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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part XXIX and I/II: tracking the wily US letter outside of its natural habitat

Last time, judging by the number of horrified private e-mails I have received since I last posted, I suspect I outdid myself on the reader-cautioning front. As so often happens, what induced widespread panic was not one of my habitual grand, wide-ranging philosophical statements, but commentary on a relatively small, practical matter it had never occurred to me to discuss in this forum — and, based upon the aforementioned e-mails, had not occurred to many of my international readers as a problem.

At the risk of sending still more of you charging into the streets, wild-eyed and screaming, allow me to recap: if you are planning upon querying or submitting to a US-based agency, your letter/synopsis/manuscript/everything else you even consider sending them should be printed on US letter-sized paper (8.5″ x 11″), not the internationally standard A4 (8.26″ x 11.69″).

(Oh, and at the risk of repeating myself on another point: it honestly is more efficient — and easier on me — if readers post their reactions and questions in the comments here on the blog, rather than sending them via e-mail. That way, I do not end up composing 42 separate soothing responses when only one would suffice. Also, if you post questions and concerns here, the chances are infinitely higher that some future reader with a similar perplexity will find the response. Karma points for all concerned!)

Those of you far-flung readers who did not immediately clutch your chests and hurl maledictions toward the muses are, I would guess, (a) not intending to approach US-based agents and publishing houses, in which case you should indeed stick with A4, (b) already aware that when in Rome, it’s only polite to do as the Romans do, in which case your tact is to be commended, or (c) smugly assuming that as you are cost-conscious enough to be approaching these agents and publishers electronically, this admonition simply does not apply to you. In that final case, I’m afraid I have some bad news.

You see, US printers and photocopiers are stocked with 8.5″ x 11″ paper — and it’s not at all beyond belief that an agent, literary contest, or small publisher whose submission guidelines specify electronic submissions will want at some point to print out your synopsis, query, entry, or manuscript. So even if you are submitting electronically from abroad, your submissions should be formatted for US letter-size paper.

Half of you did double-takes at the mention of the word contest, didn’t you? That’s right, campers: the overwhelming majority of the surprisingly hefty number of contest entries sent from abroad to writing contests here are misformatted. Either they are printed on the wrong size paper or, if the entry arrives electronically, they are formatted for A4. Any guesses why either might result in instant disqualification, even if the contest’s rules did not specify US letter?

Award yourself a gold star if you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “I know, Anne! A4 allows more words per page than US letter, even with the same margins. So if the pages were full and the contest had length restrictions for entries, it would be quite easy to run quite a bit over the expected word count inadvertently.”

Quite right, gold star recipients. To borrow an example from the other side of the Atlantic, here is how the opening to the third chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE would appear in US letter — and, as is our wont here at Author! Author!, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly.

Here’s the first page of that chapter again, formatted for A4. Can you blame Mehitabel, everyone’s favorite veteran literary contest judge, for suspecting that ol’ Walt was trying to sneak in some extra verbiage?

In a paper submission, she’s likely recognize the problem here as a different paper size. In an electronic submission, though, she might just have a vague sense that something was wrong here. 11-point type instead of 12-point, for instance, or the whole shebang shrunk by 97%: both are fairly common dodges contest entrants (and aspiring writers frustrated by too-short synopsis requirements in general) utilize to try to side-step length restrictions. So even if she had not already knocked this opening out of finalist consideration for all of those which clauses (not considered particularly graceful writing, by current American standards) or the U.K. spellings (when in Rome, etc.), she might well have moved it to the disqualification pile for formatting reasons.

Did that blinding flash of light I saw illuminate the ether a moment ago indicate that the logic puzzle-lovers among you have just extrapolated correctly? “But Anne,” you cry, clutching your metric rulers, “does that mean that all of the time I have already invested in getting my query down to a single page — or whittling my synopsis down to a specified number of pages, or hacking at my contest entry until it is the length requested in the rules — has not in fact achieved my desired object? Are you (gulp) telling me (shiver) that because I wrote all of these assuming the A4 format, they are too long by US letter-sized paper standards?

That’s precisely what I’m telling you, swift calculators. As we saw in a previous post, writers querying, submitting, and entering from abroad frequently violate US length expectations without either intending to cheat or realizing that they have. And no, neither Mehitabel nor her niece, our pal Millicent the agency screener, will necessarily cut you any slack for not being aware of the difference in the paper supply.

Well might you gasp like a trout yanked from the murky depths to sunlit air, e-mailing queriers. If you have been composing your queries in Word set to printing on A4, copying your letters, and pasting them into an e-mail, they probably are longer than a US-generated query would be. And yes, Millicent probably has noticed.

Tempted to think that you might get away with it, are you? Let me ask you: if you had spent the past few months reading thousands of 1-page queries, do you honestly think that your brain wouldn’t automatically start counting lines if the one in front of you seemed a touch on the long side?

While it can be annoying to trim an extra line or two from a query that’s already bumping up against the one-page limit, and downright maddening to try to round a contest entry off so the last page does not end in mid-sentence (although in a contest for book-length works, just as in an agent’s request for a specific number of pages, no one expects the bottom of the last page to end a sentence, section, or thought), I reserve most of my compassion for the hapless submitter-from-abroad wrestling with a synopsis. Pretty much no matter who a writer is or how long the synopsis in question is supposed to be, every line is precious. And since the convention for synopses is to fill all of the allowed pages to the last line or the one before it — you knew that, right? — those few extra lines afforded by A4 paper can make quite a bit of difference.

Yes, of course I’ll show you. To borrow another story from across the pond, force it into a YA format (hey, it’s been a boring day), and present it in US letter:

Uses up every available line, does it not? Here’s precisely the same synopsis formatted for A4.

Makes more of a cumulative length difference than you would have thought, doesn’t it? This second version could take another entire paragraph — and don’t tell me that in summarizing a plot as complex as HAMLET, our friend Will would not have appreciated a little extra descriptive space. Not on this continent, buddy!

Now that I have impressed upon you the importance of using the paper size (and accompanying formatting) if you will be sending queries, synopses, manuscripts, and/or contest entries to the US from abroad, I still have that uneasy sense that those of you affected by this news might be gathering your pitchforks and torches to storm the castle, anyway. “But Anne,” you shout, brandishing the aforementioned weapons of mad scientist intimidation, “it’s not as though US letter is common outside the US. Where would you suggest I pick some up?”

Ooh, good question, pitchfork-brandishers — and a much better question than it would have been just a few years ago. For quite some time, the answer was fairly easy: US-based Kinko’s stocked US letter paper in its outlets all over the world. Once FedEx and Kinko’s merged, however, that seemed to become quite a bit less common. So while I could, as most writing advisors still do, just glibly tell those of you living abroad to track down a US-owned company, walk in, and demand to buy a ream or two of their paper, that’s less feasible than in days of yore.

So what’s a writer to do? The advice would be to order US letter paper from an American-owned company that has branches in your neck of the woods — while Amazon UK doesn’t seem to stock it, Amazon US does, and they do ship abroad. Shipping costs will be expensive enough, though, that you might want to try stopping by your local stationary store first, smiling as sweetly as you can, and asking them to order a box for you, just for comparative pricing purposes. (Your stationer may know US letter by its alternate name, American quarto.)

Yes, that’s rather inconvenient, but certainly less so than the primary answer I found when I did a quick online search — which was, I kid you not, “Go ask at the American embassy.”

While I’m on the subject of tracking down hard-to-find office supplies necessary to the writing set, this seems like an excellent time to repost a question that nonfiction writer Liz brought up the last time I wrote about the rigors and strains of pulling together a nonfiction proposal. After having eyed the photo I posted, she inquired:

What is the make of this portfolio? I cannot find one like this that is not made of paper/card and 30 pages max capacity. Please help!!

I can’t even begin to estimate how many times a year I hear this particular cri de coeur, both via e-mail (boo!) and popping up in the comments (hooray!). Since the comments are, for some reason that escapes me, not searchable with that handy little search engine that continually lurks for your exploratory pleasure at the upper right-hand corner of this blog, though, some of you may have missed my answers. Let’s go ahead and address this in a searchable part of the blog, hey?

For those of you who are not already gnashing your teeth over this particular problem, in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders — yes, even at the submission stage. Don’t even consider trying to use anything fancy or colorful; it will just look unprofessional to the pros. What Millicent and her boss, the agent of her dreams, will expect to find in a nonfiction submission is something like this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. And whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript. Well, not quite the same: the marketing part of the proposal is placed (neatly, please) on the left-hand pocket, while the sample chapter, author bio, and clippings are typically placed on the right-hand side.

Which leads us right back to Liz’s problem, right? A book proposal usually runs in the neighborhood of 30-60 pages, including sample chapter, so she, clever writer, wants a folder that holds at least 20 pages per side. Generally speaking, plastic folders tend to hold more in their pockets than the flimsy cardstock type. (Liz’s proposal won’t be discarded if she sends it a nice cardstock folder; it’s merely more likely to get a bit mangled in transit.)

Once again, the Internet is the writer’s friend here. The Office Depot website carries an Oxford brand pocket folder that can hold up to 200 pages. It’s looks like it may be available only online, though. Scrolling through the site, I found one that they seem to sell in their stores, an Office Depot brand 2-pocket poly folder that holds up to 50 pages..

They also, should anyone happen to be in the market for it, sell a really nice 24-lb. US letter paper. While 20-lb. paper is fine for a submission, I prefer 24-lb.: it won’t wilt in the hand with repeated readings.

Oh, you don’t want Millicent to get so excited about your writing that she passes pages of it around the office?

Again, though, you might want to toddle down to your local stationary emporium and inquire. You might be surprised at what’s lurking in their back room.

My overall point, should it have gotten a trifle lost in the welter of details, is that when it comes to querying, submission, and literary contest entry, what might be easiest — or most obvious — for the writer often is not what the people on the receiving end are expecting. Yes, that’s can be kind of annoying, but remember, one of the things an aspiring writer is demonstrating at query or submission time is that she can present her work professionally. That means, among other things, printing manuscripts on the size of paper currently in use in that agency and presenting proposals in the kind of quiet, dignified folder that allows the writing to speak for itself.

Because that’s how the Romans roll, people. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XXII: and then there’s the finesse part, or, the advantages of lingering on the right track

My apologies for the unexpected mid-series hiatus; I honestly had not anticipated that Pitchingpalooza would carry us into September. (Especially as I have some genuinely juicy treats in store for you over Labor Day weekend.) Blame the muses’ notoriously perverse sense of humor for arranging to have two — count ‘em, two — of my editing clients’ acquiring editors announcing that they were moving on to pastures new last week. Everyone concerned wishes them happy trails, of course, but with a certain amount of trepidation: with any changing of the editorial guard inevitably comes changed expectations for the handed-over manuscript.

Okay, I’m not entirely clear on what that massive collective gasp of horror out there in the ether meant. Were some of you unaware that in recent years, it has become not at all uncommon for the acquiring editor not to remain with the publishing house long enough to see a book she just loved as a submission all the way through the publishing process? Or was the shock — and I suspect it was — that editors will often ask for major changes in manuscripts after they have acquired them, for both fiction and nonfiction?

Oh, I’m sorry; I should have warmed all of you memoirists out there before I sprung that last bit, especially those of you who have been slaving over the Annotated Table of Contents in your book proposals in anticipation of a post-Labor Day submission blitz. I know that you have been working hard, trying to cobble together a plausible and entertaining story arc in a series of chapter summaries — so it may well be dispiriting to hear that it’s far from rare for an acquiring editor, or even an agent offering representation to a nonfiction author, to tell the point-blank that some of those chapters will need to go. Or that others should be added.

Starting to make more sense now that nonfiction is typically sold on a book proposal, not a completed manuscript? While most of the book is theoretical, it’s easier to conceive of changing it.

Yes, even if the writer believes that it is already finished. No matter how complete a memoir or nonfiction book may be in the author’s mind, from a publishing perspective, everything is up for negotiation until it is actually in print and sitting on a bookstore shelf. What is and isn’t finished is the publisher’s call, not the author’s. That assumption pervades the submission stage, and even the pitching/querying stage of a proposal’s progress. From the acquiring editor’s point of view, the proposal is essentially a job application: the writer is making the case that she is the best person currently wandering this terrestrial sphere for the publishing house to hire to write that particular book.

See why I’ve spent this series urging all of you nonfiction writers to spend this series thinking about your platform, and figuring out ways to work it into your pitch?

I sensed all of you novelists relaxing over the course of the last couple of paragraphs, but perhaps you shouldn’t have: agents and editors ask fiction writers to change their manuscripts all the time, too, even absent an editorial changing of the guard. Little things, usually, like whether the ending of the book is dramatically satisfying or whether a complex literary voice constitutes overwriting or is just right.

And while we’re massaging the text, need the protagonist’s sister be gay? Or a deep-sea fisherperson with marked propensities toward disestablishmentarianism?

Oh, you may laugh, but with the high turnover at publishing houses these days, a savvy writer needs to be prepared to be flexible. Just don’t modify your only electronic copy of your original manuscript; it’s not beyond belief that the editor who takes over tomorrow from the person who took over yesterday will like the same things about your book that the acquiring editor did.

Are your heads spinning, campers? Good: you’re in a perfect mindset to think about conference pitching.

After the last couple of Pitchingpalooza posts we talked about how to pull everything we’ve learned throughout this series into a formal 2-minute pitch. Couldn’t you feel the excitement crackling in the air? The moment nearly brought a tear to the eye: the public rejoiced, the heavens opened, lions and lambs lay down together, and agents all over New York spontaneously flung their arms around the nearest aspiring writer, gurgling with joy.

What, you missed all that? Even the good folks cleaning up the ticker tape parade?

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a trifle. And maybe those of you who aren’t planning to attend a conference and pitch anytime soon didn’t find it all that goosebump-inducing. “Let’s get on with it, Anne,” some nonambulant writers scoffed. “Let’s get back to the type of stuff that writers do at home in the solitude of their lonely studios: writing, rewriting, querying, rewriting some more…”

Patience, scoffers: as I may have mentioned once or twice in the course of this admittedly rather extensive series, learning to pitch is going to make you a better querier. And perhaps even a better writer, at least as far as marketing is concerned.

Did I just hear the scoffers snort derisively again? Allow me to ask a clarifying question, smarty-pantses (astute slacksers?): hands up, every querying veteran out there who now wishes devoutly that s/he had known more about how the publishing industry thinks about books before querying for the first time.

That’s quite a response. Keep ‘em up if you sent out more than five queries before you figured out what your book’s selling points were.


Or — sacre bleu! – your book’s category.

That last one is so common that I decided to spare you the artistic representation, so there would still be room on the page for the rest of today’s post. The very idea of querying without knowing makes me cringe: how can you even guess which agents to query before you’ve come up with that?

Which is precisely why it’s a good idea for even writers who would never dream of pitching their books in person to learn how to do it. Not only are many of the same skills required to construct a winning pitch and a successful query letter, but many of the actual building blocks are the same.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that?

Rest assured, it’s all been part of my evil plan. After Labor Day, we are going to delve once again into the wonderful world of querying. After a few well-deserved treats and perhaps a couple of short forays into craft, of course.

Why wait until after Labor Day, you ask? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because a hefty hunk of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation from the second week of August through Labor Day. And when they get back, guess what’s piled up high on their already-cluttered desks?

Uh-huh. Might as well hold off until they’ve had a chance to dig through those thousands of piled-up queries.

Trust me, you certainly have time to ponder the mysteries of pitching, glean a few insights, and think about your book’s selling points before our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, will wade her way through the backlog. Heck, you would also have time for a mastoid operation and a trip to the Bahamas; for a good week or two into September, Millie’s going to need be rejecting at a speeded-up clip, just to get through the backlog. Not to mention the thousands of queries that will dumped on her desk just after Labor Day, because so many aspiring writers had heard that they shouldn’t query in August.

I can already feel some of you gearing up to query up a storm that weekend, but honestly, you might want to hold off for a week or two. And whatever you do, do not send an e-mailed query over a long weekend; the probability of getting rejected skyrockets.

