Pursuing complexity in a “Get to the point, will ya?” world, or, what on earth (or off it) am I going to do with my subtitle?

We have ample cause for public rejoicing at Author! Author! today, gentlefolk: for the first time in several nerve-wracking weeks, most of my site’s images appear to be visible to the naked eye of a casual bystander. And that’s good news, I suspect, both for your humble correspondent, the toiling soul generating most of the aforementioned imagery, and those of you kind enough to take more than a casual interest in my mid-blog examples.

To celebrate (and, if I’m being honest about it, to double-check that page-shot images are once again loading correctly), I shall be using this post to dunk a cautious toe back into the warm waters of explanatory illustration. While I’m at it, I’m going to seize the opportunity to answer a question a reader posted during our picture-free hiatus, a question that has been popping up in various forms and guises in the comments since I started the blog.

The purport of those questions, if you’ll permit me to paraphrase: “Gee, Anne, it’s terrific that you’ve recently walked us through the rules of standard format for book manuscripts — not to be confused, naturally, with the proper format for short stories, magazine articles, or the like, as not all writing should be formatted identically. I especially appreciated your having at long last given in to tumultuous popular demand and offered us a one-post visual tour of the constituent parts of a well-formatted manuscript. However, as a devotee of writing in increments, whether it be in complex titling (Puppy Love in Giant Squid: Why Land-lubbers Should Care) or in movie-style series titles (Jason and the Argonauts, Part II: The Harpy-repelling Years), I found myself glancing at your title page and slug line examples and wondering, ‘Hey, what does all of this mean for my beloved colons?’”

Okay, okay, so that’s not the most graceful of paraphrases, but you try summing up 7 1/2 years of writers’ angst in a single paragraph. You get why colon-lovers and subtitle-huggers have been stressing out about this, though, right? Authors tend to become pretty darned attached to their titles — a pity, really, as it’s so very common for publishers’ marketing departments to remark cheerfully to first-time authors, “We love everything about your book, so we’re going to change the title, okay?”

Until an aspiring writer finds herself in that jaw-dropping position (said the lady who murmured in response, “Okay, go ahead and change the title, but would you mind telling me what A Family Darkly means? It’s not a use of an adverb that’s common in English as it is actually spoken.”), however, she can cling to the blissful faith that the author, and the author alone, gets to dictate what verbiage goes on her own book’s cover. The first places that she typically gets to share that usually quite strong preference with the publishing world are the query (even if queriers leave out other necessary elements — and they frequently do — they virtually never forget to include the book’s title), the synopsis, and the manuscript itself.

Specifically, on the manuscript’s title page. Let’s take a peek — at the general shapes of a properly-formatted manuscript, that is. My apologies in advance for variation in distinction across the examples that follow. For some reason that remains as unclear as the lettering here, the site’s begrudging acceptance of imagery does not seem to be extending either to photographs (how I originally attempted to show you these pages) or sharp images in saved jpegs. I’m going to press on, nevertheless, and I hope you will join me.

And in the slug line at the top of every page of text:

Wow, page 1 was pretty light, wasn’t it? Let’s try our luck with page 2.

Even at those odd dark/light levels, that format looks familiar, I hope. With a book with a short title like this and no subtitle, the formatting is perfectly straightforward.

How, though, would the writer of Born Free: Why I Burned My Bra (Although We All Know That Movement Started Because Folks in the Media Mixed Up a War Protest in which Draft Cards Were Burned with a Beauty Contest Protest at which Bras Were Thrown into Trash Cans, Right?) arrange her rather cumbersome title?

In the query, the answer is simple: reproduce the title in its entirety. The only possibly counterintuitive formatting in that context would be to remember that in a query, as in a manuscript, it’s proper to skip two spaces after a colon, not one. But since that’s how civilized people treat colons in every context except newspapers, magazines, and some published books — decisions in every case determined by the editors of those publications, not the authors — that shouldn’t present too much of a problem, should it?

In the synopsis, too, there’s no real problem: the title and subtitle should both appear at the top of the first page. Easy as the proverbial pie.

For the manuscript itself, however, the issue is more complex — or is it? After all, one does not include subtitles in the slug line. So why would one do it here?

Actually, one does not include particularly long titles in the slug line, either; there isn’t room. If a title runs longer than about 40 characters, it’s fine to use a truncated version. In this, our subtitle-embracing writer can simply use the main title:

I hear long title enthusiasts everywhere gasp, but remember, the point of including the title in the slug line is to identify a stray page if it wanders from the manuscript, not to reproduce the entire title as the author would prefer it to appear on the book cover. It merely needs to be recognizably referring to the title.

On the title page, naturally, there’s no reason not to display the subtitle in all of its glory. It’s traditional, however, to allow the main title to occupy its own line, then begin the subtitle on the next double-spaced line. With a subtitle this long, it’s considered unstylish to let it run the entire breadth of the page. Bringing in the left and right margins by an inch and a half each will make it clear that this is all intended as subtitle, rather than misformatted text.

With a shorter subtitle, of course, this would not be necessary.

Everybody clear on that — or, at any rate, as clear as the fuzzy pages will permit? Now would be an excellent time to speak up, if not.

Ah, I see some hands waving out there in the ether. Yes? “But Anne, my book doesn’t have a subtitle per se — it’s the first/third/107th volume in a series that has its own title. So how would I format a title page and slug line for Shooting Arrows in All Directions, the first book in my Running Amok series? I would presume that I would do it as it is formatted in the following examples that I’m mentally beaming to you, but is that correct?”

That’s a good question, series writers. Let’s show your fellow writers what you were imagining, and see how they think Millicent the agency screener will respond.

Is this page 1 correctly formatted or not? To help make that question easier to answer, let’s take a nice, close look.

If you leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “By Jove, Anne, that’s not right! How can it be, when it violates the slug line length restriction we were discussing mere moments ago,” congratulations. Even if it were completely legitimate to embrace the recent movie title practice of slapping the title of the series at the front of the individual book’s title — hint, hint — it would never be acceptable to include a subtitle in a slug line.

You can see why our friend Sens opted to do it that way, though, right? As he pictured the book covers in his series, he naturally envisioned the series title emblazoned above the titles of each individual volume; in his mind, both were legitimately part of the title. And if that’s the case, just showing the main title — in this case, the series title — in the slug line would mean that every book in the series would sport an identical slug line.

Not all that helpful if the Millicent carrying the manuscript of Shooting Arrows in All Directions happens to collide with the intern toting Volume 3 of the same series, is it? It’s not hard to picture the aftermath: “You got Shooting Arrows in my Hatchet Wielding for Fun and Profit!” “Yeah, well, you got Hatchet Wielding for Fun and Profit in my Shooting Arrows!” “Darn, there’s no way to figure out from which manuscript page 37 floated!”

Not a pretty scene, is it? And it definitely would defeat the purpose of the slug line.

So what should Sens have done instead? Treat the title of the book the slug line is marking as — wait for it — the title of the book. Actually, since the first book’s title is rather lengthy, let’s go with a shortened version.

Still perfectly easy to identify on a dark and stormy night, is it not? By contrast, let’s take a peek at how Sens was planning to format his title page.

At initial submission time, it doesn’t matter to Millicent that this book is the first in a series — her boss, the agent of Sens’ dreams, is going to have to fall in love with Volume I on its own merits. So why weigh down the slug line with unnecessary information?

And immediately, other series writers leap to Sens’ defense. “Unnecessary!” they huff. “I see this done with movie titles all the time!”

Precisely — but that doesn’t mean that the publishing industry has embraced the convention. Technically, series titles are not part of the title. Unless, of course, the series in question happens to follow the most common pattern of series naming, using the title of the first book in the series as the basis for the series’ title.

That’s an issue upon which that I’m sure Sens’ future publisher’s marketing department will hold strong opinions. For the nonce, however, all that concerns us is how his title page should appear in his manuscript submissions, right? Here you go.

I can sense some hackles rising out there, can I not? “But Anne,” some of you moan, and who could blame you? “What about individual expression, for goodness sake! These title pages all look the same!”

Exactly. Professionally-formatted book manuscripts differ in the writing, not in their formatting. Not to knock anybody’s right to individual expression, but as a writer, wouldn’t you rather be judged on the text you submit, rather than how you chose to slap it on a page?

Let me guess: quite a few of you had been thinking of it the other way around, hadn’t you? Completely understandable: when first facing the daunting prospect of learning to apply the rules of standard format, most aspiring writers regard its rigors as restricting what they can do. It takes time and experience to recognize that for good writing, anything that distracts Millicent, the agent for whom she toils, or the acquiring editor the agent will be trying to interest in the book from the words on the page and how prettily the narrative flows is both superfluous and poor submission strategy.

Let your writing speak for itself, friends. Series or not, subtitle-bearing or no, that’s how a talented writer should want to be judged.

Speaking of your fine writing, do drop me a note in the comments if the images did not come through properly this time around. I’m a glass-half-full sort of person, so I shall keep visualizing clear visuals while we celebrate having any visuals at all. Keep up the good work!

Break out the trumpets: it’s my 1,500th Author! Author! post

That’s right, campers: after six and a half years of keyboard-pounding, this is my 1,500th time sharing my thoughts on the rigors of the life literary in this forum. Even I’m kind of impressed. All the more so, because, let’s face it, my average post is about six times the length of most writing advice posts.

Hey, you know me. I hate to leave an argument in the middle.

I tremble to think how many of thousands of pages — configured as standard format for book manuscripts, of course — currently lie virtually nestled in my archives; as even the briefest glance down the category list located at the lower right-hand side of this page will demonstrate, we’ve covered a tremendous amount of conceptual territory together. (And thanks again, Dave McChesney — who, coincidentally, posted the first comment ever on my blog — for suggesting so many years ago that I break the categories down by probable readers’ questions. I think we’ve all been pretty happy with the results.) Kudos to those of you who have provided so many excellent questions over the years; as I like to say early and often, many of my best posts and series have sprung directly from individual readers’ thoughtful questions.

