“Good gravy!” and better responses to “So why isn’t your novel-in-progress published yet?”

While lazily re-reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné, as one so often does at this time of year, I stumbled across a particularly revealing review of a book released several centuries ago. Quoth the great lady:

This Morale of Nicole is admirable, and Cléopatre is going along nicely, but in no hurry; it is for odd moments. Usually, it is reading this that lulls me to sleep — the large print pleases me much more than the style.

That prompted me to cast a hurried eye at the calendar, as you may imagine. “Good gravy!” I exclaimed. “Aspiring writers across this great nation are relatively fresh from sharing Thanksgiving/Christmas/Epiphany/the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day dinner with otherwise charming relatives and friends who would, despite their doubtless admirable qualities,  know literature if it were floating in the cranberry sauce! It’s time to trot out my annual post-holiday balm for the souls of writers passing the mashed potatoes while trying to answer well-meant questions like ‘So you’re a writer? What have you published?’ and ‘What — you’re still working on that novel after all this time?’ Not to mention the ever-popular ‘Oh, you’re writing these days? I’d just assumed you’d given up on that dream.'”

And writers throughout the land groan with recognition. There, there, campers  — I’m sorry that you ventured over the river and through the woods without a few words of advance warning and encouragement.  Let’s work on bandaging those bruised feelings and girding our collective loins for the similar conversations that inevitably greet the aspiring writer.

Yet already, I sense the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. “But Anne,” bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, “aren’t you borrowing trouble here? Everyone loves a dreamer, and everyone adores good writing; therefore, it follows as night the day that everyone must be just wild about a good writer’s pursuing the dream of publication. So what makes you think we need a pep talk prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of our respective families and/or dining rooms of our invariably supportive friends?”

Experience, mostly. In descending order of probability, a writing blogger, a fellow writer, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders aspiring writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festive eating and good fellowship cease. Heck, just after the first of the year, even relatively well-established authors often beard the heavens with their bootless cries.

“Why,” they demand of the unhearing muses and anybody else who will listen, “can’t Aunt Myra, bless her heart, stop asking me why she regularly sees worse books than yours on the bestseller lists? Why must Cousin Reginald tell me at such length about his co-worker’s experience with self-publishing, as if that were relevant to my more traditional path? And why oh why cannot my beloved fraternal quadruplet Cristobal refrain from accusing me of being lazy because the memoir I agonized over six years ago wasn’t out last June as a beach read?”

Excellent questions, all, but ones that can be addressed with a single answer: most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published. They believe, you see, in the Publishing Fairy, that completely fictional entity assigned by a beneficent universe to carry manuscripts directly from first conception to published volume swiftly, easily, and with no effort required from the writer.

Apart from the sheer act of sitting down and writing the darned thing, of course. But Aunt Myra has always suspected that half the time you claim to be spending sitting in front of your computer, wrestling with the muses, you’re actually on Facebook.

I pity Aunt Myra, Cousin Reginald, and your former womb mate Cristobal, though, truly. As a direct result of their implicit belief in the Publication Fairy and her seldom-seen-in-practice ways, they feel compelled to regard the absolutely normal years their beloved writer has spent struggling to learn the craft, wrenching the soul into written form, finding an agent who resonates with a genuinely original voice and vision, alternately waiting and revising while said agent shops the manuscript to publishers, subsequent waiting and revising while the book is in press, and exhausting marketing process as, well, abnormal.

And that, in case you have spent recent holidays shaking your head in wonder over a turkey leg, is why so many honest-to-goodness nice folks who deeply care about you can sound so incredibly awful when they feel forced to inquire about your writing.  All of those fears about why the Publication Fairy has passed you by — or, at the very least, hasn’t yet taken you by the hand and led you to Oprah, The Late Show, or The New York Times Review of Books, tend to be compressed conversationally at every stage into the same ilk ofquestion: “Why isn’t yourbook published yet?”

They’re trying, in short, to be kind.

That’s not always apparent in the minute, though, is it? Of you’re like the overwhelming majority of writers, you’ve probably tumbled at least once into the bear trap of assuming that it was your fault for talking about your writing at all.  As in ever.

Come on, admit it — you’ve wished in retrospect that you hadn’t brought up your book. How could any sane writer not long for retroactive silence, when, in the course of your detailed account of just how many inches you have gnawed off your fingernails while waiting for that agent who asked for an exclusive to get back to you — it’s been five months! — Grandmamma plucked your sleeve and murmured tenderly, “Honey, why isn’t your novel in the stores? I keep telling my friends that you write” over the pie course?

Didn’t you struggle just a bit to come up with a different answer than you had given her the last four times she’d asked?  Or at least imagine saying a few rather vivid things to her water aerobics group?

If it’s any comfort, that bear trap lurks in the shadows later in the publishing process as well. When you’re six days from a hard deadline to get a revision you think is a bad idea to your publisher, Uncle Clark may well chortle, “Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about? You’re not exactly Ulysses S. Grant, duckie.”

Bearing in mind that he is fully capable of saying this to you after you have been elected president provides scant comfort, I’m sorry to say.  You might blow off a little steam by pointing out that memoirs has not been habitually used by the pros to describe either memoir or presidential autobiography within your lifetime, and possibly Uncle Clark’s, but his jibe is still likely to worm its way under your skin a trifle.

Or, when you’re over the moon because an agent — a real, live, honest-to-goodness agent! — has agreed to represent your baby, Gertrude-who-doesn’t-have-any-family-locally will boom over her second helpingof glazed carrots, “Oh, congratulations! When’s the book coming out?” Invariably, while you are struggling to explain the vital difference between signing a representation contract and a contract with a publisher, the relative responsible for inviting Gertrude will attempt to change the subject. Perhaps violently.

And every writer currently treading the earth’s crust has encountered some form of Cousin Antoinette’s why-isn’t-he-her-ex-husband-yet’s annual passive-aggressive attempt at hearty encouragement. “Still no agent, eh? I’d always thought that the really good books got snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing? A good writer can make a lot of money that way, right?”

Am I correct that you have on occasion kicked yourself for your reaction — or non-reaction — to such outrageous stimuli? I’m sure you’ve told yourself that a sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well have answered: “Why, yes, Roger, I have indeed thought about self-publishing. AsI had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up, please, and pass the darned yams.”

Or piped merrily, “Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you’d like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but memorably disagreeable role — a disquisition with which I would be all too happy to bore the entire table — could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?”

Or chirped between courses, “You know, Gertie, that’s a common misconception. If you’d like to learn something about how the publication process actually works, I could refer you to <a href=”http://www.annemini.com”>an excellent blog</a>.”

Or, while Grandmamma’s mouth is full of pie, observed suavely, “I so appreciate your drumming up future readers for my novel, dearest; I’m sure that will come in very handy down the road. But no, ‘trying just a little harder this year’ won’t necessarily make the difference between hitting the bestseller lists and obscurity. You might want to try telling your friends that even if I landed an agent for my nove within the next few days — even less likely at this time of year than others,by the way, as the publishing world slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving andthe end of the year — it could easily be a year or two before you can realistically urge them to buy my novel. Thanks for your reliable support, though; it means a lot to me.”

Most of us aren’t up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, alas. We’re more inclined to get defensive, to tell Dad he doesn’t know whereat he speaks — or to stuff our traitorous mouths with mashed potatoes so we won’t tell Dad he doesn’t know whereat he speaks. In the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can soundvery much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin that so loves to lurk in the back of the creative mind.

“If you were truly  talented,”that little beastie loves to murmur in the ear of a writer already feeling discouraged, “an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work.”

Admit it — you’re on a first-name basis with that goblin. It’s been whispering in your ear ever since you began to query. Or submit. Or perhaps as soon as you started to write.

Even so, you’re entitled to be a little startled when Bertie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly pleasant person your brother brought along to dinner because he’s new to town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Instead of emptying that conveniently nearby vat of cranberry sauce over his Adonis-like curls, may I suggest trying to be charitable? Your brother’s friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.

“Wait — how?” you ask, cranberry-filled vat already aloft.

Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to argue with a living, breathing person than someone whose base camp is located inside your head. Astonishingly often, an artless question like “Oh, you write? Would I have read any of your work?” from the ignoramus across the table will give voice to a niggling doubt that’s been eating at a talented writer for years.

Or so I surmise, from how frequently writers complain about such questions. “How insensitive can they be?” writers inevitably wail in the wake of holiday gatherings, and who could blame them?   “I swear that I heard ‘So when is your bookcoming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and/or kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer, as opposed to the fantasy kind that writes a book one minute, is instantly and spontaneously solicited by an agent the next, and is chatting on a couch with a late-night TV host immediately thereafter? Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently regarded as the only measure of writing talent?”

The short answer to that extraordinarily well-justified cri de coeur is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing. I’m relatively certain,though, that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove the writers mentioned above to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. They’re just echoing a common misunderstanding of how books do and don’t get published.

Which brings us once again to our old pal, the Publication Fairy. Her pixie dust can blind even the most sensible bystander to the writing process. Not only does popular belief hold that the only good book is a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively gasp with laughter –but also that if a writer were actually gifted, publication would be both swift and inevitable, following with little or no authorial struggle hard upon typing THE END on a first draft. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased on a shelf is the quality of the writing, right? Because no one ever buys a book without reading it first.

Are you guffawing yet? More importantly, is Bertie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be rolling on the shag carpet by now.

Yet I sense that you’re not laughing. You’re not even smiling. In fact, if you’re honest about it, you and Bertie may have been nodding silently while reading through that list of risible untruths about publishing.

Because this is such a frequent source of self-doubt, let’s tease out the logic a little. If we accept all of the suppositions as accurate, there are only two conceivable reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). That means, invariably, that a writer complaining about how hard the road is must either need a kick in the rump or gentle dissuasion from pursuing a dream that can’t possibly come true.

Fortunately for dinner-table harmony, most nice folks aren’t up to providing either to a relative they see only once or twice a year. (Although your Aunt Gloria is always up for a little rump-kicking, I hear.)  Accordingly, they figure, the only generous response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one’s eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.

Or to change the subject altogether. Really, it isn’t your sister’s coworker’s fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the already-wounded ego of some poor soul writhing under a first query rejection, and who therefore clearly has no talent for writing?