Why, you shriek in horror? Millie’s inbox overfloweth on pretty much any Monday, because writers tend to have more time on the weekends. Labor Day weekend is especially popular, because so many of you have been tapping your toes impatiently, waiting for agencies to become populated again. By restraining yourself until, say, Wednesday, your e-mailed query

“But Anne,” I hear some reformed scoffers point out, “why shouldn’t I add my query letter to that pile? Won’t they answer them in the order received?”

Well, more or less. However, Millie’s been known to be a mite grumpy until she has cleared enough desk space to set down her latte. Any guesses what the quickest way to clear a desk of queries is?

Wait until the second week of September. At least.

In the meantime — which is to say: for the next few days — I want to round off Pitchingpalooza with some in-depth discussion of how to navigate a writer’s conference. Yes, yes, I know, we’ve been talking about conferences for the last month, but be fair:: I visit the topic only once per year. It’s been a long visit this time, admittedly, of the type that may well make some of you long for the houseguests to go home, already, but still, I don’t talk about it that often.

Perhaps that’s a mistake, since writers’ conference attendance has been skyrocketing of late. Blame the hesitant economy; writing a book is a lot of people’s fallback position. Interesting, given how few novelists actually make a living at it, but hey, a dream’s a dream.

Literary conferences can be pretty hard to navigate your first time around — and that’s unfortunate, because the darned things tend not to be inexpensive. Like pitching and querying, there are some secret handshakes that enable some aspiring writers to hobnob more effectively than others, as well as norms of behavior that may seem downright perplexing to the first-time attendee.

Up to and including the fact that there’s more to getting the most out of a conference than just showing up, or even showing up and pitching. So I’m going to be talking about the nuts and bolts of conference attendance, with an eye to helping you not only pitch more successfully, but also take advantage of the often amazing array of resources available to aspiring writers at a good conference.

Not to mention feeling more comfortable in your skin while you’re there.

Last week, I brought up a couple of the more common conceptual stumbling-blocks writers tend to encounter while prepping their elevator speeches and formal pitches. The first and most virulent, of course, is coming to terms with the necessity of marketing one’s writing at all — in other words, to begin to think of it not just as one’s baby, but as a product you’re trying to sell.

Half of you just tensed up, didn’t you?

I’m not all that surprised. From an artistic perspective, the only criterion for whether an agent or editor picks up a manuscript should be the quality of the writing, followed distantly by the inherent interest of the story. For many writers, the burning question of whether a market for the book already demonstrably exists doesn’t even crop up during the composition process; they write because they are writers — and writers write.

Is anyone but me sick of that well-worn tautology, by the way? Is it actually any more profound than saying that spelunkers explore caves, or that orchard-tenders have been known to pick the occasional apple?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but books do not get published simply because someone has taken the trouble to write them — or even because they are well-written. An aspiring writer must make the case that her book is not only a great yarn, but one that will fit into the current book market neatly. And, as many a pitcher and querier knows to her sorrow, she will need to make that case before anyone in the industry be willing to take a gander at the actual writing.

I know, I know: it seems backwards. But as I believe I have mentioned approximately 1704 times before, I did not set up the prevailing conditions for writers; I merely try to cast them in comprehensible terms for all of you.

If I ran the universe — which, annoyingly, I still don’t, as nearly as I can tell — writers would be able to skip the pitch-and-query stage entirely, simply submitting the manuscripts directly with no marketing materials, to allow the writing to speak for itself. Every submitter would receive thoughtful, helpful, generous-minded feedback, too, and enchanted cows would wander the streets freely, giving chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk to anyone who wanted it — or soy milk to the lactose-intolerant. I might even spring for wandering pixies wielding juicers, to bring orange, mango, and kale juice to a neighborhood near you.

Being omniscient, I would also naturally be able to tell you why the industry is set up this way. I’d be so in the know that I could explain why Nobel Prize winner José Saramago was so hostile to the conventions of punctuation that he wrote an entire novel, SEEING, without a single correctly punctuated piece of dialogue. And I would be able to issue all of you well-meaning aspiring writers who think unpunctuated dialogue looks nifty on the page a blanket pardon, so Millicent would not be allowed to reject you on the grounds that you evidently don’t know how to punctuate dialogue.

I would be that generous a universe-ruler.

But I do not, alas, run the universe, so Señor Saramago and certain aspects of the publishing industry are likely to remain mysteries eternal. (What harm would it have done him to use a period at the end of a sentence occasionally? Or a question mark at the end of a question?)

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: no matter how talented you are, if you hope to get published, the marketing step is a necessity. Even if you were Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Madame de Staël rolled into one, in the current writers’ market, you would still need to approach many, many agents and/or editors to find the right match for your work — and your work would stand a much, much better chance if you talk about it in the language of the industry.

That’s true, incidentally, even if you approach an agent whose submission guidelines ask writers to send pages along with the initial query, instead of by special request afterward (as used to be universal). If the marketing approach is not professionally crafted, chances are slim that those pages will even get read.

Oh, there you go, gasping again, but honestly, this is a simple matter of logistics. Remember, a good agency typically receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week. If Millicent isn’t wowed by the letter, she simply doesn’t have time to cast her eyes over those 5 or 10 or 50 pages the agency’s website said that you could send.

That’s not being mean. That’s trying to get through all of those queries without working too much overtime.

Unfortunately, the imperative to save time usually also dictates form-letter rejections that the querier entirely in the dark about whether the rejection trigger was in the query or the pages. (Speaking of realistic expectations, please tell me that you didn’t waste even thirty seconds of YOUR precious time trying to read actual content into it didn’t grab me, I just didn’t fall in love with it, it doesn’t meet our needs that this time, or any of the other standard rejection generalities. By definition, one-size-fits-all reasons cannot possibly tell you how to improve your submission.)

All of which is to say: please, I implore you, do not make the very common mistake of believing that not being picked up by the first agent whom you pitch or query means that your work is not marketable. Or of adhering to the even more common but less often spoken belief that if a book were really well written, it would somehow be magically exempted from the marketing process.

It doesn’t, and it isn’t. Unrealistic expectations about the pitching — and querying — process can and do not only routinely make aspiring writers unhappy at conferences the world over, but frequently also prevent good writers from pitching well.

Yes, you read that correctly. Operating on misinformation can genuine hurt a writer, as can a fearful or resentful attitude. Part of learning to pitch — or query — successfully entails accepting the fact that from the industry’s point of view, you are presenting a PRODUCT to be SOLD.

Not, as the vast majority of writers believe, and with good reason, a piece of one’s soul ripped off without anesthesia.

So it is a teeny bit counter-productive to respond — as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time pitchers do — to the expectation that they should be able to talk about their books in market-oriented terms as evidence that they are dealing with Philistines who hate literature.

To clear up any possible confusion for the high-browed: you should, and they don’t.

Why do so many pitchers respond to the pros as though they were evil demons sent to earth for the sole purpose of tormenting the talented and rewarding the illiterate? Selling books is how agents and editors make their livings, after all: they have to be concerned about whether there’s a market for a book they are considering.

They’re not being shallow; they’re being practical.

Okay, most of them are not just being shallow. My point, should you care to know it: a pitching appointment is not the proper venue for trying to change the status quo. Querying or pitching is hard enough to do well without simultaneously decrying the current realities of book publishing.

And yes, in response to that question your brain just shouted, aspiring writers do bring that up in their pitches and queries. All the time. Heck, it’s not all that unusual for a pitcher to mention that the book has been rejected before, and how often.

Don’t emulate their example. Trust me on this one: it’s not going to make your book seem more market-ready to bring up that you’ve already queried it 700 times.

That isn’t just poor strategy — it’s symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes an author successful. Selling is a word that many writers seem to find distasteful when applied to trying to land an agent, as if there were no real distinction between selling one’s work (most of the time, the necessary first step to the world’s reading it) and selling out (which entails a compromise of principle.)

C’mon — you know what I’m talking about; if not, just bring up the issue over a sandwich at your next writers’ conference. This is a real, vitriol-stained topic in writers’ circles.

When aspiring writers speak of marketing amongst themselves, it tends to be with a slight curl of the lip, an incipient sneer, as if the mere fact of signing with an agent or getting a book published would be the final nail in the coffin of artistic integrity. While practically everyone who writes admires at least one or two published authors — all of whom, presumably, have to deal with this issue at one time or another — the prospect of compromising one’s artistic vision haunts many a writer’s nightmares.

That’s a valid fear, I suppose, but allow me to suggest another, less black-and-white possibility: fitting the square peg of one’s book into the round holes of marketing can be an uncomfortable process, but that doesn’t mean it is inherently deadly to artistic integrity. It also doesn’t mean that any writer, no matter how talented, can legitimately expect to be commercially successful without going through that process.

That is not to say there are not plenty of good reasons for writers to resent how the business side of the industry works — there are, and it’s healthy to gripe about them. Resent it all you want privately, or in the company of other writers.

But do not, I beg you, allow that resentment to color the pitch you ultimately give. Or the query letter.

I know, I know: if you’ve been hanging out at conferences for a while, deep-dyed cynicism about the book market can start to sound a whole lot like the lingua franca. One can get a lot of social mileage out of being the battle-scarred submission veteran who tells the new recruits war stories — or the pitcher in the group meeting with an editor who prefaces his comments with, “Well, this probably isn’t the right market for this book concept, but…”

To those who actually work in the industry, complaining about the current market’s artistic paucity will not make you come across as serious about your work — as it tends to do amongst other writers, admittedly. The pros just hear it too often. As a result, such complaints are likely to insult the very people who could help you get beyond the pitching and querying stage.

Yes, you may well gulp. To an agent’s ears, writers who complain about how much harder it is to get one’s work read than even ten years ago — it’s not your imagination — tend to sound, well, naïve. Of course it’s hard to break into the business; simple math dictates that.

“What does your perhaps well-founded critique of how the industry works have to do with whether I want to read your manuscript?” the pros murmur as writers lecture them on how it really should be easier. “I’m sitting right here — wouldn’t this time be better spent telling me what your book is about?”

Besides, neither a pitch meeting nor a query letter is primarily about writing, really. They’re both about convincing agents and editors that here is a story or topic that can sell to a particular target audience.

If your pitch convinces them that your work falls into that category, then they will ask to see pages. Out comes the broken record again:

Contrary to what the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, the goal of the pitch (and the query letter) is not to make the business side of the industry fall in love with your writing, per se — it’s to get the agent or editor to whom it is addressed to ask to see manuscript pages or a proposal.

Then, and only then, is it logically possible for them to fall in love with your prose stylings or vigorous argument. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: no one in the world can judge your writing without reading it.

This may seem obvious outside the context of a pitching or querying experience, but it’s worth a reminder during conference season. Too many writers walk out of pitching meetings or recycle rejections from queries believing, wrongly, that they’ve just been told that they cannot write. It’s just not true.

But by the same token, a successful verbal pitch or enthusiastically-received query letter is not necessarily a ringing endorsement of writing talent, either. Both are merely the marketing materials intended to prompt a request to see the writing itself.

Which means, of course, that if you flub your pitch, you should not construe that as a reflection of your writing talent, either; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences.

I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore,” or “I could have sold that story ten years ago, but not now”) often does make it sound like a review of your writing. But it isn’t; it can’t be.

All it can be, really, is a statement of belief about current and future conditions on the book market, not the final word about how your book will fare there. Just as with querying, if an agent or editor does not respond to your pitch, just move on to the next prospect on your list.

Does any of that that make you feel better about the prospect of walking into a pitch meeting? Did it at least permit you to get good and annoyed at the necessity of pitching and querying, to allow all of that frustration to escape your system?

Good. Now you’re ready to prep your pitch.

Did I just sense some eye-rolling out there? “But Anne,” I hear some chronically sleep-deprived preppers cry, “can’t you read a calendar? I’ve been working on my pitch for weeks now. I keep tinkering with it; I know I have the perfect pitch in me, but I can’t seem to bring it out.”

I know precisely what you mean. After staring for so long at a single page of text (which is, after all, what a formal pitch ends up being, at most), it can feel like it’s taken over one’s life. As with any revision process, either on one’s own work or others’, one can become a touch myopic, both literally and figuratively.

How myopic, you ask? Let me share an anecdote of the illustrative variety.

A couple of years ago, I went on a week-long writing retreat in another state in order to make a small handful of revisions to a novel of mine. Small stuff, really, but my agent was new to the project (having inherited it when my original agent went on maternity leave) and wanted me to give the work a slightly different spin before he started submitting it. Basically, he wanted it to sound a bit more like his type of book, the kind editors had grown to expect from his submissions. Perfectly legitimate, of course (if it doesn’t sound like that to you, please see both the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK and HOW TO BE AN AGENT’S DREAM CLIENT categories on the list at right before you even consider getting involved with an agent), and I’m glad to report that the revisions went smoothly.

At the end of my week of intensive revision, a friend and her 6-year-old daughter were kind enough to give me, my computer, and my many empty bottles of mineral water (revision is thirsty work, after all, and the retreat did not offer glass recycling) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a not entirely flattering reference to her Maker.

Nothing truly soul-blistering, mind you, just a little light taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Fresh from vacation Bible school, her daughter pointed out, correctly, that her mother had just broken a commandment and should be ashamed of herself. (Apparently, her school hadn’t yet gotten to the one about honoring thy father and thy mother.)

“Not if God wasn’t capitalized,” I said without thinking. “If it’s a lower-case g, she could have been referring to any god. Apollo, for example, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being berated in moments of crisis. It could make them feel important.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that generated a certain amount of chagrin when the little girl repeated it in her next Sunday school class. Not that I wasn’t technically correct, of course, but I should have let the situation determine what is an appropriate response. Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

That’s true in pitching, too. Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep. In part, that’s the nature of the beast: since aspiring writers are not told nearly enough about what to expect from a pitching appointment (or a potential response to a query), they tend to grasp desperately at what few guidelines they are given, following them to the letter.

To a certain extent, that makes perfect sense: when going into an unfamiliar, stressful situation, it’s natural to want to cling to rules. The trouble, as I have pointed out throughout this series, is that not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable to their individual situations, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to the wrong rules can be a serious liability.

Anyone who has ever attended a writers’ conference has seen the result: the causalities of hyper-literalism abound.

Since not all of you are nodding sagely, allow let me take you on a guided tour: there’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night because her prepared pitch is four sentences long, instead of three; there’s the one who despairs because he’s been told that he should not read his pitch, but memorize it, but stress has turned his brain into Swiss cheese. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes — but has only three periods. In another corner mopes the romance writer who has just heard an agent say that she’s not looking for Highland romances anymore; naturally, the writer hears this as no one is looking to acquire your kind of book any more.

You get the picture. As writers listen to litanies of what they are doing wrong, and swap secrets they have learned elsewhere, the atmosphere becomes palpably heavy with depression.

By the end of the conference, the truisms all of these individuals have shared will have bounced around, mutating like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone. That, combined with days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher utters being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on. And if a writer has a sound analytical mind, he is apt to notice that a heck of a lot of those rules are mutually contradictory.

Take a nice, deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you. What it is trying to do is get you to adhere to under-advertised publishing norms. While some of those norms are indeed inflexible — the rigors of standard manuscript format, for instance — most of the time, you will be fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

So those of you who are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: don’t. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly. No agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words in a hallway pitch, any more than she will be counting its periods.

Admittedly, they may begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words or frequency of punctuation. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some pitchers’ concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is not because there is some special virtue in that number of sentences, but to make sure that the elevator speech is short enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

Thus the term. The elevator speech should be sufficiently brief to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor.

Remember, though, that no matter what you may have heard, an elevator speech is not a formal pitch but a curtailed version of it. The elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them.

So if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, put that energy to good use: it actually makes far more sense to time your pitch than it does to count the words. Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so.

But do not, I beg you, rend your hair in the midnight hours between now and your next pitching opportunity trying to figure out how to cut your pitch from 2 minutes, 15 seconds down to 2, or plump it up from a minute seventeen to 2, just because I advise that as a target length.

