follow-up questions?” the timorous quaver. “You mean that in addition to gasping out a pitch, I have to have enough brain power handy to answer FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS? I always thought that the agent or editor just listened to the pitch, said yes or no, and that was that.”

Actually, it’s rarely that simile — at least, not if the agent or editor likes what s/he heard you say. As in ordinary conversation, follow-up questions after a pitch are an indicator of the hearer’s interest in what’s being discussed. It’s a good sign. So you might want to be prepared for the agent of your dreams to ask something like, “Okay, why do you think this story will appeal to readers?”

Stop hyperventilating. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and by the time we finish this series, you will be prepared — nay, happy — to answer it.

But you will have to make active preparations, I’m afraid. What most pitchers do when caught off-guard by such a question is either to start making wild assertions like, “This book will appeal to everyone who’s ever had a mother!” or “Every reader of horror will find this a page-turner!” OR to hear the question as a critique of the book they’re pitching.

“Oh, I guess you’re right — no one will be interested,” these poor souls mutter, backing away from the bewildered agent. “Please forgive me for taking up your time.”

Neither course will serve you. As I mentioned the other day, agents and editors tend to zone out on inflated claims about a novel’s utility to humanity in general — although if your book actually can achieve world peace, by all means mention it — or boasts that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine). A writer’s having thought in advance about what realistic claims s/he can legitimately make about why readers might like the book thus enjoys a significant advantage on the pitching floor.

The pros also tend, like most people, to equate a writer’s apparent lack of faith in her own work with the manuscript’s not being ready for the slings and arrows of the marketplace. That’s not always a fair assessment, of course, but since the very premise of verbal pitching is the certainly debatable contention that someone who can write well will necessarily be able to talk about it well — and in publishing-friendly terms, too — you can’t really blame an agent for advising a writer barely able to stammer out a sentence to try again at next year’s conference.

The selling point sheet helps keep you from panicking in the moment; think of it as pitch insurance. Even if you draw a blank three sentences into your pitch, all you will have to do is look down, and presto! A list of concrete facts about you and your book. Who was the clever soul forward-thinking enough to provide you with that?

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there muttering. “What is this list, a Ginzu knife? Can it rip apart a cardboard box, too, and still remain sharp enough to slice a mushy tomato?”

Doubt if you like, scoffers, but his handy little document has more uses than duct tape — which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts. How handy, you ask? Well, for starters:

1. You can have it by your side during a pitch, to remind yourself why your book will appeal to its target market. (Hey, even the best of us are prone to last-minute qualms about our own excellence.)

2. You can use it as a guideline for the “Why I am uniquely qualified to write this book?” section of your query letter. (If you don’t know why you might want to include this section, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right before you write your next.)

3. You can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements at a glance. (My memoir’s agent liked the one I included in my proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.)

4. You can tuck it into a submission packet, as a door prize for the agency screener charged with the merry task of reading your entire book and figuring it out whether it is marketable.

5. Your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors.

6. An editor who wants to acquire your book can use the information on it both to fill out the publishing house’s Title Information Sheet and to present your book’s strengths in editorial meetings.

Okay, let’s assume that I’ve convinced you that pulling together this list is a good idea. (Just ignore the muffled screams in the background. People who can’t wait until the end of a post to register objections deserve to be gagged, don’t you find?) What might you include on it?

Well, for starters, the names of similar books that have sold well (along with some indication of why your book is different, better, and will appeal to the same demographic), your past publications, credentials, trends, statistics, high points in your background — anything that will make it easier for your agent to market your book.

Why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story? Or to put it as the nonfiction agents do: what’s your platform? Why will people want to read this book, as opposed to what is already on the market? What does the book or you as a human being offer to readers that no other document or author does?

Those of you wise to the ways of the industry are probably already thinking: oh, she means I should list the items on my writing résumé. (And for those of you who do not know, a writing résumé is the list of professional credentials — publications, speaking experience, relevant degrees, etc. — that career-minded writers carefully accrue over the years in order to make their work more marketable. For tips on how to build one from scratch, please see the aptly-named BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category at right.)

Include these points, by all means, but I would like to see your list be broader still. Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

So it’s time for a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session. Think back to your target market (see the posts of the last two days). Why will your book appeal to that market better than other books? Why does the world NEED this book?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to the agent or editor is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

I hear all of you literary fiction writers out there groaning. It would be in your best interest to give some thought to this point, too. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So why will your novel’s subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic? What qualities or life experiences might those readers share, other than a laudable propensity to curl up with a good book?

Try thinking of the book as though someone else wrote it; what might you tell someone else about a book you really loved? If you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince her to schedule the author for an interview?