Chuckling yet? You should be. While it is of course conceivable that any of the reasons above could be stifling the publication chances of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writermight refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Violet?” yet again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or could beadequately measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Print-and-Bind-It-Now wand would cause the pros to choke with mirth.

So would the length of that last sentence, come to think ofit. Ol’ Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one. Unless he’s still lingering over the pecan pie with Madame de Sévigné, Noël Coward, and Euripides. (They’re always the last to leave the table.)

Again, though, my finely-tuned antennae tell me that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers everywhere point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T section of the category list, listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike, that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me really, really, REALLY wants to believe that’s not actually the case. Or at least that it will not be in my case.”

See what I mean about the holidays’ capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? Let’s listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something more.  Let’s get it all out on the table.

“If the literary universe is fair,” writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason…

(That thunder you hear in the heavens is every agent, editor, and book promoter who has ever lived snorting with hilarity.)

“…a good manuscript should always find a home. If that’s true, perhaps my kith and kinare right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at Thanksgiving is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

Actually, in that instance, you would be fending off injured cries of “Where is my free copy?” But we’ll talk about that later. Your hobgoblins were saying?

“Since it’s an agent’s job to find exciting new talent,” Bernie et al. continue, “and my query — not my manuscript– has been rejected by four agents and I’ve never heard back from the fifth who asked to see the first 30 pages, there’s really no point in continuing to try to find an agent for this book. They all share the same tastes, and anyway, they’d probably only want me to change things in my manuscript. Maybe Roger is right to urge me to self-publish. But then all of the costs and pressuresof promotion would fall on me, and…”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely-frustrated writers and their hobgoblins interrupt us. “What do you mean,many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out wor kpersistently, until he finds the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third demographic and its internal demons shout en masse. “Send out work persistently? Rejected by four agents — and not heard back from a fifth? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any excellent writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. Are you absolutely certain you want to do that?

It’s a dangerous practice for a writer, you know. The Publication Fairy’s long, shallow shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances decrease over time. Following her siren song can lead a writer to believe, for instance, that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, rather than one who already has the connections to sell a particular book. Or that it would be a dandy idea to sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even to every agent in the country, without checking first to see if any of them represent a your kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one, my dear — to give up after just a few rejections.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, would it? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the quality of the writing would be assessed — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if a writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written. You might as well give up after the first rejection. Or before taking a chance on a query.

Why shouldn’t you, when by prevailing logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to expend any effort at all, beyond writing a initial draft of the book? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off a first draft –because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait mere instants until an agent is miraculously wafted to her doorstep.

Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.

Ah, it’s a pretty fantasy, isn’t it? The agent reads the entire book in a single sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire professional career!” A book contract follows instantaneously, promising publication within a week. By the end of a couple of months at the very latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book, pretending to be modest.

“It has been a life-changing struggle,” the writersays brightly, courageously restraining happy tears, “but I felt I had to write this book. As Maya Angelou says, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.'”

You would be astonished at the ubiquity this narrative of authorial achievement enjoys amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually handle books in one’s chosen book category. At a gut level, however, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that the manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you’d thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite as it should be.

Otherwise, where’s Mary Poppins? Aunt Myra may have a point.

‘Fess up — you’ve thought this at time or two. Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to become a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night, or at any rate in the throes of being questioned by those with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell in the current market. It could also signify that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that for querying purposes, one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category.

Any of these can result in knee-jerk rejection. Even if a manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent in recent years that few agents can afford to take on as many truly talented new clients as they would like.

But those are not the justifications likely to pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin. Nor are they prone to convince Uncle Clark, or make Grandmamma happy, or to awe Roger into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince until Cousin Antoinette finally gives him the heave-ho. If only there were some short, pithy quip you could trot outat such instants, if not to cajole these excellent souls into active support, at least to stop them from skewering you when you’re feeling vulnerable.

I cannot give you that magical statement, unfortunately. All I can offer youis the truth: offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we’ve been discussing represents a real-life career trajectory.

Sorry, Dad — that’s just not how books get published. More pie?

The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking.  All of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile (which no longer exists) to the top of the acceptance heap.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us with false hope. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that the ladies in question do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with undoubted talent.

Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, people. Oscar Wilde was known to have run into a barrier or two. Louisa May Alcott toiled to churn out potboilers and war anecdotes to pay the coal bill for years before turning to YA, and the primary reason that we know the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley is that his wife happened to be a major novelist and the daughter of two major novelists; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was arguably the greatest literary publicist of all time.

And the first novel Jane Austen sold to a publisher? It didn’t come out until after her death.

The muses donate their favors whimsically.  I ask you, though, through the lens of that historical perspective: is it really soon enough to judge your writing solely by its immediate commercial prospects? Is it ever?

To non-writers, these perfectly reasonable questions can appear downright delusional, or at the very least confusing. They have no experience having their passions bandied about by the muses, you see. To be fair, you cannot expect otherwise from an upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!”

So we are left to ask ourselves: what can such a sterling soul possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded? Even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy with a tenacity that makes Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy turn chartreuse with envy.  If only adults believed in them with such fervor!

If you doubt the strength of the Publication Fairy’s sway, try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers who haven’t asked about it. “So when is your book coming out?” that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never-been-clear will inquire. “And would you mind passing that mysterious grey substance with which your roommate chose to trouble our family meal?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You talked about writing it before Travis here was born, and now he’s on the football squad.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book. Or is this still the first book?”

Your brother’s wife might attempt to be a bit more tactful; Colleen always tries, doesn’t she? “Oh, querying sounds just awful.  Do you really want to put yourself through it? I have a friend who’s self-publishing, and…”

Thanks, Colleen — because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dank midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the profits to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, even today — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that inorder for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

Yes, you read that correctly. But the Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

If she can, she certainly doesn’t do it very often. Chant it with me now:  agents don’t magically appear on good authors’ doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed.

But someone predisposed to believe otherwise is also unlikely to understand that when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent?  When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house.

We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders. Mary Poppins could have a flat landing-place made out of dimes.

Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.  But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is –and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re too smart to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that you should deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing in the immediate vicinity of pickled beets. I sense, though, that more than a few of you would enjoy having a bit of ammunition at the ready in anticipation for that particular battle, should it arise the next time around.

Okay, how might on prepare for that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about responding to the question “Published yet, Charlie?” by abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent election? Or universal healthcare? Or the death penalty?

You see the point, don’t you? Just as it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it’s always dangerous to presume that every kind soul there will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually occurs. Accepting the probable reality that even the most eloquent explanation will not necessarily sway minds from devotion to the Publication Fairy may be your best bet.

So what might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s acolytes do to protect her digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to “The writing’s going splendidly. How’s your handball game these days, Ambrose?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Allison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, Sis. Seriously, though, I don’t want to stultify you with an explanation of how books really get published.”

Think about giving it a rest , in short. Don’t try to educate everyone in one fell swoop; it’s not your responsibility, and actually, the lecture you give this year may not be sufficiently remembered the next to help you. (Oh, that’s only my in-laws?) Unless you are willing to resign yourself to the inevitability of annual soapbox-mounting, you might want to consider letting your loved ones’ belief in the Publication Fairy survive another holiday season.

If your inherent sense of justice urges you to convey some small sense of your monumental effort toward writing and/or revising, or to share a glimpse into multitudinous stresses involved in querying, submission,and so forth, I’d advise keeping it brief for the purposes of general discussion. It can be easy to become carried away by a topic close to your creative heart, though. If you find yourself starting to launch into a major speech, a simple “Well, I could go on for hours, Horace, but suffice it to say that it’s really hard. I’m trying to take a day off from it, though,” can easily bring it to a close. It can also allow you to control how long you’re on the spot.

Oh, now I hear some of you laughing. Yes? “Oh, Anne,” you say, wiping the tears of hilarity from your rosy cheeks, “it’s obvious you have never met my kith/kin/the relative strangers with whom I propose to spend Christmas Future. I anticipate being confronted not with the casual double-edged question, but with a level of intensive cross-examination and invasive scrutiny from which Perry Mason himself could glean a few pointers. I’m not worried about getting into the conversation; I despair of ever getting out of it.”

A tougher nut to crack, admittedly. I would recommend cutting it off at the first parry. “Wow, that’s a big subject, Gerard,” can often do the trick. Adding “I could prattle for weeks about the behind-the-scenes trials every author faces along the way, but my dinner would get cold, and I do so want to hear about Cousin Blanche’s hysterectomy in granular detail. Ask me again after the dishes are done, when we can make ourselves cozy in a corner and talk. How about during the football game?”

That last bit will, of course, work best if Gerard happensto be a die-hard football fan. It may feel like a low blow, but hey, all’s fair in love, war, and protecting your passions.

If pressed, you could always murmur, “I’d love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Because everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a novel, right?”

An especially judgmental holiday table might be anticipated by the appearance of such a notebook beside your napkin, in fact. As any journalist or rationally self-protective memoirist could tell you, people are apt to clam up a littlewhen they notice their words are being recorded for posterity. Applying pen to paper proactively, accompanied by a slight, rueful shake of the head and a chuckle, will at least turn the conversation from “Why aren’t you published?” to “What are you writing down? What did I just say?”

The latter may well be spoken in a resentful tone, but you might be astonished how often it isn’t. Speaking as a memoirist, I’m here to tell you that it never pays underestimate the flattery inherent in finding people interesting enough to occupy page space. I’ve seldom met the Aunt Myra so iron-hearted that “Oh,wow — I’ve just got to write that quip down, Auntie! Talk amongst yourselves while I do” doesn’t soften her will to criticize, at least a little. And it’s a terrific defense for the moment Aunt Gloria decides your rump would benefit from some well-intentioned kicking about not polishing off your revision fast enough.

You could also call upon most people’s active dislike of boredom. An enthusiastic cry of”Oh, my goodness — you have no idea how happy I am that you want to hear all about my writing! Just a sec, while I power up my laptop.  The scene I want to read you is a trifle on the long side, but you don’t mind keeping my food warm for me, do you, Eloise?”

Prepare to be stunned by the urgency with which Uncle George and his — what are they called at that age? — great and good friend Carlotta fling themselves into a discussion of the comparative merits of The Blacklist and White Palace as James Spader vehicles at that particular moment. Or Cousin Tremaine’s burning desire to share the scores of each of his eight children’s soccer games. For the last two years.