I’m not going to be standing there with a stopwatch, any more than an agent is. And until I rule the universe, I can pretty much guarantee that no agent or editor, even my own, is ever going to say, “Well, that WOULD have been a great pitch, but unfortunately, it was 17.4 seconds longer than Anne Mini says it should be, so I’m going to have to pass.”

Even if I did rule the universe (will someone get on that, please?), no one would ever say that to you. It’s in your best interest to adhere to the spirit of my advice on the pitch — or anyone else’s — not necessarily the letter.

How might one go about doing that? Well, remember that elevator speech I wrote a couple of weeks ago for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say: sixty- two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance. That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper, I would go ahead and add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the magic first hundred words as well. If I had just spent a weekend prowling the halls, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I would have tried to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is women’s fiction and the title.

Oh, and to have the time to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name, and manners enough to share it with people when I first meet them. But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds, if I were pinched for time. Nor should you.

Brevity is not, however, the only virtue a pitch should have, any more than every single-page letter in the world is automatically a stellar query. If you’re marketing a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the world’s best-equipped person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself — in addition to my adult professional experience, I also spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known author around to SF conventions; aspiring writers were perpetually leaping out from behind comic books and gaming tables to tell him about their book — so I can tell you with authority: far more pitches fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

Embrace the spirit of brevity, not the letter. If you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it.

Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will ever tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

As the song says, keep those spirits high, pulses low. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part II: the money matters

After our long, in-depth foray into the delights of standard format for manuscripts, and as a segue into what I hope will be an extended romp through craft, with particular emphasis upon problems that tend to generate knee-jerk rejection responses, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. (My, that was lengthy sentence, was it not? The late Henry James would have been so proud.) There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok, or to a small publisher domestically? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time. While we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor the author approached liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, it’s the acquiring editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not necessarily only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of the editorial committee, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, who will in turn discuss it with the author, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, they will stipulate that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, please recall, is already completely written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. If the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book. Such as…

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book.

Sorry to be the one to break the bad news, but it’s better that you know the score going into the situation. Pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your misguided boneheaded downright evil suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling. Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press? It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine those last couple of paragraph having that effect — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling with your editor over every single requested change. Editorial control is built into the publishing process, after all; if you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

A few matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly, a coy reference to A Scanner Darkly, which is in itself a reference to 1 Corinthians 13), believe me, my sympathies are squarely on the writers’ side on this one. (And no, Virginia, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

The moral, should you care to know it: while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, take a gander at the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the archive list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has increasingly been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a pocket or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel.

Hey, a Kindle’s an electronic device — it has to be turned off for takeoff and landing.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, they will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is typically months prior to the print date. This often comes as a great big surprise to a first-time author.

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad or news story, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year. More often two.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

So although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the excellent folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
An author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every six months is fairly standard.

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

Yet another moral: it behooves you to read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers. Many aspiring writers believe, mistakenly, that all that’s necessary for a book to get published is to write it. However, as any author whose first book came out within the last decade could tell you, bringing one’s writing to the publishing industry’s attention can be almost as much work as the composition process — and has been known to take just as long or longer.

Again, sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s vital to a good writer’s happiness to understand that extended, frustrating, and difficult roads to publication are the norm for first books these days, not the exception.

Clinging to the common writerly misconception that if writing is any good, it will always be picked up by the first or second agent who sees it, or that a manuscript that doesn’t find a publisher within the first few submissions must not be well-written, is a sure road to discouragement, if not outright depression. Certainly, it makes a writer more likely to give up after just a few rejections.

Since the competition in the book market is fierce by the standards of any industry, realistic expectations are immensely helpful in equipping even the most gifted writer for the long haul. It can also be hugely beneficial in tracking down and working well with the helpful friend who will be toting your manuscript to publishers for you, your agent.

So how does a writer go about acquiring this valuable assistant? Unless one happens to be intimate friends with a great many well-established authors, one has two options: verbally and in writing.

But first, let’s talk about what an aspiring writer should NEVER do
Querying and pitching are an aspiring writer’s only options for calling a US-based agent’s attention to his or her work. Picking up the phone and calling, stopping them on the street, or other informal means of approach are considered quite rude.

Translation: they’re not going to work. Don’t even try.

The same holds true for mailing or e-mailing a manuscript to an agent without asking first if s/he would like to see it, by the way. This is universally an instant-rejection offense. Unlike in the old days, simply sending to an agent who has never heard of you will only result in your work being rejected unread: uniformly, agencies reject pages they did not actually ask to see (known as unsolicited submissions).

Is everyone clear on how to avoid seeming rude? Good. Let’s move on to the accepted courteous means of introducing yourself and your book.

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

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

Always limited to a single page in length, the query letter briefly presents the agent with the bare-bones information s/he will need in order to determine whether s/he wants to read any or all of the manuscript the writer is offering. This will be familiar to those of you who worked through my Querypalooza series last fall, but for the benefit of all of you New Year’s resolvers new to the game, here’s a list of the information a good query should include:

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

(2) The book category. Basically, the part of the bookstore where the publishing book will occupy shelf space. Since no agent represents every kind of book, this information is essential: if an agent doesn’t have connections with editors who publish the type of book you’re querying, he’s not going to waste either your time or his by asking to see it. (For guidance on how to determine your book’s category, please see the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY listing on the archive list on the lower-right side of this page.)

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

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

(4) The writer’s previous publishing credentials or awards, if any, and/or expertise that renders her an expert on the book’s topic. Although not necessarily indicative of the quality of a book’s writing, to an agent, these are some of your book’s selling points. For tips on figuring out what to include here, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category on the list at right.

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

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

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

(7) A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the agent’s reply. This isn’t part of the letter, strictly speaking, but it absolutely must be included in the envelope in which you send your query. No exceptions, not even if you tell the agent in the query that you would prefer to be contacted via e-mail.

I’m serious about this: don’t forget to include it. Queries that arrive without SASEs are almost universally rejected unread. (For tips on the hows and whys of producing perfect SASEs, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category on the list at right.)

Is there more to constructing a successful query letter than this? Naturally — since I’ve written extensively about querying (posts you will find under the perplexingly-named HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the archive list, if you’re interested) and how it should look (QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED), the list above is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to how to write one.

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

Approaching an agent in writing, part II: the electronic or website-based query
Because of the aforementioned slow turn-around times for queries sent via regular mail, increasing numbers of aspiring writers are choosing to send their query letters via e-mail. There are pros and cons to this — which I shall go over at length in a day or two, when I fulfill a reader request for a Formatpalooza take on the subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, since writers’ conferences often import agents to speak, many set up formal pitching sessions for attendees. Sometimes they charge extra for the privilege; sometimes it’s included in the conference fee. It’s also sometimes possible to buttonhole an agent after a seminar or in a hallway, but many conference organizers frown upon that. (Contrary to conference-circuit rumor, it’s typically the conference bigwigs who object to hallway pitching, not the attending agents. Virtually nobody objects to being approached politely immediately after a conference panel — and if they do, they simply say no and walk away. But no matter how much you want a particular agent to represent you, it’s NEVER considered acceptable to attempt to pitch in a conference or literary event’s bathroom. Don’t let me catch you doing it.)

Like the query letter, the purpose of the pitch is not to convince the agent to sign a writer to a long-term representation contract on the spot, but to get the agent to ask the writer to mail him or her chapters of the book. (To engage in another parenthetical just-between-us chat: contrary to what conference brochures often imply, agents virtually never ask a pitcher to produce anything longer than a five-page writing sample on the spot. Since manuscripts are heavy, they almost universally prefer to have writers either mail or e-mail requested pages. I don’t know why conference organizers so often tell potential attendees otherwise.)

In order to achieve that, you’re going to need to describe your book compellingly and in terms that will make sense to the business side of the industry. In essence, then, a pitch is a verbal query letter.

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

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

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

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

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

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are looking for in-depth analysis on any of these subjects or step-by-step how-tos, try perusing the category list at right.

Since I usually tackle these issues on a much more detail-oriented basis — a hazard of my calling, I’m afraid — I’m finding it quite interesting to paint the picture in these broad strokes. Next time, I shall talk a bit about what happens after a query or submission arrives at an agency — and perhaps use that as a segue into that aforementioned additional Formatpalooza post, by special reader request.

The joint is going to be jumping here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XX: wrapping up the book proposal in style

Before I launch into today’s festivities, I am pleased to announce a reprieve for those of you who wanted to enter the Author! Author! Rings True contest, but have not yet found the time: the deadline has been extended to Monday, January 10th, at noon in your time zone. So if any of you literary fiction writers, memoirists, or folks who are just unsure about your book category would like some of my patented no-holds-barred feedback on the first page of your manuscript and synopsis, now is your chance!

Back to business. As today’s title implies, I’m going to be finishing up my whirlwind overview of book proposal formatting this evening. This exciting development (hey, everything’s relative) is, of course, merely a plateau in our continuing climb toward mastery of standard format for book manuscripts. In my next post, I shall be wrapping that up, too, via my favorite means: answering readers’ burning questions.

So if you’ve been holding back any, waiting for someone else to ask, now would be a dandy time to leap into the fray. The comments on today’s post, for instance, would be a dandy place to bring up any lingering concerns.

Before we launch into this last installment, let’s recap, shall we? (Yes, yes, I know, I’ve covered all this before, but you’d be surprised at how many writers in a hurry will read only the most recent post in a series like this.) Here, once again, are the constituent parts of the book proposal, in the order they should appear:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves both Millicent the agency screener and Maury the editorial assistant with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

3. The competitive market analysis

4. The annotated table of contents

Everyone relatively happy about all of those? Again, please pop a question into the comments, if not. As, indeed, incisive reader Laura did the last time I discussed the intricacies of book proposals:

Quick question about the table of contents. The book I am proposing is written in first and second person Should the Annotated Table of Contents be written in the same style or should it be a third person explanation of the chapters?

Great question, Laura: the annotated table of contents should be written in the third person, regardless of the voice of the proposed book. That is not true of the rest of the book proposal: the opening pages of book description (and, of course, the sample chapter) should be in the intended voice of the book. So while most nonfiction proposals are written entirely in the third person singular, all memoir proposals should be in the first person.

Everyone clear on that? Excellent. Moving on:

5. The sample chapter(s)
Usually, book proposals contain only one sample chapter — written impeccably and polished to within an inch of its life, naturally — but if the chapter you have in mind is less than 15 pages long, consider including more than one. As long as you keep the total sample under 30 pages or so, you should be fine.

Generally speaking, professional proposals use Chapter 1 as the sample chapter, rather than one from farther into the storyline or argument, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s usually easier for the reader to follow that way. However, that’s not strictly necessary: in a cookbook proposal, for instance, Chapter 7’s Thanksgiving feast may well wow Millicent more than Chapter 1’s general introduction to baking techniques.

Use your best judgment — but as always, be open to your future agent’s informing you that you judged wrong and that you must write another sample chapter before she submits it to editors at publishing houses. (Yes, it happens. Quite a lot, in fact.)

Whichever chapter you select, make absolutely certain that the chapter and the description in the annotated table of contents match. You’d be astonished — at least, I hope you would — how often the chapter does not resemble the description: it’s as though the writer wrote the chapter and the annotated table of contents at completely different times, and then didn’t bother to cross-check.

Which is, of course, precisely what happens, most of the time. That’s a serious proposal faux pas: how can a proposer expect Millicent or Maury to believe that those descriptions in the annotated table of contents are accurate representations of what will turn up in the eventual book if the one and only chapter presented as evidence does not adhere pretty closely to its description?

When making the decision about which chapter to include, bear in mind, too, that the sample chapter is where you’re going to provide the most direct evidence of the voice and writing style of the proposed book. Neither of which, in a good proposal, will come as a surprise to Millicent, because the entire proposal should be written in the narrative voice of the book.

Yes, even the dry marketing parts. Hey, you’re a writer — it’s your job to make even unquestionably dull stuff interesting to read. It all needs to be your best writing.

Which brings me back to that bit about the sample chapter’s needing to be written impeccably and polished to within an inch of its life. It never fails to astonish Millicent and Maury how often a good writer with a compelling book concept simply throws away the opportunity the sample chapter provides of demonstrating that s/he is a serious writer willing to take the time to present his or her work professionally. A sample chapter containing formatting errors, grammatical problems, or typos is simply not going to be impressive enough to catch an agent or editor’s eye.

Not positively, anyway. Why not? Because, lest we forget, a book proposal is a job application: in it, the writer is trying to convince an agent or editor that this is a compelling argument or story that a specific group of readers will want to buy, but that this writer and no other is the perfect person to hire to write it.

That’s true, incidentally, no matter how unusual your book concept is or how impressive your platform is to write it. Remember, being able to write well, clearly, and in adherence to standard format is the minimum requirement for a successful submission, not a set of fringe benefits.

What’s that you say, campers? This all sounds like a heck of a lot more work than simply throwing the necessary materials together and hoping that the sample chapter alone is enough to convince Millicent that your voice is right for this project? Undoubtedly. But a better marketing strategy than the far more common approach of composing the rest of the proposal in the faintly exasperated tone of the jumper through unnecessary hoops? Absolutely.

On the brighter side, for a well-prepared writer, the labor involved in incorporating the sample chapter into the proposal is comparatively light. How so? Well, hold your applause, but in a proposal, the sample chapter is formatted precisely like a chapter in a manuscript.

Okay, you can clap now. You know you want to.

That’s right — provided that as much of the book as you’ve written so far is already in standard format, you can simply copy and paste it into your book proposal at the proper juncture. This means, of course, that the first page of the sample chapter will have more white space at the top than any other page of the proposal. (And if you found that last statement mystifying, may I suggest that you review my earlier post on chapter openings and how they should look on the page?)

I hear some of you muttering and shuffling your feet. You want to see the difference between the first page of the sample chapter and any old page of the proposal, don’t you? Good plan.

Here, for your comparing and contrasting pleasure, is a properly-formatted first page of a proposal. (You do remember, right, that the title page is neither numbered nor included in the page count?) As always, if you are having trouble reading specifics, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.


That should look familiar by now, right? Because the sample chapter is a major section of the proposal, let’s review how a major section change would be designated in a proposal:

competitive market analysis3

Now take a peek at a minor topic change — which, too, should be old hat by now. (Where on earth did that perverse little expression originate, I wonder?)

subheading in proposal

As I would devoutly hope would be abundantly clear to you by this late point in a series on standard formatting, none of the above remotely resembles the first page of a manuscript. The first page of a manuscript should, of course, look like this:

first page of text

Quite a difference, is it not? Millicent could tell which was a page from a proposal and which had fluttered free of a manuscript from ten paces away. Now take a gander at the first page of the sample chapter in a proposal:

sample chapter opening

Those last two are remarkably similar, aren’t they? Pop quiz: see any formatting differences between this and the same chapter opening in the manuscript?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, exclaiming, “By Jove, Anne, the slug line clearly demonstrates that rather than starting pagination over again at page 1, the sample chapter’s first page shows where it falls within the book proposal,” congratulations: you have the eye of an editor. As you so astutely pointed out, the page numbers don’t start over at the beginning of the sample chapter; the entire proposal is numbered consecutively. For extra credit, would anyone care to guess why?

If you shouted, “To make it easier for Millicent to put the always unbound pages of the proposal back in order after she collides with someone in the hallway!” you’re really on a roll today. Help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash.

Otherwise, though, the sample chapter and the same chapter in manuscript form should be formatted identically. Realizing that, need I even add that part of what the writer is demonstrating in the sample chapter is a familiarity with the standards of this industry?

Not to mention the tone and vocabulary norms of the chosen book category. I probably should mention that, come to think of it, because many a well-argued and even well-written book proposal has gotten rejected because the prose in the sample chapter just didn’t sound like, well, a book in that category.

As always, if you’re not familiar with what’s currently being published in your chosen book category, why not? And how on earth did you manage to write a convincing competitive market analysis without being up on all the recent releases, anyway?

I’m most emphatically not kidding about this: from an agent or editor’s point of view, a book proposer’s being conversant with the norms, trends, and current market for the type of book she’s proposing is not an optional extra — it’s a basic requirement. It comes standard with the professional nonfiction writer package.