No need to write pages and pages of justification on each point — a single sentence on each will serve you best here. Remember, the function of this list is ease of use, both for you and for those who will deal with your book in future. Keep it brief, but do make sure that you make it clear why each point is important.

Possible bullet points include (and please note, none of my examples are true; I feel a little silly pointing that out, but I don’t want to find these little tidbits being reported as scandalous factoids in the years to come):

(1) Experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of a nonfiction platform, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book.

Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years. He is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara fourth wedding bouquets.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a fiction writer: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts. Some possible examples:

Audrey Hepburn has a doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on things that go boom.

Charlton Heston holds an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage.

Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, providing the basis for her protagonist’s skill in murderously wielding a scalpel.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work or volunteer efforts, this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

The honor need not be related to your book’s subject matter, though; the point is that there are already people out there who consider you wonderful enough to be recognized for it. At least some of them will buy your book. Some possible examples:

Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Another good one from the standard platform list. If you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, even if it is off-topic. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, definitely bring that up.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. (If you don’t know why, I assign you the interesting homework of attending any five randomly-selected author readings. You’d be astonished at how many people have a hard time reading out loud.) If you have done a public readings of your work, include that, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all. (Which quite possibly explains the phenomenon I described in my last parenthetical aside.)

Some possible examples:

Paris Hilton writes a regular column on hog-wrangling for FARM JOURNAL.

Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, Speak Up! I Can’t Hear You! has drawn crowds for years on six continents.

I feel some of you tensing up out there, but never fear: if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instance. There are plenty of other possible selling points for your book — but of that array, more follows next time.

In the meantime, keep brainstorming about your book’s selling points — and keep up the good work!

Finding your voice, part III, or, this is no time to make a carbon copy

For the last couple of posts, we’ve been obsessing on the subject of narrative voice. Yesterday, I advanced a modest proposal: it was more to your advantage as an aspiring writer to revise your manuscript with an eye to making it sound like your writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire.

And jaws dropped to the floor all over North America. Apparently, this approach to literary success was something of a novelty to a lot of you.

Or perhaps you were merely surprised that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would want to talk about individual literary voice. In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Indeed, in many writers’ fora and at many conferences, the prevailing advice seems to veer away from it: although most of us who write cherish our original voices, pick any four writers’ conference attendees at random, and three of them will swear that they’ve just heard at least one agent or editor say point-blank that the surest path to literary success is not to wow the world with a fresh new voice or innovative story, but to produce a narrative close enough to a currently established author’s that it could easily be marketed to the same audience.

From the publishing world’s perspective, this is just common sense: figuring out who your target reader is, what s/he is reading right now, and what s/he likes best about it is not only a great way to come up with tweaks to render your work-in-progress more marketable, but also a fabulous means of coming up with a list of agents to query. Think about it: an agent has already established a solid track record of representing books in your chosen category that sales records prove appeal to your ideal readership is far, far more likely to be interested in your work than an agent who habitually represents, well, anything else.

But that’s not what 99% of aspiring writers hear in this advice, is it? Ask any one of those three out of four conference attendees: they have derived the impression that their manuscripts are supposed to sound as if they had been written by someone else.

To be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list. According to this theory, all any agent wants to see is a slightly modified retelling of what’s already available on the market. Or so we must surmise from the tens of thousands of YA queries and submissions in recent years for stories that sound suspiciously like something in the TWILIGHT series.

This erroneous belief does not merely affect what’s submitted to agencies; it can have serious repercussions at the revision stage. Rather than approaching their submissions with the intent of sharpening individual voice, many aspiring writers assume that their narratives should sound less like them. Revision, then, becomes a matter of looking at one’s pages, comparing them to a similar bestseller, and attempting to minimize the difference.

See the problem? These writers are setting their sights far too low. They’re also setting them far too late.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And Sally sells seashells by the seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. Provided, of course, that the voice in question is a good fit for the project at hand.

And then there’s the logistical problem: it takes a while to write a novel; by the time a copycat manuscript is complete. Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a manuscript to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually at least a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. Often more like two.

Why is that problematic, in practical terms? Well, chances are, the market will have moved on by then. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice or story will be sought-after several years hence.

In fact, what was selling like the proverbial hotcakes a couple of years back often, if it landed on Millicent the agency screener’s desk today, just seem hackneyed, if not downright derivative. “That’s been done,” Millicent murmurs, moving on to the next submission. “What makes this writer think that there are still editors clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, HARRY POTTER, or even THE DA VINCI CODE? Copycats of these bestsellers have inundated agencies for years now. What I’m looking for is a fresh take on a story I know my boss can sell, written in a voice that will appeal to the already-established readership in that book category.”

