A memoir needs a story arc as much as a novel does? Is this an April Fool’s joke?

Of all the many, many mysteries that keep those of us who handle manuscripts for a living up at night, none is so recalcitrant — and, even more trying to the editorial mind, positively immune to diagnostic analysis — than why it so often seems to come as a complete surprise to memoirists to be asked, “What’s your book about?” From a publishing perspective, few questions could be more straightforward, or more predictable: presumably, something occurred in the memoirist’s life that he thought would make a good story on paper, right?

To your garden-variety memoirist, however, answering this inherently loaded question is complicated. Or so publishing professionals surmise, from the long pause that typically ensues. Often preceded by a gusty sigh and succeeded by a sudden avalanche of seemingly unrelated personal anecdotes.

That’s the standard response, by the way, regardless of the context in which a memoirist is asked what her book is about. Be it at a writers’ conference, in a social interaction at the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, at a party mostly peopled by non-writers (oh, we do manage to mingle occasionally), or even in a pitch meeting, people writing about their own lives tend to change the subject. Rather quickly, too.

If you’ll forgive my saying so, memoirists, that’s a pretty remarkable reaction, at least to those of us prone to hanging out with writers. Published and as-yet-to-be published writers are notoriously fond of talking about their work, sometimes to the exclusion of actually working on new projects. Heck, there’s even an old joke about it:

Aspiring writer at cocktail party: I hear you’re an agent. I’ve written a book…

Agent (instantly scoping the exits): I’d love to hear about it, but I’m afraid I have only an hour left to live.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good joke, but it is reflective of the way the rest of the world views writers. A writer’s will to communicate tends to be pretty strong, after all; even a shy writer will often burst into chattiness when given the slightest encouragement to talk about his work-in-progress. So it just doesn’t make sense to the rest of the human population when someone writing about what should be the most absorbing topic of all, dear self, doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.

Indeed, from the intensity of that sigh that’s always blowing those of us kind enough to inquire over sideways, the mere mention of it seems to be quite painful. As a memoirist myself, someone who recently wrote an explanatory introduction for somebody else’s memoir, a lifetime interview subject for biographies about the famous and semi-famous (I’d tell you about it, but that would involve blurting out my life story; oh, the pain), and a frequent editor of memoir, I think I can tell you why.

What we have hear, my friends, is a failure to communicate. What a memoir-writer hears is not the question, “So what is your book about, anyway?” but something closer to, “Sum up your life in fifty words or less. Kindly include a brief summary of the meaning of life in general while you are at it. Please bear in mind that how you will be remembered after your death rides on this answer. Ready — go!”

Just so you know, writers of the real: that’s not what’s being asked here. The Inquisition is not breaking out the thumbscrews, demanding a confession. Not at a cocktail party, not at a writers’ conference, and certainly not when anyone that might conceivably be able to help you get your memoir published brings it up.

So what are these fine folks asking? Precisely what they would ask any other writer. What they are hoping to hear is a short, cogent summary of your book’s story arc.

Imagine their surprise, then, when the memoirist abruptly clams up. Or starts muttering into her drink a shaggy dog tale about the summer of 1982 — a particularly effective evasive technique, as 1982 was for so many of us a year best forgotten altogether.

And those are the courteous responses. Sometimes, the well-meaning questioner will merely elicit a begrudging snort of, “Well, obviously, it’s about me.”

Of course, any prospective author is perfectly at liberty to shorten her list of friends to contact when her book comes out — oh, you thought the recipient of such a dismissive answer was going to break down the doors of his local indie bookseller to buy that memoir? — but you’d be astonished at how frequently agents and editors hear this type of comeback. Without, apparently, anticipating that the response to it will not be particularly gratified, “Well, thanks for filling me in, Noah Webster. Twenty years in publishing, and I had yet to learn the definition of memoir.”

Okay, so most publishing types’ mothers taught them not to be this rude to relative strangers. To the pros, though, any of these replies is perplexing, at best, and at worst, a sign of a complete misunderstanding of how and why anyone not already personally connected with an author might become interested in a memoir.

They have a point, practically speaking. To those who have never tackled the difficult and emotionally-draining task of writing their own stories, it’s well-neigh incomprehensible that anyone hoping to sell a manuscript or proposal could not instantly answer what is, after all, a question any agent representing the book, any editor acquiring the book, any publicist pushing the book, and any reader remotely likely to pick up the book would need to know right off the bat. Surely, having a story to tell is a prerequisite to telling it.

So how could one hope to market a book without knowing what it was about? Heck, how could one hope to write a book without having a clear idea of its story arc?

Actually, those questions puzzle most fiction writers, too, as well as the people that love them. Oh, novelists are not immune to that lengthy hesitation — combined, nine times out of ten, with a gusty sigh — in response to the more general, “So what do you write?” Yet fiction-writers usually manage to follow up with an account that bears at least some embryonic resemblance to the plots of their books.

Astonishingly often, though, memoirists do not — and sometimes seemingly cannot, even if they have already successfully proposed their books. Take Diane, for instance, a courageous memoirist who has recently sold a searing tale of self-revelation to a major publisher; she said that I could share her experience here on condition of changing her name, age, sex, height, weight, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, profession, familial background, and any other identifier that might conceivably render her recognizable to anyone she has ever known. Particularly her book’s acquiring editor.

A truly gifted anecdotalist, Diane has lead a remarkable life (about which I can, of course, tell you nothing); a skilled writer with substantial journalism experience (oops), she is likely to tell it well. Being familiar with how the publishing industry works, she had little trouble pulling together a book proposal, tossing off the requisite marketing materials in three weeks and polishing off a gem of a sample chapter in six. Her agent, Tyrone, fell in love with what was for Diane a new type of writing and was able to sell the book to an eager editor within a remarkably short time to Grace, a very talented editor with a great track record of handling personal memoir with aplomb.

The publication contract specified a not unusually short time in which to complete the manuscript: six months.

Well might you choke, memoirists. At that point, Diane had written only the sample chapter and the first three paragraphs of Chapter 2.

As is all too easy for those new to the game to forget, a book proposal is a job application: the writer makes the case that she is the best person currently occupying the earth’s crust to write a particular book, right? Implicit in that case, however, is the expectation that she will be able to produce that book by a deadline.

None of this was news to Diane, of course, at least not at an intellectual level. She knew that she was a fairly typical position for a first-time memoirist: she would need to write the book she had proposed on a not-unreasonable deadline — or what would have been a reasonable deadline, were advances still large enough to take time off work to complete a writing project. Not necessarily the easiest task in the world, certainly, given that it had taken her six weeks of nights and weekends to compose that nice sample chapter; at the rate she had been writing so far, it would only take another two years to write the book as she had conceived it.

But she did not have two years; she had six months. And Grace had, as acquiring editors of nonfiction so often do, asked for a few changes to the book’s proposed running order. As well as some minor tweaks to the voice.

Does the monumental gasp that just shook a nearby forest indicate that some of you memoirists were not aware that could happen? If so, you’re not alone: since writers so often work in isolation, it’s not at all uncommon for a first-time book proposer to forget (or not to know in the first place) that since the proposal is a job application for the position of writing the book, the publisher hiring the writer generally has the contractual right to ask for changes in that book. And that can be awfully difficult for personal memoirists, who have often spent years working up the nerve to write their life stories in the first place, much less to someone else’s specifications.

Fortunately, Tyrone had experience working with first-time memoirists; he had the foresight to warn Diane before he started circulating the book proposal that the book she had in mind might not be what precisely the acquiring editor would like to see in the published version. So when Diane received the news that Grace felt that the storyline was getting a little lost in the welter of chapters proposed in the Annotated Table of Contents.

“Just stick to the book’s major story arc,” she said, “and we’ll be fine. If this book sells well, we can always work the other material into your next.”

Stop that sighing, memoirists. The furniture in my studio is only battened down to the level appropriate for earthquakes, not hurricanes.

Still, Diane had worked on short deadlines before, and this one was not all that short. Besides, Grace clearly knew what she was talking about; she had spotted a legitimate flaw in the Annotated Table of Contents. Diane hadn’t really thought much about the structure of the book, beyond simply presenting what had happened to her in chronological order. Streamlining her story a little should not be all that hard, right?

Her opinion on the subject shifted slightly over the next three months: writing a personal memoir is notoriously prone to stirring up long-dead emotions. The brain does not seem to make a very great distinction between reliving an event vividly enough to write about it well and living through a current event. Understandably, Diane felt as though she had been going through intensive therapy in her spare time, on a deadline, while holding a full-time job.

Now, Diane saw her previously-manageable task as a gargantuan one. Presuming that she had the stamina to finish drafting the book by her ever-nearing deadline, something she was beginning to doubt was humanly possible, would she be writing it as she wished, or would she simply end up throwing words onto paper? Under those unreasonable circumstances, how could she possibly maintain sufficient perspective on that terrible period of her life to come up with a satisfying dramatic arc? She felt she would be lucky just to get the whole story into a Word file on time.

So she did what most first-time memoirists do: she just wrote the story of that period of her life in chronological order. She wasn’t altogether happy with the manuscript, but she did get it to Grace before the deadline.

Hard to blame her for embracing that tactic, isn’t it? Most of us don’t think of our own lives as having a story arc. We live; things happen; if we’re self-aware, we might occasionally learn something from the process. And when we talk about our lives out loud, that’s not much of a storytelling barrier: verbal anecdotes don’t require much specific detail, character development, or ongoing plot.

Nor does sentence structure typically make or break an anecdote. Summary statements can work just fine. Indeed, it’s not unheard-of for every sentence of a perfectly marvelous anecdote to begin with the phrase I was…

Unfortunately, as Grace pointed out to Diane after the first draft had winged its merry way to the publishing house, that particular type of storytelling, while fine in the right context, just doesn’t fly on the printed page. Memoir readers expect fully fleshed-out scenes, complete with dialogue; too many summary statements back-to-back can start to seem, well, vague. Could the text be more specific?

Then, too, just referring to a major character as my brother was going to get awfully tedious awfully fast for a reader; Diane was going to have to do some character development for the guy. Like, for instance, letting the reader know what he looked like and why, if he lived in Bolivia, he seemed to be dropping by her apartment in Chicago on every ten pages.

Oh, and while Diane was at it, could she be a trifle more choosy about what was and was not important enough to the central story arc to keep on the page? “I raised this concern about the proposal,” Grace pointed out, and rightly. “I know it’s hard to think about yourself as a protagonist in a book, but you have to remember that is how the reader is going to think of you. While a side story might seem vital to how you, a member of your family, or one of your friends would recall this part of your life, you’re not writing the story for people who already know it.”

While this was, from a professional perspective, pretty terrific advice — after all, the art of memoir consists as much in deciding what to leave out as in what to include — Diane felt overwhelmed by it, as well as by her two-month revision deadline. Completely understandable, right? Here she was, frantically rewriting some of her favorite passages and slashing others (oh, her mother would be furious to see her favorite scene in Chapter 5 go!), and now that Grace had forced her to contemplate it, she had to admit that she still had no clear notion of what the overall message of that period of her life was. Why wasn’t it enough to present what actually happened, directly and honestly?

Come to think of it, wasn’t it just a touch dishonest to cut out things that had actually happened? Didn’t she owe it to the reader to give a complete picture, even if that meant boring Grace a little? Wasn’t it compromising her vision as an author to mold her work to the specifications of an editor who was…oh, my God, was Grace asking her to change the story of her life?