Before I begin to rhapsodize about what I have learned throughout the course of all of that mulling over the challenges of trying to break into the writing biz, though, I would like to pause for a moment to recognize the recent achievements of three members of the Author! Author! community. The road to publication can be a long and arduous one; if you’ll pardon my resuscitating yet another of my habitual tropes, I’m a firm believer in the value of writers’ celebrating one another’s triumphs along the way.

First, congratulations to Michael Stutz on the release of the second volume of Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age trilogy from Confiteor Media. And such a gracious author, too: as you may have gathered from the snapshot above, my mailbox was gladdened recently by the unexpected appearance of Volume I, which Michael, a long-time member of the Author! Author! community, was kind enough to send me.

A practice I highly encourage, by the way. There are few aspects of blogging I enjoy more than announcing that one of my readers has a new book out. Especially a writer like Michael, who has been hanging out here in our little community for years.

It just goes to show you: it can be done, people. As proof, here’s a composite of the publisher’s blurbs for the first two books of Michael’s trilogy:

The Internet is everywhere now, but Ray Valentine saw it first explode.

CIRCUITS OF THE WIND is the story of Ray’s quest to find himself as he grows up wandering the computer underground—the wild, global outback that existed before the net went mainstream. How else does an end-of-century slacker reach out to the world from Sohola, that northern state that’s a little more Midwest than it is New England? The net holds the key to what he’s after—but even as he pioneers this virtual world, the veneer of his real life begins to crack.

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?

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.

Sounds like hoot, eh? Well done, Michael. I’m looking forward to announcing your continued successes!

In other good news, please join me in a big round of applause for Wendy Russo, whose first novel, JANUARY BLACK, has recently been acquired by Crescent Moon Press. I couldn’t be more delighted for you, Wendy!

If Wendy’s title sounds familiar, it may be because she was brave and generous enough to have shared her ultimately extraordinarily successful query letter with us back in, appropriately enough, January. I can’t resist sharing the book description for this genuinely yummy-sounding YA science fiction novel:

Sixteen-year-old Mars resident Matty Ducayn is a disappointment to everyone who knows him. As the son of The Hill’s commandant, he is expected to conform to a strict, unspoken code of conduct. Small acts of defiance over years — like playing in the dirt and walking on the grass — have earned him a reputation for being unruly, but it’s his sarcastic test answers that finally get him expelled from school. Instead of punishing him, though, King Hadrian offers him a diploma with a catch: before he can graduate, he must solve the mystery of the vanished Januaries.

With the help of Iris, a gardener on his father’s staff, Matty takes his search beyond The Hill’s walls — and tightly controlled media — into a world rife with contention, greed, and crime. But trying to crack the code sets him on a collision course with the Janus Law, a royal decree that mandates death to those who enter a forbidden garden. Has Hadrian set him up from the beginning to fail?

I’m really looking forward to announcing the book’s release, Wendy. Best of luck with the publication process!

While we’re lighting the bonfire for one another’s achievement, I’d also like to clash a few cymbals on behalf of frequent guest blogger, hilarious author, and all-around great guy DIE LIKE A GIRL, has recently been released for Kindle. Kudos, Jonathan!

Jonathan is, for my money, one of the funniest writers of his generation, and I don’t care who hears me say it. His first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, made me laugh so hard on an airplane that two flight attendants came running down the aisle, convinced I was having a seizure. My subsequent dramatic reading of the scene in question caused fliers in first class to wonder if a riot had broken out in coach.

I’m just saying: the guy’s funny; there’s a reason I keep blandishing him to give us all advice on the art of writing comedy. (As he did, say, here, here, and here.) Here’s the publisher’s blurb for his most recent opus:

Fiona Blacklock sells drugs. Not the hard stuff, but a rare hybrid strain of thousand-dollar-an-ounce marijuana called Biodiesel. Given that she lives in the left-wing Mecca of Portland, Oregon, the cops mostly just look the other way—if they’re not looking to score a little herb themselves.

Sure, she’s fifty grand in debt to a psychopathic loan shark named Barry the Hippie, but other than that, it’s really not a bad gig…that is, until she agrees to take emo pop star Finn “The Well-Coiffed Penis” Jameson along on a drug deal so that he can research a new indie film role. A drug deal that goes very very wrong.

Now Fiona has to figure out who set her up, who’s blackmailing who, where to environmentally dispose of a disemboweled corpse, how to seduce the single most attractive man in Hollywood…and, most importantly, whom to kill next.

I’m bringing up these three talented writers’ recent triumphs not only to cheer for them — although, naturally, that too — but as a springboard to talking about some of the things I enjoy most about writing this blog. I get to teach writers like Wendy how to refine their queries, to help get their writing in front of the people who can take it to publication: I quite like that. I get to encourage writers like Michael to keep pressing forward until they see their work in print: I’m very fond of that. And, perhaps most gratifying of all, I get to bring gifted writers like Jonathan Selwood to the attention of a fine group of people who, I have it on the best authority, really like to read.

That’s all been pretty fabulous, I must say. But if I’m honest about it — and now that I’ve launched headlong into this sentence, I suppose I shall have to be — none of these things were what I had anticipated doing when I started blogging six and a half years ago. And certainly not at such great length.

Actually, I had to be talked into starting a blog at all. When I was initially approached by the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association, at the time the nation’s largest group aimed at furthering the ambitions and fostering the skills of previously-unpublished writers, to be the Resident Writer on its website, I was a bit nonplused. Yes, I had been editing books for decades at that juncture; yes, I had started proofing galleys in middle school; yes, I did regularly teach writing and marketing classes for writers; yes, a chapter of my dissertation was about the potential for fictional accounts to change political discourse.

But coming up with practical advice for writers on a several-times-per-week basis? I was positive that the inspiration well would run dry in a month.

Yes, yes, I know: these days, I often spend a month of posts on a sub-sub-topic of querying. My will to communicate turned out to be pretty strong.

It also turned out that an astonishingly high percentage of what I had learned by osmosis through the simple expedient of growing up in a literary family — forebears on both sides have been publishing pretty regularly since the 1920s; I learned to type on Henry Miller’s hand-me-down typewriter — was, to put it mildly, a big, ugly, and frequently frightening mystery to hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers out there. And since many of those murky matters were — and remain — self-evident to those who handle book manuscripts for a living, not only did it not seem to occur to many pros to blog on those subjects; when I began blogging, it was relatively rare even to hear the practicalities to which I have devoted most of my posts here discussed at writers’ conferences.

You should have heard what my mother said when I first broke that last bit of news to her. Her gasp could be heard on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

To be perfectly frank, I was pretty flabbergasted, too. The first time a reader wrote in to ask whether the slug line went in the header or on the first line of every page, I must admit that I laughed for about fifteen minutes straight. Yet it’s not at all an unreasonable question; it simply is not a question that would ever arise amongst people who handled professional manuscripts for a living.

That’s right, campers: as incredible as it seems, before that valiant reader worked up the courage to ask that basic question, I hadn’t truly understood that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers out there had never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript. Or a book proposal. Or — and I can’t believe this was news to me — a query letter.

Had I mentioned that my learning experience on Uncle Henry’s typewriter sprung from my parents’ insistence that I write the first and only draft of my 5th-grade term paper on the Bonus March in standard manuscript format? “You’re going to be writing in that format for the rest of your life,” my father reasoned, “so you might as well get started now.”

History proved him right, of course, but at the time, it didn’t even occur to me to point out that it was in fact possible for a human being to glide throughout the entirety of the great path from birth to death without writing a book. I’d met so few adults who hadn’t.

“Oh, yes, you did,” my mother hastens to point out now. “We introduced you to a lot of painters and sculptors, too. We didn’t want to stifle any potential avenue of creativity.”

I’m bringing this up not only because I can’t possibly have been the only little girl in human history who thought the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up, honey?” actually meant “How do you plan to support yourself while you struggle through your first four or five novels’ sluggish sales?” — I can’t remember being so young that I didn’t know that literary fiction seldom makes serious money — but because in the course of my career as a writer, I’ve never met an agent or editor who was surprised by my strenuously literary upbringing.

Oh, their eyebrows may have twitches skyward when they found out that John Steinbeck wrote a book about my father, or that I had stopped writing science fiction because Philip K. Dick told me that there was no money in it. Mostly, though, the pros have just seemed to take it for granted that any serious novelist or memoirist would already have amassed my level of practical knowledge of how publishing works by the time her writing reached their doorsteps.

If writing this blog and interacting with my readers has taught me anything, though, it’s that nobody is born knowing this stuff. And that’s sad, because plenty of extremely talented writers’ work gets rejected every day simply because they don’t know the ropes. Or even that there are ropes to learn,

So I have devoted the last six and a half years to teaching those new to climbing those ropes how to tie a few sailors’ knots. Turns out that’s a pretty complex set of lessons.

It must be: after posting 1,500 times about them, I still feel that I have quite a bit to say. And I hope that quite a few more writers like Michael, Wendy, and Jonathan will continue to provide me with the impetus, inspiration, and darned good questions to help keep me going.

I could, I suppose, conclude here with my oft-repeated admonition to keep the aforementioned good questions coming — believe me, if you’ve been wondering about a writing, querying, or submission issue, thousands of other writers have been as well. You do them, and me, a favor by asking. (If you’re looking for instant answers, though, you might want to take a quick barefoot run through the list of topics on the archive list at right; since I have been at this for a while, it’s actually not all that uncommon for people to ask questions upon which I’ve written entire month-long series.)

I would like to close this festive post by thanking all of you for something else this blog has given me, a benefit I have seldom mentioned even in passing before. When I first started blogging, my interest was at least in part self-promotional: I had a memoir coming out six months later. Although these days, it’s standard for publishers to advise authors to establish blogs in anticipation of their books’ releases, it was rare back then; I had to talk both my agent and my editor out of actively protesting against my devoting writing time to it.

