Querypalooza, part XX: the skinny on partials — at least the ones that are skinnier than entire manuscripts

showtime-skeleton

Yesterday’s query-submission packaging in the morning/query content in the evening dichotomy worked so well that I’ve decided to continue it for the rest of this series. Or Tuesday morning, whichever comes first. Hey, posting multiple times a day + doing anything else at all = a certain level of tiredness not conducive to good projective record-keeping. Or retroactive record-keeping, for that matter.

Something the bear in mind on those weekends when you’ve ordered yourself to send out 15 queries before you go to bed on Sunday night, incidentally. Or convinced yourself that if the agent of your dreams asked to see all or part of your manuscript at a conference on Saturday, or in reply to an e-mailed query on Friday, she will be massively offended if the materials aren’t winging their way through the mails or flying toward her e-mail account by noon on Monday. The latter is just not true, for one thing — no agent holds his breath or rearranges his schedule while waiting for requested materials — but regardless of why you’re hurrying, nothing is so conducive to missing important details than a self-imposed deadline.

Yes, you read that correctly: I said self-imposed. Confusing speed of response with meeting a professional expectation is a classic rookie submitter’s mistake. 99% of the time, the unrealistic lapses new writers allow themselves between requests for pages and sending them out neither serve the manuscript’s interests nor have any basis whatsoever in the requesting agent’s actual expectations about when those pages are going to show up.

But that’s not what it feels like when you receive a request for pages, is it? The adrenaline starts pumping: this is my big break!

It isn’t, really — it’s simply the threshold from the first phase of the querying/pitching process to the submission stage. Yet practically every conference-pitcher I’ve ever met has gotten so excited by the first time she was asked by a real, live agent to send real, live pages that she simply dropped everything, printed out her manuscript right away, and popped it into the mail on the next business day. Or had hit the SEND button on an e-mailed submission within hours.

Ditto with receiving a positive response to a query. Often, our heroine chooses to hasten her submission’s arrival even more by paying extra for overnight shipping, under the mistaken impression that it will get her work read faster.

And then she’s horrified to realize three days later that there’s a gigantic typo on page 1. Or that she forgot to include page 58 in the packet, because it wafted out of the printer and behind a nearby chair.

Word to the wise: it’s ALWAYS worth your while to take the time to double-check that everything in your query or submission packet is as it should be. You almost certainly have time to do it: unless an agent specifically asked you to get your materials to him by a specific deadline, or to overnight them, he is not expecting them right away.

Yes, really. And yes, I know that in the first thrill of your writing being treated with respect, it won’t feel that way at all. But trust me on this one: your work will be treated with even more respect if you take the time to make sure that you have presented it professionally.

And what does a professional writer do to assure that? Pull out your hymnals this fine Sunday morning and sing along, campers: by reading every piece of paper that goes in a query or submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY (yes, even if you are planning to e-mail it; it’s easier to catch typos on a printed page), and preferably OUT LOUD (ditto).

Yes, that’s going to be time-consuming. Your point?

Seriously, would you rather that Millicent judge your writing with that great big typo, or without? With page 58, or without? With the cover letter that was still sitting on your dining room table after you sealed the submission packet, or without?

And so forth. Queriers and submitters often become so focused on getting the darned things out the door that they forget that their success is dependent upon the writing in those packets, not the mere fact of those materials showing up at agencies unscathed. Don’t be so eager to push SEND or tote that box to the post office that you overlook something important.

Like, say, including the synopsis that the agency’s guidelines specified all queriers should include in their query packets. Make a list of what’s required, check it twice — then check it again before you tape up that box.

To help you dot all of the Is and cross all of the Ts, I’m going to devote this morning’s post to giving you the skinny on requests for pages, rather entire manuscripts — what’s known in the biz as a partial. (You’d be surprised at what comes up in a web search of skinny; it was either this or models, interestingly enough. (These fabulous animated bones appear courtesy of Feebleminds, by the way.)

Quite a few aspiring writers seem to find both the logic behind the partial and the logistics behind sending it perplexing. Quoth, for instance, the intrepid reader Kim:

An agent recently requested a partial of ms. and not being able to find much on how to format that I just included the title page, and the requested pages of the ms. Is there a correct format or protocol for partials?

I was delighted that Kim brought this up. Although a partial always refers to a manuscript by definition — the term is shorthand for partial manuscript — this is yet another one of those situations where aspiring writers often get confused by publishing industry terminology.

Yes, I said yet another, because as so often seems to happen in the rumor echo chamber in which those trying to break into the biz must operate, many are the terms that mean more than one thing, or which would mean one thing to an agent and another to, say, a submitting writer. Here we have a prime example of the former: a partial can refer to two different kinds of manuscript, depending upon the context.

So let’s start this discussion by defining our terms before we really give the skeletons something to cavort about, shall we?

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the first pages
The first kind of partial, the kind to which Kim refers, is a specified number of pages an agent may request a successfully querying or pitching writer who is not yet a client to send. Emphasis on specified: no agent is simply going to tell an aspiring writer, “Send me a partial,” leaving the writer to guess how many pages and from what part of the book.

Instead, she will typically say, “Send me the first chapter/first 50 pages/first three chapters/first 100 pages.” In this context, then, a partial equals precisely the number of pages an agent has requested to see.

Emphasis on precisely: if an agent asks to see the first 50 pages, don’t make the mistake of sending 52, even if page 50 ends in mid-sentence or the chapter ends on the bottom of page 52. Demonstrate that you may be relied upon to do ask you are asked, rather than make up your own rules.

Don’t look at me that way; overstuffed query and submission packets rank among Millicent’s most notorious pet peeves. “But Anne,” those of you glaring daggers in my general direction protest, “that doesn’t make any sense to me. Surely, the agent will be impressed that I paid attention enough to realize that page 50 ended in the middle of a paragraph, and that page 56 provides a natural stopping-point with a real cliffhanger. Or are you suggesting that I should produce a revised manuscript for partial submission in which the cliffhanger is on page 56?”

No — although if you honestly believe there are 6 pages of text in your manuscript that Millicent doesn’t need to see, I would strongly advise doing a bit of revision before you submit, on general principle. It sounds like that text is toting around some extra verbiage. But otherwise, it’s actually a good thing if you’re confident enough in your writing and your understanding of submissions to allow Millie to stop reading in mid-sentence, if that’s what is on the bottom of page 50.

From an agent’s point of view, an ability to follow directions well is a very, very desirable trait in a potential client; clients who second-guess about what’s really meant by straightforward requests are inherently more time-consuming to handle than those who do not.

That’s why, should you have been wondering, the rule of thumb for any submission or query packet is send the agency precisely what it is expecting to see. No more, no less.

Besides, just between us, submitters who round up or round down just to make the writing excerpt complete make Millicent roll her eyes like a teenager in an adult novel. “Wow, this writer is confident,” she mutters, riffling through the ostensible stack of 50 pages that obviously includes at least 10 more. “Confident that I have unlimited amounts of time to spend on a single submission, that is. How big an ego must he have to assume that I would desperately want to keep reading to the end of the chapter after I have already made up my mind whether to request the full manuscript or not? It’s not as though I’m going to remember how these pages left off by the time a requested full arrived. If I were an umbrage-taker, I might even conclude that he thinks I’m too stupid to understand that the book doesn’t end on page 50. I have seen a manuscript before, you know.”

Millicent has a very valid point here: the oh-I-must-send-a-complete-section attitude misses the point of the agency’s having requested a partial in the first place. Basically, this type of partial is a writing sample, similar in function to the pages agents sometimes list in their submission requirements as addenda to the query packet or the brief writing samples agencies sometimes want queriers to include in their query packets: the agent is asking for these pages primarily in order to see whether this aspiring writer can write.

Judging whether the book would be a good fit for the agency comes a close second, of course. However, if Millicent isn’t caught by the style in that partial or writing sample, even a perfect plotline for that agent’s interests is likely to be rejected.

Oh, should I have warned you not to take that great big sip of coffee just before you read that rather disturbing paragraph? Go ahead and clean up; I don’t mind waiting.

I understand your shock at hearing it so bluntly put, oh spit-takers, but ruling out 98% of submissions as quickly as humanly possible is, after all, Millicent’s job. Her boss can only take on a handful of new clients in any given year, right? In order to save the agent time, she makes sure that the only requested materials to reach his desk are well-written, properly formatted, and the kind of story or argument the agent is actively looking to represent.

When an agency requests a partial rather than the entire manuscript, it’s essentially a means of streamlining this winnowing-down process even further. Not to mention saving our Millie from having to shuffle, and thus lift, a ton of paper: instead of her desk being piled up to her chin at any given moment with boxes of full manuscripts, the weekly influx of requested partials may reach only up to her sternum. Once she has screened those, her boss can decide which of the surviving partials have piqued their interest sufficiently to request the entire manuscript.

A process known, both colloquially and within the industry, as asking to see the entire manuscript.

So asking for a partial adds an intervening step between the initial query or pitch and the request for the full manuscript — but before those of you who would prefer your work to be judged in its entirety invest too much energy in glowering in Millicent and her boss’ general direction for sending writers jumping through this additional hoop, let me hasten to add that until fairly recently, most agencies always asked for a partial first; requesting the entire manuscript right off the bat used to be a sign that an agent was really, really excited about a book project and wanted to get the jump on any other agent who might have merely requested a partial.

Nowadays, the decision whether to request a partial or entire manuscript is less often an indicator of enthusiasm than a straightforward matter of agency policy. In fact, contrary to pervasive writerly opinion, being asked for a partial rather than a full can sometimes be an advantage: at some agencies, having the entire manuscript on hand earlier can enable even speedier rejection of a near-miss project.

Think about it: instead of having to ask for pages 51-372 and wait for them to arrive in order to pass a final judgment on a book, Millicent can simply read to page 60. Or page 2.

If the verdict is yes, this can lop quite a bit of time off the agent-seeking process, from the writer’s perspective. Unfortunately, if the verdict is no, and the agency is one of the vast majority that utilize form-letter rejections, the submitter ends up with no idea whether the impetus to reject came on page 1 or page 371.

Renders it rather difficult to guess how to improve the manuscript prior to the next submission, doesn’t it?

Before that rhetorical question depresses anybody too much, let’s return to defining our partials. 99% of the time, the kind of partial an aspiring writer will be asked to provide is this first kind: a requested number of pages, beginning on p. 1 of the manuscript, for submission to an agent. There is, however, another variety.

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the taste of what is to come
After an author is already established, it is not unheard-of for her agent to be able to pull off a conjuring trick known as selling the next book on a partial. This is pretty much what it says on the box: the author produces the first X number of pages of a not-yet-completed novel, and the agent convinces an editor that it will be to the publishing house’s advantage to snap the book up before the author has polished it off.

This can be a very good deal for the publisher: buying a book on a partial prevents other publishers from bidding on the finished work. Also, earlier involvement in the writing process often enables the editor to help shape the book more, in much the same way as an editor on a nonfiction book (typically sold on a book proposal, not the full manuscript, lest we forget) is able to dictate which of the proposed chapters will and will not be in the finished manuscript.

Not to mention the fact that if the book happens to be written by a famous author or celebrity in another field, the bidding could potentially get quite high. This is why one occasionally hears of a publisher’s acquiring a half-written novel at a cocktail party, because some celebrity simply handed ten pages to him along with his seventh martini: the publisher recognizes the potential marketing value of the name.

For your garden-variety serious novelist, however, such a situation is unlikely to arise. If her agent manages to sell her next book on a partial, it’s generally to the editor who acquired her last. Since so many first-book publishing contracts grant the publisher right of first refusal over the author’s next book, anyway — meaning that the publisher gets an exclusive peek at the book before anyone else can place a bid on it — selling on a partial is mostly a means to speed up the approval process.

Everyone clear on the difference between that kind of partial and the first kind? Excellent.

Now let’s assume that, like Kim, you have just been asked to submit a partial to the agent of your dreams. Let’s further assume that your manuscript (or whatever portion of it an agent or editor has requested that you send to be perused by Millicent, the Platonic agency screener) is already in tip-top formatting shape, all typos and logic problems removed, and thus what the industry calls clean — and if you’re not absolutely positive that your pages meet ALL of those conditions, stop right here and make a plan for tidying up your pages toute suite.

Trust me, this is a situation where spelling counts. As does grammar, punctuation, and everything else your 9th grade English teacher begged you to take seriously.

But once your work is in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott used to say so frequently, what next?

What should a partial submission packet include, and in what order?
In part, this is a trick question, because — chant it with me now, campers — any submission packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include, no more, no less. In the words of the immortal Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.

Okay, so he wasn’t talking about literature when he sang that. Roll with me here.

As I mentioned above, agents are usually quite specific about what they want in a submission, up to and including the number of pages they want to see. If you doubt this, check out an agency’s website or one of the standard agency guides, then attend a conference where agents are scheduled to speak. Raise your hand and ask whether it’s okay to send, say, the 55 pages it would take to round out a chapter when an agent has asked to see the first 50.

You will be astonished at how people who say their preferences in clients are as vague as writers who produce “good writing in any genre” will suddenly transform into rule-hugging lovers of draconian efficiency, appalled at the very notion of extending the length of the partial. Or, indeed, at the notion of the writer being the one to decide what should and should not be in the submission packet.

To save you the trouble of asking, let me tell you what they will say: never, ever, EVER send what you THINK they want to see instead of what they have actually ASKED to see. Of course, you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.

So — and this should sound a teensy bit familiar by now — if you’ve been asked for the first 100, and the chapter ends in a blow-your-socks-off cliffhanger on p. 101, you should still only send the first 100, exclusive of the title page. (Since the title page is not numbered, it is not included in the page count, by the way.)

Of course, as we discussed above, if you wanted to be Machiavellian about it, you could always perform a little strategic snipping prior to that, so said cliffhanger topples just on the bottom of p. 50. No one would fault you for that, for the very simple reason that it’s extremely unlikely that Millicent will ever sit down with your partial and full manuscript simultaneously. Remember, if an agency approves enough of a partial submission to want to see the rest of the novel, they’re going to ask for the entire manuscript, not, say, pages 51 through 373.

Oh, you thought Millicent was going to invest time in digging out your partial, unpacking your second submission, and fitting the two together like a jigsaw puzzle? Does that really sound like reasonable behavior to expect from the person too impatient to allow her latte to cool before taking her first sip?

At the risk of repeating myself: send precisely what you are asked to send.

However — and this should sound familiar on the secret handshake front — any agent is going to assume that a writer of your caliber is already aware that certain requests imply certain inclusions. Here are the extra bits, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in a packet containing a partial:

1. Cover letter
An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of Chapter 1 instantly recognizable the nanosecond Millicent pulls it from the packet?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s not going to be — in fact, in many agencies, the person who heard the pitch or read the query won’t even be the first person to screen the submission. There may even be several Millicents who need to approve it before it gets anywhere near the agent of your dreams. So it doesn’t honestly make sense to assume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with your work.