Don’t tell me you can’t afford to buy everything that comes out in your category, either: that’s what libraries and bookstores with comfortable reading chairs are for, after all. (Although a case could be made that the single best thing a first-time writer in any book category could do to help convince the pros that category has a solid fan base is to rush out consistently and buy new releases in that category. Particularly those by first-time authors.)

A couple of final words about the sample chapter before I move on to the remaining bits of the proposal: make absolutely sure that the sample chapter delivers on the promise of that chapter’s summary in the annotated table of contents. If there’s any doubt whatsoever in your mind about whether it fulfills that promise — or if it does not represent your best writing — either pick another chapter to use as your sample or start revising.

What does bearing out the promise of that description mean, in practice? If the chapter description contained an explicit question — or even an implicit one — the sample chapter had better answer it. If the description hinted at an exciting scene, the chapter had better deliver it. If the description made an argument, the chapter had better present evidence in support of it.

And it had better do so without repeating entire sentences or — sacre bleu! — paragraphs from the description. Or, indeed, from any other part of the proposal. Trust me, Millicent and Maury both have sufficient memory for phraseology to catch if you have used the same three consecutive words twice within the same book proposal, much less reused an entire paragraph from the annotated table of contents in the chapter. Or vice versa.

Seriously, proposers do this all the time — as do synopsis-writers, incidentally. When trying to break into a business that runs on uniquely-worded expressions of thought, it’s just not a very good strategy.

Do try, too, to pick sample material that makes your subject matter sound fascinating. That may seem as though it goes without saying, but cursory sample chapters are the bane of any proposal-reading Millicent or Maury’s existence, and for good reason: if their attention has been sufficiently grabbed by the overview and maintained throughout the middle part of the proposal, it’s a genuine disappointment to discover a sample chapter that just lies there. If they’ve read that far, trust me, they want — and expect — to be wowed.

At the risk of hauling out that broken record player again, they also expect that the sample chapter will demonstrate how you intend to flesh out the brief chapter summaries in the annotated table of contents, and rightly so. If the two parts of the proposal appear to be out of sync, M & M are going to wonder if your writing skills are up to the task of producing a consistent final manuscript.

Don’t tempt them to speculate on that score. Call me cynical, but I’ve seldom seen that type of speculation end well for the proposer. It’s not a screener’s job to give proposers the benefit of the doubt, after all.

Speaking of doing one’s job, it’s about time that I talked about the remaining elements of the proposal, isn’t it? Don’t worry; there aren’t many.

6. The author bio
Since writing a stellar author bio is an art form of its own, and one that we have discussed recently, I’m not even going to attempt to describe here how to write one. For an in-depth discussion of the subject, please consult the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list at right.

Again, this is a place where many first-time proposers skimp, thinking (erroneously, alas) that since they’ve already talked about their platforms earlier in the proposal, all that’s really necessary in the author bio is the kind of bare-bones, just-the-facts-ma’am author bios they’re accustomed to seeing inside the dust jackets of hardcover books. Do not, I implore you, be fooled by those brief paragraphs going by the same moniker as what’s required in a book proposal.

The purpose of an author bio in a book proposal is to provide a handy single-page summary of the writer’s platform for writing this particular book. That means, in practice, that a savvy writer may choose to use different author bio text — or even author photos — in proposals for different books.

Not sure why? Okay, tell me: if you were vacillating between acquiring two books on dog breeding, which bio would appeal to you more, one that simply lists the writer’s previous publications and credentials under a smiling head shot — or one that listed eight dog-related credentials under a snapshot of the writer with his arm around a happy Dalmatian?

No contest, is there?

Do not, for the sake of your own writerly happiness, leave constructing your bio to the end of the proposal-writing process. It’s hard; budget time for it. Why? Well, really apt author bios are hard to write — and most of us go through quite a few photos before we find one of ourselves that we like.

Don’t believe me? Okay, care to guess how many shots my quite gifted photographer friend Marjon Floris took before she caught the one in my bio?

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 800. With two cameras. (Thank goodness for digital technology, eh?) Admittedly, my whole family is pretty camera-shy — my brother’s wedding photographer actually burst into tears during the reception, so frustrated was he at the difficulty of catching candids of any of us wily Minis — but still, a good author photo often takes a lot of trial and error.

Speaking of the camera-shy, am I seeing some of you waggling your fingertips in my peripheral vision? “But Anne,” the photography-averse murmur, making faces at the camera, “I don’t want to include a picture of myself in my bio; believe me, my book’s appeal would in no way be enhanced by a photo of me clutching a Dalmatian, or indeed, any creature whatsoever, warm- or cold-blooded. Can’t I, you know, skip it?”

You’re not going to believe this, but the answer is yes.

At least in a book proposal; it’s more or less de rigueur these days in a bio accompanying a manuscript submission. Hey, both Millicent and Maury will want to be able to tell their bosses if the new writer they’ve just discovered is photogenic — like it or not, it does sometimes make a difference in marketing these days.

Without an author photo, a proposal bio is simply another double-spaced single page of text with a title at the top. Here, for instance, is the super-serious bio I used a few years ago in the proposal for the political book I’ve been using as an example all day:

author bio

7. Relevant clippings, if any
This is another platform-proving exercise: if you have written articles, or even other books, it’s customary to include beautifully sharp photocopies of a few of them at the end of your book proposal. Similarly, if you happen to be famous enough for articles to have been written about you and your subject matter, feel free to include ‘em here — provided, in this second case, that they relate to your platform for this particular book.

Since our primary concern in this series is formatting (although I suspect that salient fact may have slipped all of our minds while I’ve been chatting at length about the content of a good book proposal; hey, I’m chatty), I’m going to leave to another time in-depth discussion of how to generate clippings. For now, I’ll content myself with urging you to make sure that the copies are pristine, with nice, clear, readable type.

Oh, and one other thing: do yourself a favor and scan each of the clippings, or have a computer-savvy someone do it for you. Not only will this enable you to submit your proposal to agents and small publishers who prefer online submissions (still relatively rare for nonfiction, but growing in popularity by the day), but it will also save you quite a bit of time down the line, once you’re working with an agent.

Why? Well, it has become quite common for agents to submit book proposals electronically to editors. Unscanned clippings can’t go into a virtual proposal, right?

Pant, pant, pant. Don’t stop running now — we’re practically at the end.

8. The proposal folder
I’ve written about this fairly extensively in the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL series (conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list at right), so I’m not going to delve too deeply into the particulars. Except to say: in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders.

Period. Don’t even consider trying to get fancy — and whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript.

Well, not quite the same: tuck the pages (neatly please) into the folder, items 1-4 on the left-hand side (i.e., everything prior to the sample chapter), items 5-7 (the sample chapter and beyond on the right).

Don’t label the folder on the front, either; keep it plain. What Millicent, Maury, and everybody else in the industry expects to see coming out of a submission envelope is this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. Seriously, proposals in the wrong kind of folder will just look unprofessional to the pros.

And that — whew! — is a lightning-swift (for me) discussion of how to format a book proposal. Congratulations on absorbing so much practical information so rapidly, campers, and for being professional enough to take the time to learn the ropes before you submit.

Next time, it’s back to the rigors of standard format for manuscripts — and to answering more readers’ trenchant questions. (But to save all of you question-askers some effort: I am already aware that there are a lot of sources out there making a lot of claims about how manuscripts should be formatted; you don’t need to keep telling me. There is absolutely nothing I can do about the plethora of odd advice out there on the web. I know that those of you who long for consensus are frustrated that every single source you consult doesn’t say precisely the same thing, but as I have said early and often throughout this series, my goal here is to give you enough of the logic behind what I advise for you to be able to judge for yourselves. For some tips on how to tell the good advice from the bad, and the informed from the just guessing, you might want to check out the HOW CAN I CHOOSE BETWEEN COMPETING ADVICE category on the archive list at right.)

Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XVIII: checking off all of those boxes, or, how to format a book proposal

How’s everybody doing out there? Are all of you nonfiction writers excited that I’ve been talking about writing specific to your book categories, or is everyone still too burned out from New Year’s festivities that you’re sitting there, glassy-eyed, silently willing the first Monday of 2011 to be over, already? Or — and I sincerely hope this is the case — are you paying attention to this post with one part of your brain, while another delightedly plots how to polish up your entries to the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition? There are both fiction and nonfiction categories this time around, folks, so I hope all of you memoirists who just dropped by for the formatting tips will at least consider entering.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what you’ll send in. As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while may have sensed, I honestly do like to see what my readers are writing.

And, of course, to know how I can help you present your manuscripts and proposals more professionally. If you have a question about standard format, or something for which you would like to see more practical examples, by all means, let me know. That’s why the comment function is there, folks!

Seriously, it’s to everybody’s benefit if you ask; trust me, if you have been wondering, so have hundreds of other writers. The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers have never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript or book proposal, after all. I would much, much rather you asked me than took a wild guess in your submissions.

Readers’ questions also allow me to fine-tune the archive list at right — I want to make it as intuitive as possible for a panicked aspiring writer to use. (Speaking of which, since no one has commented yet on last November’s rather radical rearrangement of the archive list, am I to conclude that (a) most of you are finding it easier to use than its previous incarnation, (b) most of you are finding it harder to use, but are too polite to say so, (c) despite the monumental effort of rearranging it under subheadings, the result is precisely as user-friendly as the simple alphabetical list it replaced, or (d) nobody has noticed? It would be quite helpful for me to know.)

I’m particularly interested in finding out what pieces of information are comparatively difficult to find in my frankly pretty hefty archives. Why, only last February, eagle-eyed reader Kim was kind enough to point out a fairly extensive omission in my twice-yearly examinations of standard format for manuscripts: although I had been providing illustrations of same for several years now, I’d never shown the innards of a properly-formatted book proposal. In fact, as Kim explained,

Anne — Thank you for this glorious blog. It is a wealth of information. I am putting together a submissions package (requested materials, yea!), which includes a book proposal. After searching through your site, I still can’t find a specific format for the thing. For example, should the chapter summaries be outlined? double-spaced? Should I start a new page for each subheading? Also, my book has several very short chapters (80 in total). Should I group some of them together in the summaries, lest it run too long? Or is it better to give a one sentence description of each? Thanks again.

My first response to this thoughtful set of observations, I must admit, was to say, “No way!” After all, I had written a quite extensive series entitled HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL (beginning here) as recently as…wait, did that date stamp say August of 2005?

As in within a month of when I started this blog? More to the point, since before I sold my second nonfiction book to a publisher? (No, you haven’t missed any big announcements, long-time readers: that one isn’t out yet, either.)

Clearly, I had a bit of catching up to do. Equally clearly, I am deeply indebted to my intrepid readers for telling me when they cannot find answers to their burning questions in the hugely extensive Author! Author! archives.

The burning question du jour: how is a book proposal formatted differently than a book manuscript? Or is it?

In most ways, it isn’t; in some ways, however, it is. Rather than assume, as I apparently did for four and a half years, that merely saying that book proposals should be in standard manuscript format (with certain minimal exceptions), let’s see what that might look like in action.

In fact, since I’ve been going over the constituent parts in order, let’s go ahead recap from the beginning, talking a little about what purpose each portion of it serves. Here, ladies and gentlemen of the Author! Author! community, are the building blocks of a professional book proposal, illustrated for your pleasure. As you will see, much of it is identical in presentation to a manuscript.

1. The title page
Like any other submission to an agent or editor, a book proposal should have a title page. Why? To make it easier to contact you — or your agent — and buy the book, of course.

As we discussed in our last ‘Palooza post, once a writer has landed an agent, the agency’s contact information belongs on the title page, so the editor of one’s dreams may contact one’s agent easily to acquire the book. Prior to either the happy day of an offer on one’s book or the equally blissful day one signs with an agent, the writer’s contact information belongs on the title page.

2. The overview
First-time proposers often shirk on this part, assuming — wrongly — that all that’s required to propose a nonfiction book is to provide the kind of 1-, 3-, or 5-page synopsis one might tuck into a query packet. In practice, however, a successful overview serves a wide variety of purposes:

(a) It tells the agent or editor what the proposed book will be about, and why you are the single best person on earth to write about it. Pretty much everyone gets that first part, but presenting one’s platform credibly is often overlooked in an overview. (I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if an agent or editor makes it to the bottom of page 3 of your proposal without understanding why you are a credible narrator for this topic, your proposal is going to fall flat, no matter how inherently interesting your topic may be.

(b) It presents the central question or problem of the book, explaining why the topic is important and to whom , amplifying on the argument in (a), couching it in larger terms and trends. Or, to put it another way: why will the world be a better place if this book is published?

No, that’s not an egomaniac’s way to look at it. Why do your readers need to read this book? How will their lives or understanding of the world around them be strengthened or reshaped by it?

(c) It demonstrates why this book is needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history. That one is self-explanatory, I hope.

(d) It answers the burning question: who is the target audience for this book, anyway? To reframe the question as Millicent’s boss will: how big is the intended market for this book, and how do we know that they’re ready to buy a book on this subject?

(e) It explains why this book will appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market will. (In other words, how are potential readers’ needs not being served by what’s been published within the last five years — the usual definition of the current market — and why will your book serve those needs in a better, or at any rate different, manner?

(f) It shows how your platform will enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might conceivably write this book. Essentially, this involves tying together all of the foregoing, adding your platform, and stirring.

(g) It makes abundantly clear the fact that you can write. Because, lest we forget, a book proposal is a job application at base: the writer’s primary goal is to get an agent or editor to believe that she is the right person to hire to write the book she’s proposing.

Yes, there should be separate sections of the book proposal that address all of these points in detail. The overview is just that: a quick summary of all of the important selling points for your book, presented in a manner intended to entice an agent or editor to read on to the specifics.

In the interest of establishing points (a), (b), and (g) right off the bat, I like to open a book proposal with an illustrative anecdote or direct personal appeal that thrusts the reader right smack into the middle of the central problem of the piece, reducing it to an individual human level. Basically, the point here is to answer the question why would a reader care about this subject? within the first few lines of the proposal, while showing off the writer’s best prose.

For a general nonfiction book — particularly one on a subject that Millicent might at first glance assume, perish the thought, to be a bit on the dry side — this is a great opportunity for the writer to give a very concrete impression of why a reader might care very deeply about the issue at hand. Often, the pros open such an anecdote with a rhetorical question.

overview NF page 1

The opening anecdote gambit works especially well for a memoir proposal, establishing both the voice and that the memoir’s central figure is an interesting person in an interesting situation. While it’s best to keep the anecdote brief — say, anywhere between a paragraph and a page and a half — it’s crucial to grab Millicent’s attention with vividly-drawn details and surprising turns of event. To revisit our example from last time:



As we saw in that last example, you can move from the anecdote or opening appeal without fanfare, simply by inserting a section break — in other words, by skipping a line. While many book proposals continue this practice throughout the overview, it’s visually more appealing to mark its more important sections with subheadings, like so:

subheading in proposal

Incorporating subheadings, while not strictly speaking necessary, renders it very, very easy for Millicent the agency screener to find the answers to the basic questions any book proposal must answer. If the text of the proposal can address those questions in a businesslike tone that’s also indicative of the intended voice of the proposed book, so much the better.

Please note, however, that I said businesslike, not in business format. Under no circumstances should a book proposal either be single-spaced or present non-indented paragraphs.

This one confuses a lot of first-time proposers, I’ve noticed. “But Anne!” they protest, and not entirely without justification. “A book proposal is a business document, isn’t it? Doesn’t that mean that it should be in business format?”

The short answer is my God — no! The not-so-short answer is: not if you want Millicent to read it. An aspiring writer who does not indent her paragraphs is presumed illiterate.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the publishing industry does not use business format, even in its business letters; always, always, ALWAYS indent your paragraphs.

3. The competitive market analysis
The competitive market analysis is probably the most widely misunderstood portion of the book proposal. What the pros expect to see here is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

But that’s not how you’ve heard this section described, is it? Let me take a stab at what most of you have probably heard: it’s a list of 6-12 similar books.