As I learned at my mother’s knee, any dinner table seating five or more people naturally breaks up into more than one conversation. (My parents threw a lot of literary dinner parties.) Use it.

If the proposed dramatic reading of your own writing doesn’t induce panic, try a burbling offer to declaim that passage in Melville that changed your life forever. Or Proust — in the original French, if necessary. (See earlier observation about what’s fair in love, war, and ego-preservation.)

Let’s assume for the sake of caution, though, that you’re facing a tableful of kith/kin/relative strangers breaking bread with you so committed to showing you the error of your writing ways that there’s no graceful way to evade or shorten the conversation. Or that you are dining with a group whose belief in the Publication Fairy is so unquestioning as to border on the childlike (or imbecilic), and you hate the idea of any one of those people’s feeling sorry for you. Or maybe that your obnoxious brother Graham knows that the agent of your dreams has been sitting on your first 50 pages for nine long weeks, and he just enjoys needling you.

Whichever may be the case, what’s a nice (and most writers are nice) writer to do? I would recommend seizing the moment to engage in a little advance education on the practicalities of occupying the inner circle of a published author’s life.  The sooner Great-Uncle Vic learns that there’s more to beinga famous author’s relative than bragging rights and free books, the more comfortable everyone will be on the happy day when you do in fact become a famous author.

I find that concentrating upon the details tends to go over better than gentle nudges toward a more supportive attitude while folks are gnawing upon drumsticks. I would recommend, in short, of seizing the opportunity of disabusing them of the notion that they’re not going to have to buy your books.
Be prepared for a certain amount of incredulity: next to the Publication Fairy, the notion that authors’ kith and kin routinely receive free copies is one of your more ubiquitous misconceptions. It’s seldom true, at least not to the extent your relatives will think. Yes, Second-Cousin-Thrice-Removed Myrtle, publishers do generally provide their authors with an extremely limited stock of their books, with the expectation that such will be used for promotion. They’re going to want you to pass them along to book reviewers and bloggers and the clerk at your favorite bookstore, not to endow your relatives’ bookshelves, if you catch my drift.
The number of free copies will almost certainly be considerably smaller than either Great-Uncle Vic or Carlotta have been thinking, too. (Oh, you didn’t think he’d been expecting you to send him a signed copy for Carlotta, too? Think again.) Somewhere between 5 and 50 is the norm.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise scads of free copies — and those of us in the biz are perpetually appalled at how often first-time authors often do —  you will be facing some hard choices.  To whom will you give those precious few books?

Undoubtedly more important to the folks with whom you are currently enjoying turkey, how many of them will not be on that short list?  What about the person sitting across the table from you? To your left? To your right?

Before you answer, you might want to take a quick mental count of all the other people who might make sense as recipients. Will you want to send one to your favorite writing teacher? The lady at the archives who took all that extra time to help you research the book? What about your college roommate? Or that blogger who gave you hope whenyour relatives criticized you?  (Oh, yes, authors constantly send me review copies. As much as I appreciate the gesture, please, don’t waste a book on me that you could send to what are euphemistically called opinion-makers: I’d be more than happy with a beautifully-phrased thank-you card, truly.)

All done toting up? Okay, here are 10 free copies. Are there any left for your relatives?

If the answer is no, trust me, it’s better you know it now. It’s also news that you might want to break with great care to your relatives.

Yes, yes, I know: you don’t want to do it. But tell me: will Myrtle be less hurt to hear about it now, or three days before your book drops? What about Uncle George, Aunt Gloria, or the rest of those quadruplets? Honestly, you would be saving them from future disappointment — and yourself from what can be quite a lot of well-intentioned pressure.

Oh, you want a foretaste? How about “What do you mean, you didn’t save a copy for your brother Ralph? You expect someone with whom you shared a bedroom for a decade to pay for his copy?”

Yes, you do. Or you will. It’s not merely that for every copy you give away, that’s one less copy sold. (Who did you think would buy your book, if not your kith, kin, and everyone who has ever known you?) That ultimately means fewer royalties for you, as well as possibly a harder time convincing a publisher to bring out your next book.
Not that it would be remotely politic to express any of this so bluntly, of course. Phrase it as gently as you know how; it will come as a blow to folks expecting not only never to have to pay a dime for a single word of your writing, but possibly — brace yourself –having also presumed that they would be on the receiving end of copies to distribute to their friends. (Hey, it’s a common fantasy amongst the author-adjacent.)

Just bear in mind that by speaking now, you’re ultimately saving the people you love from chagrin. If that doesn’t do the trick, try recalling that if you recklessly promise free copies — and again, those of us in the biz are positively aghastat how many first-time authors have — you will almost certainly be buying those gift copies yourself.

I don’t mean that conceptually, by the way:  it’s exceedingly common for first-time authors to end up actually purchasing individual copies for their relatives and friends. To see why, you need only revisit that mental list of gift recipients.

That’s a difficult reality to accept, isn’t it? I can tell you now that you’re going to feel mean as you convey this information. Feel free to blame me as the source of the bad news: trust me, it would not be the first time “You’re not going to believe what I read on Author! Author!” was used as a blow-softener. I’m tough; I can take it.

More to the point, I’m not having dinner with your kith and kin, am I?

I can, however, anticipate your mother’s first tremulous question, and possibly yours: yes, authors do generally receive fairly substantial discounts on their own books, as long as those books are purchased directly from the publisher (and, in many cases, ordered in advance of the release date). Houses like to encourage their authors to carry around copies to resell to anyone who says, “Oh, you have a book out? Cool!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, authors so often show up at reading venues staggering under heavy backpacks or enormous purses. If the venue’s not a bookstore, those authors usually have a box or two of books in their cars, ready to pile in an attractive display next to the podium. (What, you thought the Publication Fairy brought them?)

What may interest you more than your mother to hear, however, is that copies purchased with the author’s discount virtually never count toward a book’s sales totals — and thus not toward royalties. That hefty discount arises from yourprice’s not reflecting royalty costs or negotiated deals with booksellers, yousee. (You’re going to want to check your publishing contract carefully on this point; sometimes, it’s negotiable, as is the number of free copies.) A cost-conscious writer might also like to know before promising copies that one’s agent or acquiring editor might not think to point out that buying a lot of discounted books might not be to the author’s advantage.

They tend to assume that the bit about those copies’ not adding toward sales totals is quite a bit more widely known than it actually is; it’s not unheard-of for this tidbit not to be discussed at all at contract time, or even as the book is moving toward publication. The author usually hears about the number of free copies (“There you go, Mom!”) and the discount (“Okay, Great-Uncle Vic can think that his was free.”), but simply assumes that a book sold is a book sold. Why wouldn’t a discounted copy be included in the overall total and generate royalties?

Don’t believe that often comes as an unpleasant surprise?   As recently as last week, I was chatting with a quite successful first-time memoirist. Her excellent book came out earlier this year, and, as is so often the case, she had underestimated the unpaid time, effort, and expense an author at a major house is routinely expected to devote to book promotion. She was particularly irked to learn that she had to buy and pay to ship 50 copies of her book to a speaking venue — and then to pay to have the 42 that hadn’t sold at the event shipped to her home. She wasn’t sure, she said, that she would be willing to do it again.

I commiserated. “And to think that after all that effort, those books will have no effect on your book’s sales totals.   I’m so sorry.”

“Wait,” she said. “What? I won’t get royalties?”

So no, Mom, your baby’s probably not going to be coughing up the cover price for a copy for you, but it may be costly in other ways. Your in-house author may even be able to shake free a gratis copy for Great-Grandma Midge, who isn’t getting any younger, but please don’t feel guilty. Mom might want to get into the habit of telling more distant relatives — like, say, those cousins she made you inviteto your wedding, although you hadn’t seen them since you were six — that they should plan on buying their own copies. You would be delighted to sign them afterward.

Trust the voice of experience: the more special she feels at the prospect of clutching her own free book — the only one in the family, because you’re such a good kid! — the more likely she is to go to bat for you. “Every single copy Tammy sells helps her,” she can say — and she’ll get better with practice. “I’ll understand if you can’t afford it, of course. She’s been working so hard for so many years on this book, but please don’t feel guilty.”

Translation: the best thing Aunt Myra could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her the instant she does. If you’re feeling adventurous, extend that promise to visiting her in order to inscribe copies for all of the friends she can cajole, blandish, and/or guilt into purchasing.

I have faith in your Aunt Myra. I think she can push some volumes.

All that being said, don’t kick yourself if you find you don’t have the heart to tell your relatives and friends any of this in the course of the current holiday season. This is big stuff, and even the best of us have people in our lives prone to judging the quality of a book by its position on the bestseller list.  You have to pick your battles.  You might want to bookmark this post, though, so you have the arguments handy down the line.

Heck, you could just forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. Again, I don’t mind playing the heavy here, if it helps you. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives.

I see no reason to stop now. Your writing deserves it, doesn’t it?

And you have that support within our Author! Author! community. Here, we don’t dismiss every book that doesn’t sell 150,000 copies. We don’t feel that large print contributes more to reading pleasure than the style of the writing. (Take that, Madame de Sévigné!)  And most of all, we don’t believe in the Publication Fairy.

It’s sweet, in a way, that so many people do. By that logic, the Followers of the Fairy incur a greater obligation than the rest of us to buy the books of authors they know personally: the Fairy, and the industry, can only reward with success books that readers purchase. Anyone who wants to judge your dream to write by that yardstick should understand that they can, with a good will and the best of intentions, contribute to your sales totals. And thus to their opinion of the value of your writing endeavors.

As always, keep up the good work!

 

“Really?” Millicent says, gaping at her overflowing inbox. “It’s rejection season again?” and other things queriers and submitters don’t want to hear

disaproving gargoyles

 

Did you hear that long, low howl of despair in the early working hours this morning, campers? Did its mournful resonance chill your bones, or at least lightly chill your marrow? Did it prompt you to yank the covers over your head, reasoning that whether that terrible noise came from the wind or the collective resultants of holiday merry-makers returning to work, you wanted no part of it?

If you’re a writer, I hope you obeyed that instinct, at least so far as acting upon that New Year’s resolution to pop that query or submission into the mail (or e-mail) goes. Why, you ask, teeth chattering at the far-off sounds of wailing and the rending of garments? Because today marks the statistically worst day of the year for writers to send off their work electronically — or for an agency or publishing house to receive it in either soft copy or hard.