Besides, including a cover letter is polite — and more or less necessary, if you have been asked to submit your pages as attachments to an e-mail, right? Just remember: NEVER e-mail pages unless specifically asked to do so, or unless that preference is explicitly expressed in the agency’s submission guidelines. (And if you do e-mail requested materials, send them as Word attachments, saved as .doc files; other word-processing programs, Text Edit files, and/or PDFs are not currently acceptable at US agencies. So if you have been writing in another program, do bear in mind that you will need to switch to industry-standard Word before an agent can submit your work to a publishing house.)

The cover letter needn’t be a long-winded missive, or even chatty: a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this little gem:

cover letter for partial

A miracle of professional blandness, is it not? That’s fine — the cover letter isn’t where you’re going to wow Millicent with your sparkling prose and trenchant insight, anyway. All you have to be here is courteous.

If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. As crushing as it may be to the aforementioned writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — be sure mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering this project. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested; it often speeds up the evaluation process. (If you’re unclear on why, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

Most importantly, make sure all of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as in the example above) or just under your signature, and do be absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks.

Yes, it does happen — and if it does to yours, do you seriously expect Millicent to have to dig back through her recycling bin or deleted e-mails for your original query in order to dig up your contact information. No, you understand the overwhelming influx of queries and submissions too well for that. Fortunately, you have the option to include another safety net, one that’s more likely to stay with your pages.

2. Title page
Since a professionally-formatted title page contains the writer’s (or, after you’ve landed an agent, the representing agency’s) contact information, this is where Millicent will look first for yours. So you should always include a title page in a submission packet, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

No need to state on the title page that it’s a partial, either. Millicent will be able to figure that out from your cover letter and the thickness of the stack of paper. Just use the same title page that you would have used if the agent of your dreams had requested the entire manuscript, and you’ll be fine:

Austen title good

Not precisely a thrill-fest, but undoubtedly professional-looking. Just make sure that it’s in the same typeface as the rest of the attached manuscript. (If this all sounds completely cryptic to you, or if you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, don’t panic — you’ll find a step-by-step explanation of what to do under the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category at right.)

There’s another excellent reason to include a title page. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way. Speaking of which…

3. The requested pages in standard format.
Again: only the pages they’ve asked to see, beginning on page 1, professionally formatted. No substitutions, unless the agency website specifically asks for something else.

You absolutely must check the agency’s submission guidelines — usually available on its website or in its listing in one of the standard agency guides — before you submit, because as we have already discussed, not every agency wants to see precisely the same thing. The vocal minority of agents who now prefer only one space after periods and colons (not the new universal norm, no matter what you’ve heard), for instance, tend to feel strongly enough on the subject that you might even want to do a quick web search under the requesting agent’s name, to rule out the possibility that s/he has expressed this opinion on a blog or in an interview lately. (And yes, if s/he blogs, the Millicents who work at that agency will expect you to be familiar with those expressed preferences. Again, time-consuming, but ultimately worth it.

Does that anguished wailing mean that somebody out there has a follow-up question? “But Anne,” those of you who were under the impression that the one- vs. two-space debate had already been settled in some mythical convention of agents and editors that never in fact took place, “I’ve already changed my manuscript from two post-period spaces to one, because I heard somewhere that was what everyone expects now. Isn’t that true? And do you mean anything else by the ominous-sounding term standard format?”

Why, yes, oh wailers, I do — and the existence of actually industry-wide standard format expectations is the main reason I draw such a strong distinction between them and even rather commonly-held individual agents’ preferences. (You’ll find a complete list, in-depth analysis, and visual examples of the former in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.) To continue with our example already in progress: standard format still calls for two spaces after a period or colon, because it’s much, much easier to edit a manuscript in that format. However, a hefty percentage of agents (particularly younger ones or those who work primarily with genre fiction) have come out of late in favor of manuscripts that echo the new paper-saving publishing practice of leaving only one.

In fact, many of them express it as a pet peeve. So when you are submitting pages to these specific agents, it would not be very wise to include that literacy-requisite second space, would it?

But it would be almost as foolish to submit a manuscript with only one space after a period or colon to an agent who did not adhere to this preference. (I say almost, because advocates of tradition tend to be less doctrinaire on the subject — and, frankly, there are plenty of agents out there who just don’t care.) If an agent already knows that the editor to whom she planned to take a manuscript will take offense at the newfangled disregard of standards that have been in place for about 150 years, the argument but I heard somewhere that it had changed! just isn’t going to fly.

I repeat (and shall continue to repeat): there is no substitute for doing your homework about what the specific agent you are approaching expects to see, either on the page or in a packet.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add something you would have learned from those posts on formatting, had you been paying attention: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way. No staples, no paper clips, and certainly no spiral binding.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper when you print it out. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has riffled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one instance where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

“So basically what you’re saying, in your patented lengthy and meticulously-explained manner,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and rightly, “is that Kim did everything right. Aren’t you?”

Why, yes, I am — kudos for your submitting savvy, Kim! You’re an example to aspiring writers everywhere, all the more so, in my opinion, because you were brave enough to ask the question. Now, everyone who has been wondering about it can benefit.

Sometimes, though, agents ask to see additional materials slipped into a submission packet with a partial. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be taking a swift barefoot run through the usual suspects, as well as revisiting the difference between a partial and a writing sample — or a partial for a contest entry and a writing sample, for that matter.

Hard to contain the excitement, isn’t it? No wonder the skeleton is dancing up a storm. See you back here this evening around 8 pm PST (a writer’s coming over to talk plot, so I’m not sure I’ll be back at my computer in time for a 7:00 post) for more talk of query content, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVII: minimizing dialogue predictability, or, hot enough for you?

beach day

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m rather proud of this photograph, one of the best I’ve taken in an awfully long time. Over and above the fact that I like how it turned out (especially the wave details), I shot it while flat on my back (my injured back, to be specific) at an extremely crowded beach, yet it looks as though these two fine fellows were the only beachcombers for miles around.

It just goes to show you: whether you are taking a snapshot of friends or constructing a narrative, perspective choice is key. So is knowing what to cut out — in this case, the three surfers, arguing couple, and half a dozen assorted tanners lying around just outside this shot.

Ah, once the urge to edit creeps into the soul, it’s hard not to let it creep into every aspect of one’s life. Wouldn’t those of you caught in the heat wave currently sweeping the U.S., for instance, just love to have the ability to cut from reality iterations #2 – 742 of “Hot enough for ya?” you’ve heard within the last week?

Oh, you laugh now. But just see if you aren’t reaching mentally for the Liquid Erase the next time you hear someone say it.

On the page, of course, such conversational redundancy tends to make one reach for something else — a scissors, to cut the repetitive (and thus predictable) dialogue right out of the book. Of course, Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge don’t need to slice and dice dull dialogue literally; all they have to do is reject or disqualify it.

Not sure why characters echoing one another — which, after all, people do all the time in real life; there’s a reason most sitcoms lean so heavily on catchphrases for laughs — gets old fast on the page? Okay, let’s listen in on a representative sample:

Absent-mindedly, Barb wheeled her loaded grocery cart into the next aisle. “Oh, hi, Ellen.”

“Hello, Barb,” Ellen replied. “Hot enough for you?”

“Sure is. How are the kids?”

“Oh, fine. They grow up so fast, don’t they? How are yours?”

“Oh, I can’t complain. We sure could use some rain.”

“We sure could. Oh, here’s Ed. Hello, Ed.”

Ed was indeed slouching his way toward the canned goods. “Hi, Ellen. Hi, Barb. Hot enough for ya?”

“Hi, Ed,” said Barb. “It sure is. How’s the wife?”

“Oh, fine, fine. How’s yours?”

“Just fine,” Barb said.

“Mine, too,” Ellen added. “How are your twins doing, Ed?”

He shook his head ruefully. “They grow up so fast. Hey, here comes Jeremy. Hi, Jeremy! Hot enough for ya?”

Everyone laughed merrily. “It sure is,” Jeremy said, clutching a swiftly-melting carton of ice cream to his chest.

Had enough? They haven’t — but Millicent, I assure you, abandoned this page long ago. Why? Well, it’s just not very interesting, is it?

That made some of you drop your ice cream cones, didn’t it? “But Anne,” lovers of realism exclaim, mopping your dripping brows, “that’s how people talk in real life! You don’t seriously expect us to believe that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Actually, yes, I do. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on in a scene. Or not character- or situation-revealing. Or, as we’ve seen above, just not all that exciting.

To put it as Millicent might: is it the writer’s job to be a transcriptionist, furiously scribbling down everything a real person does or might say in a particular situation — or is the goal of writing well to improve upon reality, offering the reader not merely what s/he might hear on any street corner, but dialogue that exposes emotion, creates conflict,

That immense mouthful was a rhetorical question, by the way. From Millicent’s perspective, if any given line of dialogue doesn’t either advance the plot, reveal character, increase conflict, or add some new dimension to the scene, it should go.

Yes, even if people say it all the time in real life. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, and excu-u-u-se me!

(Note to readers under 30: that last bit would amuse readers who happened to be watching American TV in the late 1970s, just as “You look mahvaleous,” might still bring a grin to viewers who recall the mid-1980s. As you will note, the phrase that had ‘em rolling in the aisles then are not particularly amusing now, but people did in fact repeat them with astonishing frequency back then. You had to be there, I guess.)

Nothing dates a manuscript so fast as TV or movie catchphrases. (”I don’t know karate, but I do know car-azy.” Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) That may not sound like much of a problem for those of you planning to see your work in print imminently, but frankly, it’s likely to worry Millicent or Mehitabel.

Why, you ask? Because — long-time readers, feel free to sing along with me now — manuscripts take a while to make it into print. A catchphrase that’s sweeping the nation today may well be passé or even forgotten by the time a book containing it hits the shelves.

Let’s be practical for a moment, shall we? Even if a manuscript wins an agent’s heart tomorrow, the agent will probably request revisions before submitting it to agents at publishing houses. Editors’ desks are almost invariably piled high with a backlog of submissions, so again, even if it wows the first editor who reads it, she may not have time to read it for a few months. Few novel manuscripts sell on their first round of editorial submissions, so multiply the number of editors your agent wants to see it by even a couple of months, and the book may be circulating for a year or two. Then, once some lucky editor acquires it, even if he does not want revisions (which he probably will), it’s usually at least a year between contract signing and book release. Sometimes more.

For nonfiction, the timing’s even less predictable. Yes, it’s substantially less time-consuming to write a book proposal than an entire book, but once you have it in hand, all of the same time restrictions on agents and editors’ reading time still apply. And don’t forget to add in the time you will need to write the book itself after a publisher picks it up — publication contracts vary, but anywhere from six months to a year and a half is fairly standard. After that, the publisher will have to approve the manuscript (which may entail, you guessed it, more revision) before it can be placed in the print queue…and that’s not even taking into account the fact that certain types of books tend to be released at certain times of year…

Oh, and some of you are working on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, aren’t you? How long do you anticipate that will take?

Getting the picture? More importantly, are you still absolutely certain that the catchphrase that seemed so hip and trendy when you originally typed it last spring will still read as fresh when the first edition of your book first falls into grateful readers’ hands?

To compress all of this into a revision tip: unless your story is set in a specific period in the past, consider cutting current cultural references and colloquialisms. Believe it or not, the day will come — and it’s probably not all that far in the future — when teenagers will roll their eyes when adults-trying-to-be-cool say, “Whatever!”

That’s SO 2005, Grandpa.

Even if your chosen catchphrase is historically appropriate for the setting of your book (dig it, man!), keep an eye on how often it crops up in the text. Repetition is repetition, after all, and a character who repeats herself too often is, among other things, predictable.

It’s also very, very easy to go overboard with the cultural references; one too many, and your character may come across as a stereotype. It’s perfectly fine to differentiate between a pair of sisters by having one’s junior high crush be on David Cassidy, while her young sister later swooned over Shaun, for instance, but must the elder also continually hum John Denver tunes, creating macramé plant holders, and talking about Watergate while wearing her Laurie Partridge pantsuit over a burned bra as she sports a yin-yang ring to P.E. classes still unaffected by Title 9? And is it really necessary for the younger to toss her Farrah over her Leif Garrett albums while simultaneously watching the Muppets and mourning the demise of Sid Vicious?

Hands up, any of you who caught all of those cultural references. If you did, please turn to the blank-eyed person next to you and explain them. Don’t be deterred by their persistent yawns; I’m sure the young will be amused to learn what albums were.

And if your first instinct was to point out huffily that there was never actually an event where bras were burned (the cliché actually comes from the public burnings of Vietnam-era draft cards, transposed into a different social movement), or that a Leif Garrett fan would NEVER have been listening to the Sex Pistols, well, you’re right. But having a firm grip on historical realism does not give you carte blanche to start carting in cultural references by the wheelbarrow load.

I assure you, they are not indispensable. Whenever you find one in your text, ask yourself: is this detail meaningful enough to keep? Or could I convey an accurate feeling of the time and place through more unusual — and therefore less expected — means?

While you are scanning your text for redundant dialogue, catchphrases, and soon-to-be-dated cultural references, bear in mind that television and movies often shape day-to-day speech in other ways, too. Take, for instance, the standard first response upon hearing that someone has experienced bereavement: I’m so sorry for your loss.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with expressing sympathy that way, inherently, but think back a decade or two: did real people say this much before police officers on TV shows and in movies began spouting it every time they encountered a victim’s family?

Even if you want your characters to sound as though they’re playing bit parts on a Law & Order spin-off (because that’s not a cultural reference that will puzzle stumblers upon this post ten years hence), is parroting a standard impersonal phrase really the most character- or situation-revealing way those characters could respond to something as inherently dramatic as the news of a death? Isn’t saying precisely what anyone might say something of a waste of dialogue space?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: predictability is the enemy of snappy dialogue, and while the polite phrases that everybody uses are nice to encounter in real life, they can be deadly dull on the page. Compare, please, this series of events, ripped from real-life dialogue:

Shane wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Thank you for telling me, Sergeant Jones.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” The officer gave a sympathetic smile. “But I’m afraid you will need to fill out some paperwork.”

“Oh, of course, of course.”

Becoming overwhelmed the midst of a seemingly endless series of questions, Shane excused himself on the pretext of wanting a cigarette. He called his boss to explain that he wouldn’t be coming to work in the afternoon, either.

“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss,” Ted said. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No, nothing.”

Two cigarette breaks, five cups of watery coffee, and a bad case of writer’s cramp later, Sgt. Jones said he could go. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.” He stood up to shake Shane’s hand. “Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“That’s okay,” Shane said vaguely, wondering if thank you were actually the proper response.