“What makes you think,” a source that shall remain nameless in my publisher’s marketing department asked, “that there’s any overlap at all between your book’s target audience and your blog’s?” It was news, apparently, that people who write are often people who read. Or that people who read online might conceivably ever read anything else.

Seems crazy now, doesn’t it? Today, one of the first sentences a first-time author hears after placing pen to contract is, “Okay, you know that you have to build up your web presence, right?”

Back in 2004, however, the concept of an author deliberately setting out to make a place for herself online was still a relatively new and daring one; people kept asking me how I could possibly build name recognition unless I was writing on my own website, as I began to do a year later. That’s a long story, though, and not a particularly interesting one.

To cut to the chase, as a good editor should: a couple of weeks after I began blogging, I learned that my publisher had been threatened by a lawsuit over my memoir. The figure mentioned, if memory serves, was $2 million. Not because it was factually inaccurate, mind you — as far as I know, the threateners never asked my publisher for any content changes — but because I had written it at all. And while such threats are far from unusual from the kith and kin of memoirists, the kith in question happened to have millions of dollars at their disposal.

The publication process, as you might imagine, came to a screeching halt. While it has lurched forward and backward a few times since, six and a half years later, the book still has not come out. (Which renders the used copy still offered on Amazon something of a mystery; as not even review copies were ever released, I can’t imagine of what it consists. It purports to be in very good condition, though.)

Again, I’m not bringing this up for the reasons you might think: I’m quite confident that eventually, both new and used copies of the book will be available. I was not brought up to give up on a manuscript, especially an important story that happens to be true. And, if I do say so myself, pretty funny.

I’m bringing it up because I owe a debt of gratitude to those of you who read and commented upon the blog during the early years, when writing it was practically the only respite I got from an ever-more-chaotic publishing experience. There were days when trying to make the curvy road to publication comprehensible to those new to it seemed like the only reasonable human exchange I had. I found it very soothing, being able to take my small, continual stand for making this a better world for everyone who has a story to tell.

And that, in case any of you had been wondering, is how I developed my blogging voice, admittedly an unusual one for a writing advice blog. Rather than present this sometimes depressing and opaque subject matter — hey, nobody ever said getting a book into print was easy, at least no one who had any practical experience in the matter — in the more common authoritarian or despairing tones, I decided to write about it in an upbeat, humorous manner. I felt I owed it to my readers not to let the horror of what was going on with my book creep into our discussions of how to help yours.

You have no idea how difficult that was sometimes in those first couple of years. At least, I hope you don’t, if I did my job well. And it’s become difficult again over the last couple of years, since my car crash. But as my grandmother used to say, “If you can’t be happy, try helping someone else. Or writing a book about it.”

So thank you, campers, for providing me with the impetus, inspiration, and, yes, unexpected questions, to keep showing up here to be upbeat about the often-mystifying ways of the publishing world. Especially to those of you who have been reading since the beginning. You have helped turn what started out as a column into a community — and for that, I am exceedingly grateful.

Next time, I shall wrap up Queryfest; I may be hardened by experience to being upbeat about the difficulties of the querying process, but hey, I’m only human. Keep up the good work!

What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VII: my memoir is WHAT?

Hello, campers –

Okay, I am officially annoyed: someone has had the temerity to write a bad Amazon review of my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. Which would be a little less odd if the book had ever been released, but as far as I know, not even review copies were ever available.

And I certainly never sent this person a copy of any draft of my manuscript. So what can she possibly be reviewing? The blurb on the Amazon page — which, like pretty much every marketing blurb, was written not by the book’s author, but by the publisher’s marketing department?

Yes, yes, I know: Amazon lists my book as being out of print — limited ability, not as still to be released, which implies that there are a few copies running around out there. Their assertion is technically true, because it was never IN print, but factually inaccurate.

So how did it end up with a listing on Amazon at all? Well, as long-time readers of this blog already know, Carroll & Graf was supposed to publish it in February, 2006 — then May, 2006, then September, 2006 — before the project was permanently put on ice, due to a series of nebulous threats from the Dick estate. Although to the best of my knowledge, they never asked my publisher to make any changes in the book whatsoever, the figure two million dollars was bandied about menacingly.

A right about the same time as the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke. That the publisher would balk was inevitable.

I’ve come to peace with all that, mostly: I have faith that the book will eventually come out, even if I have to outlive the naysayers to do it; it’s not as though the audience for it is going to disappear. I know that my memoir is honest; someday, a larger audience will see the story.

In the meantime, I have a life to live and books to write.

Still, it rankles me that someone who apparently hasn’t read the book should review it — and that the review should have come (evidently) from one of Philip’s ex-wives — to be precise, the one three wives after my mother. I don’t even understand why Amazon would ALLOW her to review it, when for over two years now, it apparently hasn’t permitted others who HAVE read drafts of the book to post reviews.

You HAVE already lined up fellow writers to tap out Amazon reviews for you when your first book comes out, right?

What makes me think that this review didn’t filch a stray draft copy to pass judgment upon, you ask? Because her sole stated objection to the book is that I couldn’t possibly have spoken with Philip on the telephone, because, she claims — brace yourselves, because I think this is going to come as a shocker to those hoping to make a career writing science fiction — she and Philip were too poor to afford a phone during their very brief marriage.

Interesting claim. She is presumably referring to the early 70s, when Philip had been publishing his writing successfully for over 15 years, including a little number called THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. It won a Hugo Award in 1963, not an achievement typically associated with a writer’s book sales declining to the point of penury, especially one as prolific as Philip was throughout the 1960s.

But even he had been reduced to living in a treehouse in a public park, my memoir isn’t ABOUT the early 70s, as those happy few who have read the manuscript could tell you. It takes place mostly in the late 70s and early 80s, when Philip and I were indeed talking on the phone a great deal (as were others, some of whom seem to recall having picked up the phone a few years earlier and calling…well, never mind), and the 1950s, when Philip and my mother were married. (The same period when, not entirely coincidentally, he was working with my father, my science fiction-writer uncle was giving him marketing advice, and my godfather was dropping by to play chess…well, you get the picture.)

In other words, I’ve been writing what I know.

In fact, for this critique to be remotely apt, my entire memoir would have to have been devoted to ages 5 to 8 — years which, if memory serves, take up only a small handful of pages in the manuscript at all. Why? Well, I was a precocious child, certainly, but if I was slandering anyone mid-elementary school, it’s news to me.

Even if there were an honest difference of recollection here (which I don’t think is the case), why this review should wait to bring this up until more than two years after the book in question was supposed to be released mystifies me. Unless she’s planning to write a book of her own?

And don’t even get me started on the irony of someone who has ever been married to an SF/fantasy writer using the term fantasy as an insult about a piece of writing.

Okay — deep breath. I don’t need to get upset over this. But I have to tell you, it did give me a turn to be accused of slander on an Amazon discussion board. (In an apparent effort to leave no stone unturned in discrediting me, the reviewer evidently started a discussion thread. Thorough of her, no?)

Now, to set all of you memoirists’ minds at ease, this is a pretty empty accusation — the dead have no reputations, my lawyer tells me, and thus cannot be libeled. Also, rumor has it that truth is an absolute defense against both libel and slander, and so far, no one who has objected to the book’s publication has shown me — or, to the best of my knowledge, my publisher — any evidence whatseverthat my memories are not grounded in fact. It’s all just been assertions of different points of view.

Which, strange to say, has been hard to get the relevant parties to understand. Contrary to criticisms leveled at some popular memoirists lately, few people’s lives are documented down to the last second. How would you, for instance, prove that everything that happened on your first date actually occurred, in the absence of the other party?

You couldn’t, of course. Welcome to the dilemma of the present-day memoirist.

I can’t even begin to tell you how tired I am of all this — I’ve been defending this book for over three years now, without anyone ever having produced a single tangible reason it shouldn’t be published. Yet until today, as far as I knew, no one had ever even implied that anything about my memoir had broken the law.

Prior to this review, the issues of alternate points of view and who owns personal memories, if not the person herself — both subjects upon which Philip Dick wrote frequently, as it happens — dominated the discussion of my memoir. Now, it seems as though my very memories are being called libelous.

I can’t explain it.

In fact, I wouldn’t be bringing it up at all, except the only reason I found out about this puzzling review at all was that I was double-checking a link in the post below, a little gem on standard format from last December. To be precise, I originally posted it on Philip’s birthday.

Don’t ever say I didn’t do anything for you people; I may never double-check a link again. Enjoy the post.

Many thanks to all of you sweet souls who forwarded me links to the many literary and SF sites out there that commemorated what would have been my good old friend Philip K. Dick’s 79th birthday. This was the first year that I received a whole boatload of these messages, so it was great fun — rather like receiving a flotilla of birthday cards in the mail.

I needed the cheering up, I’m afraid, as usually, I throw a little dinner party on this particular day. Not only out of respect for my first serious writing teacher, but also as a birthday shindig for some of the other great artists born today: Beethoven, Sir Noël Coward, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 and CHILDHOOD’S END fame), and of course, Author! Author!’s own beloved, wise auntie, Jane Austen.

You could do worse than to raise a glass to that crowd. But this year, I’ve just been too wiped out to allow anyone but the postman to drop by — and some days, I’m not even up to seeing him.

Thus, no dinner party this year, more’s the pity. I did a little too much last week, so this weekend, all I did was sleep and make groggy suggestions about how to maneuver the Christmas tree in order to make it stand up straight. (Which actually is necessary in our household: due to a truly spectacular bracken-and-cat interaction a few years back, we now tie the top of the tree to a ring firmly attached to the ceiling, so the tree does not need to be completely vertical in order to keep from toppling over.)

But enough about me; let’s talk about you.

While I was incapacitated, a group of my wonderful readers was holding down the fort here, trading tips on how to deal with that pesky problem, how to add a second space between sentences if a writer had mistakenly typed the whole thing thinking there should only be one. If you have even a passing interest in this topic, I implore you, check out the comments on the last two days’ posts; it’s well worth it. (Here’s a link to the first and here’s one tothe second.)