And it’s the single worst day every year. That’s why the moans of agency screeners — those excellent souls known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that these are human beings with individual literary tastes working for agents with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — invariably beard the heavens on not only the first work day of the year, but for most of January.

“Great Caesar’s ghost,” they cry, or some equivalent, “I’ve never seen so many queries/submissions/literary contest entries in my life!”

Actually, pretty much everyone who reads manuscripts for a living tends to indulge in a bit of moaning right about now, and with good reason: the single most common New Year’s resolution writers make involves sending off a query or finally submitting those requested pages. To toil anywhere in the publishing vineyard is to spend the opening days of every year buried under an avalanche of writers’ dearest hopes.

It’s heartwarming, really, how many writers actually follow through on their determination to make take those intimidating baby steps toward bringing their writing to professional attention. Even back when querying and submission meant typing and retyping one’s baby on an Underwood, hundreds of thousands of bright-eyed resolvers queried and submitted in early January, every year. Since the arrival of the personal computer made these tasks easier, and e-mail sped up communication, the volumes have risen astronomically. For e-mailing queriers and submitters in particular, the first weekend of the year seems just made for keeping those laudable promises to oneself.

“And why not?” aspiring writers proud of themselves for having worked up the not inconsiderable nerve required to hit the SEND key yesterday. “As you like to say here at Author! Author!, the only manuscript that stands absolutely no chance of getting published is the one that never gets sent out, right? So here I go! This is the year I’m going to land an agent/get published/place a short story/fulfill other writing dreams dependent upon the approval of other people!”

I applaud your enthusiasm, SEND-hitters, truly. It’s not an easy thing, offering up your beloved writing to an agent or editor’s judgment. You know the prospects your work is facing: it’s tough for an original story or new voice to break into the current extremely tight literary market. Add to that the tens of thousands of queries a well-established agencies will receive, and those are some pretty long odds for even a great story and wonderful style to surmount.

But you’ll never know unless you try, right? Good for you for putting your talent to the test — many a brilliant writer never finds the courage to let those pages be seen by another human being, much less a professional reader with the power and authority to bring that writing to a broader audience. An audience that might pay to read it, even.

May I make a gentle suggestion about tilting those odds ever so slightly in your favor, however? Would you consider not querying or submitting at precisely the same time as every other New Year’s resolver? Would it really not be fulfilling your resolution if you held off until, say, after Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, when the sheer volume hitting Millicent’s inbox will be significantly lower?

Would you, in short, wait until we’re past the month of the year in which rejection rates are predictably the highest?

I know, I know: you are positively aching to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, but I would urge you to rethink the last. As the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. So woe unto he who hesitates, the prevailing wisdom goes, because as everybody knows, it’s absolutely impossible to begin any new project except immediately after the start of the year. If you miss the resolution boat by so much as a week — or, scare bleu! a month — all of the good New Year’s juju will have been sucked up by others. The laggard’s only recourse will be to sit, sad and glum, until the starting-gun goes off next year.

Unless one’s resolution was to lose weight, in which case the cultural reset button will be slapped sometime in the spring. “You wouldn’t want to miss your chance to get ready for swimsuit season?” the ambient culture will ask breathlessly. And off a significant proportion of the population will run again.

We each know in our heart of hearts, though, that just as surely as beauty is only skin deep, it’s completely untrue that there are only a couple of times per year in which it’s humanly possible to shed a few pounds. Or give up smoking. Or get that query out the door.

News flash: in publishing circles, there’s no special prize for a writer’s query being the first of the year, or even first 100,00th. Ditto with submissions: when a lot come at a time, they just pile up on agency desks. In either case, poor Millicent the agency screener is going to be working some awfully long hours until those volumes decrease a little.

Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst. Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates skyrocket in the first few weeks of January. It thus follows as night the day that this is the time of year when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected.

Yes, you read that correctly. Your agile creative mind probably also leapt to the next correct conclusion: the same query or manuscript rejected in January might not have been had it dropped onto Millicent’s desk at another time of year. At minimum, the average query or submission will receive less reading time now than in, say, March.

That resounding thunk you just heard reverberating throughout the cosmos was the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting their respective floors. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? No matter what else is on Millicent’s desk — or whatever else is going on at the agency, be it wedding, funeral, or just having read a proposal for the single worst nonfiction book since Mein Kampf — the only conceivable response to the advent of a good story well written must be the general dropping of all other work, cries of “Hallelujah!” and capering in the hallways, mustn’t it?

Um, no. I hate to be the one to break it to first-time submitters, but yours is not the only good manuscript that’s been written in English this year. And no true lover of literature should want it to be.

Yet almost without exception, writers responding to requests for manuscript pages act as though the agent or editor asking for it had been standing there, twiddling her thumbs, with nothing else to do until those pages arrived. Startlingly often, aspiring writers just presume that a request for pages, particularly in response to a conference pitch, constitutes a pro’s commitment to cease all work activity the moment those pages show up. Never mind that over half of requested materials never do show up — possibly because the writers in question queried or pitched before the book was done, or are trying to work up nerve to submit, or are waiting for the next new year to roll around — the horror is always the same.

“What do you mean,” indignant submitters everywhere huff, “it’s unrealistic to expect to hear back within a week or two — or a month or two? You don’t understand: the agent asked to read my manuscript!”

Yes, I know. He also asked to see other manuscripts. But apply the same logic earlier in the process, and springs a heck of a lot of holes: if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

The latter is far, far more likely. Inevitable, in fact, if that query arrives anywhere near January first.

And that’s why, boys and girls, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries opened their e-mail inboxes this morning and groaned, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions.

So did the tens of thousands of successful pitchers and queriers from last year who decided that in the immediate wake of December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It won’t have occurred to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of — opening my calendar at random here — February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3rd. Or, really, any time of the year other than the first three weeks of January, when the sheer weight of tradition would guarantee that competition would be stiffest for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but once again, pouring some water into that sieve will show us some holes. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore, after all. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling even well-known authors’ work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume.

Translation: agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run — with fewer trained eyes to do it.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit to land an agent in the new year? Several reasons. High querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets result, inevitably, in less time spent on any given query or submission. The quicker the perusal, typically, the harder it is to impress an agent or an editor — and thus the more likely a time-strapped agency will be to employ Millicents to give queries and submissions the once-over. It’s not at all uncommon for a submission to have to make it past a couple of Millies empowered to say no before landing on the desk of anyone empowered to say yes.

So tell me: would you rather that Millicent had 15 other manuscripts to screen between now and lunch, if yours is No. 12, or 50? Or 150?

Got that appalling image firmly in your mind? Good. Now picture that same overworked, underpaid (or possibly not paid at all; many Millicents are interns) screener opening her e-mail inbox on the first Monday of the new year. Or the second. How much time do you think she’s going to be able to devote to each of the several thousand queries she’ll find deposited there? What about the next thousand arriving in her inbox tomorrow?

Actually, while you’re mentally trying on Millie’s moccasins, try taking a few more steps in them: how dismayed would you be at the prospect of doing ten (or more) times your usual work that day? Wouldn’t you tend to read just a trifle faster, with your fingertips lightly caressing the DELETE key? No matter how much you love literature and the good people who write it — as the overwhelming majority of folks currently working in publishing do — wouldn’t it be understandable if you found yourself screening those thousands of queries looking for quick reasons to reject, rather than eagerly perusing each one for every last clue that there might be talent hidden there?

Did I hear some momentary hesitation prior to your shouting, “By all the Muses’ togas, no! Were I lucky enough to read thousands upon thousands of queries every January, I would treat each and every one with respect — nay, reverence — down to the last semicolon and almost-legible signature!” Or at least before packing up the implied moral dilemma in your old kit bag and murmuring, “Well, if I ran the publishing world, querying wouldn’t be required; writers could simply send their manuscripts. Which agents would read in their entirety…”?

Ah, you just did the mental math, didn’t you? There’s a reason the vast majority of submissions get rejected on page 1.

But let’s get back to Millicent’s agonizing decision about how long to spend reading each query. Yes, it’s her job to find the diamonds amongst the rhinestones; yes, it’s unfair and even rather unreasonable that a writer of gem-like books must also devote time and energy to composing a brilliant query and synopsis. It’s an inescapable fact of our times, however — and you might want to sit down for this one — that the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions. Most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox today if you hit SEND yesterday? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

Or, ‘fess up, were you one of the significant minority of aspiring writers whose first reaction to the idea that the agent of your dreams might be signing only 4 or 5 clients this year ran along the lines of “Apollo’s flame! I’d better make mine the first query he sees this year, then,” followed by a rapid glance at the nearest calendar? If so, relax: it’s not as though most agencies run on quotas, or as though your garden-variety great agent will fill his satchel with fabulous manuscripts for a month or two, then ignore everything else he reads until January 1 rolls around again.

It’s not, in short, as though the publishing world runs on New Year’s resolutions. (Although that’s an interesting idea.)

If you must take steps toward representation within the next few days or weeks, may I suggest something else that might improve your query’s chances? Invest the time in narrowing your querying list to agents with a solid, recent track record of selling books like yours.

Why will that help at the querying stage? Well, performing that research is relatively rare; a staggering number of queries arrive on the desks of people who have never represented a similar book in their professional lives. That’s a positive gift to a time-strapped Millicent, you know: the overwhelming majority of those thousands of New Year’s resolution-generated queries will be quite tempting to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing.

I find it sad that at this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Their logic tends to run thus: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every single reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories. While an individual reader may well enjoy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book share expectations. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if she picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel he’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

As annoying as it may be for aspiring writers to think about limiting their readerships, literary fiction, fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc., are the conceptual containers used to ensure that a particular kind of writing will be marketed to the specific target audience already buying similar books. It’s not (as writers new to the game often assume) that you’re being asked to say who wouldn’t be interested in reading your story, or that (as writers considering for the first time the question of genre frequently fear) that agents don’t understand that creativity can confound readers’ expectations. The goal of labeling your manuscript with a book category — as you should do in your query — is to help match the right book with the right readers in the long run, as well as with the right agent in the short run.