Just when he thought he had taken care of everything, he remembered the newspaper. Actually, his wife did. At Jennie’s prompting, he made a detour to the Tribune Dispatch Examiner Times.

“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss,” the desk clerk said. “You’ll find the forms you need over there.”

Eloquence did not come easily. Shane crumpled the half-filled-out obituary form in his hand. “I don’t think I can fill this out right now.”

“Well, you can take it home and bring it in later.” The clerk smiled at him. “Don’t worry.”

“We’re sorry for your loss,” the receptionist called after him as he stalked out of the building.

As you may see, these characters are simply say what is socially acceptable these days. Again, people do this all the time in real life, but does it make for either exciting or character-revealing dialogue? Are at least some of these stock responses substitutes for some potentially interesting dialogue.

You be the judge — but before you decide, let me stack the deck with some evidence that this scene could have been handled to better effect.

Shane wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I suppose I should be grateful, Sergeant Jones.”

“Nobody likes hearing bad news.” The officer gave a sympathetic shrug. “Or what I have to say next: I’m afraid you will need to fill out some paperwork.”

“Of course,” Shane muttered. “It’s not as though I have to break the news to my great-grandmother or anything.”

Becoming overwhelmed the midst of a seemingly endless series of questions, her excused himself on the pretext of wanting a cigarette. He called his boss to explain that he wouldn’t be coming to work in the afternoon, either.

“Well, I suppose we could have somebody else rearrange the cat food display.” Ted’s tone implied that the lack of Shane’s unique stacking savvy might well send Cats R Us into immediate bankruptcy. “But get here as soon as you can.”

No, thanks: there’s nothing you can do. I’m fine, really. “I appreciate it.”

Two cigarette breaks, five cups of watery coffee, and a bad case of writer’s cramp later, Sgt. Jones said he could go. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.” He stood up to shake Shane’s hand. “I know it’s hard, but you’re doing a great job.”

“Thank you?,” Shane said vaguely.

Just when he thought he had taken care of everything, he remembered the newspaper. Actually, his wife did. At Jennie’s prompting, he made a detour to the Tribune Dispatch Examiner Times.

“Oh, God, you’re the third walk-in today.” The desk clerk pointed to a cluttered table on the far side of the room. “You’ll find the forms you need over there. The deadline for tomorrow’s edition is in ten minutes, so chop-chop.”

Eloquence did not come easily to him under normal circumstances, but with the clerk helpfully counting down the minutes like some misplaced staffer from the NASA launch command center, he found it difficult even to spell Terry’s middle name correctly. Feeling like a failure, Shane crumpled the half-filled-out obituary form in his hand and went sheepishly back to the front desk. “I don’t think I can fill this out right now.”

The clerk sighed gustily. “Well, I didn’t know the guy.”

The obituary editor caught him just as he was in the act of slamming the office door. “You can take the form home and fill it out there, you know.” He produced a fresh copy. To Shane, its very blankness was a threat. “You can bring it back whenever you want. Or,” he lowered his voice, presumably so the clerk would not hear him, “mail it in.”

Just one of a multiplicity of possibilities, of course. Frequently, too-polite interactions stifle genuine human interaction. While manners ease social tensions, drama demands conflict.

So here’s a suggestion for revising polite chatter: make at least one of the parties less polite, and see what happens. Maybe it will be interesting.

Speaking of interesting reactions, I have been hearing faint howls of protest for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “that first version felt more real to me. Surely Millicent will be willing to put up with the occasional polite platitude in the interests of realism?”

Think of what you’re saying. Remember, in addition to being predictable, canned polite responses tend to be clichés. Why precisely would Millicent be inclined to skim over hackneyed phrases, except in the hope that something more original may ensue?

More importantly, why would a reader — especially if those predictable courtesies make up any or all of the dialogue on page 1? (Oh, it happens.)

Lest any of you be tempted to dismiss those questions as yet more evidence that marketing concerns are antithetical to art, let me provide you with a solid creative reason to excise the stock responses: real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as writers sometimes expect.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Move ON with it!”

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Gary.” Monique picked up the crumpled wad of paper before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the administrative assistant’s desk.

Celeste glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Monique stammered awkwardly. “I thought you had dropped it.”

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Celeste grew large in her seat, a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“But the recycling bin’s right under your desk!”

“March!”

“I’ll save you a seat in the meeting,” Gary offered, embarrassed.

Celeste turned to him with exaggerated courtesy. “How kind of you, Mr. Coleman, and what a nice tie. It sure is hot out today, isn’t it?”

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Monique obediently took the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the hall. Her boss hated it when anyone missed his opening remarks.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Celeste is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Celeste ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Celeste’s response; fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

Nor does the scene achieve much than make Monique seem like the better person. But if Celeste is not important enough to the storyline to be fleshed out as a character, why should the reader care?

This, in short, is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty, because Celeste was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Celeste — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Most self-editing writers wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you attributed it to the fact that his memory of Celeste the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a great big popsicle. (Because it’s hot where you are, isn’t it?) In his mind, the character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Monique is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I was darned annoyed, now that you mention it. Yet because I am a good writer and most excellent human being (better than some I could name, at least), I have changed the names, the context, and several significant details to protect the guilty.

But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this tale of woe and uproar, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development. Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read AND it advances the plot.

I also might want to keep in mind, while I’m at it, that it’s both unnecessary and annoying to keep reminding the person visibly baking in front of you that it is in fact a hot day. Or humid night, as it is right now. Excuse me while I go drink 17 glasses of ice water, and keep up the good work!

The skinny on partials — at least the ones that are skinnier than entire manuscripts

skeleton1ani-mirrorballdancinghat
showtime-skeleton
skeltw2skeleton-gif

Okay, so I didn’t actually set out to bring a skeletons’ disco extravaganza to you today, even if it is St. Patrick’s Day. You’d be surprised at what comes up in a web search of skinny; it was either this or models, interestingly enough. (All of these fabulous animated bones appear courtesy of Feebleminds, by the way.)

No, I have a much nobler goal for today: answering a good question from a reader. Quoth the intrepid Kim a few posts back:

An agent recently requested a partial of ms. and not being able to find much on how to format that I just included the title page, and the requested pages of the ms. Is there a correct format or protocol for partials?

I’m very glad you brought this up, Kim. Although a partial always refers to a manuscript by definition — the term is shorthand for partial manuscript — this is yet another one of those situations where aspiring writers often get confused by publishing industry terminology.

Yes, I said yet another, because as so often seems to happen in the rumor echo chamber in which those trying to break into the biz must operate, many are the terms that mean more than one thing, or which would mean one thing to an agent and another to, say, a submitting writer. Here we have a prime example of the former: a partial can refer to two different kinds of manuscript, depending upon the context.

So let’s start this discussion by defining our terms before we really give the skeletons something to cavort about, shall we?

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the first pages
The first kind of partial, the kind to which Kim refers here, is the a specified number of pages an agent may request from a successfully querying or pitching writer who is not yet a client. Emphasis on specified: no agent is simply going to tell an aspiring writer, “Send me a partial,” leaving the writer to guess how many pages and from what part of the book.

Instead, she will typically say, “Send me the first chapter/first 50 pages/first three chapters/first 100 pages.” In this context, then, a partial is precisely the number of pages an agent has requested to see.

Again, emphasis on precisely: if an agent asks to see the first 50 pages, don’t make the mistake of sending 52, even if page 50 ends in mid-sentence or the chapter ends on page 56. From an agent’s point of view, an ability to follow directions well is a very, very desirable trait in a potential client.

Basically, this type of partial is a writing sample, similar in function to the pages agents sometimes list in their submission requirements as addenda to the query packet or the 5-page writing sample agents sometimes ask pitchers to produce: the agent is asking for these pages primarily in order to see whether this aspiring writer can write; judging whether the book would be a good fit for the agency comes a close second, but if the agency’s screener (our old pal, Millicent, naturally) isn’t caught by the style, even a perfect plotline for that agent’s interests is likely to be rejected.

Oh, should I have warned you not to take that great big sip of coffee just before you read that rather disturbing paragraph? Go ahead and clean up; I don’t mind waiting.

I understand your shock at hearing it so bluntly put, oh spit-takers, but as we have discussed throughout our recent series on standard format, ruling out 90% of submissions as quickly as humanly possible is a big part of Millicent’s job. Her boss can only take on a handful of new clients in any given year, right? In order to save the agent time, she makes sure that the only requested materials to reach his desk are well-written, properly formatted, and the kind of story or argument the agent is actively looking to represent.

When an agency requests a partial rather than the entire manuscript, it’s essentially a means of streamlining this winnowing-down process even further. Not to mention saving her from having to shuffle, and thus lift, a ton of paper: instead of Millicent’s desk being piled up to her chin at any given moment with boxes of full manuscripts, the monthly influx of requested partials may reach only up to her sternum. Once she has screened those, her boss can decide which of the surviving partials have piqued their interest sufficiently to request the entire manuscript.

A process known, both colloquially and within the industry, as asking to see the entire manuscript.

So asking for a partial adds an intervening step between the initial query or pitch and the request for the full manuscript — but before those of you who would prefer your work to be judged in its entirety invest too much energy in glowering in Millicent and her boss’ general direction for sending writers jumping through this additional hoop, let me hasten to add that until fairly recently, most agencies almost always asked for a partial first; requesting the entire manuscript right off the bat used to be a sign that an agent was really, really excited about a book project and wanted to get the jump on any other agent who might have merely requested a partial.

Nowadays, the decision whether to request a partial or entire manuscript is less often an indicator of enthusiasm than a matter of agency policy. In fact, contrary to pervasive writerly opinion, being asked for a partial rather than a full can sometimes be an advantage: at some agencies, having the entire manuscript on hand earlier can enable even speedier rejection of a near-miss project. Think about it: instead of having to ask for pages 51-372 and wait for them to arrive in order to pass a final judgment on a book, Millicent can simply read to page 60.

If the verdict is yes, this can lop quite a bit of time off the agent-seeking process, from the writer’s perspective. Unfortunately, if the verdict is no, and the agency is one of the vast majority that utilize form-letter rejections, the submitter ends up with no idea whether the impetus to reject came on page 1 or page 371.

Renders it rather hard to improve the manuscript prior to the next submission, doesn’t it?

Before that rhetorical question depresses anybody too much, let’s return to defining our partials. 99% of the time, the kind of partial an aspiring writer will be asked to provide is this first kind: a requested number of pages, beginning on p. 1 of the manuscript, for submission to an agent. There is, however, another kind.

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the taste of what is to come
After a novelist is already established, it is not unheard-of for her agent to be able to pull off a conjuring trick known as selling the next book on a partial. This is pretty much what it says on the box: the author produces the first X number of pages of a not-yet-completed novel, and the agent convinces an editor that it will be to the publishing house’s advantage to snap the book up before the author has polished it off.

This can be a good deal for the publisher: buying a book on a partial prevents other publishers from bidding on the finished work. Also, earlier involvement in the writing process often enables the editor to help shape the book more, in much the same way as an editor on a nonfiction book (typically sold on a book proposal, not the full manuscript, lest we forget) is able to dictate which of the proposed chapters will and will not be in the finished manuscript.

Not to mention the fact that if the book happens to be written by a famous author or celebrity in another field, the bidding could potentially get quite high. This is why, in case you’d been wondering, we all occasionally hear of a publisher’s acquiring a half-written novel at a cocktail party, because some celebrity simply handed ten pages to him along with his seventh martini: the publisher recognizes the potential marketing value of the name.

For your garden-variety serious novelist, however, such a situation is unlikely to arise. If her agent manages to sell her next book on a partial, it’s generally to the editor who acquired her last. Since so many first-book publishing contracts grant the publisher right of first refusal over the author’s next book, anyway — meaning that the publisher gets an exclusive peek at the book before anyone else can place a bid on it — selling on a partial is mostly a means to speed up the approval process.

Everyone clear on the difference between that kind of partial and the first kind? Excellent. Now let’s assume for a moment that, like Kim, you have just been asked to submit a partial to the agent of your dreams. What specifically are you being asked to do?

Let’s further assume that your manuscript (or whatever portion of it an agent or editor has requested that you send to be perused by Millicent, the Platonic agency screener) is already in tip-top formatting shape, all typos and logic problems removed, and thus what the industry calls clean — and if you’re not absolutely positive that your pages meet ALL of those conditions, stop right here and make a plan for tidying up your pages.

Trust me, this is a situation where spelling counts. As does grammar, punctuation, and everything else your 9th grade English teacher begged you to take seriously.

But once your work is in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott used to say so frequently, what next?

What should a partial submission packet include, and in what order?
In part, this is a trick question, because — chant it with me now, readers — any submission packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include, no more, no less. In the words of the immortal Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.

Okay, so he wasn’t talking about literature when he sang that. Roll with me here.

As I mentioned above, agents are usually quite specific about what they want in a submission, up to and including how many pages they want to see. If you doubt this, check out an agency’s website or one of the standard agency guides, then attend a conference where agents are scheduled to speak. Raise your hand and ask whether it’s okay to send, say, the 55 pages it would take to round out a chapter when an agent has asked to see the first 50. You will be astonished at how people who say their preferences in clients are as vague as writers who produce “good writing in any genre” will suddenly transform into rule-hugging lovers of draconian efficiency, appalled at the very notion of extending the length of the partial.

To save you the trouble of asking, let me tell you what they will say: never, ever, EVER send what you THINK they want to see instead of what they have ASKED to see. Of course, you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.

So pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers: if you’ve been asked for the first 50, and the chapter ends in a blow-your-socks-off cliffhanger on p. 51, you should still only send the first 50, exclusive of the title page. (Since the title page is not numbered, it is not included in the page count, either.)

Of course, if you wanted to be Machiavellian about it, you could always perform a little strategic snipping prior to that, so said cliffhanger topples just on the bottom of p. 50. No one would fault you for that, for the very simple reason that it’s extremely unlikely that Millicent will ever sit down with your partial and full manuscript simultaneously. Partially, this is due to the fact that if an agency approves enough of a partial submission to want to see the rest of the novel, they’re going to ask for the entire manuscript, not, say, pages 51 through 373.

Oh, you thought Millicent was going to invest time in digging out your partial, unpacking your second submission, and fitting the two together like a jigsaw puzzle? Does that really sound like reasonable behavior to expect from the person too impatient to allow her latte to cool before taking her first sip?

Again, send precisely what you are asked to send. However — and this should sound familiar on the secret handshake front — any agent is going to assume that a writer of your caliber is already aware that certain requests imply certain inclusions. Here are the extra bits, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in a packet containing a partial:

1. Cover letter
An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s not going to be — in fact, in many agencies, the person who heard the pitch or read the query won’t even be the first person to screen the submission. There may even be several Millicents who need to approve it before it gets anywhere near the agent of your dreams. So it doesn’t honestly make sense to assume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with your work.