Naturally, she wasn’t asking any such thing, as I told Diane when she called me in a panic. Grace, like all conscientious editors, was merely being the reader’s advocate: prodding the writer to make the reading experience as entertaining and absorbing as possible on the printed page.

Need you sigh with such force, memoirists? You just blew my cat across the room. “But Anne,” some of you protest, “doesn’t Diane have a pretty good point here? She had envisioned her story a particular way, crammed with everyday detail. That kind of slice-of-life writing can be very effective: I like a memoir that makes me feel that I’m inhabiting the narrator’s world. So isn’t she right to fight tooth and nail for her earlier draft?”

Ah, that’s often a writer’s first response to professional feedback: to regard it as inherently hostile to one’s vision of the book, rather than as practical advice about how to present that vision most effectively. But that’s usually not what’s going on — and it certainly wasn’t in this case. Grace was genuinely trying to make the book a better read.

And, frankly, she was right about limiting the proportion of the book devoted to depicting Diane’s everyday life vs. the extraordinary events that interrupted it. Grace believed, and with good reason, that as a non-celebrity memoir, the audience for this book would be drawn far more to the dramatic, unique parts of the story than to the parts that dealt with ordinary life. Let’s face it, just as everyday dialogue would be positively stultifying transcribed to the novel page , quite a lot of what occurs in even the most exciting life would not make for very thrilling reading.

Oh, you thought that “Some weather we’re having.” “Yeah. Hot enough for you?” “Sure could use some rain.” was going to win you the Pulitzer? Grace was quite right in maintaining that the art of memoir very largely lies in selecting what to leave out — and that Diane’s very gripping first-person narrative was getting watered down by too many scenes about…

Wait, what were they about? It was hard for the reader to tell; they seemed to be on the page simply because they had happened.

I know, I know: that’s not an entirely unreasonable selection criterion for, say, a blog. As the Internet has demonstrated time and again, people like to get a peek into other people’s lives. That does not mean, however, there’s a huge book-reading audience out there potentially fascinated with what any given writer had for breakfast, his interactions with his cat, and how he sweeps dried mud from his shoes.

Sort of seems like sacrilege to say it, given how the media tends to celebrate the Twitterverse these days, doesn’t it? Yes, there are plenty of venues where it is perfectly acceptable — nay, encouraged — to share even the smallest details of one’s personal life, but by and large, strangers do not pay to find out what Writer X had for lunch today.

Oh, sure, your Facebook friends might like to hear about it, but it’s hard to imagine plowing through 400 pages of printed-out status updates, isn’t it? I hope it has not escaped your notice, memoirists, that by and large, the people vitally interested in those day-to-day specifics are not total strangers, but those who already know you personally.

In case I’m being too subtle here: the no doubt well-deserved loving attention of your kith and kin to the contrary, writing down everything that happens to you seldom works in a book. Real life is too random, and, frankly, it’s lousy at plot development.

Indeed, reality is not always even particularly believable, at least on the page. As Mark Twain liked to say — wow, I’ve been quoting hi a lot lately, have I not? — truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.

Sorry to break that to those of you who had been following those gusty sighs with, “Well, this really happened to me.” Of course it did. You’re writing a memoir. The mere fact that you lived it doesn’t excuse you from making it one heck of a great read, does it?

Or, to put it another way, the simple fact that something really happened does not render it inherently interesting for a reader; that’s the writer’s job. Agents and editors like to say that it all depends on the writing, but for a memoir, I would add that it also depends upon understanding what is and is not essential to the story you’re telling.

The reader does not need to know what every cobblestone on the street looked like in order to be thrilled by the scene when bloodhounds chased you from one end of that street to the other. (Oh, did I bury the lead there? That’s also a pretty common problem in memoir manuscripts: the most important element is hidden in the middle of a paragraph ostensibly about something else. Rather like this piece of advice: annoying for a skimmer, isn’t it?) To entice a reader to keep following a protagonist, real or not, through hundreds of pages, a narrative needs to convey a sense of forward motion based upon dramatic development, not just the progression of time.

“But Anne!” social media enthusiasts shout, and who could blame you? “Celebrities tweet about mundane personal details all the time, and I’ve heard that publicists tell the famous point-blank that posting about real-like activities (especially with pictures!) is one of the best ways to build up a social media following. People like to feel they are in the know — and while we could quibble about whether anything said to People magazine could be construed as private, there’s certainly a demonstrable market for it. So while I agree that quite a lot of it is stultifying, both on the screen and on the printed page, you can’t deny that celebrity memoir often does get down to the what-I-ate-for-breakfast level. And those books sell.”

Good point, enthusiasts, but from a publishing point of view, celebrity memoirs that dwell upon the ordinary sell despite containing ho-hum specifics, not because of them. What causes a reader to pick up the book is already being familiar with the author, at least by reputation. The ability to draw that type of instant recognition is integral to a celebrity author’s platform.

I hear some of you grumbling about how celebrity-chasing limits the number of publishing slots available for non-celebrity memoir, but honestly, public attraction to the private lives of celebrities is hardly a recent development. Cartoons of Marie Antoinette’s alleged palace escapades were hot sellers in the years leading up to the first French Revolution. A satire of Julius Caesar’s relationship with a prince he’d bested in battle enjoyed wide circulation. Cleopatra’s P.R. people worked overtime not to get the word out that, unlike her dim-witted brother, she spoke so many languages that she could conduct treaty discussions with foreign dignitaries herself, but to convince regular folk to regard her as the incarnation of Aphrodite. Just ask the hundreds of spectators who showed up to watch her have dinner on a boat with the earthly embodiment of the war god, Marc Antony.

I venture to say, however, that just because the world is evidently stuffed with people willing to read half a page about a celebrity’s breakfast-eating habits because they hope that the following page will talk about something more glamorous, it does not render that half a page inherently exciting. Unless the celebrity in question happens to wake up one day and decides to consume something genuinely remarkable — like, say, an elephant or the cornerstone to the Chrysler Building — it’s just ordinary stuff.

I say this, incidentally, as someone who regularly gets accosted by biographers trying to find out what certain literary luminaries preferred in a breakfast cereal. Which just goes to show you: the more famous a writer becomes, the more likely he is to be judged by something other than his writing.

There are, of course, quite a few genuinely interesting and well-written celebrity memoirs and biographies; I don’t mean to cast aspersions on those book categories. I’m merely suggesting that it might be quite a bit easier for someone who already has a national platform to get an ordinary breakfast table scene published than it would be for anyone else.

Like, say, Diane. I think that Grace was doing her a favor, actually: most memoir readers would be more critical than she of a memoir that got bogged down in mundanties. When is it better for a writer to hear a hard truth like that, do you think — early enough in the publication process that she can do something about it, or after the book comes out, in the online reviews?

Speaking as a person who would rather identify and nip problems in the bud, rather than the more popular tactics of ignoring them or waiting until they have grown into trees to chop them down, I must admit that I’m a big fan of the former. Yes, it’s nice to hear nothing but praise of one’s writing, but to improve it, trenchant critique is your friend.

Which, I am happy to report, Diane did quickly come to realize. Grace’s revision requests were not unreasonable; they were aimed at making the story they both loved more marketable. Together, they managed to come up with a final version that this reader, at least, found pretty compelling. Streamlined to within an inch of its life.

What may we conclude from Diane’s story? Perhaps nothing; like so many real-life sagas, it may well be just a series of events from which a bystander can learn little. It’s also possible, I suppose, that this tale was just my heavy-handed, editorial-minded way of saying hey, writers, you might want to consider the possibility that your editor is right. It has been known to happen, you know, and far more frequently than revision-wary aspiring writers tend to presume before their work has had the benefit of professional feedback.

No doubt due to my aforementioned fondness for tackling writing problems as soon as they pop their green shoots above ground, I believe that Diane’s problem evolved from that lengthy pause and gusty sigh after being asked, “So what is your book about?” Like the overwhelming majority of first-time memoirists, she simply hadn’t thought about it much — not, that is, until writing on a deadline and to a publishing house’s expectations forced her to contemplate the issue.

So in the interest of saving you chagrin down the line, I ask you, memoirists: what is your book about? What is its essential story arc? And how can you sift through the myriad events of your fascinating life to present it to the reader as fascinating?

Why, yes, those are some mighty big questions, now that you mention it. Would I really be doing your book a favor if I asked easier ones?

To forearm you for the moment that most good memoirists face, the instant when you honestly cannot tell whether a particular detail, scene, or relationship adds to or distracts from your story arc, let me leave you with my favorite memoir-related image. It requires some set-up: while autobiographies consist of what the author can remember (or, as is common for presidential memoir, what ended up in a journal) of a particular period of time, memoir frequently concentrates upon a single life-changing event or decision — and the effects of that occurrence upon one’s subsequent life and world.

Imagine that event or decision as a stone you have thrown into the pond of your life. Show the reader that stone’s trajectory; describe it and the flinging process in as much loving detail as you like. Make the reader feel as though she had thrown it herself. Then, and only then, will you be in a position to figure out which of the ripples on the pond resulted from shying that rock, and which were caused by the wind.

Keep up the good work!

The threshold of difficult: a tale of three memoirists, or, can’t we all get along?

I’m getting back to you a few days later than I intended in posting, campers, but not for any of the usual reasons. Not that the usual reasons wouldn’t have been more than enough: this last week has been a festival of juggling my editing clients’ deadlines, adapting book promotion advice to the needs of individual books and the ever-changing tastes of the literary market, and dealing with the second week of that allergic reaction I mentioned a couple of posts back, the one that initially made me look like the unholy love child of Boris Karloff from his Bride of Frankenstein period and James Spader, shortly after that unfortunate offspring had been burned at the stake by villagers of the pitchfork-and-torch variety. By this last Monday, the histamine had faded, naturally: for the next four days or so, I merely resembled Cro-Magnon man as it might have been played by Lon Chaney, Sr., of Phantom of the Opera fame.

And some people say there’s no such thing as progress.

No, my excuse for sidling away from the blog this week was far more profound: for the first time in the six-and-a-half-year Author! Author! hegemony, I found myself wondering whether I should blog about a power dynamic relatively common in agent-writer and editor-author relationships. Not because its existence is any secret — as any faithful attendee of literary conferences knows, plenty of the pros are not shy about sharing stories of difficult clients — but because I hesitated to add more complaints to the already-burgeoning array of horror stories floating around the Internet. As long-term Author! Author! readers know, I’m very aware of how easily professional advice to writers can get twisted in the retelling: what might begin as a single weary, battle-scarred agent blurting out a pet peeve or expressing a personal preference on a conference dais can all too often end up being presented online as a universally-applicable rule of submission, querying, or even writing style three months later.

“But Anne!” those of you fond of trawling the web to form composite impressions of wildly contradictory advice protest, and who could blame you? “What’s wrong with that? Obviously, someone in the conference audience heard what the weary agent said and wanted to warn other writers away from running afoul of that agent’s pet peeve — or any agent’s pet peeve, for that matter. Speaking of horror stories, we’ve all heard our share about how easy it is for a well-meaning-but-industry-ignorant writer to blunder into being labeled (shudder) difficult. I, for one, am grateful for that plethora of warnings.”