We have only few rules of standard format left to cover in this series, so my first instinct was to use the text of one of Philip’s short stories for the examples. (Seemed appropriate, given that he used to mark deviations from standard format on stories I wrote for school and send them back to me for correction. What 11-year-old girl wouldn’t have loved THAT?) But since fair use permits only 50 consecutive words in a quote without explicit permission from the copyright holder, and the copyright holders in his case have a nasty habit of waving $2 million lawsuits in my general direction (and my quondam publisher’s) every time I so much as breathe his name, that didn’t seem entirely wise.

So I thought, in honor of the day, I would use a little something that I am undoubtedly entitled to reproduce here. Here is the first page of Chapter Six of my memoir:

Every chapter should begin like this: on a fresh page, 12 single lines (or 6 double-spaced) from the top.

As with the first page of text, the only reference to the author’s name or the title should appear in the slug line, located in the upper left-hand margin. (And in answer to reader Janet’s intelligent question: the slug line should appear .5 inches from the top of the paper, floating within the 1-inch-deep top margin. I can’t believe I never mentioned that before.) The page number belongs within it, rather than anywhere else on the page.

The slug line confuses a lot of aspiring writers; until you have seen piles and piles of professional manuscripts, it looks kind of funny, doesn’t it? And when you’ve been told over and over again that a manuscript should have a 1-inch margin on all sides, it can seem counterintuitive to add a line of text, even such a short one, IN that margin.

But I assure you, it’s always been done that way. And why? Followers of this series, chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT.

Yes, that logic IS tautological, now that you mention it. If you have a problem with that, I would suggest taking it up with the powers that rule the universe. I, as I believe the reference above to my memoir’s troubled path makes abundantly clear, apparently do not rule the universe.

If I did, today would be a holiday for every writer on the planet. Especially the ones who are having trouble getting their work published, like, oh, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jane Austen all did at the beginning of their fiction careers.

I just mention.

Back to business. Placing the slug line in the header (located in Word under the VIEW menu) also enables the writer to take advantage of one of the true boons of the advent of word processing, pages that number themselves. Every so often, I will receive a manuscript where the author has, with obviously monumental effort, typed a slug line onto the first line of TEXT of each page, so it looks like this:

See how pulling the slug line down into the text messes with the spacing of the page? An entire line of text is sacrificed to it — and let me tell you, that line is not going to go quietly.

Why not? Well, what’s going to happen if new writing is inserted on a page formatted this way? That’s right: the author is going to have to go back and move each and every one of those slug lines to match the NEW pagination.

I’d show you a picture of this, but it’s just too ugly to contemplate. Trust me, it would be a heck of a lot of work.

See any other problems with this page? How about the fact that the slug line includes the word PAGE? Shouldn’t be there; just the numbers will suffice.

Did I just hear some huffs of indignation out there? “But Anne,” I hear the formatting-ambitious cry, “it’s kind of stylish to include PAGE before the page number, isn’t it? It’s just a matter of personal style — who could be hurt by including it, if I like the way it looks?”

Well, you, for starters. And why? (Chanters, ready your lungs.) BECAUSE IT JUST WOULD NOT LOOK RIGHT TO A PROFESSIONAL READER.

I’m quite serious about this; I’ve seen screeners get quite huffy about this one. “Does this writer think I’m STUPID?” Millicent is prone to huff. (Don’t answer that question; it’s rhetorical.) “Does she think I DON’T know that the numeral that appears on every page refers to the number of pages? Does she think I’m going to go nuts and suddenly decide that it is a statistic, or part of the title?”

Don’t bait her. Do it the standard way.

Okay, did you spot any other problems? What about the fact that the first paragraph of the chapter is not indented, and the first character is in a different typeface?

The odd typeface for the first letter, in imitation of the illuminated texts hand-written by monks in the Middle Ages, doesn’t turn up all that often in manuscripts other than fantasy and YA, for one simple reason: books in that category are more likely to feature this it’s-a-new-chapter signal than others. But once again, what an editor may decide, rightly or wrongly, is appropriate for a published book has no bearing upon what Millicent expects to see in a manuscript.

Save the bells and whistles for someone who will appreciate them. Hop in your time machine and track down a medieval monk to admire your handiwork, if you like, but in this timeframe, keep the entire manuscript in the same typeface and size.

The non-indented first paragraph of a chapter is fairly common in mystery submissions, I have noticed. I’ve been told by many mystery writers that this is an homage to the great early writers in the genre, an echo of their style.

But you know what? Almost without exception, in Edgar Allan Poe’s time all the way down to our own, the EDITOR has determined the formatting that appeared on any given printed page, not the author. To professional eyes, especially peevish ones like Millicent’s, a manuscript that implicitly appropriates this sort of decision as authorial might as well be the first step to the writer’s marching into Random House, yanking off a well-worn riding glove, and striking the editor-in-chief with it.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s sometimes seen as a challenge to editorial authority. And while we could speculate for the next week about the level of insecurity that would prompt regarding a minor formatting choice as a harbinger of incipient insurrection, is the manuscript of your first book REALLY the right place to engender that discussion?

Exactly.

If you want to make Millicent and her bosses happy — or, at any rate, to keep them reading calmly — indent every paragraph of the text should the expected five spaces. It just looks right that way.

While we’re at it, how about the bolded chapter number and title? Nothing in a manuscript should be in boldface. Nothing, I tell you. Uh-uh. Not ever.

Well, you could get away with the title itself on the tile page, but frankly, I wouldn’t chance it.

Nor should anything be underlined — not even names of books or song titles. Instead, they should be italicized, as should words in foreign tongues that are not proper nouns.

I heard that gigantic intake of breath out there from those of you who remember constructing manuscripts on typewriters: yes, Virginia, back in the day, underlining WAS the norm, for the simple reason that most typewriters did not have italic keys.

If you consult an older list of formatting restrictions, you might conceivably be told that publications, song titles, and/or foreign words (sacre bleu!) should be underlined. But trust me on this one: any agent would tell you to get rid of the underlining, pronto.

And why? All together now: because IT JUST DOESN’T LOOK RIGHT THAT WAY.

All right, campers, do you feel ready to fly solo? Here are two pages of text, studded with standard format violations for your ferreting-out pleasure. (I wrote these pages, too, in case anyone is worried about copyright violation or is thinking about suing me over it. Hey, stranger things have happened.)

How did you do? Are those problems just leaping off the page at you now? To reward you for so much hard work, here are a couple of correctly-formatted pages, to soothe your tired eyes:

good example

Whenever you start finding yourself chafing at the rules of standard format, come back and take a side-by-side gander at these last sets of examples — because, I assure you, after a professional reader like Millicent has been at it even a fairly short time, every time she sees the bad example, mentally, she’s picturing the good example right next to it.

And you know what? Manuscripts that look right get taken more seriously than those that don’t. And regardless of how you may feel about Millicent’s literary tastes, isn’t a serious read from her what you want for your book?

Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part VII: those pesky teenagers — and a major milestone!

Sic transit gloria.

The reconstruction of my devastated back yard proceeds apace — there have been so many workmen with great big boots tramping through my erstwhile flowerbeds of late that I’m quite positive the resident mole believes a hostile army has invaded his territory.

The photo above represents the last hurrah of our hot tub before it went the way of all flesh. Since my agent is currently circulating my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, it seemed only appropriate that the little statue should be the last thing evacuated.

With great destruction comes the possibility of new growth, though, and I have to say, even as an editor experienced in making large-scale cuts to manuscripts, I have been impressed to see just how many new vista opportunities have been opening up each time a backhoe accidentally knocks over a small tree.

An ornamental cherry, just about to bloom. Talk about killing your darlings.

The process has been reminding me a great deal of the first two years after I sold my memoir to a publisher, actually: after working up courage to dig up a story that hadn’t seen the light of day for over twenty years, all hell broke loose for two solid years. Every time I started thinking, “Okay, I could learn to live with the new status quo around this book,” BANG! Down went another tree. Or a backhoe took a great big hole out a flowering pear, doubtless cutting the coming summer’s crop by a third.

Metaphorically, of course.

The upheaval on both the garden and memoir fronts remains substantial — and ongoing — but I’m sure the wee Buddha would approve of the hourly evidence my environs are giving that nothing is really permanent. And that building something lasting typically involves quite a bit of ground-clearing first.

Doesn’t that just make you want to take out the machete and leap back into revising your manuscript? No? Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

But before we launch into the topic du jour, a drum roll, please, for an announcement of moment: this is my 500th blog on this site!

To those of you who didn’t follow me over from my old Resident Writer blog on the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s website, this total may seem a bit off, as there are about 800 posts archived here, including roughly 300 from my former gig. (Also, I haven’t been counting guest posts and interviews toward the final count.)

So these last half-thousand have all been written specifically for you, the Author! Author! community, under my own aegis. You’re welcome.

When the blog has reached similar milestones in the past, I have gone back and figured out how many pages I’d written, measured in standard manuscript format, but at this point, it’s just too daunting a task. Suffice it to say that it’s been thousands of pages of my ranting at you about the joys and imperatives of standard format, the ins and outs of pitching and querying, and my vast preference for writers reading their work — chant it with me; you surely know the words by now — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it to make its merry way through an agency or publishing house.

Clearly, I need to take a weekend off.

But let’s finish this mini-series (so to speak) first, shall we? For the last week, I’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home, a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears.

After a lifetime of reading and a decade of editing, I have to say, I don’t think that most writers appreciate just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling underfed.

They came for a full meal, you know, with many succulent courses. How could they not be disappointed when a narrative merely gives them a glimpse of a nicely-fried brook trout, then whisks it away untasted? Or when the waiter spends the whole meal boasting of the spectacular dessert, then brings out a single cookie for the entire table to share?

And that’s non-professional readers’ reaction; the pros are even more ravenous. Just because Millicent spends her days grazing upon query letters and munching on synopses doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrilled to have a full meal come submission-reading time.