Not only does approaching an agent experienced in working with books in your chosen category maximize the probability that she will enjoy the story you’re telling — it also maximizes the probability that she’ll already have the professional connections to sell it. Since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. Editors and imprints, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

As a direct and sometimes disturbingly swift result, there is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, that story will be a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, if a writer is doing it in January. New Year’s resolvers are frequently in a hurry to see results. You would not believe how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google, e-mailing the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list, usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent.

That’s a pity, because — feel free to sing along; you should know the tune by now — not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books, but that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster than just querying every agent in Christendom.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to finding one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

That’s a good question, one that richly deserves an answer. I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent axiom was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements; it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Sorry about that.

Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information any agent would want to know before requesting pages. Like, say, the title or the book category.

Oh, you think I’m kidding about the title? Millicent’s seen 10 queries missing it today.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of the problems mentioned above could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, agents and editors alike frequently use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course: they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. How could they not, when all throughout the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve?

Not only do the usual post-vacation backlog await them, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Care to revise your answer about how quickly you would be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries if you were Millicent? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you respond to those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence is necessary to clear Millicent’s schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor do they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the resolution-generated flood peters out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (For those who just clutched your hearts: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload over the next few months, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal and expected part of the publication process. Every single author you admire has had to deal with it at some point in the process. Yes, really: just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

That should give you hope, by the way: while it may feel like a single rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s. If you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less rapidly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates are higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing well isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at the sight of a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired, like anyone else. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five misspellings in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be screening within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

Oh, and if you choose to disregard this advice — and I’ve been at this long enough to have accepted that a hefty percentage of you will — please, remember to include not only your manuscript title and book category in your query, but also to tuck your contact information into the letter. If you’re submitting a manuscript, include a title page with your contact information. You want the agent that’s just fallen in love with your voice to be able to tell you so, don’t you?

Stop laughing, please. You would be flabbergasted at how often e-mailing queriers and submitters just assume that all Millicent or her boss would have to do to get in touch would be to hit REPLY. I guess they’ve never heard of a forwarded e-mail.

Best of luck with your New Year’s resolutions — and with implementing them in the way that’s most likely to bring your dreams to fulfillment. Keep up the good work!

“What do you you mean, your book’s not published yet?” and other light-hearted holiday table banter

gingerbread family

While lazily re-reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné, as one so often does at this time of year, I stumbled across a particularly revealing review of a book released several centuries ago. Quoth the great lady:

This Morale of Nicole is admirable, and Cléopatre is going along nicely, but in no hurry; it is for odd moments. Usually, it is reading this that lulls me to sleep — the large print pleases me much more than the style.

That prompted me to cast a hurried eye at the calendar, as you may imagine. “Good gravy!” I exclaimed. “Aspiring writers across this great nation are about to be having Thanksgiving dinner with otherwise charming relatives and friends who wouldn’t know literature if it were floating in the cranberry sauce! It’s time to trot out my annual balm for the souls of writers passing the mashed potatoes while trying to answer well-meant questions like ‘So you’re a writer? What have you published?’ and ‘What — you’re still working on that novel after all this time?’ Not to mention the ever-popular ‘Oh, you’re writing these days? I’d just assumed you’d given up on that dream.’”

And writers throughout the land groan with recognition. There, there, campers — you didn’t think I was going to send you over the river and through the woods without a few words of encouragement, did you?

Yet already, the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. “But Anne,” bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, “aren’t you borrowing trouble here? Everyone loves a dreamer, and everyone adores good writing; therefore, it follows as night the day that everyone must be just wild about a good writer’s pursuing the dream of publication. So what makes you think we need a pep talk prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of our respective families and/or dining rooms of our inevitably supportive friends?”

Experience, mostly. In descending order of probability, a writing blogger, a fellow writer, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders aspiring writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festive eating and good fellowship cease. Heck, this time of year, even relatively well-established authors often beard the heavens with their bootless cries.

“Why,” they demand of the unhearing muses and anybody else who will listen, “can’t Aunt Myra, bless her heart, stop asking me why she regularly sees worse books than yours on the bestseller lists? Why must Cousin Reginald tell me at such length about his co-worker’s experience with self-publishing, as if that were relevant to my more traditional path? And why oh why cannot my beloved fraternal quadruplet Cristobal refrain from accusing me of being lazy because the memoir I wrote six years ago wasn’t out last June as a beach read?”

Excellent questions, all, but ones that can be addressed with a single answer: most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published. They believe, you see, in the Publishing Fairy, that completely fictional entity assigned by a beneficent universe to carry manuscripts directly from first conception to published volume swiftly, easily, and with no effort required from the writer.

Apart from the sheer act of sitting down and writing the darned thing, of course. But Aunt Myra has always suspected that half the time you claim to be spending sitting in front of your computer, wrestling with the muses, you’re actually on Facebook.

I pity Aunt Myra, Cousin Reginald, and your former womb mate Cristobal, though, truly. As a direct result of their implicit belief in the Publication Fairy and her seldom-seen-in-practice ways, they feel compelled to regard the absolutely normal years their beloved writer has spent struggling to learn the craft, wrenching the soul into written form, finding an agent who resonates with a genuinely original voice and vision, alternately waiting and revising while said agent shops the manuscript to publishers, subsequent waiting and revising while the book is in press, and exhausting marketing process as, well, abnormal.

And that, in case you had been shaking your head in wonder over a turkey leg, is why so many honest-to-goodness nice folks who deeply care about you can sound so incredibly awful when they feel forced to inquire about your writing. All of those fears about why the Publication Fairy has passed you by — or, at the very least, hasn’t yet taken you by the hand and led you to Oprah, The Colbert Report, or The New York Times Review of Books, tend to be compressed conversationally at every stage into the same ilk of question: “Why isn’t your book published yet?” They’re trying, in short, to be kind.

That’s not always apparent in the minute, though, is it? And if you’re like the overwhelming majority of writers, you’ve probably tumbled at least once into the bear trap of assuming that it was your fault for talking about your writing at all.

Come on, admit it — you’ve wished in retrospect that you hadn’t brought up your book. How could you not, when, in the course of your detailed account of just how many inches you have gnawed off your fingernails while waiting for that agent who asked for an exclusive to get back to you — it’s been five months! — Grandmamma plucked your sleeve and murmured tenderly, “Honey, why isn’t your novel in the stores? I keep telling my friends that you write” over the pie course? Didn’t you struggle just a bit to come up with a different answer than you had given her the last four times she’d asked?

If it’s any comfort, that bear trap lurks in the shadows later in the publishing process as well. When you’re six days from a hard deadline to get a revision you think is a bad idea to your publisher, Uncle Clark may well chortle, “Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about? You’re not the president.” Bearing in mind that he is fully capable of saying this to you after you have been elected president provides scant comfort, I’m sorry to say.

Or, when you’re over the moon because an agent — a real, live, honest-to-goodness agent! — has agreed to represent your baby, Gertrude-who-doesn’t-have-any-family-locally will boom over her second helping of glazed carrots, “Oh, congratulations! When’s the book coming out?” Invariably, while you are struggling to explain the vital difference between signing a representation contract and a contract with a publisher, the relative responsible for inviting Gertrude will attempt to change the subject. Perhaps violently.

And every writer currently treading the earth’s crust has encountered some form of Cousin Antoinette’s why-isn’t-he-her-ex-husband-yet’s annual passive-aggressive attempt at hearty encouragement. “Still no agent, eh? I’d always thought that the really good books got snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing? A good writer can make a lot of money that way, right?”

Am I correct that you have on occasion kicked yourself for your reaction — or non-reaction — to such outrageous stimuli? I’m sure you’ve told yourself that a sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well have answered: “Why, yes, Roger, I have indeed thought about self-publishing. As I had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up, please, and pass the darned yams.”

Or piped merrily, “Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you’d like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but memorably disagreeable role — a disquisition with which I would be all too happy to bore the entire table — could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?”

Or chirped between courses, “You know, Gertie, that’s a common misconception. If you’d like to learn something about how the publication process actually works, I could refer you to an excellent blog.”

Or, while Grandmamma’s mouth is full of pie, observed suavely, “I so appreciate your drumming up future readers for my novel, dearest; I’m sure that will come in very handy down the road. But no, ‘trying just a little harder this year’ won’t necessarily make the difference between hitting the bestseller lists and obscurity. You might want to try telling your friends that even if I landed an agent for my novel within the next few days — even less likely at this time of year than others, by the way, as the publishing world slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — it could easily be a year or two before you can realistically urge them to buy my novel. Thanks for your reliable support, though; it means a lot to me.”

Most of us aren’t up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, alas. We’re more inclined to get defensive, to tell Dad he doesn’t know whereat he speaks — or to stuff our traitorous mouths with mashed potatoes so we won’t tell Dad he doesn’t know whereat he speaks. In the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can sound very much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin that so loves to lurk in the back of the creative mind.

“If you were truly talented,” that little beastie loves to murmur in the ear of a writer already feeling discouraged, “an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work.”

Admit it — you’re on a first-name basis with that goblin. It’s been whispering in your ear ever since you began to query. Or submit. Or perhaps as soon as you started to write.

Even so, you’re entitled to be a little startled when Bertie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly pleasant person your brother brought along to dinner because he’s new to town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Instead of emptying that conveniently nearby vat of cranberry sauce over his Adonis-like curls, may I suggest trying to be charitable? Your brother’s friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.

“Wait — how?” you ask, cranberry-filled vat already aloft.

Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to argue with a living, breathing person than someone whose base camp is located inside your head. Astonishingly often, an artless question like “Oh, you write? Would I have read any of your work?” from the ignoramus across the table will give voice to a niggling doubt that’s been eating at a talented writer for years.

Or so I surmise, from how frequently writers complain about such questions. “How insensitive can they be?” writers inevitably wail in the wake of holiday gatherings, and who could blame them? “I swear that I heard ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and/or kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer, as opposed to the fantasy kind that writes a book one minute, is instantly and spontaneously solicited by an agent the next, and is chatting on a couch with a late-night TV host immediately thereafter? Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently regarded as the only measure of writing talent?”

The short answer to that extraordinarily well-justified cri de coeur is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing. I’m relatively certain, though, that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove the writers mentioned above to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. They’re just echoing a common misunderstanding of how books do and don’t get published.