I’m not faulting the motives of those who choose to pass such admonitions along — the first time. That is indeed often a generous move. The problem arises when that initial warning gets passed along again (and again, and again), often with tweaks, embellishments, and, let’s face it, incorrect interpretations. As should not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has ever played the magic game of Telephone, by the tenth, fifteenth, or fiftieth retelling, the pro who first uttered the advice would not recognize it. Frequently, it’s not just the content that changes; you’d be amazed how often a single observation about a unique situation gets transmogrified into a barked order about what must be done in every instance.

Oh, you thought that a sweeping axiom like the surprisingly ubiquitous agents hate it when writers use adverbs started life that way? Hardly likely. From a professional point of view, it’s an absurd assertion: sometimes adverbs make sense to use, sometimes they don’t.

It’s not at all difficult to picture, though, some poor agent sighing over an opening page in which every other sentence is decorated with an -ly — or that same agent talking about it on a conference panel a week later. With half the aspiring writers in the audience frantically scribbling notes, it’s only reasonable to expect Agent X hates adverbs to turn up online fairly shortly thereafter, right? Or for the next person to pass the news along to report it as agents hate adverbs? And, down the line, for someone who misunderstood the point of an English class exercise aimed at improving characterization in dialogue to conflate instead of Herbert said angrily, why not try showing his anger in his speech? with the shocking news about agents breaking out in hives the instant they clap eyes on an adverb in a submission, creating a universal axiom that no good writer uses adverbs, ever.

Which, I suspect, would come as something of a surprise to Agent X. As the most cursory glance through his clients’ published novels and memoirs would demonstrate, he’s a great fan of the skillfully-applied adverb.

At the risk of coining an axiom, both the source and the context are important to consider when weighing writing advice. And that goes double for anything you may hear about the kind of behavior that gets writers labeled difficult.

Oh, I’m not saying that you should not worry about the phenomenon: it definitely exists, and it is most assuredly true that writers unfamiliar with the rules of the game occasionally find themselves on the receiving end of the epithet without perceiving that an interaction has gone awry. I’m just saying that when you hear a blanket rule asserted, you might want to ask some follow-up questions about how the asserter knows it to be true. And when you stumble upon one of those third-hand this-is-how-a-writer-got-dropped horror stories, whether told from the agent’s, editor’s, or writer’s perspective, you might want to consider the possibility that the original teller’s intent is not being borne out in the version before you. Or — and this is true more often than any of us who give writers advice online might like to think — that a conclusion drawn from a single person’s reaction to a single instance might not in fact be reflective of an industry-wide feeling about a pervasive phenomenon.

I’m going to be talking about some of those pervasive phenomena a little bit later — hey, I wasn’t kidding about being hesitant to blog about some of this stuff — but first, let’s address that widespread writerly fear of running afoul of unspoken rules. As I said, it’s not entirely unjustified: what experience has made self-evidently rude to someone working in an agency might not strike someone new to the querying process as even vaguely impolite.

Take cold-calling an agent, for instance: if you’d like to see an entire panel of publishing professionals cringe in unison, by all means, raise your hand in an agents’ forum and ask if it’s okay to call an agent instead of querying in writing. Chances are, every agent on the dais will have a personal horror story about that pushy aspiring writer who thought, wrongly, that if a hard-sell technique works for used cars, why, only a spineless wimp would content himself with writing a query letter, sending it off, and waiting weeks or months for a reply. Why wait that long, when the agency that represented Tuesdays with Morrie has a listed telephone number?

Oh, you may laugh (at least, I hope those of you who have queried or pitched before are), but agencies get approached like this all the time. As you may have heard, agents hate it.

Unfortunately, those who have heard that are not the only people who want to land agents. So why not just call, the writer who has not taken the time to learn how books actually get published reasons, perhaps pretending to be a personal friend of the agent’s to get past Millicent, and explain to the agent how he just has to drop everything to read his manuscript? While he’s at it, wouldn’t it strengthen the appeal to go on a tirade about how much he wants to get published — unlike, say, every other writer who contacts the agency?

Why? To anyone not new to the agency biz, the answer is simple: because agencies simply don’t work that way, and with good reason. Think about it: if an agent got a reputation for saying yes to this kind of approach, he would be inundated with calls from precisely the type of writer that most agencies do not want to represent, those who believe that being talented grants them the right to expect instantaneous, personal attention.

Which is, incidentally, usually the way difficult gets defined in a publishing context: a writer’s not following prevailing industry etiquette in a manner that requires someone within it to expend unanticipated time and energy in dealing with her.

That covers a lot of territory, obviously, but once a writer understands this underlying principle, not being difficult becomes, well, easier. Instead of trying to learn and abide by each rule of etiquette one at time, laboriously, as if they existed in a vacuum, a writer can simply look at what she is being asked to do, compare it to what she is planning to do, and ask, “Okay, will this make more work for the agent/editor/contest judge? And if so, is the benefit I hope to derive from it worth the risk of eating up more of that person’s time?”

Don’t you wish someone had told you about that test before the first time you queried or submitted to an agent? Unfortunately, this measure of behavior is so self-evidently applicable to those who would actually be inconvenienced by violated expectations that it’s rarely discussed in the company of writers, except as a complaint.

Except, perhaps, phrased as send what we tell you to send, not what you want us to see. And please believe us that we chose the query format for a reason.

By either of these standards, the clueless caller above is clearly difficult, but so is the submitter who, when asked to send the first ten pages of a manuscript, sends fifteen. In both cases, the agent (or, in the second instance, her Millicent) would have to spend valuable time handling a situation she had no way to see coming: chatting with a writer calling out of the blue, reading those extra pages. Since the writer in both cases is being difficult — and does it really matter from her point of view whether the behavior is the result of ignorance or inconsideration? — why should she bother to invest that time at all? Why not just reject the writer out of hand?

Was that thunderous clamor out there in the ether the sound of a good third of you leaping to your feet? Perhaps — and I’m only guessing here — the third of you who have in the past sent more pages than an agent requested? Or that a contest’s rules specified? “But Anne,” the over-sending many shout, “I didn’t mean to be difficult. Surely, no one serious about evaluating writing would want to base that assessment on two-thirds of a scene. Wasn’t I being nice to care about the agent’s reading experience? Or are you saying that I should have rewritten the scene so that it ended on page 10?”

Neither, as it happens: you should have sent the first ten pages. Period. Sending more is being difficult.

Your audible huffs of annoyance are understandable, over-senders, but here we have an instance where the perception of inconsideration differs wildly from the writer’s and agent’s perspectives. You assumed, and not unreasonably, that the request for a partial, contest’s length restriction, or permission to send a specified number of pages with your query was not only intended to provide the agent with an indication of your writing style, the professionalism of your presentation, the voice of the book in question, its appropriateness for your target audience, and how you handle narrative, but to demonstrate how you structure a full scene.

Oh, you didn’t think about it that much? You just thought it would make better reading if the writing sample didn’t get cut off in mid-paragraph?

I hate to break it to you, but either way, an over-sender deliberately disregards a request for a specific number of pages. That’s not only difficult, from the recipient’s perspective; that’s rude. Not only does including the extra pages imply an expectation that the agent, Millicent, or contest judge will make time to read them, but also — you might want to sit down for this one — a belief that the person requesting that number of pages just didn’t understand that not every manuscript will feature a section or chapter break at the bottom of page 10.

Or 15, or 50, or whatever length the requesting agent/contest rules/submission guidelines indicated. Which, from a professional reader’s perspective, is a pretty insulting assumption: honestly, someone who handles manuscripts for a living or has judged more than a single contest entry would have to be awfully unobservant to think that. No one who asks for 10 pages expects a ten-page scene; they want to see if you can write. If an agent or contest wants to read an entire chapter or manuscript, it will ask for it point-blank.

The over-sending writer doesn’t think of it in those terms, naturally; often, he’s just trying to present himself in the best light as a storyteller. In doing so, however, he also presumes, wrongly that the pro will bend the rules in just this one instance. What could another couple of pages matter, after all?

Plenty, to an agent, Millicent, or contest judge who reads tens of thousands of pages a year. Five extra pages on a ten-page writing sample means devoting one and a half times the reading minutes to this submission than one that followed the rules. Why make the exception, when we all know from experience that on the writing grapevine, an anecdote about a single writer-agent interaction can quickly mutate into an immutable rule of conduct?

More to the point, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that a writer who violated one rule or request, however well-meaningly, would do it again in future — and that the belief that the rules really don’t apply to him would be problematic down the line, as well as time-consuming for the agency? If a writer thinks it is acceptable to send 15 pages instead of 10, why wouldn’t he also presume that the agency and the industry are willing to let him fudge on the length of a synopsis? Or an author bio?

Still think it’s unfair to leap to the conclusion that such an aspiring writer would be a difficult client at the query packet stage? Okay, let’s consider how Millicent might make that assessment at the submission stage. Try this one on for size: what if a novelist presumes, not entirely unreasonably, that since publishing houses employ copyeditors, he doesn’t need to proofread or spell-check?

Millicent sees this all the time, of course; usually, she leaps to the conclusion that the writer just can’t spell and/or doesn’t know the rules of grammar. But let’s assume for the moment that an apparently random array of typos pepper an otherwise estimable manuscript. Is that enough evidence to decide that this writer is difficult?

No? Okay, what if a memoirist operates on the assumption that somebody else involved in the publishing process is going to fact-check the parts of the book that she did not experience first-hand, so it really doesn’t matter if her manuscript said the Cuban Revolution occurred in 1952?

Lest anyone be tempted to rip that last line out of context and promulgate it as fact around the Internet: it didn’t. Look it up.

But is this gaffe sufficient to label the writer too difficult to take on as a client? Most aspiring writers would say no; from their perspective, it’s just a minor typo. Would you feel different, though, if the mistake were consistent throughout the manuscript?

Still no? Okay, what if the protagonist’s family had emigrated from Cuba in 1950, and the narrative represented the move as their having fled the revolution? If you were Millicent, would the prospect of your boss’ having to convince the writer that she is wrong about her family’s motivations for coming to this country? Or accuse her of having misrepresented them in order to make a narrative point? And that regardless of why the historical accuracy is off, she is going to have to change either the date or the memoir’s story arc?

Still no takers? Okay, what if a nonfiction writer believes, with some justification, that since her future agent must by definition know much, much more about the current market for her type of book than she does, she’s just not going to bother to include a marketing section in her book proposal? Again, it happens all the time. So does restricting the Competitive Market Analysis to just a couple of books, or limiting the marketing plan to a breezy announcement that since bookstores sometimes allow book signings (a fact that’s sure to astonish anyone currently working in the publishing industry), the writer is willing to show up at any signings the publisher might take the time to set up.

Now Millicent has pretty good reason to believe that not only will this writer be both time-consuming and rather irritating, at least at first, for her agency to represent — do you want to be the one to tell her boss, the agent, that it is his job, not the writer’s, to write the book proposal in its entirety? — but that this writer is actively planning to be time-consuming for the publishing house that picks up her book as well. (These days, first-time authors usually set up their signings themselves.) So the agency will probably have to spend time mediating some disagreements down the line.

What do you think? Too difficult?