Please say you’ve grasped the concept, because this metaphor is beginning to whimper under its explanatory load.

A good place to start sniffing around for instances of the Short Road Home is when a narrative begins to stray close to stereotype territory. Why? Well, stereotypes thrive upon generalization, so when they rear their ugly heads, they tend to nudge the narrative toward summary statements, conclusions, and the like. Grounding a scene or argument in the specific has the opposite tendency.

This is particularly likely too occur in memoirs and novels where writer is working overtime to make a character likeable — or always right. A character who is never wrong is, among other things, predictable; when predictability has pulled up a chair and seated itself in a scene, tension tends to take a flying leap out the nearest window.

Too theoretical? Okay, let’s take a gander at one of the more common marriages of stereotype and Short Road Home: the troubled child of the protagonist, particularly if it’s a teenager.

At the very mention, Millicent has already started cringing in her cubicle in New York, I assure you. The TCoP crosses her desk so frequently in manuscripts that she can scarcely see a character in the 13-19 age range without instinctively flinching and crying out, “Don’t tell me — she’s going to be sullen.”

You’re quite right, Millicent — 99% of the time, she will be. And rebellious. Not to mention disrespectful, sighing, and eye-rolling.

Yes, troubled kids and teenagers across the land have been known to do all of these things from time to time — but remember what I said a few paragraphs back about predictability? When Millicent encounters the rare non-stereotypical teenager in a submission, it’s a red-letter day.

Not quite a 500th post kind of day, perhaps, but close.

I can feel some of you getting restless out there. “Yeah, yeah,” I hear a few seasoned self-editors piping, “I already know to avoid stereotypes, because Millicent sees them so often and because the whole point of writing a book is to show MY view of the world, not a bunch of clichés. What does this have to do with the Short Road Home?”

In practice, quite a bit; it’s very, very common for a narrative featuring a TCoP to expend considerable (and usually disproportionate) time explaining the kid’s behavior — and, often, justifying how the protagonist responds to it. Unfortunately, this rush to interpret not infrequently begins as early as the first scene in which the TCoP is introduced.

What might this look like on the first page of a manuscript, you ask? A little something like this — and see if you can catch the subtle narrative bias that often colors this stripe of the Short Road Home:

When hard-working Tom Carver opened the front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Tanya, refused to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her day had been.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room.

The now-familiar sound of her slammed bedroom door ringing in his ears, he wandered into the kitchen to kiss his adored wife on her long-suffering cheek. “Criminy, I’m tired of that, Mary. Someday, all of that slamming is going to bring the house tumbling down on our heads. I’ll bet she hasn’t done even one of her very reasonable load of daily chores, either. Why did good people like us end up with such a rotten kid? I try to be a good father.”

Mary shook her head good-humoredly as she dried her wet hands on a dishtowel, slipped an apple pie in the oven, settled the home-make brownies more comfortably on their plate, and adjusted the schedule book in which she juggled her forty-seven different weekly volunteer commitments. “Well, Tom,” she said, “she’s not a bad kid; she just acts like one. Tanya’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, stopped taking her bipolar medication and ran off with that bullfighter three months ago, totally ignoring the custody schedule we invested so many lawyers’ bills in setting up. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained the full custody you’d been seeking for years because you loved her so much. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.”

Tom helped himself to a large scoop of the dinner he had known would be waiting for him. “You’re always right, Mary. I’m so lucky to have you.”

Now, this story contains elements of a good character-driven novel, right? There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness and affection for matadors; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his unstable ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy intervenes, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book, diffusing what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along.

Effectively, the narrative’s eagerness to demonstrate the protagonist’s (or other wise adult’s) complete understanding of the situation stops the story cold while the analysis is going on. Not for a second is the reader permitted to speculate whether Tanya’s father or stepmother had done something to provoke her response; we hardly have time even to consider whether Tom’s apparently habitual lateness is legitimate ground for resentment.

A pity, isn’t it? If only Tom had thought, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Tanya’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

Had the narrative just gone ahead and SHOWN Tom and Mary being patient and consistent, earning Tanya’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader MIGHT have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no, the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he DOESN’T show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist’s therapist.

ESPECIALLY if it’s the therapist.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s excellent ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist’s breakthroughs occur outside of the therapist’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Here’s a radical thought for revising a Short Road Home scene: what if you tinkered with it so your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks?

Sound familiar? It should: it’s a pretty solid prescription for a narrative that shows, rather than tells.

Which you should strive to do as often as possible — at least in your first book, where you really need to wow the professionals to break in. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

Happy 500th, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Learning to take feedback well, or, just how far backwards would you like me to bend?

screaming-statue.jpg

How did you do on this weekend’s little quiz? How many examples did it take you to start to suspect that none of the exemplars were very adept at accepting feedback?

To hear agents and editors tell the tale, difficulty listening to and incorporating constructive criticism is the common cold of the writing breed: eventually, pretty much every writer seems to suffer from it in one form or another. They tend to attribute it to a writerly tendency to be so in love with their own words that the very notion of changing any of ‘em seems downright sacrilegious.

Of course, there are SOME writers who feel this way, but in my experience, that’s not really what is at the core of writers’ kicking and screaming over suggested changes. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, the phenomenon has less to do with ego (which is what folks in the industry call it when they’re not being polite) than with unrealistic expectations going into the publishing experience.

Or, to put it another way: hands up, everyone who assumed when you first started writing that the draft the author believed was market-ready was identical, plus or minus some proofreading, to what would end up on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Keep those hands raised if you also thought in your dimly-remembered innocence that agents never asked for manuscript changes and that only unmarketable books were subject to requests for major alterations by publishers.

And go ahead and give a great big primal scream if it is now or would ever have been news to you that the industry considers a manuscript a work-in-progress until the covers have actually been affixed to the book. In some cases, even after.

Let’s take a gander at that particular set of shattered assumptions, shall we? Don’t they all really stem from a belief that the writer has complete control over her artistic product — or, to put it a bit more graphically, that a manuscript must either be accepted as is or not at all?

One small problem with these beliefs: neither is true.

Oh, I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would think that they were — you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference these days without hitting someone in the biz explaining at the top of his lungs that the literary market is so tight these days that a submission needs to be polished to the point where it could go to press as is in order to attract the attention of a really good agent or major publishing house.

This does not, however, mean that it will NOT be revised after that point.

In fact, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that it will, no matter how beautifully written that submission actually is. A manuscript’s being revised between acquisition and publication — and usually between the writer’s signing with an agent and the manuscript’s being submitted as well — is the NORM, not the exception. Typically, the editor who acquires the book, the higher-ups at the publishing house, the marketing department, AND the agent have creative input, at least to the extent of asking for changes.

In other words, our pal Alcibiades is not alone — and from his agent and editor’s points of view, it’s pretty astonishing that he would react as though he were. Because, you see, they know that he was not even the only author given a set of change requests that DAY.

Rather than sending you on your merry way for today with your tender sensibilities reeling into shock with the implications of all this for every manuscript currently under construction in the English language, I’m going to ask you to take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths.

No, not those little gasps: I want honest-to-goodness lung-swellers.

That’s better, isn’t it? To get you used to the concept of creative flux, I’m going to ask you to contemplate not the prospect of changing an entire manuscript at an agent or editor’s request, but merely a few short words.

Admittedly, I’m talking about some important words: the title of the book.

Ask 99.999% of aspiring writers — and about 90% of published authors — and they will tell you that a good title is crucial to the success of a book. When a stunner is chosen, then, it is set in stone.

Again, there are many good arguments to be made in favor of this belief. A good title intrigues potential readers: it has good meter, isn’t a cliché (and don’t we all wish the people who title movies understood THAT?), and feels good in the mouth. It is memorable, catchy, and ideally, has something to do with the content and/or tone of the book.

Knowing this, if you are like most authors, you have probably spent months or even years agonizing over whether the title you have selected for your baby is the right one.

So I really, really hate to be the one to break it to you, but the original title the writer bestows upon a manuscript is like the name given to a newborn kitten: the tyke may have been a perfect Cuddles in her infancy, but as an adult, she is probably going to transmogrify at some point into a Chelsea.

In other words, please do not be too disappointed if the title you picked is not be the one that ends up on the published book cover. The author’s choice seldom is.

Nice, deep breaths. That’s right.

This propensity to change is not, I’m told, a reflection upon writers’ ability to tell readers succinctly what their books are about so much as a practical demonstration that marketers control many ostensibly creative decisions. Even great titles hit the dust all the time, because they are too similar to other books currently on the market or don’t contain catchphrases that will resonate with the target market or even just don’t please the people who happen to be sitting in the room when the titling decision is made.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject the first title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book.

I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. In fact, they will probably be hurt if you are not positively thrilled with the new title.

Keep breathing. If you can get past this, the worst is over.

I could give you hundreds of examples, but as I have personal experience with this phenomenon, I’ll share it with you. My memoir was originally titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, but I certainly did not expect it to stick. As a freelance editor and friend of hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held a lot of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed from above.

In short, I was expecting my title to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, then, to be humble and bow to the inevitable. I was prepared to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not adequate to deal with the situation. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to change my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

As it happens, outside forces intervened, sealing my fate. At the time, my former writing teacher Philip K. Dick’s work was, and remains, popular with moviemakers: one of the selling points of my memoir was that two movies based upon his works were scheduled to come out within the next year and a half, A SCANNER DARKLY in the fall of 2005 and THE GOLDEN MAN in the summer of 2006. However, movie schedules being what they are and animation being time-consuming, A SCANNER DARKLY’s release date got pushed back to March, 2006. And THE GOLDEN MAN (retitled NEXT) was pushed back to 2007.

This could not have been better news to the folks sitting in marketing meetings in 2005, talking about my book. IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? was already scheduled to be published in the winter of 2006. In the blink of an eye, my nebulous publication date gelled into almost instantaneous firmness, to coincide with a film release date, and the marketing department decided within the course of a single meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I was looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means?”