Besides, including a cover letter is polite. No need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this little gem:

cover letter for partial

A miracle of professional blandness, is it not? That’s all right — the cover letter isn’t where you’re going to wow Millicent with your sparkling prose and trenchant insight, anyway. All you have to be here is polite.

If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. (As crushing as it may be to the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested; it often speeds up the evaluation process. (If you’re unclear on why, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

Most importantly, make sure all of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as in the example above) or just under your signature, and do be absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks.

Yes, it does happen. You want them to be able to get ahold of you to tell you how much they love your writing, don’t you?

2. Title page
Always include this, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

No need to state on the title page that it’s a partial, either — Millicent will be able to figure that out from your cover letter and the thickness of the stack of paper. Just use the same title page that you would have used if the agent of your dreams had requested the entire manuscript, and you’ll be fine:

Austen title good

Again, not precisely a thrill-fest, but undoubtedly professional-looking. Just make sure that it’s in the same typeface as the rest of the attached manuscript. (If this all sounds completely cryptic to you, or if you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, don’t panic — you’ll find a step-by-step explanation of what to do under the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category at right.)

Why is it so very important to include the title page? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way. Also, like the cover letter, the title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format.
Again: only the pages they’ve asked to see, beginning on page 1, professionally formatted. No substitutions, unless the agency website specifically asks for something else. (If you’re new to reading this blog, or have somehow avoided the last few weeks of repeated and vehement posts on standard format, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right._

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add something you would have learned from those posts on formatting, had you been paying attention: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper when you print it out. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has riffled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one situation where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

“So basically what you’re saying, in your patented lengthy and meticulously-explained manner,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and rightly, “is that Kim did everything right. Aren’t you?”

Why, yes, I am — kudos for your submitting savvy, Kim! You’re an example to aspiring writers everywhere, all the more so, in my opinion, because you were brave enough to ask the question. Now, everyone who has been wondering about it can benefit.

Sometimes, though, agents ask to see additional materials slipped into a submission packet with a partial. Next time, we’ll be taking a swift barefoot run through the usual suspects, as well as revisiting the difference between a partial and a writing sample — or a partial for a contest entry and a writing sample, for that matter.

Hard to contain the excitement, isn’t it? No wonder the skeletons are dancing up a storm. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XV: tables of contents, book proposals, and some terms that do not mean precisely the same thing in every conceivable context

revealed wisdom drawing

Still hanging in there, gang? For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been showing you how to format a manuscript professionally, and I’m beginning to fear that in my eagerness and vim, I may have scared some of you a little. Or a whole lot.

My vehemence is kindly-motivated, I assure you: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, how a submission is presented can indeed 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 earlier in this series, 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 series on formatting, 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 believe me, the writer in both cases is going to have to work a whole lot harder to impress the reader 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. Case in point: including 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 notorious rookie mistake, the kind of stunt that makes Millicent the agency screener huff with displeasure.

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 a table of contents to be there, 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 pertinent at the submission stage — including a table of contents implies that the author does not expect the reader to read the manuscript in its entirety, 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 its entirety?

So really, a table of contents in a manuscript is just a wasted page. Do not include it in a manuscript submission, any more than you would include an index or those boxes around text that magazines are so fond of printing. To professional eyes, it looks unprofessional, especially in fiction.

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 actually is an 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 this is a very common misconception amongst first-time proposers. They fall into the classic mistake of assuming that because a term means something in one context, it must necessarily mean exactly the same thing in another context.

In this case, it most definitely does 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. 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, 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 that 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, then, 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. Actually, 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? I assure you, 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:

proposal title

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 for the day. (You’re racking them up today, aren’t you?) The length of a nonfiction book is a contractual matter, typically; 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 Scaredy 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’s 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, people — 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:

overview1

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 memoir, the anecdote, like the rest of the proposal, is written in the first person singular. 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:

overview2

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. Since we discussed this just the other day, I’m going to reuse the example.

Wharton subheading example

When moving between major sections of a book proposal, however, 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 and another going to legal.

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, this section is 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 coming up with those great book concepts, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XIV: and then there are the alternate — dare I say more scenic? — routes

to the village center

We’re nearing the end of our crash course on how manuscripts do — and don’t — move from the writer’s fingertips to publication, you’ll be glad to hear. And boy, have we covered a lot of territory over the last few weeks! Admittedly, I could conceivably have guided you over this trail with a somewhat speedier step, dwelling a bit less on the important details, but I consider a working knowledge of how the publishing industry in general, and agencies in particular, function an absolutely essential prerequisite for any aspiring writer intending to market her work.

If by some chance I hadn’t already made that abundantly clear. If I had my way, every writers’ association in the English-speaking world would regularly offer free weekend seminars on this stuff, to discourage any talented writer from walking into the querying and submission process blind.

Heck, I’d love to see this information taught in high schools, along with the basics of standard manuscript format. Now that would be one great English composition course.

Glancing back through the posts in this series, I was reminded of the old joke about the reporter interviewing the famous college professor about how long it typically takes him to write a half-hour lecture.

“Oh, all day,” the professor says, “if it’s a topic I’ve never lectured on before. Sometimes several days. Even a week, if I need to do background research.”

The reporter is awfully impressed at that level of dedication. “Wow, that’s a lot of work. How long to write an hour-long lecture on the same topic?”

The professor shrugs. “About three hours.”

The reporter wonders if the professor misunderstood the question, but after all, this is a learned man; no need to insult his intelligence. Slyly, he asks, “Well, how long would it take you to prepare a three-hour lecture, then?”

The professor smiles. “Would you like me to start right now?”

I suspect that I was reminded of this joke because I couldn’t help noticing that most of the posts in this series are approximately the length of my usual notes for an hour-long lecture, factoring in time for digression and questions — you can take the professor away from the rostrum, but not the rostrum out of the professor’s mind, apparently. But there’s more to it than that: I also believe that there’s a vital lesson here for those who are used to receiving their information about getting published in the kind of sound bites one hears the pros spouting at writers’ conferences and online.

It’s this: while brief, snappy advice may seem simpler, it’s actually significantly harder to produce, at least if it’s done thoughtfully. Unless, of course, the advice-giver is merely parroting the conventional wisdom on the subject, often expressed in dismissive one- or two- sentence bursts. Or as single-page, bullet-pointed to-do lists cribbed from a handout from another conference lecture or website.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s hardly best tool for explanation.

Trying to follow sound-bite advice is rather like gnawing on cubes of bouillon instead of drinking broth: the two substances may well contain the same ingredients, but it’s certainly easier to digest in the watered-down form. Particularly when, as is often the case for advice aimed at writers, the prevailing aphorisms are deceptively simple.

That’s why it’s both difficult and profoundly important for aspiring writers to come to understand that the much prevailing wisdom you hear glibly passing from mouth to mouth is the bouillon version, not the broth itself.

And frankly, the easy availability of bouillon can lead good writers astray. The combination of those over-concentrated pieces of advice that every writer has heard — the full range from basic writing tips like write what you know and show, don’t tell to the types of things agents and editors like to say at writers’ conferences like good writing will always find a home and it all depends on the writing — with the flat-out wrong popular conception that any genuinely good book will automatically find a publisher instantly can (and frequently does, alas) prompt an aspiring writer to conclude, wrongly, that the process should be easy for a genuinely marketable book. Because all that’s necessary to land an agent and/or editor is to have talent, right? So why bother to learn how to format the manuscript professionally, or to figure out the book category, or even to proofread? Isn’t it the agent and editor’s job to ferret out talent despite how it’s presented?

Um, no. It’s their job to discover writers who can reliably produce marketable prose, adhere to industry standards, and have talent. Even then, the writer’s going to have to take direction well.

Other aspiring writers who have imbibed the bouillon assume that if their manuscripts don’t get picked up right away at the query stage, the problem must be in the quality of the writing. If true talent always gets spotted, then why even speculate that an unprofessional query letter might be the culprit?

These conclusions are completely understandable, of course: it’s what the truisms have taught many aspiring writers to believe. But they are not the whole story, any more than a packet of bouillon is a vat of delicious soup.

Some of you are scratching your heads, aren’t you? “Hmm,” you muse, “is Anne being profound, or is she merely hungry?”

A little of both, I expect. Yet because I have dropped so much potentially quite intimidating information about how books typically get published upon all of you so quickly, I would imagine that the comparatively simple standard aphorisms might be sounding pretty good right about now. Just the facts, ma’am.

I could bore you all at this juncture with some ennobling platitudes about knowledge being power and valuable for its own sake — see my earlier comment about the difficulty of taking the professor out of the girl — but I’m not going to do that. Anyone with the dedication to have plowed through this, let’s face it, often-depressing series doesn’t need that pep talk. You’re all bright enough, I’m sure, to have picked up from my SUBTLE HINTS throughout this series that the archive list at right is so extensively categorized precisely so my readers may find answers to specific practical questions as they come up.

Instead, allow me to suggest something the bouillon-mongers seldom remember to mention: the primary reason that it often takes even excellent manuscripts quite a long time to find agents and a home with a major publisher is that this process is hard.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably either trying to promote a book or classes on how to get published — or is attempting to encourage all of the discouraged good writers out there to keep on going in the face of some pretty steep odds. Here’s an aphorism that you’re unlikely to hear at a writers’ conference that is nevertheless true: most aspiring writers give up on finding a home for their manuscripts too quickly.

Given how deeply affected by mercurial market fads agents’ and editors’ choices necessarily are, that’s truly a shame. Especially right now, when the economy is forcing the major publishing houses to be even more cautious than usual in what they acquire.

At the risk of repeating myself: hang in there. To recycle some bouillon of my own, the manuscript that gets rejected today may well not be the one that will get rejected a year or two from now.

But some of you may not be willing to wait that long to see your books in print. This, too, is completely understandable: contrary to what agents often seem to believe, most aspiring writers care more about having their writing available for others to read than about making scads of money on the deal.

Although a few wheelbarrows full of money would be nice, of course.

Which is why — to return to yesterday’s topic — it might make perfect sense to an agent to set aside a manuscript that he professes to love if it doesn’t elicit a fairly lucrative offer in its first circulation, in favor of marketing a client’s next book. In the agent’s mind, the first book hasn’t been discarded; it’s merely waiting to be part of a future multi-book deal.

Seriously, it happens all the time. If an agent thinks a writer has a voice that might hit it big someday, continuing to market that first manuscript to smaller or regional presses might seem like a bad career move, even though going with a smaller press might bring the book into print years earlier. (If these last two paragraphs sound like gibberish to you, you might want to go back and re-read the earlier posts in this series.)

Obviously, this is not necessarily logic that would make sense to a frustrated writer, particularly one who may have spent years and years landing that agent. Heck, even the expectation that there would be a second book ready to go by the time a handful of editors at big publishing houses have had a chance to take a gander at the first would make a lot of aspiring writers turn pale.

If not actually lose their respective lunches. Especially a writer who might have only intended to write one book in the first place.

Authoring only one book is a publishing strategy that often appeals to aspiring writers, particularly memoirists: you have a story to tell, and you tell it. Done. But that’s a career strategy that might not even occur to an agent excited by a new author’s voice.

There’s a reason that “So, what’s your next book?” is such a common question before the ink is dry on the representation contract, after all. Since even authors whose books are released by major publishers seldom make enough to quit their day jobs — remember, few books are bestsellers, by definition — agents tend to be on the lookout for career writers, ones ready, able, and eager to keep launching fine books into the marketplace. From their perspective, planning to write several marketable books is simply very good career sense for a writer who wants to make a living at it.

But that’s not every aspiring writer’s goal, is it? Is it?

Okay, so it is for a whole lot of aspiring writers. But if getting that first — and possibly only — book into print is a writer’s highest priority, investing a great deal of time and energy in landing an agent might not seem like a reasonable trade-off.

And that’s not the only reason a reasonable writer might have qualms about pursuing the standard major publisher route, either. Some might balk at all of the hoops through which large or mid-sized publishers expect first-time authors to leap, up to and including landing an agent first, for instance, or not be too thrilled about the prospect of an agent’s insisting upon changes to the manuscript in order to render it more marketable to the majors. Still others might feel, and rightly, that the time for their books to reach readers is now, not some dim, uncertain time several years hence.

The good news is that, contrary to the underlying assumptions of the bouillon trade, writers do have options other than the big publisher route. And I imagine those of you who have spent much of this series muttering, “Oh, God, NO!” will be overjoyed to hear that a great deal of what I’ve said so far will not apply to the next two sub-topics on our publishing hit parade: publishing through a small house and self-publishing.

No need to conceal your joy; I know, I know.

The small publishing house
Also known as an independent publisher because they are not affiliated with any of the major publishing houses (as imprints are), small presses are often willing to work with authors directly, rather than insisting upon receiving submissions only through agents. Typically, indie houses offer relatively small advances — or sometimes no advance at all — but that’s a calculated risk for an author. Sometimes, it can pay off big time: in recent years, some of the most exciting new fiction has started its printed life at a small press and gotten picked up later by a major publisher.

And because some of you will be able to think of nothing else until I answer the question you just mentally screamed two sentences ago, a writer should approach a small publisher precisely as one does an agent: after having done some research on who publishes what, find out how they prefer to be approached, and send a query.

In other words: as with an agency, it’s never a good idea to send unsolicited manuscripts. Ask first.

By the same token, it’s just as important to do a little research on an indie publisher as on an agent. A well-stocked bookstore is a great place to start; see who is bringing out books like yours these days. Both the Herman Guide and Writer’s Market have good listings of reputable small publishers. So does Preditors and Editors, a fine source for double-checking that the press whose website looks so appealing is in fact a traditional publisher, and not a printer of self-published books for pay.

Hey, you’d be surprised at how often their websites look similar.

I cannot stress sufficiently how important it is to doing your homework, and not merely to avoid being presented with a printing bill. Many an aspiring writer has wasted time and resources approaching a major house’s imprint in the mistaken impression that it’s an independent press, ending up summarily rejected.

How can a savvy writer tell which is which? Check the copyright page of a published book — you know, the one on the flip side of the title page — to see if the press that produced it is an indie or an imprint of a larger house. If it’s affiliated with a major, the copyright page will say.

Select a small press that has a track record of publishing books like yours before you approach. Rather than publishing across a wide variety of book categories, the smaller publishing house tends to specialize. This often turns out to be a plus for authors, as targeting a narrow market often means that a small press can afford to take more chances in what it acquires.

Why can they afford to take more chances, you ask with bated breath? Generally speaking, because their print runs are smaller and they spend less on promotion. And remember how I was telling you that their advances were usually small or non-existent?

Another cost-cutting move: the author usually ends up arranging — and financing the book tour himself. If, indeed, there are public readings at all. (For some useful tips on posts about how writers can set up their own readings, check out the guest posts by FAAB Michael Schein beginning here.)