I’m sensing that for some of you, even this provocation seems insufficient. “But Anne, I always thought being difficult was a function of how someone works and plays with others, a pattern demonstrated over the course of many incidents over time. I understand that all of the attitudes you describe would result in more work for the agent, but surely each could be fairly easily resolved with just a short explanatory conversation. After all, the writer has every motivation to try to make this relationship work.”

Perhaps, but you would be surprised at how often writers don’t act that way, at least in their earliest interactions with the agents and editors of their dreams. That’s a real pity, because for better or worse, all an agent, her Millicent, and/or a contest judge can base her assessment of a writer upon is the evidence actually in front of her: the query or pitch, accompanying materials, contest entry, requested pages — and that writer’s behavior while providing them. Given that they are charged with the task of selecting a small handful of writers out of the thousands who approach them (or, in the judge’s case, winnowing hundreds of entries down to a list of finalists in the single digits), is it honestly astonishing that they would have developed a tendency to extrapolate ease of working with a writer based upon whether that writer adheres to industry manners and respects the pro’s time?

Believe it or not, writers often do send quite definite messages about their attitudes at the querying stage. Take, for instance, the querier who shrinks the query’s typeface in order to cram more information into a one-page letter. Or the submitter who sends requested pages in a mailing format requiring a signature on the receiving end. Or, sacre bleu, the rejected writer that sees fit to send an e-mail, demanding a complete explanation of a no.

Is this difficult behavior? Well, apply our test: it’s all time-consuming — and frankly, kind of annoying — on the receiving end. How so? Well, he font-shrinker presumes that Millicent will both not notice the deviation from the norms of query presentation (but she will) and be willing to strain her eyes to read the extra parts (but she won’t). The confirmation signature-requirer may not think about the fact that his demand would compel someone at the agency to stop what she is doing in order to pay attention to an arriving package, but believe me, when you’re receiving fifty manuscripts a month, forty-nine of which did not require a work stoppage to accept, it’s noteworthy.

And do we even need to discuss the futility of having a heart-to-heart with an angry writer with whom one has already decided not to work? Or why such a conversation would have no chance whatsoever of changing the agent’s mind? Or, if gravity suddenly began making things fall up, babies abruptly began being born 42 years old, and agents started being open to this sort of follow-up conversation with queriers, the question the agent would have to weigh throughout that conversation would not be gee, did I make a mistake in rejecting this writer? but wow, if this writer is so touchy about a simple, polite no, how will he react when I or his future editor ask him to make changes in his manuscript?

That last one, of course, is the classic publishing pro’s complaint about difficult writers: indeed, the term is often used as a synonym for those so in love with their own words that they are not open to revision suggestions. Those of you who attend writers’ conferences have heard that one before, have you not? It’s right up there with writers are lazy and writers whine about deadlines in complaint popularity.

How popular, you ask? Well, if you walked into that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, sat at the next table over from the agents, and took a sip from your drink every time you overheard one of those three comments, you wouldn’t remember enough about the event the next day to render it a useful learning experience.

Suffice it to say, though, that if you did have a clear enough head to remember it, you would no longer wonder why agents and editors have been known to roll their eyes when writers start to talk about their creative freedom being hampered. Although many, many writers are pretty good about implementing editorial feedback (at least after an initial period of shock has passed), every pro who’s been at it for a while has a personal horror story about that one writer who stamped his feet, screamed, cried, and threatened to sue over a suggestion as practical and simple as “Would you mind changing your protagonist’s sister’s name, since Ellen looks so much in print like Eileen (the villain), Helen (the sidekick), Helene (the schoolyard friend in that flashback), and you’ve chosen for some reason best known to yourself to abbreviate all of those names in the dialogue to El, Eil, Hel, and Hel?”

Oh, you think I’m joking? I once edited a memoir in which the seven daughters of the family’s names all ended in –een — not because those were their names in real life, but because the author felt that this array of synonyms was an essential reflection of the family’s ethnicity. When I pointed out, nicely, that the visual similarity rendered the fifteen (oh, no, another –een!) scenes in which they appeared as a group slightly challenging for readers who had not seen fit to equip themselves with a program to follow, not to mention impossible for a skimmer, the author saw fit to…

Well, let’s just say the reaction wasn’t pretty. Unlike most editors and virtually all agents working with a first-time author, however, I was willing to keep making the case for changing the names not just once, but many times over the course of a few months. But then, unlike denizens of publishing houses and agencies, freelance editors charge by the hour.

That giant thud you just heard, in case you were curious, was the collective stomach of every agented writer reading this hitting the floor immediately after toting up what their last creative disagreement with their representatives would have cost.

I bring up the creative differences issue advisedly: when aspiring writers borrow trouble about the problems they might face in working with an agent or editor at a publishing house, it’s often the concern they express first. Certainly, those of us who answer writers’ questions hear it frequently. Usually, it runs something like this: “My vision of the book doesn’t fit neatly into the publishing industry’s notion of what books like this are like.” (Pause for the advice-giver to ask how, what makes the writer think so — and if he believes his book concept is a category-buster, is it possible he’s assigned it to the wrong book category?) “I know what I want to say, though, and I’m afraid that an agent will ask me to change it to make it easier to sell.”

Well, if the book honestly does contain elements that would render it less marketable, and those elements are not so critical to the story arc or NF argument that they did not trigger rejection all by themselves, this writer is probably right: it would be a good agent’s job to advise him how to maximize the book’s marketability. Writers do, after all, seek out agents because of the latter’s expertise in selling books to publishing houses, right?

Instead of desiring the judicious application of that expertise, however, the change-fearful writer would prefer an agent simply to take the manuscript as he has chosen to form it and walk it around to editors. Happily for the fearer, many good agents’ acceptance standards are so high that they do sometimes — not often — decide to send out a new client’s work without requesting changes. That most emphatically does not mean, though, that the fearful writer’s agent would be pleased if, after interesting an editor in acquiring the book, the writer flatly refused to accept revision requests from the publisher.

Which, in case anyone out there is harboring any illusions on the subject, is the norm for newly-acquired books in the current market, not the exception. It’s also fairly common now — brace yourself, should any of your illusions have survived that last sentence unscathed — for a book under contract to be passed from the control of the acquiring editor to another editor before the manuscript reaches the front of the print queue, due to layoffs, retirements, parental leaves, etc.

Still think Millicent should not be considering ease of working relationship at the querying phase?

Now that I’ve depressed you into a stupor, I’d like to share with you the situations I hemmed and hawed about talking about at all; let’s consider them in the light of the difficulty-assessment criteria we’ve gotten so good at applying. A couple of caveats before we launch, though: I am presenting these not to hold the (heavily fictionalized) persons and (factually accurate) attitudes involved up to ridicule or censure, but in the hope that we might discuss these interactions fruitfully, with an eye toward helping all of you avoid such contretemps in your writing careers.

I do think the matter is ripe for discussion. Although the web is stuffed to the gills with admonitions about what agents love and hate, as well as writers’ complaints, we actually don’t talk all that much — or all that productively — amongst ourselves about how to reconcile professional expectations about how a working writer should interact with the business side of the industry with how those of us on the creative side tend to think of our manuscripts. And that’s a shame, because all too often, when something goes wrong, the writer in the situation can mistakenly believe that she’s the only one to whom it has happened.

Fair warning: some of what is to follow may make some of you angry. Although I understand that it may be tempting to take a few pot shots at the messenger, I do wish you wouldn’t. I also hope that, even if some of this strikes you as unfair — and it probably will — we can concentrate upon how these situations could have been improved or avoided, rather than giving in to the temptation of luxuriating in lamentations.

As I said, there is already quite enough of that on the net, isn’t there?

To keep the conversation from getting too heated or personal feelings getting hurt, I would like to reiterate that the people here are all fictionalized, to protect the parties involved. Sexes have been changed; story details have been significantly altered; no publishing professional or house is identifiable. So if any of the resulting case studies happens to bear any resemblance to something that happened to you or someone you know, please take it as a testament to just how pervasive these phenomena are, rather than a provocation to clutch your heart, cry, “Mon dieu, that’s me/my critique partner, Sheila/my agent!” and tumble sideways in a heap.

So please help me welcome, with compassion and an open mind, three well-meaning memoirists, Huey, Dewey, and Louise. In order to help clarify the sometimes hard-to-discern missteps, miscommunications, and power dynamics, I’m going to tell each of their stories twice: once from the writer’s point of view, and once from the relevant publishing professional’s perspective. True to the rules of memoir (and first-person narrative in general), each will be exclusively from that perspective. Perhaps, after considering both sides, we can mediate between them.

Let’s begin with Huey’s saga. Take it away, Hugh!

I have to say, I was disappointed. I had been querying my memoir, the story of my wife’s battle with a life-threatening illness, for more than two years when Agent Montrose asked to see my proposal. The request caught me a bit off-guard, I’m afraid: I had a full manuscript, but had only been picking away at the proposal in fits and starts. Every time I sat down with it, I felt like I was being given a pop quiz on material we hadn’t covered in class. It just didn’t make sense that they would rather have me write about my book than read the book itself.

So when Montrose sent the request for the proposal, I e-mailed him back and said that it would be a few months. Wouldn’t he like to see the manuscript instead? He said no — a blow, of course, but he was nice about it. He said to send the proposal when it was done.

Well, I worked on it; really, I did. Every few weeks, I sent an e-mail to Montrose, to let him know how I was getting along. The first couple of times, he replied cheerily, telling me to take my time and to let him know if I had any questions. Then he just stopped replying. He didn’t even respond to my Christmas card.

So now I don’t know what to do. I think I could finish the proposal in another month or so — I have some vacation coming up — but if he’s lost interest, shouldn’t I be moving on?

Before we move on to Montrose’s version, what’s your initial impression? Was Huey being difficult, or has he just been having difficulties? Is his assessment of Montrose’s waning interest well-founded? And then there’s the most important question of all: should Huey finish the proposal? Or should he be looking — or have been looking — for an agent who would have said yes to reading the manuscript?

Got your answers to that dizzying array of rhetorical questions firmly in mind? Excellent. Let’s take a gander at what happened from Montrose’s perspective.

I have to say, I was disappointed; that book had some real potential. I know what you’re thinking — there are a million caretaker memoirs out there, so what’s different about this one? Well, the synopsis, for one thing: unlike a good 80% of the memoir synopses I see, this one had a beginning, middle, and an end; the two main characters grew and changed. I think that disease memoir readers would root for these people.

Millie, my assistant, kept burbling about how her aunt had gone through the same thing as his wife, and how much she was looking forward to a really good book about it. Publishers love people like Millie: whenever any of their acquaintance goes through something rough, their first instinct is to buy ‘em a book.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when it turned out Huey had not even begun a proposal. Heck, he didn’t even seem to realize that was how nonfiction books were sold; he kept suggesting that I should read the memoir instead — which was something like 150,000 words, for heaven’s sake. I liked what I had seen, though, and he genuinely seemed flummoxed, so I sent him the agency’s proposal guidelines and hoped for the best.

That was sometime in 2010, I think; I don’t really remember. He never sent the proposal, just a lot of excuses, as if I could simply change my mind about whether a proposal was necessary. Too bad — it could have been an interesting memoir.