Thereupon followed much scintillating discussion – and no, I still haven’t found out what it means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently rendered my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed.

Some of you have gone cataleptic with horror, haven’t you? Try wiggling your toes and allowing yourself to be distracted by the question murmured by some of your fellow readers: “Why did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question skyward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology.

Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers?)

Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer the argumentative handicap of holding postgraduate degrees.

This is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: you’re an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to your publishers, and you’re a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to your friends. All anyone can agree about is that you are ungrateful beyond human example.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, to win the battle AND the war — but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. For my next book, I gave it my SECOND-best title, reserving my first choice for the inevitable discussion with the folks on the editorial side.

You know what? They kind of liked both of ‘em — and I preserved my reputation for being cooperative and flexible.

Why did I chose to tell you this story at the beginning of my series on taking feedback well, you ask? Simple: to demonstrate just how flexible a first-time author is expected to be — and how high the stakes can be if she can’t quite manage to bend on a small point.

If you’re going to limber up, I think you deserve to know for whom you will be performing that nifty dance routine. Keep up the good work!

An interesting little piece on my mother — and a few thoughts on keeping the faith

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Hey, those of you who have at least a passing interest in my family’s long and semi-illustrious connection with modern science fiction: TotalDick-Head.com has posted a nice little piece on my mother, Kleo Mini, better known to short story readers as K. Emmanuel.

The picture above appears courtesy of some really nice passerby outside the old San Francisco beatnik hangout, the Caffe Trieste, a generous soul whose name has apparently already been lost in the mist of time. The jovial fellow next to her is David Gill, known to all of us here at Author! Author! as the Philip K. Dick scholar whom I invited to join me to speak at Harvard recently.

For those of you who weren’t reading this blog during the tumultuous period when my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, was teetering breathlessly on the edge of publication, my mother was married to the aforementioned science fiction writer throughout the 1950s, the period during which he first began writing professionally. Back then, she looked like this:

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One of the great advantages of growing up in a family of writers (my father, uncle, brother, and a hefty percentage of the family’s friends all hammered away on the same anvil) is not only seeing with one’s own wee eyes that making a living at it is indeed possible, but also hearing from one’s cradle continual confirmation that yes, baby, even the most talented writers on earth have had to struggle with rejection.

Or, to be precise, one is told that back in the day, it wasn’t easy, either. Heck, writers in the 40s and 50s evidently had to walk uphill both ways to the post office in three feet of snow to submit hand-typed manuscripts to agents and editors.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might conceivably be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), a writer could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page.

This is the origin of the SASE, in case any of you had been wondering: getting their rejected manuscripts back would save writers weeks of retyping time.

This fact is as ingrained in my family’s lore as the story of how my parents met. Back in the far-away 1950s, while Kleo toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories. Dozens of them. As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy.

(Because Kleo had a big brother in the SF biz, she knew to take both her agoraphobic husband’s writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published — and how she acquired many of her own excellent copyediting skills. But that’s another story — and part of the memoir that the Dick estate sued to prevent being published. Amazing how persuasive people with millions of dollars can be, in the lawsuit-shy post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES environment. But I digress.)

When a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But both Philip and Kleo kept typing away, keeping as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore (since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost), but one day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch.

Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

I have it on pretty good authority that one of those stories was “The Minority Report.” Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did they toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did they rend their garments and give up writing forever? Did they poison their mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, they did what professional writers did back then: the wife ironed the pages so they could be sent out to the next magazine.

As a writer, I’ve always found this story very comforting. All too often, those of us in the writing community fall under the spell of the common mainstream illusion that any writer with real talent will inevitably be discovered, signed by an agent, and lauded to the skies after a single submission or contest entry.

Come on, admit it: didn’t you send out your first query letter fully expecting to receive a phone call from an agent begging for your manuscript by the end of the week? Didn’t you walk into your first literary conference believing that the ideal agent for your work was waiting there, would demand to read your book in its entirety on the spot, and would sign you before the conference was over? Didn’t you first contemplate contest entry primarily in terms of how heaped with laurels you would inevitably be?

Really, on your low days, don’t you still cherish the illusion that your literary gifts are so valuable to the reading world that some morning, you’ll hear a knock on your door, and it will be the agent of your dreams, begging for the privilege of carrying your work reverently to the perfect editor, who will naturally drop everything to read it, fall in love with it, and acquire it by next Tuesday? The book will, naturally, be out within the month, and before spring is truly upon us, you’ll be chatting with Oprah about it, right?

And the fact that this has literally never happened to someone who wasn’t already a celebrity for some other reason doesn’t really affect the sense that it SHOULD happen to the truly talented, does it? And that’s a genuine shame, because that nagging SHOULD has made virtually every gifted writer feel like throwing in the towel from time to time.

In reality, most authors who hit the big time put in years of hard, dispiriting work to get there. Overnight success is usually an illusion reserved for onlookers — and lasting success tends to reward those who have built up their writer’s tool bags with professional skills.

How did they pull that off? By doing precisely what you have been doing, I hope: by learning which agents and publishing houses would be most receptive to your work, refining your query letters until they positively glow with professionalism, and polishing your manuscripts until they shout, “HERE IS A GREAT ORIGINAL VOICE PRESENTED AS THE INDUSTRY LIKES TO SEE MANUSCRIPTS!” By reading in your chosen book category until you have such a strong sense of the current market that you can state without hesitation why your target audience needs your book. By learning the advantages of seeking out good feedback — and training yourself not to take criticism of your work as a reflection upon your personality. By becoming skilled in self-editing and incorporating feedback so that you may turn around revisions in a timely manner.

And by reminding yourself that the only manuscript that has NO shot at publication is the one that the writer never sends out.

Yes, it’s probably going to take sending it out a LOT to reach the agent and editor best suited to working with your unique voice and worldview — but a lengthy search is not necessarily a barometer of the writer’s talent.

History shows us that even the best books often take a good, long time to find a home. I know that I’ve pointed this out before, but 5 of the 20 best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially rejected by more than a dozen publishers:

Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)

Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)

Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)

Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)

I’m not going to lie to you: this is a tough business, requiring a perversely diverse array of personal attributes: an attention to detail that would make Thomas Edison weep with envy, a sensitive perceptiveness to social dynamics that would make Freud gnash his teeth and run back to the drawing board, a marketing savvy that would make Jacqueline Susann seem dilettantish (if you ever aspire to promoting your own work, see ISN’T SHE GREAT? with all possible dispatch) , and an idealistic tenacity of purpose that even Don Quixote would consider unreasonably strong. Not to mention the favor of the muses that we know as talent.

A tall order? Sure. But somehow, I suspect that you have it in you. Because, as Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Keep metaphorically ironing those pages, everyone, and keep on patiently adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks. And, as always, keep up the good work.

Telling your life story to the judge, part II

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Before I launch into today’s topic, campers, I have a bit of a modification to yesterday’s post. My interview on Dickien.fr is indeed located in the links I listed — here for English and here for French — but in order to leave a comment, readers will need to go to the site’s homepage and click on Commentaires. I know from delightful experience that many of you are inveterate web commenters.

Far be it from me to curtail your freedom of expression. That’s not my style. And frankly, it would be nice for the interviewer to hear that English-speaking readers are interested in my book.

Let’s get back to work.

After yesterday’s post on the advisability of quadruple-checking your memoir entries to make super-sure that they contain NO usages of your first or last name, I believe I heard some murmurs of dissent out there. “Wait just a second,” the voice in the ether I choose to attribute to my readers kept saying, “isn’t this tactic bordering on paranoid overkill? How is the judge ever going to know if I use my name? In a blind-judged contest, the judges never see the author’s name attached to the manuscript, and thus could not know that the name mentioned IS the author’s.”

Well, that’s a good point, disembodied voice. But you still shouldn’t do it for several reasons, all of which boil down to this: are you sure enough about that to risk your entry’s getting disqualified?

First, as I mentioned yesterday, such is the seriousness with which blind judging is taken that if a judge even SUSPECTS that an entry contains the author’s name, that entry may be toast. It doesn’t matter if the judge can GUESS who the author is — since the rules don’t call for complete negation of the memoirist’s identity, all they can catch you on is the use of your name. They watch for it like the proverbial hawks.

But, to be fair, it does not require much of a cognitive leap to conclude that the Sheila Mae who is narrating a memoir excerpt is, in fact, the same Sheila Mae who wrote it.

Second, it is not unheard-of for contests to employ (or, more commonly, impress volunteers into servitude as) initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the entries are distributed to the judges who will rate them on more sophisticated bases.

These screeners sometimes do have your entire entry packet – and thus your name, and will be able to tell immediately if you have violated the don’t-use-your-name rule. So there.

Third — and while this one is the simplest, it is also the way self-namers are most often caught == even in a contest that does not pass entries under the watchful eyes of screeners, someone is going to have to slit open that envelope, if only to extract the check. Someone is going to have to note your name in the contest log, assign your entry the identification number that will allow it to be judged blindly, and pass your entry along to the proper section’s judges.

It’s a boring job. So tell me: how likely do you think it is that such a mail-sorter would glance at the first page of the entry, to render the process a trifle less tedious?

And how many memoir first pages have you ever seen that DIDN’T include SOME mention of the memoir subject’s name? I rest my case.

Except to say: I know that my harping on this is going to throw the more conscientious memoirists out there into a frenzy of proofreading. Actually, though, the entry where the writer has obviously made a determined effort to rid the document of his own name but missed a single instasnce is not usually the one that ends up getting disqualified. Oh, it will certainly get marked down, but probably not thrown into the trash.

So what kinds of violations of this rule DO tend to get the entry disqualified on sight? The one where the entrant clearly didn’t bother to read the rules, but simply printed up the already-existing first chapter and submitted it.

You’d be astonished at how common that is — and how obvious it is to the judges. At least, I hope you would be.