In fact, over the last couple of years, it’s gotten downright common for small publishers, especially those who market primarily online, to employ the print-on-demand (POD) method, rather than producing a large initial print run, as the major houses do, and placing it in bookstores. (For an explanation of how print-on-demand works, please see the aptly-named PRINT ON DEMAND category on the archive list at right. Hey, I told you that the archive list was broken down into very specific topics!)

Check about this in advance, because POD carries some definite marketing drawbacks: POD books have an infinitely more difficult time getting reviewed (check out the GETTING A BOOK REVIEWED category for more details), and most US libraries have strict policies against buying POD books. So do some bookstore chains that shall remain nameless. (They know who they are!) Even some online retailers won’t carry POD books.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Well, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for because POD still carries a certain stigma; many, many bookbuyers who should know better by now still regard POD as the inevitable marker of a self-published book.

More on why that impression might present marketing problems follows next time. For now, what you need to know is that a small publisher that does not go the POD route is going to have an easier time placing your book on shelves and into the hands of your future readers.

Just something to keep in mind when you’re rank-ordering your list of indie publishers for querying purposes.

On the bright side, an author often has significantly more input into the publication process at a small press than a large one. Because it is a less departmentalized operation than a major publishing house, editors at indie presses often have the time to work more intensively with their authors. For a first-time author who gets picked up by a really good editor who genuinely loves the book, this can be a very positive experience.

It can also, perversely, render an author more attractive to agents and editors at the majors when he’s trying to market his next book. (Since indie presses seldom have much money to toss around, multi-book contracts are rare; see that earlier comment about miniscule advances.) A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage for book #2: a query beginning, Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book… is probably going to get a pretty close reading from any agent’s Millicent.

Why? Well, having a successful track record of pleasing an editor at an indie press is a selling point; I tremble to report it, but not all authors are equally receptive to editorial commentary. Also, from an agent’s point of view, the fact that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work automatically means her job will be easier — if the majors pass on book #2, the editor who worked on book #1 probably will not.

Which is to say: if your first book with a small press does well, they will probably want you to stick around — and might even become a trifle defensive if you start looking for an agent for book #2, especially if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. (Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers — again, see that earlier comment about advances.)

Don’t be scared off by a presumption that signing with them would that you’re committing to a lifetime relationship. It doesn’t. Small publishers are aware their authors may HAVE to leave them in order to pursue larger markets. Consequently, they expect it. Also, people who work for small presses also understand that it’s not at all unheard-of for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent.

Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book.

Everybody wins, in short.

That being said, a right of first refusal over your next book is a fairly standard contractual provision for publishers of any size, large or small. It means that when you sell them the first book, you agree to let them look at next before any other publisher does.

That can be very valuable to a small publisher, if your first book takes off. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

Translation: you might not see an advance for your next book, either. But if getting your work out there is your primary priority, is that really going to annoy you all that much?

The regional publishing house
This is industry-speak for small publishers located outside the publishing capitals of the world — unless you happen to be talking to someone who works at a major NYC agency or publishing house, in which case pretty much any West Coast publisher would fall into the regional category, too. Sometimes, these presses are affiliated with universities, but many are not.

I bring up conversational use of the term advisedly: if you’ve attended any reasonably large writers’ conference within the last two decades, you’ve probably heard at least one agent or editor talking about regional publishing houses as an alternative to the major publishers. Specifically, you may have heard them answer an attendee’s question with something along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t be interested in a romantic thriller about wild salmon conservation, but you might try a Pacific Northwest regional press.”

If you’re like most conference attendees, this response probably felt like a brush-off — which, in fairness, it almost certainly was. Most NYC-based agents who deal with major publisher houses prefer to concentrate on books (particularly novels) that have what they call national interest, rather than what they call mere regional appeal.

Basically, national interest means that a book might reasonably be expected to attract readers from all across the country; books with regional appeal, by contrast, might enjoy a fairly substantial market, but it would be concentrated in one part of the country. Or, to put it another way, books of national interest will strike agents and editors in New York City (or, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and/or Chicago) as universally appealing.

Interestingly, books set in any of the boroughs of New York are almost never deemed of merely regional interest, even though novels set in Brooklyn do not, as a group, enjoy a demonstrably higher demand than those set in, say, Minneapolis. As far as I know, readers in Phoenix have not been storming bookstores, clamoring for greater insight into daily life in Queens, Chelsea, or Ozone Park. Yet it’s undeniable that many a Manhattan-based agent or editor would find such insights more accessible than those of the fine citizenry of eastern Nevada or the wilds of British Columbia.

Why? Well, it’s not all that uncommon for an NYC based agent or editor, as well as their respective Millicents, never to lived anywhere but the upper eastern seaboard of the United States. My agent boasts that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the hospital where he was born (and if you want to keep on his good side, learn from my sad example and don’t instantly exclaim, “Oh, you poor thing. You really need to get out more.” Trust me on this one.)

The moral: regional marketability, like beauty, most definitely resides in the eye of the beholder.

Which is precisely why a writer of a book with strong regional appeal should consider approaching a local small publisher — which, in most cases, means the local publisher, singular — or at any rate one based in your time zone. A book on homelessness in San Francisco may well strike a Bay Area editor as being of broad interest in a way that it simply wouldn’t to an agent in Manhattan; an incisive novel on the domestic trials of a Newfoundland fishing village might well make more sense to a Canadian editor, or at least can at least find Newfoundland on a map on the first try.

Unless, of course, that last book is by an author who has already won the Pulitzer Prize. Then, you have THE SHIPPING NEWS, and its interest is global. Name recognition is a great dissolver of borders.

Just because a regional press’ editors are more likely to understand the market appeal of your book, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that regional press will be able to get such a book national exposure (although it’s been known to happen.) Like other small publishers, regional presses that concentrate on a particular part of the country usually don’t have much money for book promotion.

What they have tends to be concentrated within a small geographical area. For some books, this works beautifully, but it’s unlikely to land an author on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Again: calculated risk.

Fair warning: contrary to the agent’s comment I reproduced at the beginning of this section, few regional presses actually publish fiction these days, at least in novel form. Some presses who specialize in regional nonfiction do publish short story collections; others will publish regional children’s books. But so few have published novels within the last ten years that I am always astonished when a NYC-based agent implies that they do.

Again, you’re going to want to do your homework before you query or submit. At least more homework than the agent who dismissed the Pacific Northwest novelist above.

Speaking of shifts in publishing, there’s something else you might want to know about approaching a small publisher.

Remember how I had said that things change? Well…
As pretty much any writer whose agent has been circulating a book for her recently could tell you (but might not, for fear of jinxing the submission process), selling a book to a major publisher has gotten a heck of a lot harder over the last couple of years. So much so that agents who would have huffily rejected the very notion of taking their clients’ work to an indie publisher just a few years ago have been thinking about it very seriously indeed of late.

More importantly for those of you who might be considering approaching a small publisher on your own behalf, some of them are actually doing it.

What does that mean for the unagented writer? Well, more competition, among other things, and more polished competition. In other words, an unagented writer’s book usually has to be even better than usual to land a spot in the print queue.

Also, as you may recall from earlier in this series, reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books, so it’s very much in their interest to try to haggle up the advances on books sold to small publishers. In a company where there isn’t, as I mentioned above, much money to throw toward authors, guess what that tends to mean for the advances available for unagented books?

Uh-huh. But again, if your primary goal is to see your work in print, is that necessarily a deal-breaker?

Speaking of money, do make sure before you submit to a small publisher that it isn’t a subsidy press, one that requires authors to put up some percentage of the costs of publication. Unfortunately, not all subsidy publishers are up front about this; the latter’s websites can look awfully similar to the former’s. Before you cough up even one red cent — or, ideally, before you approach them at all — check with Preditors and Editors to see whether the publisher charges authors fees.

Which a traditional small publisher should not. But if chipping in to get your book published sounds like a reasonable idea to you, just you wait until next time, when I’ll be talking about self-publishing.

In any case, you’re going to want to proceed with care — and do your homework. Naturally, this swift overview isn’t the last word on small publishers: as I said, an aspiring writer thinking about going that route owes it to herself do extensive research on the subject. So hie yourself to a well-stocked bookstore, start pulling books in your category off the shelves, and see who published them. Then find out whether any of those presses are open to queries from unagented authors.

And then, who knows? Remember, the only manuscript that stands no chance of getting published is the one its writer never sends out.

I just mention. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XIII: submission strategies under a microscope, or, many roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry Cerise could not travel them all…

Viewpoint sign

Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: this series hasn’t exactly been a beach read. We’ve been covering a massive amount of information — how manuscripts move from a bright idea to the published page, with significant stopovers at the querying, submitting, agency, revision, and publishing house stages — very rapidly, with an eye to bringing those new to trying to get published up to speed as soon as possible.

Why? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: because an aspiring writer who understands how publishing does and doesn’t work tends to have a far, far easier time treading the road to successful authorship than one who doesn’t. Not to mention being infinitely less likely just to give up on a manuscript that really does deserve to see print.

Because it often is a long and complicated road, even for the most brilliant of writers, realistic expectations are, to my mind, one of the most important — and, unfortunately, least often taught — tools in the career writer’s tool bag. Think about it: even if an aspiring writer lands the best agent currently residing in North America for her type of book, won’t it be significantly harder for her to work with that agent if she doesn’t have a clear notion of what good agents do for their clients?

To that end, I waxed poetic last time about the many, many factors that play into an agent’s decision about when and to whom to submit a book. That’s right: I said the agent’s decision: it comes as a great, big, stunning surprise to most newly-agented writers just how little say they have in how the agent handles their work. Or when the agent starts (or finishes) submitting it to editors.

See why I spent the first couple of weeks of this series harping on the importance of finding not just any agent to represent you, but the right one? I can tell you from long, long experience: a writer who doesn’t feel he can trust his agent to know the market well enough to trust her sense of when to submit his manuscript to which editor is not going to sleep well at night.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that the stars have aligned: your agent decides that your book’s submission date has arrived. What happens next?

How agents submit their clients’ work to editors
Your agent (let’s dub her Cerise, just for the heck of it) has made up a list of editors likely to be interested in it, and either spoken with each editor or communicated by letter or e-mail.

Your book is thus expected, a necessary precondition to its getting read in any of the major US publishing houses. Cerise nods her wise head, the agency sends out the manuscript, and you sit down for a nice, soothing month or two (or twelve) of gnawing your fingernails down to the elbow.

But that’s not all there is to the story, not by a long shot. As I mentioned last time, submission strategies differ from agency to agency, and sometimes agent to agent. Some popular choices:

(a) Some agents like to give a manuscript to their top pick for the book and leave it there until the editor in question has said yea or nay. If the answer is no, the agent will send the book out to the next editor on his list, and the process is repeated elsewhere.

While this can be a great approach if the agent happens to have a true sense of what that particular agent might like, it has its downsides. Most notably, time consumption: one-at-a-time submissions can stretch the submission process out, slowing it to a pace that even your average snail would find maddening.

But there’s good reason for that, so kindly resist the temptation to mutter imprecations at the editor under your breath, and still less Cerise: since editors have every bit as much material to read as agents do, garnering a definitive answer on a particular manuscript can take months.

And that’s assuming that the manuscript landed on the best desk for it in the first place. It’s not at all uncommon for an editor to pass a submission along to another editor in-house for which the project might be better suited (or, in the last couple of years, for it to show up in the inbox of the editor taking up the slack for the one who has just been laid off or quit). since most publishing houses employ editorial assistants to screen submissions, it can take a long time for a manuscript to make it up the ladder, as it were.

If you’re thinking that it could conceivably take a couple of years for a book to make the rounds of the relevant editors at the Great Big New York City-Based Publishing House (or, as it’s known around here, GBNYCBPH), congratulations: you’re beginning to understand the wait-HURRY UP!-wait rhythm inherent to the submission process.

Again, try not to take turn-around times personally. A slow response is not necessarily a reflection on your book’s quality, its ultimate marketability, or even how much the editor likes your manuscript. It’s just the way the system currently works.

While you’re pondering that, let’s move on to another submission option Cerise might choose.

(b) Some agents like to generate competition over a manuscript by sending it out to a whole list of editors at once — informing each, naturally, that she is reading the work competitively.

Cerise’s logic on this one: if somebody else is interested in what you have in your hand, it’s more likely to seem desirable to you. Human nature. And to give due credit to Cerise and her Psych 101 professor, she’s often right about this. But that doesn’t always mean a speedy turn-around time: since the editors are aware that other editors are reading it at the same time, the process tends to run a bit faster, but still, the manuscript is going to need to make it past those editorial assistants. Not to mention working its way up that to-read stack on the editor’s desk.

See my earlier comment about turn-around times. It’s not about you.

If you’re now thinking that because there are so few major publishers — and the mid-sized presses keep getting gobbled up by larger concerns — an agent who chose strategy (b) could conceivably exhaust a fairly extensive submission list in quite a short time, and thus might give up on the book earlier than an agent who embraced strategy (a), congratulations are again in order.

Hey, Cerise’s options honestly aren’t unlimited here. Cut her some slack, please.

(c) Some agents will send out a client’s work to a short list of editors — say, 3 or 4 — who are especially hot for this kind of material, or with whom the agent already enjoys a close relationship.

Although this strategy tends to pay off best for well-established agents with excellent connections, as well as those who pride themselves on identifying and pouncing on the latest new writing trend, it is also much favored by agents relatively new to the game. For good reason: its primary advantage is speed; if none of those 3 or 4 is interested in acquiring it, the agent can simply relegate the book onto the inactive list and move on to the writer’s next project.

Those of you who missed yesterday’s post just did a spit-take with your coffee, I’m guessing. “Next project?” writers across the English-speaking world gasp, wiping liquid from their chins, their computer screens, and any of their pets that happened to be passing fifteen seconds ago. “I poured my heart, soul, and two-thirds of my free time into my present book project! I’m just supposed to be able to produce the next one on command? How? By slight-of-hand?”

No, by advance planning. Pull out your hymnals, readers of yesterday’s post, and sing along with me now: it’s always to a serious career writer’s advantage to have another manuscript or two waiting in the wings.

Or at least a well fleshed-out next book idea. And not just because Cerise might decide after just a few tries that your current project would be easier to sell if you already had another book out first. (Hands up, all of you agented writers who have heard this argument, especially within the last couple of years.) It’s also possible that one of the editors will fall in love with your writing style, but decide to pass on the current manuscript.

“I like the voice,” the editor will sometimes say thoughtfully, “but this book’s not right for our list. Has this writer written anything else?”

If Cerise already knows what’s in your writing pipeline, so to speak, she’s obviously going to be in a better position to leap on this opportunity for you. Perhaps less obviously, you are going to be a much, much happier camper if that next book you’ve gushed to her about is already written. Or at least mostly.