Taken together, these two accounts form quite a sad little story, do they not? Huey was lucky enough to find an agent (and a Millicent) genuinely taken by his book concept — but he was not ready to take advantage of it. While Montrose’s conclusion that Huey just hadn’t done enough homework about how nonfiction is sold might not have been entirely correct, it’s hard to argue that the effect of the writer’s not having taken the necessary steps to learn how to write a book proposal amounted to the same thing, in practical terms. Yet Montrose did, by his lights, do all he could to help, and rather more than most would have done in this situation: being a good memoir agent, realized that proposal-writing is a professional skill, and thus not something even the most gifted memoirist is born knowing, so he provided his potential client with both encouragement and guidelines.

See how easily, though, a writer’s just not knowing the ropes can result in practical difficulties for the pro trying to help him? Huey felt, understandably, that since the proposal was a stand-in for the book, it didn’t make sense that Montrose couldn’t make up his mind about representation based upon the manuscript. But since Montrose knew that he could not approach the editors he already had in mind for this project without a proposal, what good would it have done to read the manuscript first? Especially when Huey had already told him that the draft was considerably longer than this type of memoir typically runs; with an Annotated Table of Contents in hand, they could talk down the line about cutting it down to a more reasonable length.

So should Huey give up on Montrose at this point and move on to querying other agents? I think that’s the answer he would like here; it would save him an awful lot of work, wouldn’t it? Frankly, I would rather see him invest that energy in a class on proposal-writing. Or reading a good book on the subject. Or hiring a developmental editor to assist him in writing it. Or, heck, he could take a peek at the step-by-step instructions on how to write a book proposal buried in this very site, cleverly concealed under the opaque heading HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL.

Then, when he has a professional proposal in hand, he will be ready to start querying again. As a courtesy, he might drop Montrose an e-mail first, to see if he’s still interested in reading it, but he shouldn’t be too disappointed if the answer is no: a lot has changed in the literary market since 2010. And Millie is in graduate school now; isn’t that terrific?

The issue of who is or is not being difficult isn’t so cut and dried at the submission stage as it was when querying, is it? There’s a reason for that: since the perception of whether someone is easy to work with is inextricably linked to how intensely one happens to be working with him, as well as to the expectations appropriate to that level of contact, the threshold of difficult is obviously different before and after an agent becomes interested in a writer’s work.

It’s also different once a writer and an agent have made a formal commitment to work together. Consider, if you will, memoirist Dewey’s dilemma.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. I slaved over that book proposal — read five books about how to do it, took an expensive weekend seminar, read everything there was about it online, the works. So when Agent Paulette said she loved it, it felt like I’d swum across the Atlantic and washed up on some beach in France. All I wanted was to catch up on my sleep.

So when I didn’t hear from Paulette for a while, it didn’t seem that weird. She said that she would want me to make a couple of tiny changes — no big deal, just tweaks to appeal a little better to the current market. But when I was still waiting a couple of months later, I felt I had to call and ask what was going on. She said she was sorry — she had been just swamped, and she would get to it soon.

Well, a week later, I still didn’t have the feedback. Yet another call. That produced results — and how! Didn’t she realize I had a full-time job? It took me three months to make those changes. Once again, I dumped the results into her capable hands and collapsed.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I didn’t hear from her right away — or ever, really, unless I contacted her first. She just kept saying it was a slow process, that editors took a while to read things these days, anything and everything to put me off. After six months, I began to wonder whether she was still sending it out at all. But just try talking to her about it; she’s so touchy.

Dewey would be happy to continue in this vein as long as you’re willing to listen; just ask the other members of his writing group. Because your time is valuable, however, I’ll skip ahead to the end of his story:

And now I’m feeling really trapped: since the book has been shopped around, I would have to write another, or at least another proposal, before I could query someone else. Guess I’m still in the middle of the Atlantic after all.

The lingering questions are pretty self-evident here, I think. In a situation where both partners are doing the job they agreed to do in pursuing a collective goal, it usually takes some time for each to adjust to the other’s work style. To assess how well Dewey’s and Paulette’s meshed, let’s take a peek at what she has to say on the matter.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. It started out so promising, too: Dewey’s book proposal was one of the best I’d seen in a long time. It needed a little work, of course — as most of them do — but I was confident that the results would be good.

A lot of brand-new clients are pretty jumpy, so when Dewey started e-mailing me every other day, to ask what he was supposed to change, it didn’t seem that weird. I was in the middle of a three-book deal for another client; he knew he would have to wait his turn. I wasn’t even all that worried when, after I sent him the revision memo, he initially reacted as though I’d asked him to recreate the works of Homer from memory. It was too much, he didn’t have the time, and so forth.

But he was serious about the book and cranked it out. Rather more quickly than the average client, actually; you wouldn’t believe how often I pass along feedback to a client, then hear nothing for a year or two.

Not our boy Dewey, though. Practically the instant he’d sent me the new version, he starts nagging me about when I’m going to submit it. I explained the process to him, naturally: it’s not as though I have much control over how fast other people read. That seemed to calm him down, but a few days later, he’d be calling or e-mailing again. Doesn’t he know I have other clients? And that it’s in his best interest to leave me alone long enough to sell his book?

Again, quite sad. Here are two perfectly nice, professionally-focused individuals, both eager to collaborate on selling a book proposal they both perceive to be excellent. So what happened?

Misaligned expectations, I’m afraid: Dewey just didn’t understand what his role in their relationship would be, other than writing. Because that was what he was prepared to do, he got antsy every time he didn’t have an assignment on his plate; he didn’t have a constructive outlet for all of that nervous energy. So he focused it on prodding Paulette into a job that she already knew perfectly well how to do — which, in turn, took up enough of her time and energy that she felt, not unreasonably, that his demands were making it harder for her to do that job.

An expectations draw, really — and a dynamic that could have been improved by these two fine people having an honest, straightforward conversation about what Paulette was actually doing to promote the book, as well as how he could spend his time and energy while she did it. I’m happy to report that they did have that conversation (perhaps at the suggestion of someone who knew and cared about them both), and they are getting along swimmingly. Paulette’s still knocking herself out, talking up his book — and his next. Dewey’s working on the proposal for that. In his spare time, he’s taking an online class on book promotion; he’s already started a blog, to establish a web presence for the happy day when he has a book out.

Not all such tug-of-wars end quite so harmoniously, however. Prepare yourself, please, to enter the world of Louise.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Evelyn from the get-go: no matter how much work I did or how well I did it — and I really ripped myself to shreds meeting her constant demands — she never seemed satisfied. “I’ll do my best,” was all she ever said, as though she had to compensate for something wrong with my book.

I remember my guts churning during our very first phone conversation: right away, she started criticizing my proposal. Before she’d even signed me! I bit the bullet, though, and knuckled under to her demands, even though they seemed really far afield from where I wanted to take my book. She told me it had to be that way in order to sell, so like a fool, I went along with it.

The book took FOREVER to sell, but I wasn’t supposed to ask questions about where it was or why it was taking so long. I was just supposed to wait by the phone, in case a call came — because then, Evelyn said, the acquiring editor would probably have a whole new set of suggestions for how to modify the book. I just kept praying that the editor that picked it up would get my artistic vision better.

But the instant we had signed the contract, the quibbling began. Was I really married to the chapter I liked best? Did I really have to spend thirty pages talking about my spiritual connection with marsupials? Was it really important to the story I was telling that I had been raised from ages 4 to 6 by bears?

That sort of thing. You’d think they had never met an interesting, multifaceted person before; all they wanted me to do was simplify my complex life. I don’t know how novelists feel about having their stories chopped to pieces, but for a memoirist, that story is a life. I couldn’t exactly change what I had done ten years before because some editor didn’t like it, right?

And don’t even get me started on the marketing trauma. They changed my title — then got mad at me for not liking the new one. They asked what I would like to see in a cover — then came up with something totally different. They asked me to list every town where I had friends — then expected me to construct my own book tour. Even though I showed up and did my best at every single podunk bookstore where they wanted me to do a reading — I even did a few libraries; way to cater to an audience that wants to buy books — they were never satisfied; they always seemed to want me to do more. And no matter how much promotion I did, the book never sold up to their completely preposterous expectations. Naturally, they thought that was my fault, too.

Of course, Evelyn took their side. She did on everything. And every time I tried to talk to her about it, she always changed the subject to my next book. At first, I thought she was kidding — when would I have possibly found time to write a new proposal? I was already working full-time, helping my sister through a truly horrific divorce, and promoting my book. When was it going to be time for somebody else to do some work?

After a few years of this, with no offer for the next book on the table, I just couldn’t take the constant conflict anymore. There’s no way I would work with any of these people again; it’s way too stressful. If and when I have the time and energy to write yet another book proposal, I’d rather start querying again from scratch than to entrust the fruit of my art to Evelyn.

Okay, so I took a few liberties in the bear department; this story was just too depressing otherwise. The lot of the first-time author today couldn’t be more different than it was twenty years ago — and as quite a few of those authors walk into the process with expectations more in line with thirty or forty years ago, when advances were significantly higher and authors carried less of the responsibility for book promotion, the expectations clash can be pretty dramatic.

Since, by Louise’s account, realizing her dream resulted in such deep disappointment, I’m reluctant to analyze her career trajectory too much. At least, not before we’ve heard Evelyn’s side of the story.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Louise from the get-go: when she was into what I asked her to do, she couldn’t be happier, but let one little obstacle fall in her path, and she’d freak out. It always made me just a touch nervous when an e-mail from her appeared in my inbox. But I don’t have to tell you what kind of audience a really good memoir pandas would draw. I honestly did fall in love with that proposal.

In retrospect, though, I should have listened to my gut feeling during our first phone conversation: she nearly fell over when I told her that before I signed her, I would want her to revise her proposal to my specifications first. Editors expect a certain style and structure from my agency’s clients, after all. We had quite the little argument; she seemed to feel that any concession now would doom her book. Once I convinced her that I wasn’t going to back down, however, she did an excellent job on the rewrite.

And my hopes proved justified when I started shopping her proposal around; on paper, Louise was a great client. Her proposal was very strong. She wasn’t inexperienced at working with an editor, either; she had a couple of previous publications — articles on another subject, if memory serves. since she had put herself through graduate school as a stand-up comic, I had no qualms about predicting she would be great at readings. I always mentioned it when I was pitching her book.

In practice, though, she could be pretty trying. Everything would be going along fine, or so I would think, and suddenly, I’d find myself on the receiving end of an ultimatum. I wasn’t selling the book fast enough; I was showing it to the wrong people; was this really the right economy to be trying to push a book on pandas? Every time, it was different; sometimes, I got the feeling she was picking fights with me so she would have an excuse to ask if there had been any nibbles on the proposal. Once the book sold, however, she was over the moon — this was the best possible outcome in every way. And she actually delivered the manuscript to the editor a week ahead of schedule.

So when the editor called me to say that Louise had been stormily contesting every single revision suggestion in the editorial memo, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. Nor was I particularly surprised when Louise called me in tears, convinced that her book was going to get destroyed. It took a lot of hand-holding over a period of weeks, but eventually, she did make the requested changes. I have to say, they made the book better.

Then the marketing department started calling; Louise hated the change they wanted to make to her title. Then she couldn’t stand the cover design, the back jacket, the Amazon blurb, the advance reviews…in short, everything was a battle that went on for weeks on end. And for someone who used to tell jokes for a living, she certainly seemed reluctant to get out and promote her book. She kept telling me that she had a job, family, obligations: did I want her to write her next book proposal, she would demand, or did I want her to do the publisher’s job for them?