That’s not an unreasonable request, Millie — but imagine how difficult it would be for an aspiring writer to be simultaneously trying to write like a surprise bestseller’s author and to get a completed manuscript ready to market before that bestseller has ended its love affair with the reading public. Even if an offbeat hit has an unusually long run — vampire vs. werewolf romance, anyone? — unless an aspiring writer had already been working on a similar book project when the sleeper hits the New York Times bestseller lists, it’s likely that by the time the copycat manuscript is complete, Millicent will already have been exposed to hundreds of submissions with the same aim.

Oh, they might not all be obvious about it; many will be genuinely interesting twists on the established premise. But you’d be amazed at how many trend-following aspiring writers will be perfectly up front about their stories being derivative. Any agent who has ever represented a genre-busting hit has received hundreds of thousands of queries like this:

Dear X. Tremely Pickison:

I am looking for an agent for my novel, DUSK, a YA paranormal designed to appeal to the millions of readers of the bestselling TWILIGHT series. But while TWILIGHT’s heroine was torn between a vampire and a werewolf, DUSK’s teen protagonist must choose between a sexy merman and a handsome Frankenstein’s monster.

You won’t want to miss out on this next great bestseller! I don’t know that I’m supposed to include a SASE, so you’ll just have to guess how to get in touch with me if you are interested in my work.

Sincerely,

Starchaser McFameseeker

Okay, so the part about the SASE was a bit of an exaggeration — most queries like this don’t include one and don’t mention it. But the toss-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the sales approach and the carefully-drawn obvious parallel to the copied book is often this blatant.

Unfortunately for queriers who embrace this strategy, neither this kind of hard sell nor the carbon copy approach to breaking into publishing tend to do much for Millicent. Oh, a book featuring some of the same elements and written in a comparable voice might well strike her as marketable in the wake of a blockbuster — as anyone who visited a bookstore with a well-stocked YA section a couple of years after the surprise success of TWILIGHT can attest, many similar storylines did in fact see publication as publishers raced to replicate the book’s appeal. But the mere fact that thousands of aspiring writers will inevitably look at that blockbuster and say, “Oh, I can write something like that,” means, necessarily, that a writer who embraces the copycat route will be facing a great deal of competition.

Not to mention running the risk of boring Millicent. Believe me, when you’re seeing the same essential storyline or plot elements in every fifth or six query — not at all out of the realm of possibility, about a year after a major blockbuster’s release — you’re going to get tired of it fast.

The same holds true for voice — and for manuscripts that don’t really have a distinct, individual authorial voice. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, part of the reason that many aspiring writers become confused about voice is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice.

That “Wha—?” you just heard was from the chorus of readers who missed yesterday’s post, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls protest as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I don’t understand. I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers — take a nice, deep breath. In the first place, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state categorically that not all published writing is good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege. Evidently not; let’s move on.)

Books get published for all kinds of reasons, after all. The writer’s platform, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a prominent publisher’s college roommate. (One hears rumors.)

In the vast majority of cases, though, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will at least be clearly written. Perhaps not stuffed to the gills with insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective.

But to have a literary voice is to take a side. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option.

In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the author chose for this appropriate and complimentary to the story?”

Not all voices prove a good fit for all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would YOU want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? Or a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

One of the great fringe benefits of gaining a broad array of writing experience and building up a solid knowledge of craft is developing the ability to switch voices at will. You have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. At the moment, I habitually write in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, the voice I have chosen for my novel-in-progress, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself not to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write.

For example, if I used my memoir voice here, to discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world; to achieve that end, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

To be blunt about it, what will work for one kind of writing aimed at one kind of audience will not work for another. I speak from experience here: I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles (when I was underage, as it happens), as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

(Some professional advice for anyone who should find herself writing wine descriptions: there are only a certain number of adjectives that may be safely and positively applied to any given varietal; nobody is ever going to object, for instance, to a chardonnay description that mention vanilla undertones. Go ask the enologist who blended the wine you’re supposed to be describing to give you a list of five, then start seeing how many of them you can use in a paragraph. Voilà! Wine description!

See? Every writing project is a potential learning opportunity.)

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting, and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner dates left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to the discipline of writing for that very specialized audience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area, fact-checking the previous year’s edition and writing fresh copy.

Often, in my case, by firelight at a dubious campground: my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. A trifle ironic, given that most of what I was writing was restaurant and motel reviews for places I could neither afford to eat nor stay.

You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Let’s Go’s tone is very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on picnic tables.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket.

It was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed me angrily that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I asked, thinking that he had somehow intuited that I was here to critique his obviously lacking customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge.