Which brings us once again to our old pal, the Publication Fairy. Her pixie dust can blind even the most sensible bystander to the writing process. Not only does popular belief hold that the only good book is a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively gasp with laughter — but also that if a writer were actually gifted, publication would be both swift and inevitable, following with little or no effort hard upon typing THE END on a first draft. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased on a shelf is the quality of the writing, right? Because no one ever buys a book without reading it first.

Are you guffawing yet? More importantly, is Bertie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be rolling on the shag carpet by now.

Yet I sense that you’re not laughing. You’re not even smiling. In fact, if you’re honest about it, you and Bertie may have been nodding silently while reading through that list of risible untruths about publishing.

Because this is such a frequent source of self-doubt, let’s tease out the logic a little. If we accept all of the suppositions as accurate, there are only two conceivable reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). That means, invariably, that a writer complaining about how hard the road is must either need a kick in the rump or gentle dissuasion from pursuing a dream that can’t possibly come true.

Fortunately for dinner-table harmony, most nice folks aren’t up to providing either to a relative they see only once or twice a year. (Although your Aunt Gloria is always up for a little rump-kicking, I hear.) Accordingly, they figure, the only generous response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one’s eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.

Or to change the subject altogether. Really, it isn’t your sister’s coworker’s fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the already-wounded ego of some poor soul writhing under a first query rejection, and who therefore clearly has no talent for writing?

Chuckling yet? You should be. While it is of course conceivable that any of the reasons above could be stifling the publication chances of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Violet?” yet again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or could be adequately measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Print-and-Bind-It-Now wand would cause the pros to choke with mirth.

So would the length of that last sentence, come to think of it. Ol’ Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one. Unless he’s still lingering over the pecan pie with Madame de Sévigné, Noël Coward, and Euripides. (They’re always the last to leave the table.)

Again, though, my finely-tuned antennae tell me that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers everywhere point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike, that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me really, really, REALLY wants to believe that’s not actually the case. Or at least that it will not be in my case.”

See what I mean about the holidays’ capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? Let’s listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something more. Let’s get it all out on the table.

“If the literary universe is fair,” writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason…

(Stop here for every agent, editor, and book promoter who has ever lived to snort with hilarity.)

“…a good manuscript should always find a home. If that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at Thanksgiving is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

Actually, in that instance, you would be fending off injured cries of “Where is my free copy?” But we’ll talk about that later. Your hobgoblins were saying?

“Since it’s an agent’s job to find exciting new talent,” Bernie et al. continue, “and my query — not my manuscript — has been rejected by four agents and I’ve never heard back from the fifth who asked to see the first 30 pages, there’s really no point in continuing to try to find an agent for this book. They all share the same tastes, and anyway, they’d probably only want me to change things in my manuscript. Maybe Roger is right to urge me to self-publish. But then all of the costs and pressures of promotion would fall on me, and…”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely-frustrated writers and their hobgoblins interrupt us. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out work persistently, until he finds the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third demographic and its internal demons shout en masse. “Send out work persistently? Rejected by four agents — and not heard back from a fifth? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any excellent writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. Are you absolutely certain you want to do that?

It’s a dangerous practice for a writer, you know. The Publication Fairy’s long, shallow shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances decrease over time. Following her siren song can lead a writer to believe, for instance, that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, rather than one who already has the connections to sell a particular book. Or that it would be a dandy idea to sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even to every agent in the country, without checking first to see if any of them represent a your kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one, my dear — to give up after just a few rejections.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, would it? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the quality of the writing would be assessed — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if a writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written. You might as well give up after the first rejection. Or before taking a chance on a query.

Why shouldn’t you, when by prevailing logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to expend any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off an initial draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait mere instants until an agent is miraculously wafted to her doorstep.

Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.

Ah, it’s a pretty fantasy, isn’t it? The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire professional career!” A book contract follows instantaneously, promising publication within a week. By the end of a couple of months at the very latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book, pretending to be modest.

“It has been a life-changing struggle,” the writer says brightly, courageously restraining happy tears, “but I felt I had to write this book. As Maya Angelou says, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’”

You would be astonished at the ubiquity this narrative of authorial achievement enjoys amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually handle books in one’s chosen book category. At a gut level, however, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that the manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you’d thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite as it should be.

Otherwise, where’s Mary Poppins? Aunt Myra may have a point.

‘Fess up — you’ve thought this at time or two. Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to become a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night, or at any rate in the throes of being questioned by those with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell in the current market. It could also signify that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that for querying purposes, one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category.

Any of these can result in knee-jerk rejection. Even if a manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent in recent years that few agents can afford to take on as many truly talented new clients as they would like.

But those are not the justifications likely to pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin in the night. Nor are they prone to convince Uncle Clark, or make Grandmamma happy, or to awe Roger into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince until Cousin Antoinette finally gives him the heave-ho. If only there were some short, pithy quip you could trot out at such instants, if not to cajole these excellent souls into active support, at least to stop them from skewering you when you’re feeling vulnerable.

I cannot give you that magical statement, unfortunately. All I can offer you is the truth: offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we’ve been discussing represents a real-life career trajectory.

Sorry, Dad — that’s just not how books get published. More pie?

The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking. All of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile (which no longer exists) to the top of the acceptance heap.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us with false hope. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that the ladies in question do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with undoubted talent.

Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, people. Oscar Wilde was known to have run into a barrier or two. Louisa May Alcott toiled to churn out potboilers and war anecdotes to pay the coal bill for years before turning to YA, and the primary reason that we know the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley is that his wife happened to be a major novelist and the daughter of two major novelists; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was arguably the greatest literary publicist of all time.

And the first novel Jane Austen sold to a publisher? It didn’t come out until after her death.

The muses donate their favors whimsically. I ask you, though, through the lens of that historical perspective: is it really soon enough to judge your writing solely by its immediate commercial prospects? Is it ever?

To non-writers, these perfectly reasonable questions can appear downright delusional, or at the very least confusing. They have no experience having their passions bandied about by the muses, you see. To be fair, you cannot expect otherwise from an upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!”

So we are left to ask ourselves: what can such a sterling soul possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded? Even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy with a tenacity that makes Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy turn chartreuse with envy. If only adults believed in them with such fervor!

If you doubt the strength of the Publication Fairy’s sway, try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers who haven’t asked about it. “So when is your book coming out?” that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never-been-clear will inquire. “And would you mind passing that mysterious grey substance with which your roommate chose to trouble our family meal?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You talked about writing it before Travis here was born, and now he’s on the football squad.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book. Or is this still the first book?”

Your brother’s wife might attempt to be a bit more tactful; Colleen always tries, doesn’t she? “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Do you really want to put yourself through it? I have a friend who’s self-publishing, and…”

Thanks, Colleen — because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dank midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the profits to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, even today — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

Yes, you read that correctly. But the Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

If she can, she certainly doesn’t do it much. Chant it with me now: agents don’t magically appear on good authors’ doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed. But someone predisposed to believe otherwise is also unlikely to understand that when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent? When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house.

We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders. Mary Poppins could have a flat landing-place made out of dimes.

Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.

But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re too smart to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing in the immediate vicinity of pickled beets. I sense, though, that more than a few of you would enjoy having a bit of ammunition at the ready in anticipation for that particular battle, should it arise.

Okay, how might one gird one’s loins for that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about responding to the question “Published yet, Charlie?” by abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent election? Or universal healthcare? Or a certain grand jury verdict in Missouri?

You see the point, don’t you? Just as it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it’s always dangerous to presume that every kind soul there will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually occurs. Accepting the probable reality that even the most eloquent explanation will not necessarily sway hearts and minds from devotion to the Publication Fairy may be your best bet.

So what might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s acolytes do to protect her digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days, Ambrose?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Allison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, Sis. Seriously, though, I don’t want to stultify you with an explanation of how books really get published.”

Think about giving it a rest this year, in short. Don’t try to educate everyone in one fell swoop; it’s not your responsibility, and actually, the lecture you give this year may not be sufficiently remembered the next to help you. (Oh, that’s only my in-laws?) Unless you are willing to resign yourself to the inevitability of annual soapbox-mounting, you might want to consider letting your loved ones’ belief in the Publication Fairy survive another holiday season.

If your inherent sense of justice urges you to convey some small sense of your monumental effort toward writing and/or revising, or to share a glimpse into multitudinous stresses involved in querying, submission, and so forth, I’d advise keeping it brief for the purposes of general discussion. It can be easy to become carried away by a topic close to your creative heart, though. If you find yourself starting to launch into a major speech, a simple “Well, I could go on for hours, Horace, but suffice it to say that it’s really hard. I’m trying to take a day off from it, though” can easily bring it to a close. It can also allow you to control how long you’re on the spot.

Oh, now I hear some of you laughing. Yes? “Oh, Anne,” you say, wiping the tears of hilarity from your rosy cheeks, “it’s obvious you have never met my kith/kin/the relative strangers with whom I propose to spend the holiday. I anticipate being confronted not with the casual double-edged question, but with a level of intensive cross-examination and invasive scrutiny from which Perry Mason himself could glean a few pointers. I’m not worried about getting into the conversation; I despair of ever getting out of it.”

A tougher nut to crack, admittedly. I would recommend cutting it off at the first parry. “Wow, that’s a big subject, Gerard,” can often do the trick. Adding “I could prattle for weeks about the behind-the-scenes trials every author faces along the way, but my dinner would get cold, and I so want to hear about Cousin Blanche’s hysterectomy. Ask me again after the dishes are done, when we can make ourselves cozy in a corner and talk. How about during the football game?”

That last bit will, of course, work best if Gerard happens to be a die-hard football fan. It may feel like a low blow, but hey, all’s fair in love, war, and protecting your passions.

If pressed, you could always murmur, “I’d love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Because everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a novel, right?”

An especially judgmental holiday table might be anticipated by the appearance of such a notebook beside your napkin, in fact. As any journalist or rationally self-protective memoirist could tell you, people are apt to clam up a little when they notice their words are being recorded for posterity. Applying pen to paper proactively, accompanied by a slight, rueful shake of the head and a chuckle, will at least turn the conversation from “Why aren’t you published?” to “What are you writing? What did I just say?”