Of course, we all expected her to do both: that’s what career writers do. But she seemed to feel that she had paid her dues, and now was entitled to coast. Which would have made more sense, I’ve got to say, had her first book sold particularly well, or if the proposal for the next were anywhere near as strong as the first. I wish I could say that I believed she had put a quarter of the energy into it that she’s evidently focused upon serving me with ultimatums about how I need to do more for her.

After a while, I just stopped reading them closely; I don’t need the drama. A quick skim was enough. When she sent that nasty e-mail saying that thanks to me, she had lost faith in her second book, and so was dropping it for a third, well, let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised then, either. Or when the third lost its shine for her, too, also apparently my fault. I don’t remember why she said she was leaving our agency; I’m sure it was in a similar vein.

There’s quite a bit that could have gone differently here, but for the sake of today’s discussion, let’s not focus on that. Instead, I would like you to notice that it was not just quite divergent expectations that harmed this working relationship; it was also that issues don’t seem to have gotten hashed out much until at least one party was already angry. An ultimatum, after all, is not exactly an invitation to first-round negotiation.

Allow me to make a tiny, insignificant suggestion to anyone contemplating entering this kind of working partnership: try to regard it as a relationship. Relationships take work, after all, and they tend not to thrive on mind-reading. If both parties are not up front about what they want from the other, is it honestly surprising if one or the other occasionally guesses incorrectly?

If I ruled the universe, every writer-agent (and writer-editor) relationship would start out with a full and frank discussion of what the agent expects to do for the writer — and what the writer will need to do to support those efforts. I would also mandate up-front agreement on how often each party feels it is appropriate to communicate; just knowing when to expect an update can make a huge difference to a writer gnawing his fingernails up to the elbow while waiting to hear back on a round of submissions. That way, too, the writer does not have to guess whether it’s too soon to ask a follow-up question.

The last time I checked, though, I did not rule the universe. If I did, libraries would be open 24 hours per day, businesses would allow their employees two-hour lunches — the better to browse at bookstores or finish reading that chapter, my dear — and my former elementary school would be named after Ambrose Bierce, who lived in my home town many years longer than Robert Louis Stevenson, whose name graces my former middle school. And the high school would bear the name of M.F.K. Fisher, who lived there longest at all.

I’m not sure what they would name after me, once I have shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. I’m sure they could come up with an unnamed Quonset hut.

Since none of these things are currently the case, however, I can only conclude that I do not have the power to change writers’ sometimes troubled relationships with the publishing industry with a wave of my wee hand. All I can do is advise, recommend, and, every so often, mediate. And urge everyone concerned to bear in mind that they are all good people (at least, most of them are) committed to the same quite estimable goal: bringing great stories and marvelous writing to readers everywhere. Who, let’s face it, don’t particularly care how difficult it was to bring the books they love into print.

It’s a noble endeavor, from every perspective. Let’s all try to gain some insight into others’ points of view — and, of course, keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait until the second week of September. At least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would be that generous a universe-ruler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet peeves on parade, part XXV, structural repetition, part III, and the role of pretzels in a well-rounded breakfast

This morning, I was puzzled into wakefulness by my fiancé’s waving a soy latte and a freshly-baked pretzel under my nose. A new German bakery has opened in our neighborhood, and he’s terrified that it will go out of business without our daily support. A reliable source for Black Forest cake is not to be taken for granted, after all.

Now, I’m as fond of a good pretzel as the next person, but at 8 a.m., I must confess, mustard-laden food options are generally not the first to pop to mind. Nor is rock salt my favorite pillow covering, given my druthers.

Rick, however, subscribes to the surprisingly pervasive school of thought that holds what a person has said she liked once, ever, will come as a pleasant surprise to receive at any randomly-selected moment for the rest of her life. Or so I surmise from the fact that he could not resist pointing out that I had apparently enjoyed a remarkably similar pretzel only two afternoons before.

Which, of course, would render it even less likely that I would want another one now. The pretzel was turning out to be pretty tasty, though, so rather than take the time to explain at length that piling on more of a good thing does not necessarily improve, well, anything, I decided it would be the better part of valor to thank him graciously and bear my usual breakfast into a more appropriate environment for consuming something warm and squishy. As I fled, I marveled at how, once again, the muses had tumbled all over themselves to provide me with a delightfully apt metaphor for a craft issue you and I were already discussing.

Oh, hadn’t the pretzel-paragraph construction parallel hit you instantly? Allow me to recast it as a self-editing aphorism for the ages, then: what might read beautifully as a stand-alone sentence may not work as well within the context of a page of text. Varying word choice and sentence structure will usually provide the reader with a more pleasurable reading experience than a narrative’s insisting that if something looked good on the page once, it will necessarily look great if it’s repeated.

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about how professional readers tend to respond to repetition in submissions. (To summarize their reaction for those of you joining us mid-series: not at all well.) I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts, though, without discussing those ever-popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

Positive legions of hands shoot into the air. Yes, grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

Quite right, hand-wavers: when used properly, then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction. However, enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — treat it as such for the purposes of our ongoing discussion of repetitive sentence structures and their predictably negative effect on Millicent the agency screener’s weary peepers.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin any sentence with and, but, or then; amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a fairly well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a stickler for grammar for his entire life) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “a conjunction may not begin a sentence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. Toward the end of his long, colorful, and occasionally scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions. And really, who could blame him?

(I couldn’t resist. Hey, a pretzel is not exactly the breakfast of champions.)

Time and the language have been marching merrily onward, however, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers, journalists, and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That mournful crashing sound you just heard was Uncle Alex stomping his feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already, but there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph. Like so:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Arbogast stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look a little something like this:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes, this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner grammatically. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a substantial difference in the rhythm. A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Ghislaine’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could be regarded as subtle narrative indicators of protagonist stress. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are. Like, say, most of us who read manuscripts for a living.

Before we leave that last set of examples, did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first? No? Okay, let me whip out my editorial machete pen and remove a couple of Millicent’s pet peeves. Rather than merely noticing that this third version reads better, why not challenge your revision skills by trying to figure out why?

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Right now, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

How did you do? Take a nice, shiny gold star from petty cash if you immediately cried, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Jason in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And give yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is conceptually unnecessary. And would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear those of you who did not shout any of those three observations muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is nit-picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation (i.e., that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person), back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Since conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, the former can be a positive boon to dialogue.

Seem paradoxical? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger. Yet you are astonishingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingénue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. And, naturally, you are entirely unarmed. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger, yet surprisingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingénue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. Naturally, you are entirely unarmed. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, but to a professional reader, it would be quite evident: the second version sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences with conjunctions gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the first sentence of this paragraph, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

We all encounter this phenomenon so often in everyday life that giving a concrete example seems a tad, well, repetitive. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, though, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party. (They’re coming back, I hear.)

(1) Walk up to another guest, preferably a stranger or someone you do not like very much. (It will soon become apparent why that last trait is desirable.)

(2) Tell a lengthy anecdote, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout your speech.

(3) Time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes at a stretch. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me.

Which is, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why panhandlers and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence: run-on sentences discourage interruption. Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then.

Perhaps for this reason, aspiring writers just love to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: it can create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative. Or, even more often, to establish that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above. Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top.

Also, had I mentioned that aspiring writers just love to overload their manuscripts with conjunctions? And that they use the device a lot? Or that by the time Millicent picks up your submission, she’s probably already read hundreds of conjunctions that day?

In case I’m being too subtle here: since false consecutiveness is a narrative that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency. Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy and marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. That presumption enables them to stop reading as soon as they decide that the writing is weak.

Or, to cast it in terms of our running analogy: Millicent didn’t like the second pretzel of the day, she takes it as given that she’s not going to like the 145th. She does not feel the need to gobble up pretzels 3-144 to confirm that.

Was that sudden blinding flash an indication that light bulbs just went off over some of your heads? That’s right: this often-unwarranted assumption, renders rejection on page 1 not only logically possible, but reasonable. It certainly underlies the average Millicent’s practice of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

Feel free to pause here to punch the nearest pillow, sofa cushion, or other relatively soft object seventeen or eighteen times. I’ll wait.

Got all of that frustration out of your system? Excellent. Let’s shift our energies to what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not merely matters of style; to a market-savvy writer, they are also matters of strategy.

And, frankly, the oh-so-common practice of conjunction overuse is not particularly good strategy. If you over-use any single narrative tool in your writer’s kit in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to any of my late relatives? “But Anne,” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thereby risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties, “not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes. Next question? In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission or contest entry with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed.

Again, we could waste a lot of energy complaining about the necessity for this (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), but I would rather we concentrate instead upon heading the problem off at the proverbial pass. Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out at least the first 5 pages of your submission. If you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter.

And before anybody asks: no, reading through those pages on your computer’s screen is not an adequate substitute here. Nor is simply doing a Word search for those particular words. The goal here is not to come up with a simple accounting of how often you are using these words, but to spot patterns in how and where you are habitually including them.

(2) Pick a color for and, another for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets, too), and a third for then.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even per sentence. Yes, really.

(3) Mark every single time each of those words appears on your pages.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but every instance.

(4) After you have finished inking, go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

(5) If you were even tempted to skip Step 4, does then appear more than once within those first 5 pages? More than once on page 1?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and at least toy with getting rid of most thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: some professional readers’ visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then borders on the physically painful.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text — and with good reason. In written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is unnecessary here. In fact, then is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

“Pardon my asking,” Millicent says, wondering why I have a latte at my elbow and she doesn’t, “but why is do submissions so often include it repeatedly, as if it were stylish? Or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice? It’s seldom necessary, and it’s hardly original.”

That would be hard for anyone who has read more than a handful of manuscripts or contest entries to dispute. To professional eyes, this percussive use of then is logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Is this really the reaction you want to elicit to your narrative voice within the first few pages of your book?

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing unless the event described after them is a genuine surprise or occurred so abruptly that it would have been so to onlookers. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face.

Now that’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

(6) Turn now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest, after all.”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however, and yet logically imply contradiction to what has already been stated. Many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next.

What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused. Let’s take a gander at what a savvy reviser might spare.

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen was in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this passage. Each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction.

That is not always the case, alas. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis IS a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, it’s worth it, for this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my questioners, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover that out of any 100 submissions, a good 92 will all share this narrative device.

And yes, Virginia, the transitional but IS that common. As is the unnecessary then. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, rejoining us after a coffee run, “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie. Varying word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics.

Yes, I brought this up a few days ago, but it’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: all throughout their school years, teachers kept quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market. For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice.

Now, however, it’s considered less a matter of style than of marketing. Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices — and how broad a vocabulary Millicent is likely to expect in your manuscript.

Why is this a good idea? Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome formulated for a less erudite audience not liable to galvanize a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such an excellent example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have, he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatergoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke. Morose didn’t seem to be a word that this character would ever use. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but authorial affection is not always sufficient justification to include a pet word or phrase. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

It’s also a necessary step towards individualizing your authorial voice. Just as a matter of practicality, if Millicent has already seen several conjunction-heavy narratives within the last hour, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to impress her with the originality of a manuscript that’s embraced a similar narrative strategy.