Period. The sad, sad result usually looks like this:

competitive market analysis bad

Makes it pretty plain that the writer thinks all that’s required here is proof that there actually have been other books published on the subject in the past, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, to Millicent’s critical eye, such a list doesn’t merely seem like ignorance of the goal of the competitive market analysis — it comes across as proof positive of the authorial laziness of a writer who hasn’t bothered to learn much about either how books are proposed or the current market for the book he’s proposing.

To be fair, this is the section where first-time proposers are most likely to skimp on the effort. Never a good idea, but a particularly poor tactic here. After all of these years, the average Millicent is darned tired of proposers missing the point of this section: all too often, first-time proposers assume that it has no point, other than to create busywork.

As you may see above, the bare-bones competitive market analysis makes the writer seem as if he’s gone out of his way to demonstrate just how stupid he thinks this particular exercise is. That’s because he’s missed the point of the exercise.

The goal here is not merely to show that other books exist, but that the book being proposed shares salient traits with books that readers are already buying. And because the publishing industry’s conception of the current market is not identical to what is actually on bookstore shelves at the moment, the savvy proposer includes in his competitive market analysis only books that have been released by major houses within the last five years.

That last point made some of you choke on your tea, didn’t it? Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before the first time you proposed?

Even when proposers do take the time to research and present the appropriate titles, a handful of other mistakes tend to mark the rookie’s proposal for Millicent. Rather than show you each of them individually, here’s an example that includes several. Take out your magnifying glass and see how many you can catch.

competitive market analysis 2

How did you do?

Let’s take the more straightforward, cosmetic problems first, the ones that should immediately leap out at anyone familiar with standard format. There’s no slug line, for starters: if this page fell out of the proposal — as it might; remember, proposals are unbound — Millicent would have no idea to which of the 17 proposals currently on her desk it belonged. It does contain a page number, but an unprofessionally-presented one, lingering at the bottom of the page with, heaven help us, dashes on either side.

Then, too, one of the titles is underlined, rather than italicized, demonstrating formatting inconsistency, and not all of the numbers under 100 are written out in full. Not to mention the fact that it’s single-spaced!

All of this is just going to look tacky to Millie, right?

Okay, what else? Obviously, this version is still presented as a list, albeit one that includes some actual analysis of the works in question; it should be in narrative form. Also, it includes the ISBN numbers, which to many Millicent implies — outrageously! — a writerly expectation that she’s going to take the time to look up the sales records on all of these books.

I can tell you now: it’s not gonna happen. If a particular book was a runaway bestseller, the analysis should have mentioned that salient fact.

There’s one other, subtler problem with this example — did you catch it?

I wouldn’t be astonished if you hadn’t; many a pro falls into this particular trap. Let’s take a peek at this same set of information, presented as it should be, to see if the gaffe jumps out at you by contrast.

competitive market analysis3

Any guesses? How about the fact that the last example’s criticism is much, much gentler than the one immediately before it?

Much too frequently, those new to proposing books will assume, wrongly, that their job in the competitive market analysis is rip apart every previous book on the subject. They try to make the case that every other book currently available has no redeeming features, as a means of making their own book concepts look better by contrast.

Strategically, this is almost always a mistake. Anybody out there have any ideas why?

If it occurred to you that perhaps, just perhaps, the editors, or even the agents, who handled the books mentioned might conceivably end up reading this book proposal, give yourself three gold stars. It’s likely, isn’t it? After all, agents and editors both tend to specialize; do you honestly want the guy who edited the book you trashed to know that you thought it was terrible?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you do not. Nor do you want to insult that author’s agent. Trust me on this one.

No need to go overboard and imply that a book you hated was the best thing you’ve ever read, of course — the point here is to show how your book will be different and better, so you will need some basis for comparison. You might want to avoid phrases like terrible, awful, or an unforgivable waste of good paper, okay?

I had hoped to get a little farther in the proposal, but as I’m already running long, I’m going to sign off for the day. But since you’re all doing so well, here’s one final pop quiz before I go: what lingering problem remains in this last version, something that might give even an interested Millicent pause in approving this proposal?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, shouting, “I know! I know! Most of these books came out more than five years ago, and of those, The Gluten-Free Gourmet is the only one that might be well enough known to justify including otherwise,” give yourself seven gold stars for the day.

Heck, take the rest of the day off; I am. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XVII: not all that glitters is…well, you know the rest

sequined hat

I had hoped to wrap up Formatpalooza by the end of the year, but frankly, I think it’s going to be a trifle on the tight side, unless I post a couple of times tomorrow. Even by my standards of vim, that might be overkill.

My vehemence is kindly-motivated, I assure you: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, how a submission is presented can make a very great difference in how it’s received. Yes, yes, I hear you, those of you who have been running around to writers’ conferences in recent years: you can hardly throw a piece of bread at an agent or editor’s forum without hitting a pro saying, “It all depends upon the writing.”

They tend to spout this aphorism for a very good reason — it is in fact true. But as we discussed both earlier in this series and in earlier ‘Paloozas, that doesn’t mean that the quality of the writing is the only criterion agents, editors, contest judges, or any of the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living use when deciding whether to read beyond the first page of a submission. Professional presentation plays a role, as does marketability, a story’s probability of appealing to its target audience (not exactly the same thing), what happens to be the surprise bestseller of the moment — and yes, that whole slew of intangibles that make up personal taste.

There is, in short, no such thing as a foolproof formula for producing the perfect manuscript for submission. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

As I’ve been arguing throughout this ‘Palooza, however, agents, editors, contest judges, screeners, and other professional readers develop an almost visceral sense of when a manuscript is properly formatted. So rather than screening submissions with a list of don’t by their sides, they more or less automatically discount pages that are cosmetically incorrect.

This is most emphatically not the same thing, though, as rejecting such pages on the spot because, say, an aspiring writer underlined a foreign-language word on page 1 instead of italicizing it. (I know, I know: sacre bleu!) Much as a reader with impeccable grammar will not necessarily throw down a book that misuses semicolons, most professional readers will not instantly reject an improperly-formatted submission without some further provocation.

But as we discussed last time, the writer in both cases is going to have to work a whole lot harder to impress the pro as literate. Unfortunately, the prevailing standards for printed books — which, as we have seen, differ in many significant respects from manuscripts — often lead innocent writers astray.

Leading them to, say, include a table of contents in a manuscript submission.

That seems as if it would be a helpful page to tuck in there, doesn’t it? One can make an argument for it, certainly: in fiction, including it would enable an agent to go back and re-read the submission easily; in nonfiction, it would permit an editor to skip ahead to a chapter of particular interest. And heck, if the manuscript fell upon the floor in the kind of you got chocolate in my peanut butter!/you got peanut butter in my chocolate! we witnessed with horror earlier in this series, a well-organized table of contents might render it a trifle easier to reassemble, right?

Wrong. Including a table of contents in a manuscript submission is a classic rookie mistake, the kind of stunt that makes Millicent the agency screener roll her eyes.

Why is it such a serious strategic error? Well, in a published book, a table of contents, like an index, is a courtesy to browsers trying to get a feel for the contents and buyers who do not necessarily want to read the entire book. In order to serve this function well, however, the pages listed would have to match up with the beginnings of the relevant sections, right?

This is difficult in a manuscript, for several reasons. First, Millicent doesn’t expect to see a table of contents, particularly in a novel submission; it just won’t look right to her. Second, since a published book is typically about 2/3rds the length of its original manuscript (documents shrink in the transition to the printed page), the pages listed on a manuscript table of contents would ultimately be inaccurate, anyway.

Third — and perhaps most relevant at the submission stage — including a table of contents implies that the writer does not expect the agent of her dreams to read the manuscript in its entirety, but merely to flip to the pages that interest him most. From the publishing industry’s point of view, that’s a pretty jaw-dropping assumption: why, they wonder, would an agent or editor be interested in acquiring a book if he doesn’t like it well enough to read it in full?

So really, including a table of contents in a manuscript is just wasting a page. It does not belong in a manuscript, any more than an index or those boxes around text that magazines are so fond of printing. To professional eyes, it looks unprofessional, especially in a novel submission.

It’s also an inconvenience — and yes, Virginia, to someone who has to skim as quickly as Millicent to get through the day’s reading, having to turn over an extra page is an actual inconvenience.

Don’t believe me? Okay, think about our time-strapped friend’s expectations when opening a submission envelope: when she turns over the title page, she is looking forward to finding the first page of text there waiting for her, all ready to be judged in a flash. If instead she finds a table of contents, something she would only find helpful if she were to read the entire manuscript, she may well be a trifle miffed. Given that she tends to reject most submissions somewhere between paragraph 1 and page 5, the information that Chapter 8 begins on page 112 will most likely strike her as at best gratuitous — and at worst presumptuous.

“What gives?” she’ll say, taking an extra sip of her too-hot latte as she impatiently gets the table of contents out of her way. “Doesn’t this writer know the difference between a manuscript and a book?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

Or maybe not — do I hear some aspiring nonfiction writers clamoring for my attention? “But Anne,” these excellent souls point out, “a book proposal is supposed to include a table of contents for the planned book, isn’t it? I read it in an article on how to write a book proposal.”

Ah, I’m glad that you brought this up, nonfictionists, because first-time proposers often conflate the table of contents one might find in a published book with the annotated table of contents required in a book proposal. They are in fact quite different things.

Again, mixing up terms is a classic rookie mistake. Over and over again, I see aspiring writers new to the game simply assuming that because a term means something in one context, it must necessarily mean exactly the same thing in another context.

As a general rule of thumb, that’s not always true. In this case, it most definitely is not.

When hyper-literal proposers hear the term table of contents, they assume, wrongly, that an agent or editor is simply asking to see what the writer thinks the table of contents in the published book will look like, presumably as an exercise in guessing how many pages each of the proposed chapters will contain. (It’s hard to imagine it serving any other purpose.)

As a result, first-time proposals tend to include a section that looks a little something like this:

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Millicent simply would not expect to see this page in a book proposal at all , do you see any problems with this as a marketing document intended to convince an editor to pay the writer to write the proposed book?

Actually, I’m sure that some of your hands shot into the air even before I showed this example, in your eagerness to take issue with the notion that a submission should resemble a published book in the first place — and thus that the kind of table of contents one might expect to see in a nonfiction book would clearly be out of place in a submission.

Well caught, eager wavers. Spot any other problems?

If you said, “Well, for starters, the example above doesn’t include information that could possibly be either accurate or useful to an editor,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Obviously, it would be impossible for a proposer to state with certainty where the chapter breaks would fall in the proposed book when published; all the information s/he could reasonably offer in this sort of table of contents would be educated guesses about how long each chapter might be. Or perhaps a list of where those breaks fall in the draft manuscript.

But that’s not the information nonfiction agents and editors want to see in the book proposal; they’re perfectly aware that since the book in question has not yet been written (or needn’t be), any length estimates must be just that, estimates, not fact. The information they do want to see in the annotated table of contents section of a book proposal is a brief description of the CONTENTS of each chapter.

The word annotated should have been a clue, I guess.

Typically, each proposed chapter is summarized in one or two paragraphs. Well, typically is a bit of an exaggeration; what’s actually typical in a first time proposer’s book proposal is either the information-light version we saw in today’s first example or an entire page devoted to each chapter.

Neither is what is expected, however. The typical form I am talking about here is what professional nonfiction authors use.

And like so many other differences between professional formatting and, well, everything else they see in submissions, it’s really, really obvious at first glance to someone who has seen a book proposal before whether the submitter du jour has followed the rules. Compare what the first page of a correctly put-together annotated table of contents looks like with the truncated version above:

See the difference? Millicent will. From ten paces away.

Hey, while we’re on the subject, why don’t we take a quick gander at all of the constituent parts of a book proposal, so all of you nonfiction writers out there may be sure that Millicent will like the look of yours? To make the overview even more useful, let’s run through the sections in the order they would appear in the proposal.

First, let’s take a peek at the title page. See if you notice anything distinctive about it:

If you immediately cried, “Why, unlike a title page for a novel, the proposal’s title page does not include a word count,” give yourself another gold star. (You’re racking them up today, aren’t you?) The length of a nonfiction book is a contractual matter; since what a proposal is offering is not the finished book, but a book concept and an author to write it to the specifications desired by the publisher, it does not make sense for the writer to guesstimate the length up front.

Award yourself yet another if you also mentioned that the contact information listed here is Scaredy’s agent’s, not Scaredy’s. Naturally, if Napolèon does not yet have an agent, naturally, he would list his own contact info in the bottom-right corner.

Any guesses why his address would be replaced by his agent’s down the line?

The reason is pretty straightforward: no agent in his right mind would allow his clients to circulate their proposals (or manuscripts, for that matter) without his contact info on them. After all, if an editor falls in love with the proposal, it’s the agent she’s supposed to be contacting, not the writer.

What follows next in a book proposal is the overview, a brief description of what the book is about and why the writer proposing it is the best person on earth to write it. Never, ever forget that this is both a marketing document and a job application, proposers: you’re trying to get the publisher to hire you to write this book, right?)

Most first-time proposers just include the bare bones here, leaping right into the description, but I like to open with a little sample of the type of writing the editor may expect to see in the completed book. To this end, I always advise starting a proposal with a vividly-told illustrative anecdote.

The first page of the proposal, then, would look like this:


As you may see, like everything else in the book proposal, the overview should be in standard format: double-spaced, indented paragraphs, 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Unlike the opening of a chapter, however, each new section is simply titled, a line skipped, and the text begun. Since this is a nonfiction document, whether to place OVERVIEW in boldface is up to you; my agency happens to like it, as well as the all-caps titling.

Notice, please, that because this is a proposal for a memoir, the anecdote is written in the first person singular. The rest of the proposal should be as well. Many memoirists mistakenly believe that writing about their books in the third person is more professional, but that’s simply not the case.

Back to formatting. Just as a simple section break is sufficient to separate scenes in a novel or memoir, all that’s required in a proposal to differentiate the opening anecdote from the description of the proposed book is a skipped line:


Since the overview typically covers a broad range of topics, I like to break it down into several smaller sections, to make it easier for an agent or editor to find the answers to the pertinent questions any good book proposal must answer. Every proposal is slightly different, of course, but typically, apart from the opening anecdote and the book’s description, I advise including subsections on why the proposed book will appeal to readers (this is a great place to bring up any demographic information you may have collected on your readership), why the book is needed now (as opposed to any other time in publishing history; this provides an excellent opportunity to bring up any relevant trends), and how to convince the target readership that this is the book for them (not a specific marketing plan, mind you — that comes later in the proposal — but a brief explanation of who the target reader is and why that reader might pick it up).

Nit-picky? Sure. But that’s the nature of a book proposal.

How does one mark each of these subsections? You already know how to do this one, actually: as is permissible in a nonfiction manuscript, to differentiate between topics within sections — to alert the reader to the start of the subsection on why you’re the best person currently gracing the crust of the earth to tell this particular story, for instance, or to usher onstage your explanation of precisely why the literate world needs this story right now — you may insert a subheading. To reuse the example from the last time we discussed subheadings:

Wharton subheading example

When moving between major sections of a book proposal, convention dictates inserting a page break between sections. Why? Because unlike a novel manuscript, proposals are often broken apart, with one section going to a publisher’s marketing department another going to legal, a third staying with the editor interested in acquiring it, and so forth.

It’s also customary to begin a new major section with a centered title. For example, when moving from the overview to the competitive market analysis (i.e., the section of the proposal where the writer lists similar books currently on the market, then explains why his proposed book is different and better), the latter section would begin like this:

comp market analysis

I’ve written at some length about how to construct a competitive market analysis — contrary to popular opinion, it’s not just a list of similar books currently on the market — so I shan’t go into the ins and out of creating this narrative here. But if you’d like to hear more, please check out the posts collected under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right.

There are a couple of formatting curiosities I would like to point out, however. First, the competitive market analysis should be written in a narrative style, not as a list. Second, it does not include all of the bibliographic information for the book. Just the author and title — in italics, as is appropriate for a book title in standard format — with the publisher and year of publication following in parentheses, will generally suffice. (Although if the agent of your dreams asks for something more, like the ISBN, for heaven’s sake, give it to her.)