Five thousand writerly hands have been waving madly in the air throughout the last two paragraphs, haven’t they? “But Anne!” writers of marvelous prose everywhere shout as one. “Isn’t what we’re selling here our writing? How is it even possible for an editor to love the writing, but reject the book?”

Oh, quite easily; I’ve had this happen to me several times. Remember what I was telling you yesterday about how often and how radically the literary market changes? A novel that would have flown off Barnes & Noble’s shelves three years ago might well be hard to sell to an editorial committee today.

But that novel you finished eight years ago, then set aside after it had that near-miss with the agent of your dreams? You know, the one that your new agent said might be transformable into a good second novel of a two-book deal? The market may well have changed sufficiently that it’s absolutely right for a particular publishing house now.

Chant it with me now, campers: things change. A savvy writer plans for that when strategizing a writing career.

While a third of you are leaping up to scrabble frantically through desk drawers, cabinets, and the recesses of your basements, trying to find the last extant revision of a long-ago novel, why don’t the rest of us get back to the subject at hand?

As I mentioned, short-list submission strategies tend to appeal to gents who pride themselves on keeping up with the latest publishing trends, where speed of submission is of the essence. Unfortunately from a writer’s perspective, it’s also popular with agents who are looking to break into selling the latest hot book category, regardless of what they have had been selling before.

Which, surprisingly, isn’t usually the biggest objection that writers tend to have with this technique. Where conflict usually arises is over different expectations; unfortunately, agents who embrace this strategy are often not very communicative with prospective clients about the logic they have embraced.

Even more unfortunately, lack of communication between agent and writer is not solely the province of the speed-oriented. Even very patient agents often decide after a reasonable number of submissions to table a project until the market is better for it.

Or even — are you sitting down? — to give up on a manuscript permanently. Either way, chances are slim to none that the writer of the book in question will agree in her heart of hearts with the decision.

Predictably, conflict sometimes ensues. It’s even more predictable if the writer had already been of the opinion that his Cerise had held onto the manuscript too long prior to submitting it. Or was submitting it too slowly. Or just didn’t understand in advance what the agent’s submission strategy was.

Doubt that this is stressful for the writer? Ask a few writers whose agents have found their books hard to sell. Actually, If you’ve been to many writers’ conferences, you’ve probably met a writer or two who has been on the creative end of an agent-client relationship like this.

How can you pick them out of the crowd? Easily: they’ll be the ones rending their garments and wailing about how they didn’t know that the agent who fell in love with their chick lit manuscript had previously sold only how-to books.

Make a point of listening to these people — they have cautionary tales to tell. (Hey, one of the points of attending writers’ conferences is to glean wisdom from those who have trodden the hard path before you, right?) Don’t worry about rubbing salt in the wound by asking about their experiences with their agents; if it’s been remotely negative, believe me, they’ll be only too eager to talk.

One of the things they are likely to tell you: given the downsides of short attention spans, it’s a terrific idea to ask an agent offering to representing your work if you may have a chat with a couple of his clients before signing the contract. Even if the agent cherry-picks only his most satisfied clients — and he will, if he has the sense God gave a green tomato — if he tends to discard manuscripts too quickly, his clients will probably mention it.

If asking an agent making an offer whether you can speak with several of his clients seems audacious to you, remember: a savvy writer isn’t looking for just any agent to represent her work; she’s looking for the RIGHT agent.

Is it time yet to talk about the best-case scenario?
Yes, impatient writers who have had their hands raised for a nice, long time now? “But Anne,” authors of the surprise bestsellers of 2013 inquire, “what about all of those books we hear about that make editors drool? How does an agent generate a bidding war?”

Glad you asked, future blockbuster-mongers. There is yet another way an agent might choose to handle a book.

(d) If a manuscript generates a lot of editorial interest — known as buzz — an agent may choose to bypass the regular submission process altogether and sell the book at auction.

This means just what you think it does: a bunch of representatives from GBNYCBPH get together in a room and bid against each other to see who is willing to come up with the largest advance.

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

Yes, eager producers of future bestsellers? “Hey, Anne: I sometimes see, in Publisher’s Marketplace, that a book was sold in a preempt. Is that some fancy industry euphemism for an auction?”

Excellent question, writers-for-the masses, but no. Actually, a pre-empt (short for preemptive offer) is an attempt to prevent a book from going to auction — or to stop another publisher from acquiring it. Pre-empts also can occur when the publisher wants more rights — North American plus world, for instance — than the agent is trying to sell at the moment.

Basically, the publisher tries to make it worth the agent’s while not to offer the book up for competitive bidding. So it will offer a bid that it hopes is high enough to tempt the agent not to take the book to auction.

Usually, though, a pre-empt comes with a catch: it’s only good for a short time, generally 24-48 hours. That way, the agent doesn’t have the option of coming back after a disappointing auction and daying, “Okay, Pre-empt Offerer, I’m ready to deal now.

Okay, you can stop drooling now; you can always return to that alluring mental picture later. Let’s get back to less-green pastures.

I’m confused. Can you tell me more about what happens if my agent decides she can’t sell the book?
Regardless of the strategy an agent selects, if she has gone all the way through her planned submission list without any nibbles from editors, one of four things can happen next. Ideally, Cerise would talk through these options with you before proceeding, but again, an inclination to issue regular informational bulletins is not standard equipment for an agent.

Which points us to yet another great set of questions to ask in that first conversation: how often do you give your clients updates on your progress selling their manuscripts? Will you be contacting me only if something exciting happens, or will we be communicating regularly? Will you call me, or should I e-mail you?

And so forth. The earlier in your working relationship you can establish realistic mutual expectations, the less likely a communication breakdown is to occur down the line.

Back to those end-game submission options. First, the agent can choose to submit the work to small publishing houses; many agents are reluctant to do this, as small publishers can seldom afford to pay significant advances. Second, as we discussed above, the agent can choose to shelve the manuscript and move on to the client’s next project, assuming that the first book might sell better in a different market.

Say, in a year or two. Remember, things change. And that’s only natural.

Third, the agent may ask the writer to perform extensive further revision before sending it out again. (Speaking of common sources of agent-client conflict.) Fourth — and this is the option most favored by advocates of strategy (c) — the agent may drop the client from his representation list.

Wait — my agent might give up on me, and not just my manuscript?
Well may your shapely jaw drop. Again, see how it might be to a writer’s advantage to have a few book projects in the pipeline, rather than staking his entire sojourn at the agency with just one?

And that’s not the worst of it, I tremble to report. Remember how I mentioned that some (c) adherents are not, shall we say, the best communicators who ever logged into e-mail? Here is where that paucity tends to shine with its most baleful splendor: it’s not at all unusual for agents fond of this strategy not even to notify their clients that they’ve been dropped. The writer simply never hears from them again.

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

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

In other words: you’ll be a much, much happier human being if you’ve already been working on your next book while your agent has been submitting your current one.

But enough dwelling on the worst-case scenario. I know that I’m running long today, but I hate to end on such a grim note. On to happier topics!

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

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

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

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

What happens next really depends on the submission strategy that’s been used so far. If the agent has been submitting one at a time, she may haggle a little with the editor over particulars, but generally speaking, the initial offer tends not to change much; after the terms are set, the editor puts the offer in writing.

Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for, campers: the agent will then contact the writer to discuss whether to take it or to keep submitting.

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

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

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

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

Which brings us full-circle, doesn’t it? The publisher has the book, the writer has the contract, the agent has her 15%, and all is right in the literary world.

I could tell get into the ins and outs of post-contract life — dealing with a publisher’s marketing department, the various stages a manuscript passes through on its way to the print queue, how publishers work with distributors, how authors are expected to promote their books — but those vary quire a bit more than the earlier steps to publication do. Frankly, I think those are topics for another day.

If not another series. This has been a lengthy one, hasn’t it?

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

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

The getting-a-book-published basics, part II: the control conundrum

tug-of-war-photo

My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: I barely had the energy to work my way through the couple of hundred e-mails from well-meaning readers of the Wall Street Journal, asking if (a) I’d seen this article and (b) whether those mentioned within its paragraphs were the same who kept threatening to sue my publishers (although not, perversely, yours truly) over my as-yet-to-be-released memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. I appreciate all of you kind souls taking the time to make sure I had (a), but since the answer to (b) is yes (and with arguments similar to those mentioned in the article), it would probably be prudent for me not to comment upon it here. Or, indeed, anywhere.

Except to say: ever get that feeling of déjà vu?

Back to the business at hand. For those of you who happened to miss yesterday’s epic post, I’m going to be devoting the next couple of weeks to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for starters, let’s concentrate 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.

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 indeed, a small, independent US publisher? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and 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 last time, 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 perversely-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page), 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. (Not to mention a self-editing tip for those of you who long for the return of my December series of same!)

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 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 generally 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, back in the day as well as now, it’s the 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 at the meeting 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 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 editorial committee debate, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, a publishing contract will state 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, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. After the author delivers the completed manuscript (usually in both hard copy and as a Word document), if the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion of being asked to alter your manuscript, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Chamomile 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.

Control over the text itself
The author gets to decide what her own book does and doesn’t say, right? Not to mention how it’s expressed.

Actually, no, if she sells the rights to a publisher. While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will appear on the pages of 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 about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, 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 (boneheaded) 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?

Uh-huh. 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 what I just typed having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. 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.

Other matters that aspiring writers generally assume that they will control after they sign a book contract, but usually don’t
Just a few of the tidbits 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).

I feel you glowering, but don’t blame me — 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), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no publishing house employee was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant. The marketing department just thought it would be a good idea for the cover to make a vague reference to A SCANNER DARKLY, because the movie would be coming out around the same time.)

My point is, 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, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the 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. Translation: it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. That may not distress you now, but it may well come the release date: historically, the author’s percentage of the cover price (a.k.a. the royalty) has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback.

One reason for that: hardcover books were considered more serious, literarily speaking, than a volume a reader could fold and stuff into a back pocket. In fact, 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 been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a purse 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. Typically, the author’s royalty on a trade paper release is lower than for a hardback, but higher than for paper.

Everyone with me so far, or are you mentally calculating how much you will end up making per hour for writing your novel. Don’t even go there; that way lies madness.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, the publisher 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 generally months prior to the print date.

This, too, often comes as a 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.

Its main manifestation: 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, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

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.

The moral: 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.

The publishing world’s term for a book that contains references likely to spoil over time is easily dated. Unless you are trying to tie your characters to a very specific time and place (as most contemporary fiction doesn’t), excising such references prior to submission usually increases its marketability.

A market-savvy self-editing tip for novelists and memoir-writers: go through your manuscript, highlighting any cultural reference that might not make sense to a reader five years hence. When in doubt, whip out your highlighting pen. Mention of a character on a TV show? Mark it. Complaint about a politician currently in office? Mark it? Any reference at all to Paris Hilton? Perez Hilton?

You get the idea. This is not a moral judgment you’re making, but a calculation about pop culture longevity.

While you’re reading, take the time to note what the reference is and the manuscript page on which it appears. After you finish, go back and read through the list: would your target reader have recognized each of these five years ago? If you’re writing for adults, would a reader in high school now know what you’re talking about? Are you really willing to bank on whether Arby’s latest moniker for a sandwich is here to stay — or that your target reader will even know about it?

If you aren’t sure about the long-term cultural resonance of, say, the McRib, walk into your local community library, find the person reading the 19th-century novel (if you can’t find one in the stacks, try behind the check-out desk), and offer to buy that kind soul a nice cup of coffee if s/he will be nice enough to take a gander at your list. If the lady with her nose in a minor Charlotte Brontë novel doesn’t recognize a cultural reference, chances are that it’s not as pervasive a phenomenon as you may have thought.

After you have figured out which references need to be changed or omitted, go back and examine the ones you decided could stay. Is that reference actually necessary to the paragraph in which it appears? Is there another way that you could make the same point without, for instance, using a brand name?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
As I was walking you through that last exercise, I spotted some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands inquire 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 sort of a tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t shallow. 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
As I mentioned in passing above, 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).

Generally speaking, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. That’s a calculation based upon a lot of factors: how much it will cost to print the book (anything over 500 pages requires more expensive binding, for instance, and color photos are expensive to reproduce), how large the already-existing market is for similar books, how difficult the marketing department thinks it will be to reach those readers, whether Barnes and Noble is having a bad year, and so forth.

It is, in fact, a guesstimate — and as such, tends to be low, especially for first-time authors.

Why not aim high, let the author quit her day job, and hope for the best? 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 three or six months is fairly standard.

The moral: 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 — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day.

Before I signed off, allow me to add: 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. It’s not something that we talk about much in the writing community, perversely. And that’s a shame, because In the current market, when advances for new are often reflective of the gloomiest projections, while those for bestselling authors keep rising, I suspect that a significant percentage of the authors who sign their first publication contracts in the months to come are going to be mystified at being offered an honorarium when they expected enough dosh, if not to allow them to retire to write full-time, at least to permit cut back their hours.

Don’t panic; conditions change. One thing you may rely upon to remain the same, however: the writer who is in it for the love of literature probably going to be happier enduring the ups and downs of getting published than the one who walks into it with dollar signs in his eyes. Good writing is a gift to humanity, after all, every bit as much as it is a commodity for its author to sell.

Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, or, how does a book concept make it from a New Year’s resolution to a shelf at Borders?

gutenberg press drawing

Welcome to 2010, long- and short-term members of the Author! Author! community. May this be a year of major steps forward: starting the book of your dreams, finishing the book of your dreams, revising your manuscript until it becomes the book of your dreams, discovering the best agent on earth to represent it, convincing the best agent on earth to represent it, that agent blandishing the ideal editor into reading it, said ideal editor falling in love with it, a lucrative sale and easy publication process, readers eager to bury their noses in it, a second book (or a third, or a fifteenth) that exceeds expectations, a well-deserved Pulitzer prize.

You know, the basics of a writing life well-lived.

An especially hearty howdy-do and handshake for those of you acting on a New Year’s resolution to learn how to get your book into print. Or how to land an agent. Or why a writer might need to land an agent in order to get her book into print. You’ve happened upon this blog at an excellent time, because I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks getting down to those very brass tacks. I’m going to be addressing the two most basic questions of the writerly life:

(1) How does a book go from sitting on an aspiring writer’s desk to being sold in a bookstore?

(2) What, if anything, does an aspiring writer need to know to navigate that trip successfully?

Why go straight to the root of the quest, rather than simply handing those new to the game a couple of one-page sheets of directions? Well, first of all, because there are plenty of advice-givers out there willing to bark unexplained orders at those new to the biz. In my experience, quick-and-dirty isn’t nearly as helpful as carefully-explained. Unless a writer understands why things work the way they do, he’s not only likely to break the rules — he’s not going to be able to improve his game.

Heck, he may not be able to play with the big kids at all. So: let’s talk fundamentals.