There is, as I mentioned yesterday, one absolutely foolproof, not very time-consuming means of avoiding the problem altogether, of course: use a pseudonym within the context of the entry, adding a note on your title page, STATING that you have changed the names in order to adhere to the rules of the contest.

“For the purposes of this entry,” you could write, “I have changed my family name to Parrothead.”

Yes, it’s kind of silly, but that way, you make it pellucidly clear that you’re not referring to yourself. And, after all, how is the judge to know whether you have substituted the names or not, if you do not say so?

Other good tip for memoirists entering their work in contests is to do a bit of market research prior to entry. (Actually, this is a good idea for anyone writing a book, and certainly for everyone who has to write a synopsis for a contest.) Are there memoirs currently on the market — and in case you were not aware of it, for the industry to consider a published book part of the market, a book either has to have been released within the last five years or have been a bestseller within the last ten — similar to yours?

To put it another way, is your memoir in fact absolutely unique, or does it fit into a well-defined market niche? If it’s the latter, is there a way that you can make its individual appeal to that particular segment of the market clearer in the pages you are submitting?

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest – or indeed, before trying to market it at all.

All of us tend to think of our own experiences as unique, which of course they are; every point of view is to a very great extent original. However, every memoir is about something in addition to the personality of the person writing it, right?

The frequency with which books on those other subjects turn up on the shelves of Barnes & Noble is definitely a matter of fashion; there are fads in memoir-writing, just as in any other kind of publishing, and you can bet your boots that if a particular subject matter is hot this year, the nonfiction rolls of every contest in the country will receive quantities of that type of memoir.

Remember, for instance, after Lance Armstrong’s book came out, and suddenly there were a zillion upbeat I-survived-a-lethal-illness memoirs?

Well, so do contest judges: they read thousands of them. Which meant, in practical terms, that it was quite a bit harder to wow a judge with an illness memoir in that period than at any other time in human history.

Also, certain life experiences tend to recur across a population with predictable regularity, and if you are writing about a well-trodden topic, it is IMPERATIVE that you make it clear in your contest entry PRECISELY how your book is different from the others currently on the market.

Because – and I tremble to tell you this, but it’s true – if you are writing on certain over-mined topics, even the most heart-felt prose can start those cliché warning bells pealing in the average judge’s brainpan.

This is not to say that your personal take is not worth telling – if you’re a good writer with a truly individual take on the world around you, it undoubtedly is. Remember, though, that judges tend to be reading for marketability, and if they perceive that you are writing in an already glutted submarket, your entry may not do as well as an entry on a less well-trodden topic.

Before you bemoan this, recall that not only do agents, editors, and contest judges get tired of seeing the same types of books over and over again; so do readers. Think about how many people suddenly started writing accounts of growing up poor immediately after ANGELA’S ASHES hit the big time, or about over-medicated, over-sexed teenagerhoods in the wake of PROZAC NATION, and plan accordingly.

Sheer repetition can wear down even the most conscientious judge after a while; remember, most contest judges do not judge a single contest only, but return year after year. Certain topics are perennial contest entry favorites.

The result? “Oh, God,” the judge whimpers, instinctively backing away from the papers in front of her, “not another well-written, emotionally rich story about a Baby Boomer daughter nursing her mother through her final illness, and in the process learning to heal the long-standing rift between them!”

Not that any of these judges have anything against women who care for their aging parents; nor is anyone is rooting for those life-long disagreements NOT to be mended. But honestly, after fifteen or twenty of these in a single year’s crop of entries — that’s not an exaggeration, incidentally — a judge does start to long for a nice entry about, say, someone who was mauled by a tiger. Or hit by lightning.

Or at least not following in the wheeltracks of Lance Armstrong.

Conditioned reflex, I’m afraid. Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, and contest judges wince at the sight of the third similar entry of the day. That’s just the way they’re built.

So if you happen to be any of the following, you might want to give some serious thought to how your book ISN’T like the others: a former drug addict/alcoholic/workaholic rediscovering the beauty of day-to-day life; a former hippie/swinger/disco queen recounting his or her glory days; your magnificent weight loss or gain and how that journey made you a better person; a teacher from a white, upper-middle-class background who went to teach in the inner city; a new father confessing that he was not prepared for the practicalities of caring for children; a new mother discovering that motherhood is significantly harder than it is cracked up to be; anyone who worked at a dot com that went bust.

And any reworking of the concepts of THE DA VINCI CODE or the bestsellers of last year.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t bother to enter memoirs that encroach upon these well-trodden areas. You should, if that is the story you burn to tell.

But alert the judge to the ways your book is different and better as soon as possible: on page one of the entry, if you can, and within the first few paragraphs of the synopsis. And don’t just SAY that your book is unique: SHOW it.

For instance, if your memoir details your spiritual awakening, your discovery that the giant corporation for which you worked is corrupt — because, you know, that’s always a surprise — you might want to invest some time in market research to figure out how to make your book come across as fresh and exciting to jaded professional readers.

How? Well, if you check a well-stocked bookstore, or even run your subject matter through an Amazon search, you will get a pretty firm idea of how many other accounts there are that resemble your own, at least superficially.

Some of you are feeling a trifle grumpy at this prospect, aren’t you? I can’t say as I blame you, really. Try to
think of this research as practice for writing that inevitable book proposal.

(All of you memoirists are aware that memoirs are seldom sold on the entire book, right? I keep running into memoir-writers to whom this is news, so I will go ahead and say it: it is not necessary to have a completed memoir before selling it to a publishing house. As with other NF books, the average memoir book proposal contains only a chapter or two — and a WHOLE lot of marketing material.)

One of the best ways to make your work stand out from the crowd is to use the synopsis to show how YOUR memoir is QUITE different than the other memoirs on the subject — and knowing the existing memoir market will be most helpful in figuring out what aspects to stress. What made your experience special, unique, unforgettable from the point of view of a third party? Why couldn’t anyone else on earth have written it, and why will readers want to buy it?

If a reasonably intelligent judge could make it through your memoir entry without being able to answer these questions, you should probably consider a spot of revision before you mail off the entry.

“But wait!” I hear some of you cry. “My book may be on a common topic, but my literary voice is unique! But I can hardly say in my synopsis, this book is different from others on the market because it is better-written, without sounding like a jerk, can I?”

Well, no, but unfortunately, if you are writing about a common experience, you also probably cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. Again, if there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as yours, yours will almost certainly not be the only entry that resembles it.

To put it another way, you can’t be certain that the finding a sense of wholeness after the death of a loved one memoir that the judge read immediately before yours was not written by Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert’s oddly gifted spiritual love child, can you?

Sad but true, if you are writing on a common topic, the bar automatically goes higher, alas, for making YOUR story stand out amongst the rest. You really have to knock their socks off, to an extent that you might not if your topic were not popular that year.

Sorry.

No need to turn your synopsis into a back jacket blurb, but do show how your work is UNLIKE anything else the judge is going to read. Yes, each judge will have your chapter, or few pages, or however much the contest allows you to show him, but sometimes, the difference between a “Thank you for entering” letter and one that says, “Congratulations – you’re a finalist!” is a synopsis that makes the case that THIS entry, out of the half-dozen entries on the same general topic, is the one that is going to hit the big time.

Yes, yes, I know: I’m asking a lot of you here, but I’m positive that you can do this.

You want to know how I know? Because a writer with the staggering courage and honestly to write a truly self-revealing memoir, rather than one that simply makes the self look good, is a writer who has had to master many subtle writing skills. Call me zany, but compared to laying your soul bare on paper, doing a little market research and a bit of book promotion is a walk in the park.

Not a very pleasant park, true, but still, not a minefield. Keep up the good work!

More contest entry bugbears: what’s in a name?

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Anne contemplates her past at Harvard.

Before I launch into today’s topic, I wanted to give you all a heads-up about an interview I have just given to that excellent French Philip K. Dick fansite, Dickien.fr on the subject of my long-delayed memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. For those of you who have been curious about the book (and the hold-up), this interview may answer a few questions.

Charmingly, they’ve posted it both in English and in French. I got a big kick out of that. It’s not the first time my work has been published in other tongues (I wrote for a Dutch magazine, briefly), but it IS the first time it’s been in a language I can read. It makes me sound very soigné.

Fair warning: over the last few years, most of my attempts to tell the story behind my memoir (or, to put it another way, my life before the age of 15) have resulted in nasty lawsuit threats. The question of whether I own my memories or a small corporation does is, in addition to a fabulous-sounding premise for a Philip K. Dick novel, the central fact of my writing life of late.

Call it a literary identity crisis.

In keeping with the theme of the interview, this seems like the natural moment to concentrate for a post upon a category dear to my heart: memoir. As a past PNWA Zola Award winner for best nonfiction book/memoir — for an early draft of the book mentioned above, as it happens — I have a thing or two to say on what does and doesn’t tend to make a memoir entry sing.

So let’s get right to it, shall we? Because I have been concentrating upon technicalities for the past few days, let me begin with the most important one for memoir — and the one most frequently violated:

please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry to a blind-judged contest, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this applies to EITHER your first OR your last name.

Actually, every contest entry everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests they enter, but this is the single most common way for memoir entries to get themselves disqualified – and the reason that for a memoir entry, you should NEVER just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in.

Seriously, memoirists run afoul of this rule all the time, for the exceedingly simple reason that their names tend to appear a whole lot more often in their work than, say, a SF writer’s would in his. (Philip is a notable exception, of course; he created fictional characters with permutations of his own name all the time.) It’s pretty easy to overlook a single reference to the protagonist in a book that’s written in the first person.

Unless, of course, you are writing anonymously, or under a pseudonym. Even then, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying something along the lines of:

since the contest forbids mention of the author’s name, I have substituted “Billie Bartolucci” throughout.

Billy Bartolucci, incidentally, was an immense linebacker at my high school, sweet enough to get a big kick out of the fact that the girls in the drama club used to claim that they were Miss Billie when some ne’er-do-well asked for their names and phone numbers. Billy sounded like Darth Vader on the phone, so the effects were sometimes dramatic.