Is that all there is to a book proposal, you ask hopefully? Heavens, no: there are several more vital sections. As usual, I have a great deal to say about each, so I am going to sign off for today and pick it up next time. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XV: contested territory in this season of concord, or, the surprisingly contentious issue of chapter title placement

peace y'all and angels

I begin today’s post in this season of concord with a commentary on disunity: “In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain told us many, many years ago, “our adversaries are insane.”

Nowhere in modern life is this axiom more apt than in the vicious battleground that is airline seating. In recent years, most airlines have opted to make the space between rows of passengers smaller; in order to cram more seats per plane, many have also quietly made the window seats and even the seatbelts on window seats slightly smaller as well. (Try comparing sometime with the belt in the middle seat.)

The result for anyone who, like your humble correspondent, enjoys glancing out a window from time to time, is a seat tray rammed directly into one’s solar plexus if one happens to be trying to, say, use a laptop in flight. And that’s if the window-lover in the row ahead of me decides not to recline his seat.

On the last airline flight during which I tried to compose a blog in mid-air, the last condition did not, alas, apply. A honeymoon couple — he awash in some pepper-based cologne, she beamingly bouncing her ring upon every row she passed, so all might see it glimmer in the light — evidently mistook their seats for two single beds. Not only were their activities in them not, as my grandmother would have said, appropriate for every audience, but they seemed disappointed — nay, convinced — that their seats would not recline into a completely flat position, presumably so they could (ahem) elevate their performance art piece to the next level.

After the first time the lady in question caused my laptop to emit a loud crack of protest, I politely explained through the crack in the seats (now about five inches from my face) that the nearness of the rows rendered their desired level of reclining impossible. Even if I had not needed to be working on my computer throughout the flight — an absolute necessity, I assured them, due to the standard formatting educational needs of all of you fine people waiting who were at that very moment waiting impatiently for me to land — the only way I could possibly accommodate the angle they desired would involve my balancing my in-flight meal on the bride’s forehead as it hovered a few inches above my lap.

Apart from the meal part, the honeymoon couple thought that would be just fine. How nice of me to suggest it.

The hard-argued subsequent compromise involved my turning sideways, twisting one of my legs underneath me while resting, if it could be called that, my back against the window-side armrest. If I gingerly balanced my laptop on the tray table of the seat to my left, I could barely manage to type. My left hip and elbow swiftly fell asleep, and the position required my staring fixedly at the profile of the guy in 23C (whose wife, you will be astonished to hear, apparently doesn’t understand him), but that was a small price to pay for the approximately 19 degree incline my gymnastics permitted the honeymooners.

At least for the first twenty minutes or so. After that, they kept trying to recline their seats farther. Apparently, I was being unreasonable to expect enough personal space to keep my laptop open the 90 degrees recommended by the manufacturer for optimal screen visibility. I can now tell you from personal experience that while it’s still possible to read the screen down to roughly 49 degrees, the lower the lid, the less accurate the typing.

Also, the lower the lid, the more one is tempted to draw conclusions about the fundamental difference between content producers and content consumers. To the recliners, the notion that I would so need to express myself on any subject that it could not wait until after we had landed was, I gathered, completely incomprehensible.

Oh, wasn’t I done yet? They’d like to lean back and enjoy themselves properly.

As much as I would like to blame the honeymooners’ frankly not-very-neighborly attitude upon either a poor set of upbringings (raised by airline-phobic wolves, perhaps?) or some bizarre wedding-induced solipsism that made them sincerely believe that no other human happiness was important compared to theirs, I suspect something very simple was happening here: all three of us were basing our expectations of personal space not upon the current lay-out of the airplane, but our sense memories of what air travel had been in the past.

My body remembers fondly being able to operate a laptop in comfort on an airplane, and not all that long ago. And I can only assume that somewhere deep in the honeymooners’ musculature, their forms remembered equally well being able to flop backward with impunity, without violating anyone else’s space bubble.

Either that, or they were appallingly brought up. Either way, nobody was happy with the outcome.

A similar failure to communicate often characterizes the initial interactions between an aspiring writer and those he hopes will help his work get into print: agents, editors, contest judges, freelance editors, and of course, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener. From the new writer’s point of view, many of the hoops through which she’s expected to jump seem arbitrary, if not actively hostile to his progress. Yet from the other side of the divide, it’s practically incomprehensible that any serious writer would not be aware of prevailing standards.

Each side, in short, typically expects something different from the other than what the other believes he is expected to provide. If the communication gap is severe enough, each may even begin to suspect the other of violating expectations on purpose, just to be annoying.

But that’s very seldom the case, on either end. The expectations are simply different, as often as not because each side has in mind some mythical period when perfect communication was the norm, rather than the exception. Millicent sighs for the mythical days when the truly gifted tumbled out of the womb with a complete understanding of both standard format and changing market conditions; the aspiring writer longs for the fantastic era when every submission was read in its entirety, every time, and editors took the time to work with promising new authors on every promising sentence.

Both sides are perfectly at liberty to sigh nostalgically, of course. But the fact is, none of these conditions ever prevailed on a large scale.

Oh, well-advertised submission standards used to render looking professional a trifle easier, admittedly; back when the slush pile still existed at major publishers, a new author could occasionally leap-frog over a few levels of testing. And undoubtedly, editors formerly had more time to work with writers. Things change. But contrary to what many an aspiring writer would like to think, there’s never been a point in publishing history when mainstream publishers were purely non-profit enterprises, devoted solely to bringing new voices to the admiring masses, nor have the bulk of submissions ever been completely professional and market-oriented.

Those seats never reclined as fully as you remember them doing, either. Those tray tables have never been particularly spacious. And those minuscule bags of nuts and/or pretzels? Always chintzy.

All of which, I devoutly hope, will place you in the right frame of mind for confronting what seems to be a perennial controversy amongst aspiring writers: whether to place a chapter title (or just “Chapter One”) on the first line of a page or twelve lines below that, on the line just above where the text proper starts.

Don’t laugh, those of you who are new to this particular debate: this one has generated quite a body count over the years. Former comrades in arms, veterans of the writing trenches, have ceased speaking altogether over this issue; even judges within the same literary contest have been known to differ sharply on the subject.

Which is a trifle puzzling to those of us who deal with professional manuscripts for a living, frankly, because there actually isn’t a debate on our end. Nor do the Millicents gather over steaming lattes to debate the niceties of labeling a chapter. One way looks right to us for a book manuscript, period: the first page of a chapter should be formatted precisely the same way as the first page of a manuscript.

What does that mean in practice? Glad you asked.

The chapter title belongs at the top of the page (centered) if the manuscript is a book; as with the first page of a manuscript, the title appears at the top, with the text beginning twelve lines below. In a short story or article, by contrast, the title belongs twelve lines from the top of the page, on the double-spaced line above the text.

So yes, the spacing honestly does matter to the pros. As always, it’s to an aspiring writer’s advantage to use the format appropriate to the type of writing, if only because it will look right to the Millicent screening it.

The answer really is as simple as that. Why, then, the rampant confusion? And why, given that the difference is a relatively small one not necessarily reflective of the quality of the writing involved, might a professional reader like Millicent or Mehitabel the contest judge particularly care if a talented aspiring writer chose the wrong version?

As is my wont, I shall let you see for yourselves. To place the two vitriol-stained possibilities before you in all of their lush magnificence, the question here is should the first page of a book chapter look like this:

P&P opener right

Or like this:

P&P opener wrong

Quite a visceral difference, no? The first version is in standard format for a book manuscript; the second is for a short story or article. Although, as we have discussed earlier in this series, the first page of a short story, it would also include contact information for the author. Which means, in essence, that aspiring book writers who place the chapter heading immediately above the text are formatting it incorrectly for either a manuscript or a short story.

But let’s set that aside for the moment. The fact is, every week, Millicent sees huge numbers of submissions with chapter headings like the second example — and that makes her sigh. “Do they do this on purpose?” she mutters. “Just to annoy me?”

Seem like an overreaction? Not really: Millicents, the agents who employ them, and contest judges see far, far more examples of version #2 than #1 in book submissions. Many, many times more. So much so that — prepare to rejoice, because I haven’t said this very often throughout this series — although an agent would almost certainly make you move a low chapter title aloft, at this point in publishing history, you could probably get away with either chapter heading in a book submission.

If, of course, you didn’t care about making Millicent sigh.

I hasten to add, though, that I would be reluctant to buy into the astonishingly pervasive theory that if masses and masses of people do something, it automatically becomes correct. No matter how many times all of us see apostrophe + s used to make a noun plural, it’s just not proper — unless, of course, we’re talking about the Oakland A’s, where the erroneous apostrophe is actually part of the proper name.

Ditto with manuscript submissions: as anyone who screens manuscripts for a living would tell you (probably accompanied by a gigantic sigh), a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly. But that doesn’t make improper formatting right, does it? Nor does it render it reasonable to expect that Millicent will be pleased to see a chapter title lolling about just above the text.

As everyone’s mother was wont to say (at least on the West Coast), if everybody else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you, too?

I was delighted to discover when I moved to the East Coast for college that the moms out there were prone to asking the same question with reference to the Empire State Building. There must be something about that particular period of architecture (the GGB was built in 1933-37, the ESB in 1930-31) that promotes suicidal ideation.

Speaking of body counts. Back to the matter at hand.

The weird thing about this particular formatting oddity — I’m back to talking about chapter titles now, not suicide attempts, in case you found that last segue a mite confusing — is how often the incorrect version appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts. That fact sets Millicent’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine, as well as the brainpan of virtually every other professional reader I know.

Why is it so very puzzling to us, you ask? Because at least in my case — and I don’t think I’m revealing a trade secret here — although I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2, I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who insist that writing teachers and even contest judges have told them that #2 is the only acceptable version. That’s just weird to me, as I have never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s asking for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text. Although as I said, I do know agents who routinely ask for the shift in the other direction; mine, to name but one.

And believe me, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time; I’m not easily shocked anymore. At this point in publishing history, to hear a professional reader insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it would have me reaching for my smelling salts.

(Do they even make smelling salts anymore? And if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge clutching them, would I?)

Clearly, somebody out there is preaching the place-it-just-above-the-text gospel, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ‘em. Hordes of aspiring writers are absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text. Sometimes, when those die-hard advocates become contest judges, they even dock correctly-formatted first pages for having the title in the right place.

In fact, many aspiring writers are so convinced of the rightness of the drooping title heading that it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints like this that the writer should change the formatting…

…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(A word to the wise: editors universally hate it when their advice is ignored. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that in order to get dunned for brushing off a judge’s feedback, a writer would have to submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — and the judge would have to remember having given that feedback. Oh, and for the entrant to hear about it, the contest would have to be one of the few that gives editorial feedback.)

The up v. down debate may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, in the cosmic scheme of things, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve.

See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it’s seldom pretty.

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale produced, beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: short stories’ first pages are supposedto look quite, quite different from those belonging to book manuscripts or proposals. Take a gander:

As you may see, for a short story like this one, there’s a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first on the page, because short stories, unlike book manuscripts, are not submitted with a title page.

But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it? Let’s see what Noël’s editor might have said upon viewing this as the first page of a book:

Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low. Sorry about that.) Yet you must admit that at some level, the editor’s ire would have been justified: as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

So I say it again: for a book manuscript, stick with version #1.

Which is not to say, of course, that this particular small deviation will automatically and invariably result in instantaneous rejection. It won’t, even in the latté-stained hands of the most format-sensitive Millicent. (See, she spilled coffee on her hands after she took a sip while it was still too hot — and if you didn’t get that joke, you probably haven’t been reading this blog for very long.) If a submission is beautifully written and technically correct in every other respect, she might only shake her head over the location of the chapter heading, making a mental note to tell you to change it between when her boss, the agent, signs the writer and when they will be submitting the manuscript to editors at publishing houses.

But if you don’t mind my saying so, that’s a mighty hefty set of ifs.

While I’m on the topic of common submitters’ misconceptions, this would probably be a good time to illustrate another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript — and you’re going to want to pay very close attention to this one, as it is almost universally an automatic-rejection offense.

Manuscript submissions, and I don’t care who hears me say it, should not be bound in any way. Ditto with book proposals. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would you want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them? (And now that you’re pondering that one, are you still surprised at how many agents now routinely screen submissions on their Kindles?)

As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will not win you friends in the publishing world. Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

She might, for instance, forget that her latte is still too hot to drink, take a sip, and scald her tongue. It’s been known to happen.

Seriously, the unbound manuscript is one of those rules so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the first two years I was writing this blog — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

Talk about it all day, I will.

So I’m going to repeat myself, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, book manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way. Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. If you take nothing else away from this series, binding-lovers, I implore you to remember this.

Why am I making you swear to follow my advice this time around? Well, in practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened at all.

Did you just exclaim, “Ye gods, WHY?” again? I can’t say as I blame you, but try for a moment to envision what a bound manuscript might look like from Millicent’s perspective.

To ramp up your stress levels to the proper level to understand her, envision a desk simply smothered with an immense pile of submissions to screen before going home for the day. Envision further that it’s already 6:30 PM, and eyeballs already dry as dust from a long, hard day of rejecting query letters.

Just lost your sympathy, didn’t she? Try, try again to place yourself in her desk chair.

Picturing that immense pile of envelopes clearly again? Okay, now slit open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside. (You do know that you should always scrawl that in two-inch letters in the lower left-hand corner of a submission envelope, don’t you, so your requested materials don’t get buried in the slush pile?)

If you’re Millicent — and right now, you are, singed tongue and all — you fully expect to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:

P&P title right

But in the case of the bound manuscript, you would instead encounter something like this:

Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? Unfortunately, 999 times out of 1000, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE, just before Millicent tucks a photocopied form rejection letter on top of it.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Clearly, this submitter has not done his homework.

That last phrase should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this autumn’s run of ‘Paloozas: it’s a standard euphemism for this writer would be difficult to work with, because he hasn’t bothered to learn what professional expectations for manuscripts/query letters/synopses/author bios are. Sigh…

This logic may not seen particularly open-minded, from a writerly perspective, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this binding-happy submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is he to know the rules of standard format? And if he does not know either, how likely is he to be producing polished prose? If he hasn’t taken the time to polish his prose, is this manuscript really finished?

And if it isn’t finished, why should I (you’re still Millicent, remember?) bother to invest my time in reading it before it is? (Again: sigh.)

I know, I know — this might not be a fair assessment in any individual case. Despite my best efforts over the last few years, there are plenty of good writers out there who happen to be clueless about the rules of standard format.

But even if they all jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, you shouldn’t.

This is yet another expectation-differential problem. From Millicent’s perspective, the fact that good writers aren’t necessarily born aware of the norms of the industry matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

The moral: don’t waste your money on binding.

Seem arbitrary? From a professional reader’s point of view, it isn’t — the enforcement of standard formatting isn’t actually any more complicated than the simple axiom that any game has rules, and you will play better if you take the time to learn them.

Think about it: if you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know. Please, I beg you, say that you are getting the parallels, so I may move on.

Submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more. It may not seem that way the first time one is struggling to change an already-written manuscript into standard format, but trust me, it will be much more fun when you finish your next manuscript and realize that there’s nothing that needs to be changed.

Let all of those other folks jump off the Golden Gate Bridge without you, I say. Remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. If you want to play with the big kids, you’re going to need to abide by their rules.

At least at the submission stage.

Until you know the expectations of the lovely folks seated in the row behind you, don’t assume you can recline all the way back into their laps. Everyone on the plane is trying to get to the same place, after all. By following the rules, you can make it a more enjoyable trip for all concerned.

Next time, I shall tackle a less-common but still virulent misconception. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza has landed!

lunar landing

That’s right, campers: we’re rounding out this autumn of ‘Paloozas with arguably the most important one of all, a step-by-step guide to standard format, the way that book manuscripts should look on a page-by-page basis. Because yes, Virginia, there are professional standards, and once per year, I like to tell my readers about ‘em.