That chorus of groans you just heard, newcomers, arose from some of the longer-term readers of this blog who were really, really into my recent series on self-editing. “But Anne,” they whimper, ink-stained fingers gesticulating, didn’t you tell us just the other day that since half the writers in North America suddenly send out queries and submissions” (you’ll be tossing around those terms very soon, newbies, never fear) “as part of their New Year’s resolutions, we should hunker down and wait until mid-February before trying afresh? Wouldn’t that hiatus be a dandy time for, you know, revision?”

Indeed it would be, ink-stained protestors. A review of the basics before leaping back into the fray is never a bad idea. But just to keep it interesting, I’ll make a valiant effort to keep tucking tidbits useful for self-editors into the corners of my next couple of weeks’ posts. I wouldn’t want you to feel that I was ignoring old friends for new.

And let’s face it: a crash course in how the publishing industry works isn’t a bad idea before leaping back into the fray. As I’m sure many of you are already well aware, when a rejection is staring a writer in the face, it’s awfully easy to forget that it isn’t personal; good book concepts and well-written manuscripts is just part of how the system works.

Didn’t expect me to be so up-front about it, did you, newbies? Fair warning: this series is going to be rather disturbing to any writer who believes that the only real test of whether a manuscript is any good is whether it gets published. Or that a good manuscript will always be able to find an agent, and swiftly.

At the risk of repeating myself, that’s just not how it works.

Honest. I’ve been in the game practically since birth, and I’m here to tell you, there is no literature fairy. No winsome sprite will guide an agent to the doorstep of a talented new writer, simply because she is talented; the writer has to take some steps to flag that agent down.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? I haven’t even laid the foundation of gloom-inducing yet, and here I am, waving from a second-floor window.

What I’m about to tell you may well be depressing — heck, it depresses me, and I have an agent — but please, I implore you, stick with this series, even if you are already fairly familiar with, say, how to construct a passable English sentence or to write a query. This is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know.

Seriously, it’s to your advantage. Aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are not the people for whom I am writing this. I’m talking to every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice. I want to help you succeed.

So let’s get this baby cranking, as Johann Gutenberg doubtless said to his assistants in 1450 or so.

Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff, persons with whom he may well have shared a dormitory at some elite private college; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a well-placed review.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Heck, that’s assuming that you’re even reading newspapers anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commonly available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence.

This is what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, a manuscript an author sends to an agent or editor without said agent or editor’s having asked to see it. Today, an unsolicited manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread.

Not every aspiring writer believes that, however, because they’ve heard what used to happen to such manuscripts in the days of the Model A: publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

That hasn’t always been easy advice to follow, unless one happened to command a personal army of copyists and/or a steno pool; see my earlier comment about historical access to copy machines.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when jolly old TR (Roosevelt hated being called Teddy) was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say; no agent or editor in her right mind would read even a sentence of a hand-written submission today. Another way that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were (and are) sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, editors buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract.

It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well. Usually, there was a pretty good reason for that: the author spent five or ten years, or even a lifetime, cranking out that first novel, but after it hit the big time, her editor began clamoring for the next immediately. The author tossed something together in a year, and poof! Everyone was astonished that the second wasn’t nearly as good as the first.

Hmm, who could have predicted that? As late as the 1980s, not the publishing industry.

As a result, while multi-book fiction contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series-production — they have become substantially less common in the mainstream and women’s fiction markets. Which is to say: the vast majority of fiction is sold on a per-book basis. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books– and have them polished into publishable form before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials.

Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work in their book proposals — which is why, in case you’d been wondering, so many nonfiction books are authored by journalists. They tend to have stacks and stacks of clippings on hand.

Why are clippings helpful in selling a nonfiction book to a publisher? Because they prove that some other editor has thought enough of the proposer’s writing to publish it before. Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that every nonfiction writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Why not, you ask? Because buying something that does not yet exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that novelists can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? If not, please trot right to the comments and ask a pertinent question.

While we’re waiting, let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries, shall we?

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller, independent publishers that do accept direct submission. Very good houses, some of these. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are getting a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. Nonfiction writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book before I approach an agent, much less a publishing house. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-manuscripts-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as at best a necessary evil, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses.

Okay, so they bring some not-so-hot writers and less-than-amazing books to ‘em, too, but try to see the forest, not the trees here. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

Everybody understand that? Agents reject 95% of the queries they receive, and an even higher percentage of submitted manuscripts, so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is simply not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be clarifying that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Allow me to repeat that, because: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Contrary to common belief amongst aspiring writers, their employees are not primarily concerned with the task of discovering great new talent, but rather with finding books they believe the agency can sell within the current literary market.

In other words, they reject books they know to be written well. Routinely. Because if they can’t sell the book, the agency does not make money.

It’s honestly as simple as that. See why knowing how agencies work might help you take a rejection less personally?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to appreciate this level of verifiability once you become successful. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since Theodore Roosevelt roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: agents largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it.

But wait — I haven’t given you a self-editing tip yet today, have I? Here’s one that will keep many of you busy for a good, long while: in most adult fiction, professional readers like Millicent prefer to see tag lines — all of those he said, she exclaimed, they cried statements that litter the average dialogue scene — minimized, or even omitted entirely. Unless there is serious doubt about which character is speaking when, they usually aren’t necessary.

Quotation marks, after all, indicate that what falls within them is being spoken aloud. So dialogue that runs like this:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah?” he said. “Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed in fear, but she stood her ground. “I am,” she said stoutly.

“Ooh,” Johnny said, “this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

may often be trimmed to the following, with no real loss of meaning:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah? Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed, but she stood her ground stoutly. “I am.”

“Ooh, this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful way to work today’s editing tip into the text. Hey, I’m just warming up here. Keep up the good work!

Not another best and worst of the decade list!

one-way sign in graveyard

It’s certainly been a year — and a decade — of mixed blessings, hasn’t it? Why, only last month, as I was noting with annoyance that Publishers’ Weekly’s list of the top 100 new releases of 2009 did not contain a single book by a female author, I realized with a shock that the Matthew Crawford at #8 used to sit next to me in grad school seminars. Naturally, I rushed out and bought Shop Class as Soulcraft at a brick-and-mortar bookstore right away, on general principle and to boost my writerly karma, but it made me think: the dark, dark clouds of the last year have certainly had some odd silver linings.

So, belatedly: congratulations, Matt. And here’s to finding writers I like on 10-best lists, anywhere, anytime.

I’ve been mulling over those unexpected flashes of silver in the sky all month, as I’ve been gearing up to this, my last post of the decade. I had planned to come up with one of those ubiquitous best and worst lists from a writerly perspective — you know, books I hated, editors at Random House I was sorry to see take early retirement, that sort of thing.

Frankly, coming up with a worst list was no problem at all. Took about four minutes. Yet every single one of my hard-found bests — all seven of them — were charming surprises like seeing Matt’s name turn up on the PW list, not genuine trends I could laud as harbingers of good things coming to writers everywhere. And while I could follow the excellent example of other end-of-the-decade commenters like Julianna Baggott (whose recent Washington Post article on why it is so hard for female authors to crack those top ten lists is well worth reading, by the way), devoting my last post of the year purely to criticism of the status quo, I just can’t bring myself to believe that those silver linings, however few and far between, are not something worth celebrating.

But let’s not kid ourselves: we writers have a heck of a lot to complain about these days.

So here’s what I’m going to do. First, I’ll be taking a barefoot run through what I think are the ten worst things to happen to writing over the last decade, followed by what I consider the single nastiest development for aspiring writers. Then, with all of that out of our collective system, I’ll let you in on some reasons that I think all of us should continue keeping the faith.

With me? Tremendous. Let the snarly bits begin.

The Ten Worst Things to Happen to Writing in the 2000s So Far

(10) Benefit-free simplification of the language
You know what I’m talking about, right? We’ve all picked up a newspaper — remember those? — and been knocked out of an otherwise interesting article by , say, the completely gratuitous capitalization of the first word following a colon. It’s never been correct in English — so why the heck has it suddenly become so very common in recent years? Why, in fact, has it become acceptable by AP editing standards?

For heaven’s sake, it’s not a new sentence!

Okay, so maybe that’s not the type of irritant that makes folks who don’t read or write manuscripts for a living choke on their coffee, but I assure you, such creeping attacks on literacy drive those of us who do absolutely nuts. Why? Because after enough readers have seen the incorrect version often enough and in authoritative enough sources, it will begin to look correct to them.

Can the fall of civilization be far behind?

No, but seriously, the last decade has seen the dubious legitimization of quite a lot of technically incorrect practices. More nails on the proverbial blackboard:

* The use of quality as a synonym for high-quality, without the necessary modifier. Technically, quality could be high, low, or middling. The sole exception, as far as I know, is when it refers to obsolete social class distinctions: it was obvious from her bearing that she was a lady of quality.

See? I didn’t capitalize the first word after the colon in that last sentence, and the grammar gods didn’t strike me dead on the spot.

* The use of unique with a modifier, as in she is very unique. By definition, something is unique because it is the only one of its kind.

* Leaving question marks off sentences that are clearly questions, as in do you hear me. It’s a lame writer’s trick, intended to convey flatness of tone. If only the language contained some sort of descriptors for sound, so the reader could know how a speaker’s voice sounds…oh, wait, it does.

Nit-picky? You bet. But since when did wielding the language correctly become optional for good writers?

(9) Conspiracy theories whose individual elements can be adequately exposed within a three-page scene.
I’m looking at you, Dan Brown. Just once, couldn’t a necessary clue not be instantly recognizable the second our hero stumbles upon it? Followed, perhaps, by that crusty old character who has held his tongue for the past forty-three years not blurting out everything he knows the instant the protagonist happens to ask? Or sometimes even before he asks?

Call me a complexity-monger, but if a long-unsolved mystery can be revealed to the first yahoo who bothers to glance in its direction, and that within the first four minutes, I’m just not interested. I have too much faith in the inventive capacities of mystery writers to settle for boneheaded plot twists.

(8) Single spaces after periods and colons in manuscripts.
Yes, yes, I know: eliminating these necessary spaces in published books saves a lot of paper and ink. In a manuscript, however, omitting these spaces is not only an offense to the rules of punctuation, but renders text significantly harder to edit by hand.

Which, in case you’d been wondering, is generally the only way to catch the kind of errors mentioned in (10). And why it’s so obvious to most professional readers handed a manuscript without the necessary two spaces that the writer has not worked with an editor before.

(7) A radical increase in pop culture references in published books.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in, say, a memoir: mentioning that the protagonist’s sister is lying on the floor, watching a brand-new Gilligan’s Island episode is a legitimate way to give a sense of place and time to a scene. But using current pop references in a novel to make it seem up-to-date now will simply render it out of date in five years.

Sorry; I don’t make the rules governing the turnover rate of pop culture. Nor of the passage of time.

I object to this one, like the last, primarily for its negative effect upon aspiring writers. It can take a couple of years for a manuscript to travel the bumpy road from sale to a publishing house to a spot on a bookshelf at Borders; what’s hip today may well be dated by then. Manuscripts still do get rejected, and often, by old-school professional readers trained to spot references that readers will not necessary catch three years from now.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen plenty of published books with these references. So have I. That doesn’t mean that it’s in your best interest to follow their example.

(6) Not dividing the YA market into as strongly-defined book categories as the adult market
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Well, I guess you might have to talk to a lot of writers, agents, and editors to notice this problem, but since YA has taken off as a major market, more and more agents who represent primarily adult fiction have, predictably, started actively seeking out the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

Which are, correct me if I’m wrong, quite different from each other. So how is an aspiring writer to know what an agent who says she’s looking for YA, any YA, to know what she’s got in mind?

Defining YA books more precisely would be very, very helpful to agent-seeking writers — and not just by guiding those who write YA paranormal romance to agencies with a more successful record with vampire stories than horse books. Lumping too many kinds of YA together makes it harder for those who write for niche markets — like, say, the book for the smartest girl in the class, rather than for the boy who has a hopeless crush on an unattainable girl — find the right homes for their books.

There is literally nothing writers can do about this one, of course. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth grumbling over.

(5) “Whatever!”
Oh, God, how I wish that this one had never entered the language — although, as a means of irritating adults, I suppose the very fact that I want to strangle the next character who utters it indicates that it has been a rousing success.

Fine; you win, whatever-ers. Now give it a rest, already.

I’m not talking to young writers here, although I must admit that I have had a younger students hand me pages where whatever played a prominent role. (Unfortunately, the pages were in a term paper on Rousseau, and the first sentence that caught my eye was In human beings’ natural state, they all lived alone or whatever. The ensuing discussion was not pretty.) I’m aiming this complaint squarely at adult writers who shove whatever into their teenage characters’ mouths in an effort to make them sound like, well, teenagers.

Personally, I find this dismissive; most of the teenagers I know are pretty interesting people. As a reader, I want to hear what a specific teenage character has to say, not to see her merely parrot what any generic teenager might say.

And don’t tell me that young people really talk that way; real-life dialogue can be pretty boring. Astonish me with how your characters are different from anyone I might overhead in a movie ticket line, rather than lulling me to sleep with a transcript.

Want to show an attitude problem? Go right ahead. Writers have plenty of other narrative tools with which to demonstrate all kinds of emotional states.

(4) The demotion of the art of memoir to mere journalism
As recently as seven or eight years ago, memoirists signed contracts with their publishers that specified that the stories they were telling were essentially true, to the best of their knowledge. Lawsuits did occasionally happen, but pretty much everyone concerned recognized that (a) every human being recollects any shared event differently, (b) one of the things that separates a gifted memoirist from the rest of the population is the ability to hone and plane reality into a story that someone might conceivably want to read, and (c) occasionally, the effective exercise of (b) might lead to a bit of narrative fudging.

In short, no one seriously believed that all memoirists did was stand around for their entire pre-publication lives, taking notes like a court reporter. Poetic license was considered legitimate. Heck, ten years ago, you’d only have to buy a junior editor at a major publishing house one drink before he’d be assuring you that the latest celebrity memoir was a good 87% poetry.

Oh, I’m sorry — should I have warned you that the emperor’s clothes were about to be affected by gravity?

Now, memoirists are not only often required to sign iron-clad contracts, taking on all legal liability for any misstatements, but sometimes have to obtain signed releases from anyone mentioned in the book. Under the threat of negative publicity, publishers have been regarding memoirs with a far more suspicious eye. And no wonder, given how the media has reacted to the news: one established memoirist after another is outed as having made up salient facts, and some hyper-literal reporter so misunderstood David Sedaris’ essays that he meticulously fact-checked them.

Sedaris writes humor, people. Comedy writers see things differently than the general population. And may I introduce you once again to the concept of poetic license? Should I invite you all over for dinner, so you may get better acquainted?