The latter may well be spoken in a resentful tone, but you might be astonished how often it isn’t. Speaking as a memoirist, I’m here to tell you that it never pays underestimate the flattery inherent in finding people interesting enough to occupy page space. I’ve seldom met the Aunt Myra so iron-hearted that “Oh, wow — I’ve just got to write that quip down, Auntie! Talk amongst yourselves while I do” doesn’t soften her will to criticize, at least a little. And it’s a terrific defense for the moment Aunt Gloria decides your rump would benefit from some well-intentioned kicking about not polishing off your revision fast enough.

You could also call upon most people’s active dislike of boredom. An enthusiastic cry of “Oh, my goodness — you have no idea how happy I am that you want to hear all about my writing! Just a sec, while I power up my laptop. The scene I want to read you is a trifle on the long side, but you don’t mind keeping my food warm for me, do you, Eloise?”

Prepare to be stunned by the urgency with which Uncle George and his — what are they called at that age? — great and good friend Carlotta fling themselves into a discussion of the comparative merits of The Blacklist and White Palace as James Spader vehicles at that particular moment. Or Cousin Tremaine’s burning desire to share the scores of each of his eight children’s soccer games. For the last two years.

As I learned at my mother’s knee, any dinner table seating five or more people naturally breaks up into more than one conversation. (My parents threw a lot of literary dinner parties.) Use it.

If the proposed dramatic reading of your own writing doesn’t induce panic, try a burbling offer to declaim that passage in Melville that changed your life forever. Or Proust — in the original French, if necessary. (See earlier observation about what’s fair in love, war, and ego-preservation.)

Let’s assume for the sake of caution, though, that you’re facing a tableful of kith/kin/well-meaning relative strangers breaking bread with you so committed to showing you the error of your writing ways that there’s no graceful way to evade or shorten the conversation. Or that you are dining with a group whose belief in the Publication Fairy is so unquestioning as to border on the childlike (or imbecilic), and you hate the idea of any one of those people’s feeling sorry for you. Or maybe that your obnoxious brother Graham knows that the agent of your dreams has been sitting on your first 50 pages for nine long weeks, and he just enjoys needling you.

Whichever may be the case, what’s a nice (and most writers are nice) writer to do? I would recommend seizing the moment to engage in a little advance education on the practicalities of occupying the inner circle of a published author’s life. The sooner Great-Uncle Vic learns that there’s more to being a famous author’s relative than bragging rights and free books, the more comfortable everyone will be on the happy day when you do in fact become a famous author.

I find that concentrating upon the details tends to go over better than gentle nudges toward a more supportive attitude while folks are gnawing upon drumsticks. I would recommend, in short, of seizing the opportunity of disabusing them of the notion that they’re not going to have to buy your books.

Be prepared for a certain amount of incredulity: next to the Publication Fairy, the notion that authors’ kith and kin routinely receive free copies is one of your more ubiquitous misconceptions. It’s seldom true, at least not to the extent your relatives will think. Yes, Second-Cousin-Thrice-Removed Myrtle, publishers do generally provide their authors with an extremely limited stock of their books, with the expectation that such will be used for promotion. They’re going to want you to pass them along to book reviewers and bloggers and the clerk at your favorite bookstore, not to endow your relatives’ bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

The number of free copies will almost certainly be considerably smaller than either Great-Uncle Vic or Carlotta have been thinking, too. (Oh, you didn’t think he’d been expecting you to send him a signed copy for Carlotta, too? Think again.) Somewhere between 5 and 50 is the norm.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise scads of free copies — and those of us in the biz are perpetually appalled at how often first-time authors often do — you will be facing some hard choices. To whom will you give those precious few books?

Undoubtedly more important to the folks with whom you are currently enjoying turkey, how many of them will not be on that short list? What about the person sitting across the table from you? To your left? To your right?

Before you answer, you might want to take a quick mental count of all the other people who might make sense as recipients. Will you want to send one to your favorite writing teacher? The lady at the archives who took all that extra time to help you research the book? What about your college roommate? Or that blogger who gave you hope when your relatives criticized you? (Oh, yes, authors constantly send me review copies. As much as I appreciate the gesture, please, don’t waste a book on me that you could send to what are euphemistically called opinion-makers: I’d be more than happy with a beautifully-phrased thank-you card, truly.)

All done toting up? Okay, here are 10 free copies. Are there any left for your relatives?

If the answer is no, trust me, it’s better you know it now. It’s also news that you might want to break with great care to your relatives.

Yes, yes, I know: you don’t want to do it. But tell me: will Myrtle be less hurt to hear about it now, or three days before your book drops? What about Uncle George, Aunt Gloria, or the rest of those quadruplets? Honestly, you would be saving them from future disappointment — and yourself from what can be quite a lot of well-intentioned pressure.

Oh, you want a foretaste? How about “What do you mean, you didn’t save a copy for your brother Ralph? You expect someone with whom you shared a bedroom for a decade to pay for his copy?”

Yes, you do. Or you will. It’s not merely that for every copy you give away, that’s one less copy sold. (Who did you think would buy your book, if not your kith, kin, and everyone who has ever known you?) That ultimately means fewer royalties for you, as well as possibly a harder time convincing a publisher to bring out your next book.

Not that it would be remotely politic to express any of this so bluntly, of course. Phrase it as gently as you know how; it will come as a blow to folks expecting not only never to have to pay a dime for a single word of your writing, but possibly — brace yourself — having also presumed that they would be on the receiving end of copies to distribute to their friends. (Hey, it’s a common fantasy amongst the author-adjacent.)

Just bear in mind that by speaking now, you’re ultimately saving the people you love from chagrin. If that doesn’t do the trick, try recalling that if you recklessly promise free copies — and again, those of us in the biz are positively aghast at how many first-time authors have — you will almost certainly be buying those gift copies yourself.

I don’t mean that conceptually, by the way: it’s exceedingly common for first-time authors to end up actually purchasing individual copies for their relatives and friends. To see why, you need only revisit that mental list of gift recipients.

That’s a difficult reality to accept, isn’t it? I can tell you now that you’re going to feel mean as you convey this information. Feel free to blame me as the source of the bad news: trust me, it would not be the first time “You’re not going to believe what I read on Author! Author!” was used as a blow-softener. I’m tough; I can take it.

More to the point, I’m not having Thanksgiving dinner with you, am I?

I can, however, anticipate your mother’s first tremulous question, and possibly yours: yes, authors do generally receive fairly substantial discounts on their own books, as long as those books are purchased directly from the publisher (and, in many cases, ordered in advance of the release date). Houses like to encourage their authors to carry around copies to resell to anyone who says, “Oh, you have a book out? Cool!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, authors so often show up at reading venues staggering under heavy backpacks or enormous purses. If the venue’s not a bookstore, those authors usually have a box or two of books in their cars, ready to pile in an attractive display next to the podium. (What, you thought the Publication Fairy brought them?)

What may interest you more than your mother to hear, however, is that copies purchased with the author’s discount virtually never count toward a book’s sales totals — and thus not toward royalties. That hefty discount arises from your price’s not reflecting royalty costs or negotiated deals with booksellers, you see. (You’re going to want to check your publishing contract carefully on this point; sometimes, it’s negotiable, as is the number of free copies.) A cost-conscious writer might also like to know before promising copies that one’s agent or acquiring editor might not think to point out that buying a lot of discounted books might not be to the author’s advantage.

They tend to assume that the bit about those copies’ not adding toward sales totals is quite a bit more widely known than it actually is; it’s not unheard-of for this tidbit not to be discussed at all at contract time, or even as the book is moving toward publication. The author usually hears about the number of free copies (“There you go, Mom!”) and the discount (“Okay, Great-Uncle Vic can think that his was free.”), but simply assumes that a book sold is a book sold. Why wouldn’t a discounted copy be included in the overall total and generate royalties?

Don’t believe that often comes as an unpleasant surprise? As recently as last week, I was chatting with a quite successful first-time memoirist. Her excellent book came out earlier this year, and, as is so often the case, she had underestimated the unpaid time, effort, and expense an author at a major house is routinely expected to devote to book promotion. She was particularly annoyed to learn that she had to buy and pay to ship 50 copies of her book to a speaking venue — and then to pay to have the 42 that hadn’t sold at the event shipped to her home. She wasn’t sure, she said, that she would be willing to do it again.

I commiserated. “And to think that after all that effort, those books will have no effect on your book’s sales totals. I’m so sorry.”

“Wait,” she said. “What? I won’t get royalties?”

So no, Mom, your baby’s probably not going to be coughing up the cover price for a copy for you, but it may be costly in other ways. Your in-house author may even be able to shake free a gratis copy for Great-Grandma Midge, who isn’t getting any younger, but please don’t feel guilty. Mom might want to get into the habit of telling more distant relatives — like, say, those cousins she made you invite to your wedding, although you hadn’t seen them since you were six — that they should plan on buying their own copies. You would be delighted to sign them afterward.

Trust the voice of experience: the more special she feels at the prospect of clutching her own free book — the only one in the family, because you’re such a good kid! — the more likely she is to go to bat for you. “Every single copy Tammy sells helps her,” she can say — and she’ll get better with practice. “I’ll understand if you can’t afford it, of course. She’s been working so hard for so many years on this book, but please don’t feel guilty.”

Translation: the best thing Aunt Myra could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her the instant she does. If you’re feeling adventurous, extend that promise to visiting her in order to inscribe copies for all of the friends she can cajole, blandish, and/or guilt into purchasing.

I have faith in your Aunt Myra. I think she can push some volumes.

All that being said, don’t kick yourself if you find you don’t have the heart to tell your relatives and friends any of this in the course of the current holiday season. This is big stuff, and even the best of us have people in our lives prone to judging the quality of a book by its position on the bestseller list. You have to pick your battles. You might want to bookmark this page, though, so you have the arguments handy down the line.

Heck, you could just forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. Again, I don’t mind playing the heavy here, if it helps you. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives.

I see no reason to stop now. Your writing deserves it, doesn’t it?

And you have that support within our Author! Author! community. Here, we don’t dismiss every book that doesn’t sell 150,000 copies. We don’t feel that large print contributes more to reading pleasure than the style of the writing. (Take that, Madame de Sévigné!) And most of all, we don’t believe in the Publication Fairy.