Speaking of developing a sensitivity to repetition across manuscripts, as well as within them, did anyone happen to catch the too-close similarity of Yvette and Josette in the two of today’s examples? “What’s going on?” Millicent shouts immediately after burning her lip on her too-hot latte. “A plague of -ettes? Did a bestseller from a year ago feature a heroine with an -ette name, and are the writers of these two passages copying that?”

Well caught, Millicent: I didn’t catch that one myself until about ten minutes after I wrote the second example. Clearly, I should have had a more balanced breakfast.

Don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, Part III: always let your conscience be your guide — except when you shouldn’t

Did you miss me, campers? I’ve been hiding under the covers of both a good book and my bed for the past few days. Why, you ask? Well, I can take a hint: the last time I poked my nose outside my front door, I sprained my ankle and caught a cold.

Clearly, Somebody Up There is harboring a preference for my staying put. With my foot in the air and a mug of hot tea clutched to my chest.

I am venturing forth this evening, however, to reignite our discussion of the Short Road Home, my pet term for a scene that introduces a potential conflict, only to resolve it so quickly that the reader barely has time to notice an increase in ambient conflict. Short Roads Home have been the downfall of many a submitted novel, for a small handful of exceedingly simple reasons: such scenes almost invariably tell rather than show, minimize inter-character conflict, and let the tension of the story lag.

So why, you might well have spent last week wondering, do Short Roads Home remain immensely popular in manuscript submissions? Much of the time, the writers who construct such shortcuts are not even aware that they are doing it.

That, I think, is both unfortunate and unnecessary. Today, I’m going to show you how to recognize the subtle form of Short Road Home, so you may see this common mega-problem in action and learn how to fix it.

As in right now. Or at least before you send your baby out again.

Why the urgency? Because the Short Road Home is so very common, an experienced pro might not even have to read more than a couple of lines of a scene to identify it — and shove the submission into the rejection pile. In fact, it’s in the interest of a time-strapped Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, or Mehitabel the veteran contest judge to be on the lookout for this phenomenon: it’s a pretty good indicator that a manuscript has not seen very many critical first readers.

As such, M, M, and M tend to assume, the book is probably at least one revision away from being polished. Or, to put it as they would, “Next!”

Long-time readers of this blog, did a light bulb appear above your heads somewhere in the course of those last two paragraphs? Did it occur to you as if archangels suddenly appeared and shouted the news into your awed ears that, as with nonstandard formatting, the appearance of an ultra-frequent megaproblem in a manuscript might actually be a welcome sight to an agent, editor, or contest judge, because it means that the work can be rejected without further ado — or, more to the point, without investing further reading time?

If so, congratulations — you now have a much, much firmer grasp of how submissions work than a good 95% of the writers currently slapping stamps on SASEs across the English-speaking world. It’s one of the great paradoxes of being in a position to discover new writers: in order to unearth that great undiscovered talent, they have to read a lot of, well, everything else. So the faster they can sift through the rest and reject the bulk of what they receive, the more time and energy they have to devote to that elusive perfect book.

Which is great, if your manuscript happens to be that needle in a haystack. It’s substantially less great if your project is a pin that merely needs a bit more sharpening and an eye installed before M, M, and/or M will recognize it as what they have been seeking.

Was the refreshing breeze that just wafted across my elevated foot the collective result of all of you agent-seekers sighing gustily? I’m not surprised: polishing a manuscript to professional standards is hard work, and not something that is going to happen all by itself. As much as the artist in all of us would like to believe that each and every sentence to fall off our fingertips onto a keyboard is camera-ready, more than talent is typically necessary to bring a wonderful story to publication. It takes inspiration, yes, but it also takes craft and an acquired knowledge of how the publishing industry expects good writing to be presented.

And half of you sighed again. But honestly, if you were setting out to be a professional baseball player, would you expect to hit the ball out of the park the first time you tried? Even a natural benefits from training.

But as M, M, and M can tell you to their cost, that’s not the prevailing notion of how books get published. Quite the opposite: most aspiring writers new to the business leap to the unwarranted conclusion that an agent or editor will be so delighted by a fresh voice that s/he is automatically going to be willing to ignore other problems in the manuscript until after the contract is signed.

In practice, this doesn’t happen much, even for manuscripts with minor problems. Certainly not for those with pacing or storytelling problems.

Out comes the broken record again: when submitting your writing in any professional context, it is not safe to assume that it will meet with readers eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Seldom does one hear a professional reader say, “Well, this manuscript certainly needs work, but I think it’s going to be worth my while to expend my energy on helping the author fix it.”

And never, alas, does one hear, “This author seems to have trouble moving the plot along and maintaining tension, but that’s nothing that a good writing class couldn’t fix. Let’s sign this writer now, and help her grow as an artist for the three or four years it will take her to learn to correct these problems.”

As delightful as it would be if they did habitually express such sentiments — better still, if they routinely acted upon them — this just doesn’t happen for writers who don’t already have a solid platform (i.e., a special expertise or celebrity status to lend credibility to a book). As a non-celebrity writer, you can safely assume that the first reader at an agency, publishing house, or contest is looking for reasons to weed your work out, rather than reasons to accept it. At least for the first half of the book or so. Millicent and her ilk don’t worry too much about too quickly rejecting the next great American novel — since writers are resilient creatures who improve their skills on their own time (and dime), the publishing industry is fairly confident that the great ones will keep coming back.

Until then, they’re hoping that those great ones will take a hint, stop submitting, and polish their manuscripts before approaching the pros again. Oh, and becoming a celebrity in the meantime would be a selling point, too.

For some reason, people in the writing community — especially those who write for writers’ publications and teach seminars, I notice — don’t like to talk much about this hope. Maybe it’s so they can put a positive spin on the process, to concentrate on the aspects of this honestly hugely difficult climb to publication that are within the writer’s control.

As far as I’m concerned, megaproblems are very much within the writer’s control, as are the other rejection triggers we’ve been discussing over the last few months– but only if the writer knows about them in advance of submission. So let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks and see about clearing up the subtle Short Road Home.

The subtle flavor of Short Road Home crops up frequently in the work of authors who have themselves spent quite a bit of time in therapy, 12 Step programs, or watching Oprah: the second an interpersonal conflict pops up, some well-informed watchdog of a character — or, even more often, the protagonist’s internal Jiminy Cricket — will deftly analyze the underlying motivations of the players at length. Case closed!

Not sure what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a common example: when a protagonist apparently shows up to a scene purely in order to comment upon it as an outside observer, rather than participating actively in it.

“I did not press the panic button!” James insisted.

Barnaby pointed to the city skyline melting into a fluorescent puddle in the distance. “The warhead didn’t launch itself!”

Etienne listened to the argument swirling around him, knowing it wasn’t really about who bombed what when. Anybody could see that the rapidly-disintegrating city was just an excuse for James and Barnaby to snipe at each other, a transparent mask laid delicately over the face of their unadmitted mutual passion. He wished that they would just rent a motel room and get on with it, so he wouldn’t have to listen to their bickering — assuming, that is, that James’ little slip of the finger had left any motels standing.

See the problem? Essentially, the protagonist is acting as the reader’s translator here: no need to draw one’s own conclusions while Etienne is on the job. No messy loose ends left to complicate the plot here — or to keep the reader turning pages.

Even when these helpful characters are not therapists by trade (although M, M, and M have seen a LOT of manuscripts where they are), they are so full of insight that they basically perform instant, on-the-spot relationship diagnosis: “I realize that you’re upset, Cheryl, but aren’t you displacing your underlying dissatisfaction at being laid off at the lumberyard onto your boyfriend? After all, it’s not his fault that pastry chefs remain in such high demand. If you were not envious of his job security, would you really have minded his torrid affair with those Siamese twins?

Ta da! Situation understood! Conflict eliminated!

“But Anne,” I hear many an amateur Jiminy Cricket protest, “I don’t understand. Don’t my explanations move the plot along? Don’t they provide necessary character development? And isn’t my spouting them a fabulous way of making sure that the reader doesn’t miss any critical nuances?”

Why, yes, Jiminy, your running commentary can indeed perform all of those functions — but by definition, your pointing them out to the reader is telling, not showing.

I’m not just bringing that up to sound like your 10th grade composition teacher, either. While no one minds the occasional foray into summation, both characters and situations tend to be more intriguing if the narrative allows the reader to be the primary drawer of conclusions based upon what the various characters do, say, and think.

It makes for a more involving narrative. Hyper-analytical protagonists seldom surprise; they’re too thoroughly explaining what’s already gone on, what’s going on now, and what is likely to be going on in future to allow a twist to sneak up on the reader.

Also, when the instant-analysis device is overused, the reader can become jaded to it pretty quickly. After the third or fourth instance — or after the first, if the reader happens to be a professional manuscript-scanner — the reader is apt to become convinced that that there is absolutely no point in trying to second-guess the protagonist.

Why bother, if the author is going to tell her right away what to conclude from what has just passed? Which, correct me if I am wrong, completely prevents the reader from enjoying one of the great joys of getting into a novel, trying to figure out what is going to happen next.

Besides, as we saw last week, instant analysis can relieves the conflicting characters of any urgency they might have felt in resolving their interpersonal issues. Since Jiminy Cricket hops on in and spells out everyone’s underlying motivations, the hard work of figuring one’s own way out of a jam is rendered unnecessary.

If this seems like an exaggeration to you, take a good look at your manuscript — or, indeed, any book where the protagonist and/or another character habitually analyzes what is going on while it is going on, or immediately thereafter. Does the protagonist leap into action immediately after the analysis is through, or wait for new developments?

In the vast majority of manuscripts, it is the latter — which means that the analytical sections tend to put the plot on hold for their duration. Where analysis replaces action, momentum lulls are practically inevitable.

Memoirs are particularly susceptible to this type of stalling, incidentally. Memoirists just adore foreshadowing — because, obviously, they are telling about their past through the lens of the present. In the course of foreshadowing (often identifiable by the historical future tense: “It was not to turn out as I hoped…”), the narrator will all too often analyze a scene for the reader before showing it, thus killing any significant suspense the reader might have felt about how the scene will be resolved.

Yes, you know the story you are telling very well, but remember, your reader doesn’t. Just because something really occurred does not relieve the writer of the obligation to make its telling vibrant and dynamic. You may be excited to share insights gleaned over the course of a lifetime, but if they are not presented as the stories unfold in the memoir, the reader may have a hard time tying the lessons to the anecdotes.

A great structural rule of thumb for memoirs: show first, conclude later.

But what’s that you say, Great Hinter in the Sky? That burgeoning swelling in my ankle means I should stop for now? Thanks for telling me — I wouldn’t want to risk drawing the wrong conclusion from the evidence, after all.

I shall continue to wax poetic on this subject tomorrow. In the meantime, make sure those protagonists stay active, concentrate on giving the reader enough information so s/he may draw the correct inferences about what’s going on, and keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIX: there was something about his eyes, something indescribable…

I could not allow another week to end, campers, without filling you in on yet another common professional readers’ pet peeve. Specifically, one that drives your humble servant up the wall, not only because it is ubiquitous in manuscript submissions, but because when it does appear, its context usually makes it pretty obvious that the writer who penned it considers it (a) original, (b) philosophical-sounding, or even profound, and (c) pretty darned good writing, rather than what it actually is: (a) a hackneyed phrase, (b) descriptively vague, and (c) see (a) and (b)

What is this pervasive descriptive shortcut, you cry, famous for causing gentle souls like me — and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — to rend our garments and wail when good writers foist it upon us? Let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Here are five sterling examples of it, ripped from five different manuscripts. Let the garment-rending begin!