It’s tempting to blame James Frey, he of the Million Little Pieces scandal, for this rather severe shift in publishing attitude. If only those rumors that his agent sold the book as a novel, not a memoir, would stop circulating so persistently, I might be able to jump on that bandwagon. However, as a memoirist whose publisher was dogged with lawsuit threats (unfounded) over my book, I’m inclined to think that the real culprit here is a trend for authors to be saddled with more and more of the burdens of bringing out a successful book.

If an author is now expected to, say, pay for his own book tour or hire his own publicist, is it really all that astonishing that he should be saddled with all of the risk of telling his own story? The emperor needs a new wardrobe, after all.

(3) The rise of editing on computer screens
I’m placing this one near the top of my list, since it has contributed so heavily to some of the problems lower down. Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: since the human eye reads 70% faster on a screen than on a page, it is markedly more difficult to catch typos, logical problems, and other textual errors if one edits on a computer screen.

I could — and have — unleash an avalanche of examples at this point, but I’ll restrain myself and provide only one, a little something I like to call the according to Smith problem. See if you can spot it for yourself in this (completely fictional) article opening:

For the Anderson family, this was not the New Year’s Eve they were expecting. Last year, and every year before that, Mom Sheila, Dad Egbert, twins Drucilla and Delward, and little Ermintrude had gathered around the cheerful fire on their hearth, toasting one another with the vodka-laced grog Sheila’s grandmother used to make.

That was before the fire. Like so many now-scarred Americans, the Andersons were tragically unaware that vodka is flammable.

According to Smith, however, the turning of the year was not the only time the family used to drink. “I thought the kids were a little young. I mean, grog in the baby’s bottle? But hey, who am I to tell them how to raise ‘em?”

Did you catch it? No? Here’s a hint: WHO IS SMITH?

As an editor, this sort of editing error drives me nuts — and I assure you, it is an editing error, not a writing one. To an editorial eye, it’s fairly obvious that in an earlier draft, a sentence identifying Smith, probably including his first name and his relationship to the Andersons, appeared prior to the paragraph with the quote. In a subsequent draft, the reference was cut, and nobody noticed.

Except the confused reader, that is.

Would this be a good time to remind you to read your manuscripts IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and, if possible, OUT LOUD? No? Okay, I’ll move on to my next point.

(2) The swiftly-widening gap between advances for bestselling authors and those less established
Do I really have to explain to a readership of writers why this one is bad for our art form? I doubt it, but just in case I need to spell it out: tiny advances mean that first-time authors can’t quit their day jobs.

Am I the only one who worries that the full-time book writer is in danger of becoming obsolete? And does anyone seriously believe that eventuality will improve the overall quality of the literary market?

Especially in combination with…

(1) The rapid turnover of editors, or, the rise of the five-editor book project
Ten years ago, it was rare that the editor who acquired a manuscript did not remain with the project all the way through the publication process. Heck, it was fairly normal for an editor to stick with a successful author for half a career.

Now, a first-time author may thank her lucky stars if her book is handled by only two or three editors; the turnover rate over the last year has been so rapid that I know no fewer than three authors whose books were overseen by five editors, all of whom wanted the book to be something different. One poor novelist got assigned a new editor less than a month before his book was scheduled to be printed.

Guess how he spent the first three weeks of that month? Oh, well, his protagonist didn’t really need that lesbian sister, anyway.

I’m not casting aspersions on any of his five editors, of course; for all I know, each of their widely divergent opinions on the book could have worked — had it been the only editorial vision. I’m merely suggesting that continually asking writers to adjust their creative process to different masters’ expectations within a single project might not be the most efficient means to get the best out of talented people.

Of course, the rate of turnover isn’t really the editors’ fault — I’ve seldom meant one who actively yearned to be fired — any more than the notoriously short average tenure of agency screeners and editorial assistants is the result of some active conspiracy of the powerless. So before we leave behind the blame portion of our evening, let’s talk about one other negative development for writers that is very much within these decision-makers’ control.

Bonus: the increasingly common practice of agents and editors not responding to submissions at all
A decade ago, an agent’s using a form letter to reject a query was the most common source of complaint among aspiring writers; now, it’s far from uncommon for that same agent not to respond to a query at all if the answer is no. But until just a couple of years ago, it was unheard-of for an agency to apply the silence-means-no practice to requested materials.

The times, they have indeed been a-changin’. Now, it’s not unusual for a submitter to hear back 6 months later, or even not at all.

Obviously, this widespread policy shift has been terrible for agent-seeking writers — and not just because it’s harder to wait five months to hear back than two. How, for instance, is a writer to know whether four months of non-response means that (a) his manuscript has been rejected, (b) his manuscript has not been rejected, but has not yet been read by all of the people who need to read it before the agent can say yes, or (c) the manuscript never got there in the first place?

Yet despite this quite radical change in how some agencies — not all, thank goodness — handle requested submissions, most aspiring writers still submit to only one agent at a time. Or even — sacre bleu! — query one at a time.

In the current environment, that means that even a writer who gets picked up unusually quickly will unnecessarily waste a year or two. Once again, I implore you: unless an agent’s website or guide listing specifically says s/he will not accept simultaneous submissions, keep sending out your work.

Unless, of course, you have an extra decade or so to kill before your book gets published?

Okay, that’s enough gloom-inducement for one night. On to the reason that all of you talented writers out there should keep pushing forward, despite an increasingly difficult publishing environment.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper it: the fact that it’s become significantly more difficult to get it published has little to do with the quality of your writing; these are systemic changes. But that doesn’t mean a good manuscript isn’t still worth promoting.

Yes, yes, I know: that sounds suspiciously similar to what I’ve been saying here at Author! Author! for the last five years. It’s still true. The primary difference is that in the face of ever-heightening barriers to good writers’ getting discovered, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the faith.

And yet you still push forward, don’t you? That’s one of the things I love most about our Author! Author! community: we don’t give up on our talent. Even when the odds are, frankly, pretty ridiculous, good writers keep writing.

Which is why, despite my deep concerns about the future of writing, I’ve decided to end the year not with my suggestions for how to keep the faith, but yours. Here, at long last, are the winners of November’s Words to Write By contest:

“Don’t look down.” — Jennifer Crusie, bestselling romance author

Submitted by Jenyfer Matthews, who adds: “Seemingly simple, I interpret this quote to mean believe in yourself. Be brave enough to take that first step and then let the magic of the writing process carry you. Keep your head up, eyes forward, and just keep putting one word in front of the other until you reach the end. Don’t second guess yourself or the story – or else. Have faith.”

I’m with you, Jenyfer. Here’s another:

“You are allowed to suck.” — Mur Lafferty

Submitted by Bart Silverstrim, who went on to explain: “I first heard that aphorism as one of Mur Lafferty’s Rules of Writing in her podcast called “I Should be Writing.” My fears of ridicule, lack of talent, not being “good enough” to deserve the chance to become a published author melt away when I remind myself of this. It is the permission that all new (or aspiring) authors need in order to face that keyboard; you cannot edit your manuscript that sucks into something better until you have a manuscript to improve upon!”

So true, Bart. In a similar spirit:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — Dodie Smith

Submitted by Natalie Kingston, along with this charming comment: “I love this quote; it’s the opening line of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (more famous for her Disney-adapted work The Hundred and one Dalmations). It reminds me that it’s always possible to find the time and space to write, if you look hard enough. It’s Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” shrunk down to fit into the most prosaic, domestic space. The quote is typical of the whole novel, which contrasts romanticism of writing and the cold reality; the father takes a forty year lease on a dilapidated but charming castle in the hopes it will help him write his second novel, but it is his daughter who takes inspiration from their struggles to survive there. It reminds me not to cut myself off, and that the best ideas come from the most unexceptional places.”

Feeling more empowered already, aren’t you? Hold that feeling, because here comes the entry the judges found most inspiring of all, the winner of a brand-spanking-new copy of Askhari Johnson Hodari and Yvonne McCalla Sobers’ excellent LIFELINES: THE BLACK BOOK OF PROVERBS:

“I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building a museum?”
~ Orhan Pamuk, possibly from a New York Times interview on the creation of his new museum

Submitted by Juniper Ekman, who went on to say:

“This is a quote I post to each page of my calendar, the quote I have taped to my phone. This is the quote I write in permanent marker on my palm so I can hold it up every time I answer yes to the wrong question:

“Do you have a few hours to make fifteen puppets for the holiday puppet show?”

“I know you’re already working five jobs, but would you mind coming in for an extra shift on Thursday? We forgot to hire somebody to replace the last employee we fired.”

Or when I find myself distracted by my hobbies, my friends, my feller, my life. All the things that make life worth living but prevent me from living on.

What am I doing?

No.
I am a writer.
I have books to write.”

I can think of no better way to end the year. Congratulations, Juniper, Natalie, Bart, and Jenyfer for trumping some pretty hefty competition for top inspiring quote, and thanks for helping all of us keep the faith for another year.

I say it at the end of every post, but never have I meant it more: keep up the good work, my friends. The world needs to hear your voice.

Let’s hear it one more time! (Or maybe not.)

Nixon on peter pan ride

Did my odd mid-week hiatus leave you wondering if I had slipped off for some holiday merry-making? No such luck; just swamped with work. That, and being comatose with depression over some recent news, international, national, and personal. I doubt 2009 is a year I shall remember fondly.

Or that writers in general will: this was the year that advances plummeted, especially for first-time authors. I was reading only just today that in the UK, advances as low as £500 on debut novels are now considered acceptable, even from major publishing houses. Lest those of us on this side of the pond are tempted to feel superior, the average advance for first-timers has dropped between 30 and 50%, although advances to authors already on the bestseller lists continue to spiral upward.

As the old-timers used to say: don’t quit your day job until someone other than your mother is buying copies of your work. To which I would add the latter-day caveat: and that work is your fifth book.

Sorry to be the bearer of such awful news, but I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers with completely unrealistic expectations about what publishers are willing to pay for brilliant writing. Many sincerely believe that it’s routine for writers who have successfully sold a first book to quit their proverbial day jobs the next day, but honestly, it’s been true for a long time that advances, especially on first novels, tend to be more in the new car range than the retire-for-life range.

And recently, they’ve been in the used car range, unless the manuscript happens to be one of the few that sells at auction. That’s just what it says on the box: if more than one publisher is interested in a book — a logistical impossibility for novels agents choose to submit, as many do, to only one editor at a time — then they will bid against each other for the rights. If the competition is fierce, that price can go quite high, of course, but for a first-time author, that’s pretty rare.

Why? Well, think about it: publishers can make educated guesses about what readers will buy, but there’s no way to know for certain, short of hopping on a time machine, what’s going to be the hot book a couple of years from now, right? So given the choice of shelling out up front for a book by an author who already has an established readership and one whose work is brand-new to bookstores, they tend to opt for the former.

All the more so in the last couple of years, when authors are increasingly being held responsible for promoting their own books, something considerably easier for an established author to do. And if you’re thinking, “Hey, wait a minute — if advances are dropping like stones, where is the small-but-serious author to get the resources to promote her own book?” congratulations; you’re understanding the current dilemma of many an exceptionally talented published author.

Starting to see why most published authors don’t quit their day jobs? And why staring glumly at the Senate health care debate on C-SPAN might have seemed like the least depressing way to spend a few hours than blogging about writing?

So how do the authors making a living at it make a living at it? For fiction, usually by having a number of books out. And teaching. And promoting the heck out of their books. Or by writing in different book categories, up to and including nonfiction.

For nonfiction, the picture is a trifle less grim, and remains so. That’s largely because (a) historically, it’s been easier to sell nonfiction than fiction, except for memoir, (b) a nonfiction writer doesn’t have to write the entire book before selling it, and thus can potentially market proposals for several different books in any given year, and (c) unlike fiction, which is typically sold on a finished manuscript, nonfiction writers are often paid to write the book before they’ve written the book (see point b). Yet even there, publishers are becoming increasingly cautions, even to the point of canceling long-established book contracts — especially the later books covered by multi-book contracts — if they’re not absolutely positive that the books in question will sell well.

See earlier comment about advances rising for bestselling authors. We writers often forget just how much greater a gamble taking a chance on a new writer actually is.

I mention all this not because misery loves company, but because writing a novel is so many day-job-having writers’ plan B. And plan Bs — and Cs and Ds and Qs — tend to get trotted out in a slow economy. Which, perversely, means that there’s simply more competition for the increasingly few publishing slots in any given year, both at the publishing house and agency level.

Translation: it’s been harder than usual to find an agent or sell a manuscript this year in the English-speaking world. Significantly harder. Just ask all of those published authors toiling away at their day jobs.

So please, as the year and the decade wind down, don’t fall into the trap of judging your writing purely by the yardstick of whether an agent fell in love with it, or an editor was able to move an editorial committee to cough up a couple of thousand dollars for the rights. Plenty of good books, plenty of brilliant books, even, got rejected this year.

Keep your chin up, literarily speaking, and remember: there will be other years. Recessions don’t last forever.

So what does a savvy-but-depressed writer do while waiting for advances to rise again? Why, the same thing one does during the annual Thanksgiving-through-New-Year’s publishing world slow-down: work on one’s craft. And revise, revise, revise, so one’s manuscript’s chances are even better in the year to come.

Let’s hear some enthusiasm, people. I, for one, am raring to go.

Oh, no: I’ve inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. The screen goes wavy, and I see it all before me: I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B range.

So there I was, all brown eyes and braids, holding my mother’s hand while my father watched my older brother go on D and E ticket rides, waiting in a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. Not that I was particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story, even then; the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean. Because, honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives remained dead?

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride; it was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. And the longer we stood in line, the less enthused I became.

Why, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!” After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions.

By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times. It’s all I remember about the ride. I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase at the beginning.

And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my early youth; it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, walk into a popular café during a midwinter cold snap and count the variations on, “Wow, I’m cold?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Gladys — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, George, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. (See, I even remembered the morals, doubtless due to incessant repetition.) In SWC, the heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphs upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It was funny in the series, of course, but it’s less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Emily, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

All the time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up and excise all of that ambient redundancy.

Okay, not really. But it does make Millicent the agency screener mutter into her too-hot latte, “I KNOW that. Move on!” more than the average submitter might like.

At base, conceptual repetition is another trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the murderer first revealed that he had a lousy childhood.

Who could have predicted THAT? How about anyone who has seen a movie within the last two decades?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. One of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions. And one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. REALLY boring. As in it makes Millicent wish she’d gone into a less taxing profession. Like being an astronaut or a nuclear physicist.

Why, you ask? Here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition ACROSS manuscripts as well.

We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a depression-avoidance project for a rainy winter day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. It would be surprising if common dialogue hadn’t made its way into all of our psyches, actually: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? Better yet, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s doing lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. (A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.) But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. But a writer cannot perform that magic trick without first identifying where it should be applied.

Okay, it’s time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep those creative spirits riding high, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!