(If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to accept. After I checked into my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“Jay, I have $8.15 to my name,” I told him, while the rain noisily drenched the phone booth. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night. Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston –- ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (which, alas, it is; ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether a different type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

Pertinent questions for any projected revision, are they not? I asked them of myself: how would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

What might the latter look like on the page? Like a police report, potentially. Let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go story in a just-the-facts-ma’am voice:

A twenty-one-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby. The clerk asks her what she wants; she replies that she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity. The clerk gets the manager, who repeats the information. Noting the seven-by-ten wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman determines that she might not be in the right place. She telephones her editor, who agrees.

Not the pinnacle of colorful prose, is it? A contest judge would read this second account and think, “Gee, this story has potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story.” She would subtract points from the Voice category, and rightly so.

Millicent would probably just yawn and mutter, “Next!”

Another technical criterion often used in evaluating voice is — wait for it — consistency. Having made a narrative choice, does the author stick to it? Are some scenes told in tight third person, where we are hearing the characters’ thoughts and feelings, while some are told in a more impersonal voice, as though observed by a stranger with no prior knowledge of the characters?

Your more sophisticated professional reader (Millicent’s boss, perhaps, who has been at it a decade longer than she has) will often also take freshness of voice and point of view into account. How often has this kind of narrator told this kind of story before?

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — which I sincerely doubt — then the narrative choices of bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing. Or so I am forced to conclude by the many, many stories told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or the many, many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting agents’ and editors’ attention. (“My book is Sarah Vowell meets household maintenance!” “My book is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!” “The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!”) However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out, while copies may sell in the short term, for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a book’s narrative voice is: three days after a reader has finished it, will she remember how the story was told? Individual phrases, even? In a generic-voiced narrative, usually not.

Of course, after Millicent and her cronies take all of these factors into account, whether the professional reader happens to LIKE the narrative voice is still going to weigh heavily into her calculations. That’s inevitable, and there’s nothing a writer can do about it — except to make her narrative voice as strong and true and individually hers as she can possibly can.

Because then one reader, at least, will be satisfied: you. Give it some thought, please, and keep up the good work!

Author! Author! interviews, part II: more banter with Song of the Crow author Layne Maheu about italics, agents, and the transition from crow to human

Before I launch into Part II of our ongoing chat about craft, I’d like to waft some especially good energies toward members of the Author! Author! community living in the tornado-ravaged southeastern U.S. Here’s hoping that all of you are safe, sound, and clutching back-up copies of your writing files even as I type this.

And to everyone living outside the tornado zone: please back up your writing files right now, in sympathy with the poor souls whose computers were just blown away. Even if you simply e-mail the files to yourself, it’s worth doing. But do give some thought, please, to where you could keep a back-up other than your home, just in case.

Not sure why? Turn on the news. Somewhere in the path of those twisters, works-in-progress were irrevocably lost.

On to happier news: let’s take a moment to cheer for a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: Harold Taw’s debut novel, Adventures of the Karaoke King, came out this week from AmazonEncore. Congratulations, Harold, and our best wishes for the book’s success!

Keep that good news rolling in, everybody! The long and twisting road to publication is much, much easier if we learn to celebrate not only our own successes along the way, but the triumphs of our fellow travelers. And to make back-ups early and often.

Speaking of interacting with other writers, last time, I embroiled us all in a chat with novelist Layne Maheu , author of Song of the Crow about literary fiction — including, believe it or not, quite a good definition for it — working with an agent, and how to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous revision. In Part II, our discussion will range even more widely, taking us from establishing a non-human narrative voice through the demands of the new electronic media to developing a sense of one’s readership.

For those of you joining us mid-interview, here is the publisher’s blurb for Layne’s first novel:

From the moment that he looks down on the ancient gray head of Noah, who is swinging his stone axe, the narrating crow in this unique and remarkable epic knows that these creators called Man are trouble. He senses, too, that the natural order of things is about to change.

At a time when so many of us are searching for meaning, Layne Maheu’s debut novel lingers in a masterfully rendered ancient world just long enough to ponder our fears of disaster and to watch as humanity struggles to survive, to understand, and finally to prevail.

Recalling both the magical imagination of Richard Adams’ Watership Down and the spiritual richness of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Song of the Crow is a soaring debut.

Reviewers the world wide just love that sort of pun, by the way. Consider yourself warned.

Come with me now to the thrilling days of last month, when Layne and I were in the throes of discussing the challenges of moving from the narrative voice of one book into the narrative voice — and worldview — of another. This is a question that affects every career novelist: after developing a full, rich narrative voice specifically geared to the dramatic needs of one story, how does a writer switch to a fresh voice adapted to the next story?

Since Layne’s first novel was written from the point of view of a crow on Noah’s Ark, and his second from the perspective of humans in the early days of heavier-than-air flight, he seemed like a dandy person to ask.