“If that’s really the way you feel, I have nothing more to say.”

Something in his eyes made Aileen pause, reconsider, turn back. “What is it you’re not saying, Jeremiah?”

He smiled, slowly, cruelly. “Ah, that would spoil the horrible surprise, wouldn’t it?”

Did anything in that exchange strike you as odd? If you are shaking your head at the computer screen, you’re not alone — most aspiring writers would see nothing wrong with it.

Millicent, to put it mildly, would. To gain a sense of why, let’s examine the phenomenon in another incarnation.

A feeling washed over Emily, strong and powerful. She couldn’t have put it into words, even to her closest friends, but it shook her to the core of her being.

“Yes!” she cried, startling everyone in the courtroom. “I shot the sheriff!” She turned to her incredulous husband. “But I swear to you, Archibald, I did not shoot the deputy.”

See any similarity between those last two examples? Millicent would. She’d also spot a definite familial resemblance between both of them and this:

Oliver walked her forward, keeping his hands over her eyes. Some ten feet of awkward stumbling later, he gently removed them. “Look.”

Perdita gasped. A vista of indescribable beauty spread out before her. “Oh, my! Why hadn’t I noticed this before?”

“Beats me.” Oliver returned to his game of solitaire. “I would have thought the Grand Canyon was kind of hard to miss.”

Starting to feel an inkling of Millicent’s well-justified irritation? One more time, maestro, please.

The audience swayed on its feet, blasted by the power of Mervin’s voice. It was not what he said, precisely, or even the words he chose to express it that moved them so strongly: it was an indefinable manner, a confidence that told them as surely as if he had shouted it that this man was telling the truth.

It’s begun to feel redundant, hasn’t it, even though I assured you at the outset that each of these examples came from a different source? Welcome to the world of the agency screener: if 35 out of the 127 first pages Millicent reads today contain the same descriptive shortcut — certainly within the bounds of possibility, with a trope this popular — Instance No. 34 is going to seem as repetitious as if it had appeared on the same page as Instances Nos. 28-33.

“Not this again!” she mutters, rending her aforementioned garments. “Show me something original, I beg you!”

We could feel smug, of course, that Millicent has just fallen into precisely the same phrasing trap to which she is objecting: the writer would be entirely justified in inquiring what precisely she had in mind. We could also point out that it isn’t particularly fair to the writer of Instance No. 30 that a professional reader might well have been more annoyed by the sight of this descriptive shortcut than she was by Instance No. 2. And who could fail to feel for the aspiring writer who decided that Instance No. 34 is just what his page 1 needed but did not call upon the descriptive device again for another 273 pages being treated as precisely as repetitious as the writer who elected to place Instances Nos. 5-9 all on the same page?

Oh, you don’t think that really happens? Au contraire, mes amis. I can beat that record in two sentences flat.

There it was again, that odd, vague sensation. It told Erminia without words that something, somewhere, somehow, was wrong.

What sensation?” Millicent demands, ripping her cuffs to shreds. “What is Erminia feeling, precisely? What does she think is wrong, and for what possible narrative reason has the writer chosen to hide the content of her fears from the reader?”

You must admit, these are perfectly reasonable questions. After all, it’s the writer’s job to describe what’s going on in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to picture it, not the reader’s job to fill in the details when the writer prefers to remain vague.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from a hefty minority of the submissions that cross Millicent’s desk on a daily basis. Apparently, there are a whole lot of aspiring writers who believe — wrongly, according to the overwhelming majority of professional readers — that leaving crucial sensations, thoughts, intuitions, and even physical descriptions to the reader’s imagination is not only permissible, but stylish. It’s hard to blame them, really: unless one happened to have had the privilege of reading many manuscripts or contest entries back to back, one wouldn’t have any idea just how common this descriptive shortcut is.

Trust me, it decorates many, many first pages. And contest entries. And dialogue. You’d be astonished at how many novels (and memoirs, actually) open with this well-worn trope — it’s an extremely popular (and thus Millicent-annoying) means of establishing suspense from line 1.

A noise came from behind her, causing Jemima to jump. Silly to be so nervous, when she had been through these woods more times than she could count. Admittedly, she had never been carrying quite this heavy a load of goodies for her grandmother, bread and sausage and pears and three whole roasted chickens.

There it was again. Something was following her; she was sure of it now.

Already, Millicent’s collar is in tatters. “What noise?” she wails, beginning on her right sleeve. “What did it sound like? What does she think is following her, and upon what auditory clues is she basing that conclusion. Also, what do three ands in a row add to this description that would not be adequately conveyed by the grammatically correct bread, sausage, pears, and three whole roasted chickens?”

Does the general pallor that just spread over half my readership’s faces indicate that some of you were under the impression that featuring this kind of and repetition within a single sentence was (a) stylish, (b) technically correct, (c) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once every 50 pages or so, (d) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than every 50 lines or so, (e) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once per paragraph, or (f) all of the above? I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, then.

It’s even worse news if you happen to subscribe to the rather pervasive school of thought that holds that regardless of whether the point of view is in the first, second, or third person — heck, even if it is from the omniscient perspective of Somebody Up There who can pry into every character’s mind — it is always an effective writing technique to make the narrative voice sound like someone speaking out loud in casual conversation in the year in which the manuscript was written. While this can work beautifully for novels and memoirs set in the recent past and written in the first person, chatty contemporary spoken word styles will not fit comfortably with every storyline.

It’s especially jarring in stories set in eras of the past when people spoke more formally — which is to say pretty much anytime prior to the last decade. Every era has its own slang, of course, but there’s no denying that the vagueness of modern conversation would have puzzled Jane Austen exceedingly, either in dialogue or narration.

Everybody knows that a single man who happens to be rich must be looking to get married. Or something.

Whatever you do or don’t know about his feelings or beliefs, no sooner does he set foot in a neighborhood than everyone decides he belongs to one of their daughters. Whatever!

“May one inquire,” Miss Austen demands, ripping her delicate handkerchief in long, clean lines, “to what this author is referring? Why has he elected to dispense with subject-object agreement, that well-belovèd and inflexible rule denoting that the subject of a sentence — in this case, everyone — should agree in number with its object. I would lay it down as a general principle, then, that everyone and his daughter would always be preferred by right-thinking readers to everyone and their daughters. And what, if I may be so bold as to ask, is the significance of whatever in this context?”

Search me, Aunt Jane. Millicent and I have been wondering about that, too.

Another popular species of vagueness in openings — also frequently born, I suspect, out of a desire to create suspense by omission, rather than via a detailed depiction of an inherently tense situation — is a little something we pros like to call the unnamed protagonist cliché. Tellingly, it is also known by another moniker: she ran through the forest…

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts begin rather like this:

She fled through the forest, her long, red hair whipping against the bundle she hid ineffectually under her cloak in an attempt to shield it from the driving sleet. All she knew was that something was pursuing her, something terrible, something violent. Something that had forced her to leave behind everything she had ever known. Something that had changed her life forever.

Suddenly, a noise came from behind her…

By this point in the afternoon’s reading, poor Millicent’s wardrobe is in tatters. “Who is this woman, and why should I care that her life has changed forever when the narrative hasn’t yet told me anything about her previous life? From what is she fleeing? Am I supposed to think that the bundle is a baby, or am I only thinking that because it was a baby in 15 out of the last 37 similar openings? And why oh why not just tell me what’s chasing her?”

Again, perfectly legitimate questions — but not, it’s probably safe to assume, reactions the author would prefer this opening to elicit from a screener. Or indeed, any reader. Presumably, the writer is hoping that lay reader would read the opening above and murmur, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?” — and be spurred by those questions to keep reading.

Millicent, however, is unlikely to scan even one more line; had I mentioned how frequently she is treated to this kind of false suspense? “Is there any particular reason that I’m being kept in the dark about this broad’s name?” she murmurs, the frayed edges of her garments wafting gently in the air conditioned breeze. “Is it a state secret? Is it really my job to read on until the narrative deigns to tell me something that basic? Or maybe this writer has seen too many movies; in a book written in the third person, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name.”

Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.

A few valiant specificity-haters have had their hands in the air for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” they point out, “in that last example, the writer was obviously just trying to start the story with a bang. You must admit that there’s no shortage of action in that opening, nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story that follows is obviously going to concern this woman, her bundle, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety from the unnamed threat. Millicent can’t deny that it is exciting!”

Actually, she could — you would be astonished how efficacious sheer repetition can be in sapping the thrill from an exciting-but-common opening scene. And let’s face it, the long, red hair cliché and the everything she had ever known exaggeration would not exactly stun Millicent with their originality, either. Fleeing maidens habitually forget to tie back their long red or blonde hair while they are leaving everything behind, burning their bridges and changing their lives forever, whilst fleeing unnamed pursuers.

Those of us born brunette and/or bob our hair should be deeply grateful, evidently. An alien from the Planet Targ dropped into Millicent’s desk chair to form opinions of life on earth from manuscript submissions would undoubtedly conclude that we dark-haired females alone remain safe at home, rather than being chased by noises offstage into some conveniently nearby woods.

One more omnipresent variety of rend-inducing narrative vagueness, then I shall sign off for an evening of peaceful brunette serenity. See if anything in the following little gem strikes you as a potential Millicent-irritant.

As smoke curled up Blair’s nostrils, the irreality of the situation smote his consciousness head-on. It was like a movie: he simply observed his nearest and dearest go up in flames. As much as he longed to change the channel, he couldn’t.

Actually, there were two classic pet peeves cunningly concealed in that compact paragraph; did you catch them? First, the it was just like a movie trope has been so widely used in submissions since the 1920s that even the most recently hired Millicent is likely to regard it as a cliché at this late date. A more experienced Millicent might also regard it as the narrative shorthand it is: rather than showing readers precisely how and why Blair experienced the situation as divorced from his real life, the narrative not only chooses to tell us in just a few words what it was like — the writer is presuming that every reader will know precisely what she means by it was like a movie.

In essence, then, the writer is expecting the reader to guess in what specific ways Blair’s experience was filmic. And we all know how Millicent feels about that species of narrative expectation, right?

“Is it my job to provide the necessary description?” she fumes, taking a stapler to her hitherto undamaged skirt. “Isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to, well, write?”

Come on, admit it: she has a point. She would also be well within her rights to call out the narrative for its other professional reader-piquer, the mixed metaphor.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Although we are told that Blair’s current situation is like a movie, he longs to change the channel as if he were watching television.

Someone didn’t reread this submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, clearly.

What’s the cumulative moral here? Select your words with care — remember, all Millicent, or any reader, actually knows about the scene you are presenting is what you describe on the page. Yes, it’s undoubtedly quicker and more convenient to allow the reader to fill in the minutiae, but if you resort to vagueness or shorthand, how can you be sure that every reader will come up with the specifics you intend?

Or to put it another way: isn’t your creative vision worth conveying in detail?

And for heaven’s sake, tempestuous redheads and blondes-in-peril, grab a barrette or a baseball cap on your way out the door. Perhaps without all of that hair flying about in your eyes, you can finally get a good look at who or what is pursuing you.

Maybe then you could describe it to us. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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