But I digress. For those of you who have not yet tread the memoir path (which is, I notice, more or less de rigeur for a novelist who hopes to win the Nobel Prize someday), it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Contest judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And why is that a problem? Everybody, sing along with me now: because the judges are trying to weed out as many entries from the finalist running as swiftly as possible.

As usual, it all comes down to time.

The no-name rule, however, exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Now, as I explained in my earlier blogs on how to pick the right contest for you, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at one iota.

Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story about where such cleverness might lead. I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who periodically contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. Now, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club.

But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on.

So he did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song. Danny’s favorite way of doing this was to have an imaginary conversation with himself, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!”

(For the sake of MY own credibility, and because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straightaway: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name.)

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, however,this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-manglers out there — although there apparently are — but because I have seen so many contest entries that have apparently done inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.”

And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent mistakes can knock your entry out of competition.

Now, I think this is pretty mean, personally. Usually, the author’s name (almost always the first) comes up as an unconscious slip, where it’s pretty obvious that the author thought she had expunged all relevant references to herself. But, as I have been telling you for the last couple of weeks, the submitter has absolutely no control over who is going to read his manuscript; it would behoove to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and let’s take a gander at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Naturally, a simple search-and-replace could weed out uses of the name, but late at night, just before a contest deadline, slips do occur.

Luckily, these slips tend to concentrate within certain contexts. Biddy should check her entry especially carefully in the following scenes:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult says: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character OTHER than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(4) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(5) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

And, as I mentioned above, self-references to EITHER your first or last name, not just to both together, are often counted as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she prints it up.

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy, and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.

I’m funny that way. Keep up the good work!

All that glitters is not…oh, wait, it is

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I’m just back from spending the weekend at Harvard, my alma mater, giving a talk about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. It was, amazingly enough, the first time I’ve spoken about the memoir in public — as in EVER — although I have given a scant handful of print, web, and film interviews since the book was supposed to have come out in 2006. (For those of you who arrived at this community after that furor, a $2 million lawsuit threat had stalled the publication process ever since.)

Well, okay, perhaps that isn’t quite accurate. Since I went there in the 1980s and I possess ovaries, technically, I went to Harvard/Radcliffe; the boys went to Harvard. Seriously, they didn’t start giving male and female graduates the same diploma until just a few years ago.

Not that we chicks minded that or anything.

The Radcliffe part, in case you’re interested, is an homage to 18th-century British novelist Ann Radcliffe, who more or less invented the Gothic potboiler, the pulp fiction of her day. She’s best known today as the author of the works that Jane Austen parodied in NORTHANGER ABBEY, but at the height of her popularity, she apparently sent 50 pounds to Harvard along with the suggestion that they might want to consider admitting women. About a century later, they got around to it.

As time passes, an alumna begins to get dismissive about the Harvard mystique, I notice. Okay, it’s a good school, even a great one, depending upon what one wants to study, but to deserve its reputation, wouldn’t plush red carpets have to be rolled out under students’ feet as they passed, showers of jewels float about them whilst they study, and Nobel laureates chat casually with them at every meal?

I mean, really: we’re talking about the same amenities that other campuses have, right, libraries and professors, just with more money behind them than most?

And then I revisited my old dorm. The picture above shows the entryway to the dining hall.

Yes, those walls ARE made of gold, thank you very much, and during my sophomore year, I lived upstairs from the poet Seamus Heaney. To be fair, though, at the time, he was almost ten years away from winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he did occasionally drop by my table to chat at lunch.

Oh, and the libraries were pretty good, too.

My talk was at Vericon, for those of you who did not become heartily sick of my squawking about it last week, the annual convention sponsored by the Harvard/Radcliffe Science Fiction Association. As a founding member (I was known as the girl, thus the inclusion of Radcliffe in the name of the club), my lecture was scheduled to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the group’s inception.

Yes, I am really that old. I don’t believe it, either.

Going back to see the long-term effects of what some friends of mine and I had wrought a couple of decades ago would have been strange enough, even if it hadn’t been — pardon my French — damned hard to set the club up in the first place.

But the fact is, the group’s rise from a handful of SF-loving geeks (admittedly, attractive, well-rounded ones, for the most part, but geeks nonetheless) fighting with the university to establish a club devoted to a book genre that the English department would not even consider touching with the proverbial ten-foot pole to a well-established, well-respected social club that sponsors, with the university’s fervent blessing, a full-scale convention and a magazine…

Well, that’s quite a trajectory for a scant 20 years, and mirrors SF/fantasy’s growing acceptance as literature in general.

It definitely reflects my extended family’s experience over the past 50 years. In the early 1950s, the literary productions of such writers as Philip K. Dick (my mother’s husband at the time) and Alex Apostolides (my mother’s big brother) were considered only marginally more respectable than pornography. (To underscore the irony of this, Uncle Alex was best known for a short story he co-wrote with Hugo Award winner Mark Clifton, “What Thin Partitions,” which appeared in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1954, along with Richard Matheson’s “The Last Day.” Uncle Alex was also an editor at the Los Angeles Free Press, where for years he was listed on the masthead as Staff Shaman.)

Science fiction, in other words, was a pulp genre utterly dismissed by the literati, if and when they deigned to discuss it, as trash for the masses. The literary mainstream barely regarded it as having been written in English.

A view not entirely dissimilar to that expressed in the mid-1980s by the English professors we asked to be HRSFA’s faculty advisors, incidentally — and virtually identical to the response I received a few short years ago, when I mentioned to a well-respected author who regularly serves on major literary grant committees that I was writing a memoir about my relationship with arguably the most important science fiction writer of the 20th century.

Science fiction?” the grand dame exclaimed, wrinkling up her august nose; if she’d had skirts to sweep aside, she would have. “Obviously, I never read it. Why would you waste your talent on that?”

Times, as they say, change. Ask the staff of any used bookstore that stocks American literature of the past fifty years, and they will tell you that there are two authors whose books they positively cannot keep on the shelves: Philip K. Dick and Charles Bukowski.

The latter of whom, incidentally, was a writer for the Los Angeles Free Press.

Last year, Philip was the first SF author to have his work published in the prestigious Library of America series, billed by the New York Times Book Review as the “quasi-official national canon” of American literature. And this year, I gave a lecture on his life and work in the classroom that had previously housed my favorite class as an undergraduate — a course taught, come to think of it, by a professor who refused my request to become HRSFA’s faculty advisor.

Wonders, in fact, never cease; if only Philip or Uncle Alex had lived to see it.

How did it feel to give that talk? As the Doge of Genoa allegedly told someone who asked him to name the greatest wonder he saw at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles — pardon my French again — “Ce qui m’étonne le plus ici, c’est de m’y voir.”

To paraphrase, nothing about it astonished me more than the fact that I, of all people, was there to see it. (Did I mention that the libraries at Harvard were pretty good?)

I marched into that lecture hall practically floating upon the otherworldly cheers of that hefty portion of the choir celestial composed entirely of late under-appreciated writers in every genre. I shared the podium with San Francisco State professor and blogger David Gill, who treated us to a trenchant analysis of Philip Dick’s rise to respectability, complete with pictures.

Or is it really respectability? Through a series of sometimes startling excerpts from reviews and articles, some of which were written in response to the release of Philip’s novel anthology by the Library of America, David demonstrated that much of the recent acclaim has been accompanied by some rather nasty back-handed slaps: in the same breath as they call Philip a genius, they call him a madman, a drug addict, a fruitcake.

All of those phrases are lifted from actual articles, by the way.

The audience oohed, ahed, and chuckled as David demonstrated the bifurcated past and current public image. They became rather quiet when I told them who I was — and that I had spent a significant portion of my childhood and adolescence not only seeing the many ways in which that public persona was not an accurate reflection of the man, but observing and even participating in Philip’s creative manipulation of the media to produce that wacky image.

I come by my storytelling credentials honestly, you see, having grown up helping make up stories for a famous man to tell credulous press. Because, after all, constructing fantasy is the family business.

I’d tell you all about it, but the last time I committed my life story to print, lawyers came storming after me. Sorry about that.

Suffice it to say, the audience did not seem to find my truthful account unconvincing. Which is — if I may be permitted to blow my own horn for a moment — saying something, because as Philip taught me, a really well-constructed fiction is not only more entertaining than the truth, usually, but generally more plausible.

Reality has all sorts of rough edges that a smart storyteller will smooth out.

During the question-and-answer period after my talk, a pretty young woman in the audience — who will, because the times they are a-changin’, receive a diploma marked Harvard in a year or two, rather than a hyphenate reflection upon her gender and a memorial to the generosity of Ann Radcliffe a couple of centuries ago — raised her hand to inform me that she had been assigned to read Philip’s work in a class.

As in recently. As in at Harvard. And the celestial choir of genre writers broke into triumphant song.

Just for a moment, leaning on the podium in front of that room full of science fiction and fantasy fans, including one of the very fans from the mid-1970s Philip — yes, and I — had worked so hard to keep entertained with wild pseudo-biography, I felt not only Philip’s vindication, and my mother’s, and Uncle Alex’s, but the hilarious satisfaction of Ann Radcliffe as well. She had a dream of seeing women at Harvard; I had a dream of seeing science fiction and fantasy treated with respect there.

Just because something impressive seems set in stone doesn’t mean that it actually is permanent. A barrier may be hard to move, but impossible? I don’t think so.

And that, in case you had been wondering, is why I never waver in my faith, exhibited here on a daily basis, that good writing will eventually make its way into the public eye. It may take decades of toil, tears, and plain dogged persistence, but it will. I’ve seen it; my family has seen it; Harvard has seen it.

Bet your bottom dollar on the Ann Radcliffes of this world, my friends. They, like the other wacky dreamers dismissed by the mainstream as disrupters of the status quo, tend to win in the end.

Keep up the good work!