What? No public rejoicing? “Manuscript formatting?” I hear many an aspiring writer grumbling. “What on earth does that have to do with landing an agent and/or getting my book published?”

Plenty, actually; submitting a professionally-formatted manuscript gives an aspiring writer a competitive advantage in submission. And this time around, because some of you asked so nicely, I’m going to be devoting a few posts specifically to the ins and outs of formatting — and punctuating — dialogue.

Why concentrate on dialogue this time around? Well, remember my mentioning that a hefty percentage of the aspiring writers of North America tend to gird their loins, ratchet up their nerves, and send out queries and requested materials in early January of each year, in fulfillment of New Year’s resolutions to get cracking on getting published? These same resolutions lead freelance editors’ desks, or at any rate their e-mail inboxes, to groan under the weight of clients eager to seek their counsel, both at the close of the old year and the opening of the new. It’s also the time of year when we can get a preview of what Millicent the agency screener is likely to see for the next twelve to fifteen months.

I can already tell you the coming year’s trend: first- and tight third-person narratives in which other characters speak and the narrator thinks within the same paragraph. Last year, it was not double-spacing manuscripts; the year before, it was not indenting paragraphs.

And once again, Millicents all over New York will be shaking their heads, muttering, “What on earth made anyone think this was proper? Did I miss a bestseller that broke this particular rule?”

Yet virtually every time I mention to my fellow professional readers that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not fully aware of how a manuscript should be formatted — or, indeed, that such a thing as standard format exists, they tend to chortle with disbelief. “Oh, come on, Anne,” they scoff. “Anyone serious about getting published would have done his homework about that. Besides, the formatting isn’t really the problem for most of those writers. Most of the manuscripts you’re talking about would have gotten rejected by agencies, anyway; the ones who don’t double-space tend not to spell-check, either.”

And that, incidentally, is what a mixed-use dialogue paragraph in a first-person narrative looks like. In a novel, it tends to run like this:

Kyra laughed. “Over my dead body.” I thought about that for a moment. Not such a terrible idea.

“That could be arranged,” I said, much to her evident annoyance.

“No, but seriously, Ermintrude, I can’t let you take that book out from my library.” I raised my eyebrows at her. “What part of non-circulating collection don’t you understand?”

As opposed to the classic — and much clearer, logistically speaking — tradition of limiting each speaker/actor to distinct and separate paragraphs, so the formatting itself makes it plain who is speaking when:

Kyra laughed. “Over my dead body.”

Not such a terrible idea. “That could be arranged.”

The minuscule muscles at the side of her right eye twitched with annoyance. “No, but seriously, Ermintrude, I can’t let you take that book out from my library. What part of non-circulating collection don’t you understand?”

Easier for a skimming eye to follow what’s going on, isn’t it? Now, there’s no question of who is speaking — or acting — when; every twitch is easily attributable to the proper twitcher. We’re going to be talking about this dynamic, as well as other tips for dialogue formatting and clarity, later in this series.

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

More scoffing around the table in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. One of the freelance editors might even trot out that old agents’ truism: “If a writer’s serious about getting published, he’ll take the time to learn what the formatting norms are. There are books that explain how to do it.”

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

Actually, it used to be three, back in the dark days before I learned to keep reminding all of you, campers, to check the archive category list conveniently located on lower right-hand side of this page the early and often. (Speaking of formatting, how do folks like the new, improved, ostensibly easier-to-use format on the archive listings? Over the years, many of you had asked for the categories to be organized with headings.)

I feel that my colleagues are engaging in a bit of buck-passing. “I’m not denying that it’s possible to learn how to do it right; I’m just pointing out that most of the time, the writers whose manuscripts get rejected unread because of formatting problems have no idea that they’re not getting rejected on the writing itself.” Half the table looks skeptical. “Okay, fine — let’s do a little survey. Hands up: how many of you would read a single-spaced manuscript, if a potential client sent it to you? Or even one-and-a-half spacing? What about non-indented paragraphs?”


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

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

Why? Well, think about it: it’s one of the easiest ways conceivable to narrow the submission pool — which is job #1 for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, right? Do the math: if the average agent receives 800-1500 queries per week and agrees to read even five percent of the manuscripts (high for most agents, by the way), that’s 40-60 manuscripts per week, and thus somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000-3,000 per year.

Since even a very successful agent could take on, at most, 4-5 new clients per year, Millicent had better narrow down that applicant pool, pronto, hadn’t she? So had Maury. So had Mehitabel, since no matter how good a crop of contest entries is, there are generally only a fixed, small number of finalist slots. They’ve got to rule manuscripts out.

Isn’t it fortunate for them, then, that the vast majority of submitters present their writing unprofessionally?

Did some of you just do a double-take? Yes, Virginia, most submissions are incorrectly formatted. They either resemble published books (which is not correct for a manuscript submission), are submitted in short story format (ditto), or look like whatever the submitter happens to think looks nice on the page (extrapolate the answer from the previous two).

All of which makes Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel shout, “Hallelujah,” especially of late, when both query and submission rates have been skyrocketing. Writing a book has always been plan B for a lot of people — with the economy in its current state, many folks seem to be pulling partially-finished manuscripts out of desk drawers these days. (Okay, off their hard disks, but it amounts to the same thing.) The timing’s a tad unfortunate, since this is also a period where publishing houses have been laying off editors and other staff.

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

While those of you who already suffering from query or submission fatigue are still reeling from the implications of that last statement, let me slip a few hard facts under the noses of those who have yet to submit for the first time:

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

(2) while deviating from standard format in a small way (or, more commonly, in a multiplicity of small ways) will not necessarily result in knee-jerk rejection, it does tend to prompt those who read manuscripts for a living to take the manuscript less seriously, on the assumption that an aspiring writer who has not taken the time to learn about standard format probably has not honed her craft much yet, either. Given the pervasiveness of this attitude,

(3) using fancy typefaces, including cover artwork, printing manuscript pages on colored paper, and/or any other deviations from standard format in one’s submission is most emphatically not regarded as interesting expressions of the author’s individual point of view, but rather as evidence that the author doesn’t know about (1). On the bright side,

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

(5) one does occasionally hear agents and editors ask for deviations from standard format; in these cases, an aspiring writer should definitely give them precisely what they ask to see. However,

(6) it’s never advisable to generalize from what one individual says s/he wants into a brand-new trend sweeping the industry. Nor is it a good idea to ape the formatting choices one sees in a published book, because

(7) book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, for many excellent, practical reasons that I shall be explaining at length throughout this ‘Palooza. That being the case, professional tend to draw unfavorable conclusions about submissions that do aspire to book formatting, much as they do when aspiring writers are not aware that

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

This may seem nit-picky and irrelevant to the quality of the writing in question, but think about it: if a host asks you to a formal dinner, it’s only polite to wear formal attire; a guest who shows up in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt is going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. (If it’s not clear to you why that might be problematic, review point 2.) Similarly,

(9) when placed side-by-side with professional manuscripts, as a successful submission inevitably will be, a wackily put-together manuscript will stand out as unprofessional, a phenomenon that all too often leads to

(10) most manuscript submissions getting rejected on page 1. Not always because they deviates from standard format — although, had I not yet made this point sufficiently, the vast majority of submissions do — but because an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript already has one strike against it, and who needs that? Ultimately,

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

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

Yes, really, Virginia; stop looking at me with those doubtful, pleading eyes. If any of the information on the list above came as a surprise to you in any way, it’s incredibly important that you should join me on a tiptoe through the intricacies of standard format.

In case I’ve been too subtle so far about why: agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not).

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

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

Yes, even if the formatting in question would be perfectly legitimate in other writing environments. (See points 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8 above, for instance.) And yes, yes, oh, yes, even if the deviation is precisely what some agent, editor, writing guru, or darned fool writing expert like me has suddenly announced to the world is the new norm.

Millicent didn’t get that memo.

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

Oh, should I have numbered that one?

Actually, it would be very much against her self-interest to go trolling for such information, because — chant it with me now, veterans of my previous forays into standard format’s underlying logic — it’s so much easier just to assume that submissions that don’t adhere to standard format are inherently unprofessional, and thus (by implication) less likely to contain writing destined to take the publishing world by storm.

To put it bluntly, not relying upon this convenient assumption would slow her per-submission rejection time. As I hope anyone who has been ‘Palooza-ing this autumn is already aware, the fine folks who read submissions (and queries) in order to decide who gets a break and who doesn’t are in a hurry.

Remember the stats above; these people have a heck of a lot of reading to do. In the face of that many pieces of paper to plow through, even the reading of eagerly-solicited submissions tends to be awfully rushed: the goal becomes to weed out as many as possible as quickly as possible, rather than seeking out gems. Once a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for a while, s/he will usually develop a knack for coming to a conclusion about a piece of writing within the first paragraph or two.

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

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

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

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

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

What does this trigger-happiness mean for aspiring writers who scoff at standard format, or just don’t know about it? Right now, Harry Houdini himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on extricating oneself from tight situations. (And if that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your industry-speak.)

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

See now why aspiring writers cognizant of points (1) – (11) might enjoy a considerable competitive advantage at submission time? So to help give you that edge, I’m going to start running though the rules of standard format — and no, Virginia, none of them are negotiable. Stop asking, I tell you.

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

No exceptions, unless an agent or editor (or a contest’s rules) specifically asks you to do otherwise. And I’m dead serious about using only white paper: ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes.

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

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

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

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

Speaking of never, never, ever, eversubmit a dim photocopy; print out an original every time. Oh, you may chuckle at the notion of sending out a grainy photocopy, but believe me, any contest judge has seen many, many entries submitted that way.

Mehitabel likes them, actually: for every one that pops up, her reading time is shortened. Any guesses why?

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

Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the literally millions of pages of submissions that go flying into the agencies and publishing houses every month. I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory.

Also, writers would all be granted an extra month a year in which to write, excellent and inexpensive child care while writing, a cedar-lined cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in which to do it, and a pineapple upside-down cake on Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. Perhaps some hard candies on Truman Capote’s birthday as well, in affluent years, and dancing on Mme. de Staël’s.

But since the unhappy reality is that I do not run the universe, we shall all have to live with the status quo. Which is to say: the publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

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

SASE, open wide: here comes a returned manuscript.

The only exception to this rule is a nonfiction book proposal — not the manuscript, mind you, just the proposal. Proposals are typically presented unbound in a black folder, the kind with horizontal pockets. (For tips, please see the aptly-titled HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK PROPOSAL category at right.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation: the left margin should be straight; the right margin should not. In practice, that means that the left margin will be exactly 1 inch, while the right margin will be no less than an inch on any given line of text. Similarly, while the top margin should be exactly 1 inch, the bottom margin will typically be slightly more, because the spacing between lines of text needs to be constant. (You actually don’t need to fret over measuring any of this out, if you are using MS Word: just set the margins all around to 1″ and the spacing to double, and you will end up with a standard 23-line manuscript page.)

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

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

Yes, Virginia, even if you have a strong preference for the lettering in your book when it is published. Why? Shout it with me now: MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME.

So use one of these typefaces for submission purposes — unless, of course, an agency’s submission guidelines specifically ask for something different. There are a few agents out there who have their own font preferences (usually Courier, and usually because they also represent screenplays), so do check their websites and/or listings in the standard agency guides. As ever, the golden rule of dealing with an agent you want to represent you is give them precisely what they ask to see, not what you would like them to see.

Personally, I would never dream of allowing an editing client of mine to submit a manuscript in anything but Times New Roman, nor would I ever submit any of my work in anything else. It is the standard typeface of the publishing industry, just as Courier is the norm of screenwriting.

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

I hear you grumbling, lovers of interesting typefaces. Yes, most published books are in typefaces other than Times or Courier — but typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author. Submission time is not the appropriate period for making your preferences known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, adhering to these rules will mean that your writing is going to be judged on your writing, not your formatting. And that, my friends, is nothing at which to sneeze.

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

Authorbiopalooza, Part II: crossing the bio bridge sooner rather than later, or, let’s face it, the impossible will take a little while


My, but we’ve been spending a hefty proportion of this fall on the potential contents of the query and submission packet, have we not? First Querypalooza, then Synopsispalooza, and now Authorbiopalooza. Why, it’s almost as though I were reluctant to send the dedicated members of the Author! Author! community out into the cold, hard world of manuscript marketing unprepared.

Was that massive wind that just blew my cat sideways a collective gusty sigh from those of you not currently operating under a I-must-have-it-by-Friday deadline for an author bio? “Okay, Anne,” sighers across the English-speaking world groan, “I can understand why I would need to polish my query into professionalism, and I’m grateful for the guidance on the synopsis. But honestly, why should I take the time now to compose a bio no one has yet asked to see? I’m happy that you have a clearly-marked HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list conveniently located on the bottom right-hand side of the page for me to rush to the moment I actually need to write the darned thing, but hey, I’m an exceedingly busy person. Can’t I just, you know, cross the bio bridge if and when I come to it?”

Well, I suppose that you could, sighing groaners, if you were a procrastinating sort. (Not that I believe that you are. I mean, come on — a procrastinating writer? Who has ever met one of those mythical creatures?) But believe me, your life will be substantially easier down the road if you put some thought into at least drafting a bio now.

Why? Well, think about it: if your queries and submissions are successful, it will be a matter of when you will need a bio, not if. Like a well-crafted synopsis for one’s current book project, the author bio is a document that any professional writer of book-length works for the U.S. market is simply expected to be able to produce on demand. Unless you happen to enjoy last-minute scrambling around — which you might, if you are that rara avis, the procrastinating writer — I cannot sufficiently emphasize how good an idea it is to start working on your author bio well in advance of when you will need it.

The sighing groaners are rolling their eyes now, I see. “Well, obviously, it would be nice if I had the time to construct a bio before I need it. Heck, it would have been nice if I’d had a beautifully-crafted query letter just lying around before I worked up nerve to query, or a stellar synopsis lingering on my hard drive before the agent of my dreams asked to see it. But since brownies are apparently not in the habit of dropping by my writing space in the dead of night to provide me with book marketing material, I guess I shall have to — wait for it — cross that bridge when I come to it.”

You’re more than welcome to do as you please, of course, but I would be remiss if I did not reiterate something already familiar to those of you who read your way through yesterday’s long-but-I-hope-entertainingly-persuasive post already know, the necessity of writing an author bio is often sprung upon an aspiring writer our of proverbially clear blue sky. Not in a delightful, playful, hands-over-the-eyes way, but in brusque, business-like manner.

“You’ll have it to me in the morning, right?” requesting agents, editors, and the fine folks who organize literary contests are prone to say. “Or you can just e-mail it to me right now, if you like.”

Some writers never get the resulting lump out of their throats again.

Those of us who have been at the writing game for a while have learned not to voice dismay at this kind of request. Surviving in the ultra-competitive literary environment is just easier for be an upbeat, can-do kind of writer, the sort who says, “Rewrite WAR AND PEACE by Saturday? No problem!” than the kind who moans and groans over each unreasonable deadline. Or reasonable one, for that matter.

It’s all a matter of mindset — and time management. The energy that you expend in complaining about an outrageous request could be put to good use in trying to meet that deadline, after all. If one thinks about energy expenditure over the course of an entire writing career, it’s clearly more efficient — and substantially less time-consuming overall — to plan ahead, rather than wait until the deadline is already imminent.

In a business where it’s routine for the deadline the writer thought was months away to get moved to next Thursday, as well as for next Thursday’s deadline to shift without warning to the end of November (“But you wouldn’t mind redoing Chapter 6, would you?”), it’s far, far more efficient to start, at least, composing anything that you know you’ll have to submit eventually. Believe me, you’ll want the time that you had planned to spend pulling a panicked all-nighter for other things.

For revising Chapter 6, for instance. Possibly in a panicked all-nighter.

Hey, tight deadlines are just a fact of a working writer’s life. The most annoying part, typically, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be in your best interest to squander energy in resenting it. Trust me, the agent of your dreams will want you to embrace the axiom the late great Billie Holiday so often sang:

The difficult
I’ll do right now.
The impossible
will take a little while.

Will it vitiate my moral too much if I add that the name of the song was “Crazy, He Calls Me”? Or will you simply assume that Billie must have spent a lot of time hanging out at my agency?

Seriously, though, writing a compelling author bio is not something that most writers can toss off in an afternoon, especially if they haven’t thought about it before — or if, as we discussed last time, they aren’t altogether sure what in their respective backgrounds would be of interest to an agent, editor, or even the general reading public. Which is why, if memory serves, I spent yesterday encouraging you to put together an author bio for yourself as soon as possible, against the day that you might need to produce one, immediately and apparently effortlessly, in response to a request from an agent or editor.

And a good two-thirds of you groaned audibly. Don’t think I didn’t hear you.

I know, I know: we writers are expected to produce a lot on spec; it would be nice, especially for a fiction writer, to be able to wait to write something affiliated with one’s first book after an advance was already cooling its little green heels in one’s bank account. But, again, when that happy day comes, you may not have the time. At that point, you’ll be asked to write more for your publisher’s marketing department, a whole lot more –heck, if you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll be asked write the rest of the book you proposed — so you’ll be ecstatic to have even one task already checked off the list.

And yes, I am going to say it again: it would behoove you to get the bio out of the way now.

Even if juggling the demands of your publishers’ many departments seems impossibly far away to you, think of bio-writing as another tool added to your writer’s toolkit. Not only the bio itself, although it’s certainly delightful to have one on hand when the time comes, but the highly specialized skills involved in writing one.

You’d be surprised at how often just knowing in your heart that you already have the skills to write this kind of professional document can be marvelously comforting. Every time I have a tight deadline, I am deeply, passionately grateful that I have enough experience with the trade to be able crank out the requisite marketing materials with the speed of a high school junior BSing on her English Literature midterm. It’s definitely a learned skill, acquired through having produced a whole lot of promotional materials for my work (and my clients’) over the last decade or so.

Frankly, at this point, I can make it sound as if all of human history had been leading exclusively and inevitably to my acquiring the knowledge, background, and research materials for me to write the project in question. Any project. The Code of Hammurabi, you will be pleased to know, was written partially with my book in mind.

Which book, you ask, since I have several in progress? Well, which one would you like to acquire for your publishing house, Mr. or Ms. Editor?

Another reason to start penning the thing well in advance of when you need it (and had I mentioned that you absolutely will need it, if your writing career is even moderately successful) is that it will give you time to experiment with how you would like to present yourself to the literary world — and to your future fans. And I’m not merely talking about the many, many tries it takes most of us to come up with an author photo we like enough to want to see on a dust jacket.

Oh, didn’t you know that you should be starting to work on that, too? Publishing houses almost never pay for photo sessions for first-time authors anymore; in the age of digital photography, it’s not at all unusual for a friend’s snapshot to end up on a book cover. Do you honestly want to bet that your best friend who has been dabbling in photography for the past couple of years is going to catch the real you on the first try?

But the author photo is not the only part of the author bio page (yes, many do include photos; we’ll be getting to that in a couple of days) that shows readers who you are — or, more important at the querying and submission stage, shows your future agent or editor what you’re like. And I’m not just talking about the startling revelation that you are an amateur pigeon-racer, either.

I’m talking about you as a writer. As those of you who have been following the pageant of ‘Paloozas will probably not be entirely astonished to hear, your author bio, like any other promotional material for a book, is a writing sample. The bio is also a creative writing opportunity. Not an invitation to lie, of course, but a chance to show what a fine storyteller you are.

This is true in spades for nonfiction book proposals, by the way, where the proposer is expected to use her writing skills to paint a picture of what does not yet exist, in order to call it into being. Contrary to popular opinion (including, I was surprised to learn recently, my agent’s — I seem to be talking about him a lot today, don’t I? — but I may have misunderstood him), the formula for a nonfiction proposal is not

good idea + platform = marketable proposal

regardless of the quality of the writing, or even the ever-popular recipe

Take one (1) good idea and combine with platform; stir until well blended. Add one talented writer (interchangeable; you can pick ‘em up cheaply anywhere) and stir.

Well might you snort in disbelief. Just as which justice authors a Supreme Court decision affects how a ruling is passed down to posterity, the authorship of a good book proposal matters. Or should, because unlike novels, which are marketed only when already written (unless it’s part of a multi-book deal), nonfiction books exist only in the mind of the author until they are written.

That’s why it’s called a proposal, and that’s why it includes an annotated table of contents: it is giving a picture of the book that already exists in the author’s mind.

For those of you who don’t already know, book proposals — the good ones, anyway — are written as if the book being proposed were already written; synopses, even for novels, are written in the present tense. It is your time to depict the book you want to write as you envision it in your fondest dreams.

Since what the senior President Bush used to call the vision thing is thus awfully important to any book, particularly a nonfiction one, the author bio that introduces the writer to the agents and editors who might buy the book is equally important. Why? Well, think about it: the author bio is the stand-in for the face-to-face interview for the job you would like a publisher to hire you to do: write a book for them.

The less of your writing they have in front of them when they are making that hiring decision — which, again, is usually an entire book in the case of a novel, but only a proposal and a sample chapter for nonfiction, even for memoir — the more they have to rely upon each and every sentence that’s there, obviously. Do you really want the words that describe your background to be ones that you wrote in 45 minutes in the dead of night so you could get your submission into the mail before you had to be at work in the morning?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you don’t. In fact, the very notion should make you break out in a cold sweat.

Are you chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio yet? Good. Then you are in the perfect mindset for your homework assignment: start thinking about all of the reasons you — yes, you — are far more interesting than anyone else on the planet.

I’m not talking about boasting, mind you; I’m talking about uniqueness. To put it another way, what makes you different from anyone else who might have written the book you are trying to sell?

And your mind went directly to writing credentials, didn’t it, even after yesterday’s lecture on the subject? Yet another reason that writing a compelling author bio usually takes a while: it’s not always self-evident to the writer what will or will not be memorable in a bio.

So don’t think about that for the moment. Just make a brief list of the most interesting things about yourself without worrying about how, or even whether, these things have any direct connection to the subject matter of the book you’re writing or don’t sound like very impressive credentials. Just get ready to tell me — and the world! — how precisely you are different from everybody else currently scurrying across the face of the planet.

Don’t tell me that you’re not. I shan’t believe it.

“Aw,” the former sighers and groaners say bashfully, scuffing their shoes on the floor, “you’re just saying that to give me confidence. What makes you so sure that I’m so gosh-darned interesting?”

Actually, I can answer that one right off the top of my head, scuffers: I know, as surely as if I could stand next to one or more of the muses and take an in-depth reading of each and every one of your psyches, that there is no one out there more truly interesting than someone who has devoted her or his life to the pursuit of self-expression. I’ve met writers I didn’t like, certainly, but I’ve never met a genuinely boring one.

Which is saying something, as I’ve certainly met plenty of writers more than eager to talk at length about book projects that made me long for the sweet embrace of sleep. If not death. But as people, even the ones with stultifying plotlines tend to be pretty interesting.

Let me guess, though: you think that you’re the exception. “But Anne, I’ve always heard that agents just laugh at non-writing credentials in a query letter or bio. People say that if you don’t have articles or an MFA, you should just shut up.”

That gust of wind you just heard was I sighing this time. As long-time Author! Author! devotées are no doubt already aware, I have mixed feelings about the utility of much of the traditional old chestnuts. I often advise all of you dear folks to take the usual old writing truisms with a massive grain of salt.

Write what you know, for instance, has been radically over-used, and not always to good effect. All too often, it’s been used as a battering ram to deprecate the genuinely original and exciting work of science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance. “Stop being all imaginative,” WWYK-mongers have historically snarled at those who have eschewed slice-of-life storylines. “Stick to what actually happened; it won’t be plausible otherwise.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone uses imaginative as an insult? In some genres, it’s one of the highest compliments a writer can get on her work.

As a freelance editor, I see a heck of a lot of manuscripts in any given year, and I hate to tell you this, WWYK-huggers, but being lifted from real life most emphatically does NOT render something plausible on the page. Or even enjoyable. And who said that holding the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature was the only way to produce good writing, anyway?

Well, perhaps most famously, the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, for one. I imagine that many of you who have spent much time in writing classes have already been bored by the oft-repeated story of how Perkins browbeat poor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings into abandoning her first love — historical romance, if memory serves — to delve deep into real life and produce THE YEARLING, so I’ll spare you.

And yes, I’ll grant you, THE YEARLING is a very good book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and I’m quite fond of it. Rawlings was an exceptionally talented writer, by virtually everyone’s admission.

So why is it that one NEVER hears this particular write-what-you-know story told as though Rawlings were a talented enough writer to genre-jump, or as evidence that even the greatest editors harbor personal tastes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual demands of the marketplace? Or that although the real-life story was about a girl, both she and Perkins thought the book would sell better if it were about a boy?

Literally every time I have ever heard a writing teacher share this anecdote, it’s always been told with sense a smug satisfaction that Rawlings hadn’t managed to gain literary recognition until she stopped fighting her editor. She approached editorial critique with a can-do attitude, you see. The impossible will take a little while.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to rewrite history so THE YEARLING was never written. But aren’t you just a bit curious about what might have happened if Rawlings had bumped into an editor who actually liked historical romance?

Instead of one who rolled his eyes over her manuscripts and sighed, “”Stop being so imaginative, Marjorie.”

Why do I bring this up today — other than the obvious reason that the overuse of write what you know is, as you may perhaps have noticed, a pet peeve of mine? Because the author bio is one instance where Perkins’ advice to Rawlings is indeed quite applicable: in an author bio, you should absolutely write what you know — and only what you know — rather than trying to inflate your background into something it is not.

Didn’t see that conclusion coming after all that build-up, did you?

Before I get too carried away on the vital importance of sticking to the truth in your bio, let’s define what we’re talking about: an author bio is an entertaining overview of the author’s background, an approximately 200-250 word description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational attainments, designed to make you sound like a person whose work would be fascinating to read.

Go back and re-read that last bit, because it will prevent your making the single biggest mistake to which first time bio-writers fall prey: if your bio does not make you sound interesting, it is not a success. Period.

Aren’t you glad that I asked you to come up with a list of all the ways that you are fascinating before I mentioned that last little tidbit? I thought it might make you feel better at this juncture.

While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed during Querypalooza (if you don’t have a list of your book’s selling points handy, please see the category at right that I have named, with startling originality, YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS), you will also want to include some of your personal quirks and background oddities, especially if they are relevant to the book.

I can hear the wheels of your brains turning, reeling at the possibilities. While they do, let me get the logistics out of the way. An author bio should:

(1) be written the third person, not the first.

(2) Open with whatever fact on your fascination list is most relevant to the book at hand, not with the extremely old-fashioned The author was born…

(3) Mention any past publications (in general terms), columns, lecturing experience, readings, as well as what you were doing for a living at the time that you wrote the book.

(4) Bring up any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). But naturally, if your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this would be the place to mention it. (I’m looking at you, Marjorie.)

(5) If the most interesting thing about you is not even remotely relevant to the book, consider mentioning it anyway. You want to be memorable, don’t you?

(6) Bios are virtually always single-page documents. Don’t make it longer unless an agent, editor, or contest guidelines ask you to do so.

#6, at least, should sound bit familiar. In case it doesn’t (and so I don’t get an avalanche of comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), what we’re talking about here is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 – 1 full page (double-spaced) in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

I sense some restlessness out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some conscientious rule-followers murmur, “haven’t you misspoken here? I could have sworn that you just said that the bio could be single-spaced — but that’s absurd, because you’re always telling us that everything that passes under professional eyes MUST be double-spaced with standard margins.”

Well-caught, rules lawyers: this is indeed the rare exception to the general axiom. Stand back, and I’ll shout it: unlike positively everything else you will ever produce for passing under an agent or editor’s beady eyes, it is sometimes acceptable to single-space an author bio. Generally speaking, though, bios are only single-spaced when the author bio page contains a photograph of the author.

“Wait!” the camera-shy shout. “Does that when mean I could dispense with the photo altogether?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it: unless an agent, editor, or contest rules specifically request a photo, a bio doesn’t necessarily need one. A query bio seldom does, but as always, check submission guidelines carefully: the expectations vary from agency to agency.

You also might want to check out the bios of first-time authors in your book category. Like pretty much everything else in a query or submission packet, the tone and parameters of what is and isn’t acceptable content in an author bio vary by book category.

So before you launch into writing your own bio, you might want to slouch your way into a bookstore on your day off and start pulling books of the shelves in the area where you hope one day to see your book sitting. Many of my clients find this helpful, as it assists them in remembering that the author bio is, like a jacket blurb, a sales tool, not just a straightforward list of facts.

Don’t just look at recent releases in general; be category-specific. Find books like yours. If you write tragic romances, read a few dozen bio blurbs in tragic novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves, and so forth. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there tends to be: the tone of the author bio echoes the tone of the book. This is a clever move, as it helps the potential book buyer (and, in the author bio, the potential agent and/or editor) assess whether this is a writer in whose company she wants to spend hours of her life.

For two fabulous examples of such matching, check out ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER author Bob Tarte’s bio, as well as Author! Author! guest blogger and comic genius Jonathan Selwood’s. Both of these writers do an amazing job of not only giving a genuine taste of the (wildly different) senses of humor inherent to their books, but making themselves sound like no one else on the face of the earth.

Yet if you read their bios closely, apparently, the Code of Hammurabi itself was written as a precursor to their bringing their respective works to the reading world. Now that’s a great author bio.

Why? Because it’s a terrific way to establish a credible platform without hitting the reader over the head with one’s credentials — yet, true to the bio-writing author’s brief, it presents the author as he actually is: interesting. REALLY interesting.

Don’t believe me? Think a stodgy list of credentials might have done it better? Take another gander at Bob Tarte’s. His animal-related background is genuinely impressive and might well look good just listed, but doesn’t this:

Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell…Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, rabbits, doves, cats, hens, and one turkey.

make you more likely to pick up his books than a simple, straightforward list of past publications?

Clever authors often tailor their bios to the book being promoted — because, let’s face it, the personality traits and background that might help a writer push a dead-serious political book would probably not be all that useful if the same writer was trying to sell chick lit. Fortunately, most of us creative types are pretty darned complex people; few writers have so few quirks in their backgrounds that they cannot afford to pick and choose the bits most appropriate to the book being promoted.

Are you not believing me AGAIN? Okay, you asked for it — here’s the opening to the bio Jonathan Selwood posted on his website to promote his serious comic novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, a story of pop art, dinosaur bone theft, and partying with billionaires punctuated by a massive earthquake, LA style:

I was born in Hollywood, California. In other words, the first time I played doctor as a kid was on a neighbor’s circular fur-covered waterbed with a mirror on the ceiling. The girl’s parents and two younger siblings were busy out by the pool hosting a nude cocaine party.

Not a traditional author bio, admittedly — but do you believe that Mssr. Selwood might have just a bit of insight into the partying habits of that part of the world? Absolutely.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios: they have not — and this is unusual for an author bio — leaned on their formal credentials too heavily. In fact, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere, after all) that one of these gentlemen holds an MFA from a rather prestigious writing program, but you’d never know it from his bio.

And no, I’m not going to tell you which it is.

Why might he have left that juicy tidbit out of his bio? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers — but I would imagine it’s because he’s a savvy marketer: mentions of Ivy League MFAs generally conjure heavily introspective books of exquisitely-crafted literary short stories about tiny, tiny slices of life in the suburban world. Such exquisite little gems are known in the biz as “MFA stories,” a term that is often spoken with a slight, Elvis-like curl of the lip. Since they tend not to sell very well, they have as many detractors in the industry as enthusiasts.

So I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong signal about the book he is trying to sell NOW. Because an author bio is, ultimately, not a cold, impersonal Who’s Who blurb, designed merely to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but a piece of marketing material. If it doesn’t help sell the book, it’s just book flap decoration.

Next time, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio, well, less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own. Because like so many other things worth doing, writing a good author bio isn’t something that should be done at the very last minute — or the very last hour.

Like the impossible, it will take a little while. Keep up the good work!