It’s sweet, in a way, that so many people do. By that logic, the Followers of the Fairy incur a greater obligation than the rest of us to buy the books of authors they know personally: the Fairy, and the industry, can only reward with success books that readers purchase. Anyone who wants to judge your dream to write by that yardstick should understand that they can, with a good will and the best of intentions, contribute to your sales totals. And thus to their opinion of the value of your writing endeavors.

As always, keep up the good work. Happy digestion to all, and to all a good night.

Sing it along with me now, submitters: torn between requests for pages, feeling like a fool. Is showing my manuscript to both of you breaking all the rules?

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Ah, exclusivity. As a recent question from a member of the Author! Author! community reminded me, few issues trouble the sleep of writers new to submission more than this: if an agent asks to read my manuscript, may I show it to another while she’s reading it?

That burning question does not concern merely the stressed-out fortunate lucky enough to have received a request for an exclusive peek at their manuscripts, either. Writers’ minds are, let’s face it, unusually gifted at spinning out scenarios both fabulous and fabulously disastrous about what happens to their manuscripts after those pages disappear into the murky depths of an agency, doubt abounds — and multiplies unmercifully. What happens if an agent asks to see my book on an exclusive basis, the aspiring fret, and who could blame them? and she doesn’t make up her mind before another agent asks to see it? What if I’ve already sent pages to fifteen other agents, and somebody asks for an exclusive? What if one of those fifteen never gets back to me, so I don’t know whether I have a manuscript under consideration or not when a new one asks? While I’m at it, what if an agent really did want an exclusive, but I didn’t pick up some subtle, publishing-world-specific signal and mistakenly submitted my book widely? What if paper-devouring giants come along and inhale my pages between the time they land at the agency of my dreams and when the agent of the aforementioned dreams has a chance to read them? What if…

Enough, already. The short answer to all of these questions is this: you’re probably not going to find yourself in most of these situations. Particularly that one with the giants.

Or, as it happens, the one about being ethically bound not to show your work to a second agent while a first is pondering it. Contrary to popular dead-of-night fears, requests for exclusives — the perversely longed-for situation in which an agent cries, “Wait! I liked your query/pitch/first few pages that I read so much that I want to be the only agent in Christendom reading it! Don’t show it to anyone else until I have, ‘kay?” — are actually relatively rare. And contrary to rumors lingering from the writers’ conference circuit, it’s also not especially common for agents to demand exclusive peeks at manuscripts as a matter of policy.

Except that some agencies do harbor that policy. Some agents do ask for exclusives. And occasionally, a perfectly well-intentioned writer just trying to follow the rules finds herself singing the title of this post to a dark ceiling at 4 a.m.

How do I know this? Experience, mostly: the Author! Author! comment section has been the go-to source for writers’ anxiety for years now. During and after every single conference season — yes, and every single autumn, in the weeks after savvy writers have sent out post-Labor Day queries — successful pitchers and queriers have come creeping to me furtively with a terrified question: what have I done, and how may I fix it?

Oh, you think that’s an exaggeration, do you? Let me put it this way: for the last few years, I have asked these panicked persons — after I have soothed their heated brows, of course — to give me suggestions for what category title, if any, would most easily have caught their eye on the archive list at the height of their chagrin. Without exception, every single respondent has suggested that I include the word Help!

Usually with several exclamation points. I have some reason to believe, then, that there’s just a little bit of ambient confusion about when it is and is not okay to submit a manuscript to several agents or editor at a time. And, perhaps even more pertinent to the midnight terrors haunting many right about now, how should a writer lucky enough to walk away from a conference with more than one request for pages decide which agent or editor to submit to first?

The short answer, as it so often is in publishing matters, is it depends. The long answer is a question: what about these particular requests make you believe you have to rank them?

If you’re like most writers gearing up to submit, the answer to the long answer probably runs a little something like this: well, obviously, I shouldn’t submit to more than one agent at a time — that would be rude. Or is that I’ve heard that agents consider it rude? Anyway, I wouldn’t want to run the risk of offending anyone. Besides, if I submit only to the one I liked better — which was that again? — I don’t have to come up with a graceful way to say no to the other one. And it’s less work for me: if the first one says yes, I don’t have to go to the trouble of making up another submission packet. But if I do that, must I wait for the first to say no before I send out pages to the second? What if the first never gets back to me? Or what if the first doesn’t get back to me until after I’ve already submitted to the second, and then yells at me because he didn’t want me to show the book to anyone else? And what if…

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about writers’ being gifted at spinning out the ol’ plot lines. If that logic loop sounds familiar, the first thing to do is calm down. In the vast majority of multiple submissions, no problems arise whatsoever.

Especially if you’re clever and conscientious enough to have double-checked the various agencies’ websites and/or listings in a recent edition of one of the popular guides to literary agents. If an agency has a policy of demanding to be the only one considering a manuscript for representation, they’ll generally say so. It’s also quite normal for an agent expecting to read a manuscript without competition to ask for an exclusive point-blank.

And already, I hear sighs of relief bouncing off mountaintops around the cosmos. “Phew!” thousands of submitters mutter. “That was a close one. I’d heard that maybe all agents secretly expected me to submit, or even query, only one of them at a time. So when my already-bloodshot eyeballs caught sight of the title of this post, I instantly felt guilty!”

If so, you’re not alone. The welter of dire warnings and fourth-hand horror stories floating around out there has created a miasma of anxiety around querying and submission. Surely, I don’t have to tell any of you reading this that there’s an awful lot of querying and submission advice out there, much of it contradictory. (Which is, in case those of you searching frantically through the archives have been wondering, why I always provide such extensive explanations for everything I advise here: since so many of my readers are considering quite a bit of competing information — and frequently doing it in a moment when they are already feeling overwhelmed — I believe that it’s as important that you know why I’m suggesting something as to understand how to implement the suggestion. I never, ever want any of my readers to do what I say just because I say so. So there.)

I probably also don’t have to tell you — yet here I am doing it — that quite often, submission problems are the result of believing the common wisdom and applying it to every agent one might ever want to approach, rather than carefully reading each agency’s submission guidelines and treating each query/submission situation as unique.

Sometimes, though, even that level of hedging doesn’t prevent a writer from falling into a ditch. Witness, for instance, the situation into which Virginia, a long-time member of the Author! Author! community, innocently tumbled a while back.

Help! I submitted only two queries to two agents. One got back to me quickly and did ask for exclusive right to review. A few days after I agreed to this, the second agent replied and asked for pages. I don’t want to violate my agreement, but how do I tell the second agent I’m really happy she wants to see more but she has to wait?

Successful queriers and pitchers end up in this kind of dilemma all the time, often without understanding how they ended up there or why they’re stressed out about what was presumably the outcome they were seeking when they approached multiple agents simultaneously: more than one agent interested in reading their work. An exclusive is always a good thing, they reason nervously, a sign that an agent was unusually eager to see a queried or pitched book, and thus decided to bypass her usual method of requesting manuscripts.

Not always, no. But it depends.

Sometimes, a request for an exclusive genuinely does indicate an agent’s being so excited by a query or pitch (especially if that book has just won a major literary contest) that she’s afraid that another agent will snap it up first. Far more frequently, though, a surprise request for an exclusive is the natural and should-have-been-expected outcome when a writer approaches an agent working at an agency that has an exclusives-only policy.

Does that forest of hands springing up out there mean some of you have been paying attention? “But Anne,” attentive readers everywhere shout, “isn’t that precisely the kind of behavior you have been exhorting us not to practice?”

Yes, shouters: help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. A savvy querier does indeed double-check every agency’s submission policies every time.

But let’s say that you didn’t. Again, that wouldn’t exactly place you in the minority — the overwhelming majority of queriers don’t read each individual agency’s submission guidelines before sending out those letters. At least the first time around, aspiring writers generally assume that all agencies operate in the same manner. And very few pitchers do much research on the agents and editors they plan to approach at conferences, beyond reading the blurbs in the conference brochure.

So if you find yourself teetering uncomfortably in Virginia’s steps, don’t worry. You’re certainly not the only aspiring writer that’s ever slipped into those moccasins. Heck, you’re probably not the only one to try to trudge a mile in them today.

Especially likely to find themselves limping through this dilemma: pitchers and queriers who do what virtually every aspiring writer asked to submit materials does — and what Virginia probably did here: sending out pages within hours of receiving the request.

It’s a completely understandable faux pas, in short, especially if the request for an exclusive arises from a query. Overjoyed at what they assume (in this case, wrongly) will be the only interest their queries will generate, many multiply-querying writers don’t pause to consider that multiple requests for manuscripts are always a possible outcome while sending out simultaneous queries.

Thus, it follows as night the day, so is a situation where one of those agents requests an exclusive. And it follows as day the night that an exclusive request is also a possibility when pitching at a conference.

This is why, in case any of you inveterate conference-goers have been curious, agents and editors invariably sigh when an aspiring writer raises his hand to ask some form of this particular question — and it’s not for the reason that other aspiring writers will sigh at it. (The latter usually sigh because wish they had this problem, and again, who could blame them?) The pros will sigh because they’re thinking, Okay, did this writer just not do his homework on the agents he approached? Or is he asking me to tell him that he can blithely break the commitment he’s made to Agent #1? Does this writer seriously believe all agents are in league together, that I would be able to grant permission to insult one of my competitors?

That’s why everyone else will sigh. I, however, sigh because my thought process runs like this: okay, I have to assume that the questioner is someone who hasn’t read any of my blog posts on querying or submission, as much as that possibility pains me to consider. But since I have a small army of explicitly-named categories on my archive list — conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of my website’s main page, including such topics as EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION, EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? — directly aimed at answering this question, and a battalion more that deal with it within the larger context of submission (under provocative headings like AFTER YOU RECEIVE A REQUEST FOR PAGES, AFTER YOU SUBMIT, HOW LONG BEFORE THE REQUEST FOR PAGES EXPIRES? HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE, IS IT OKAY TO SUBMIT TO SEVERAL AGENTS AT ONCE? and other similarly-named categories based upon panicked questions from members of our little community), as well as a dramatically-reenacted scenario directly related to this issue in the Industry Etiquette series. Yet I have to assume that the questioner is facing a situation that I have managed to overlook addressing in any of these posts. So I shall eschew the temptation just to send the questioner to any or all of those categories, try to understand how and why this situation is unique, and answer the question for the 1,477th time, because gosh darn it, a writer is in pain!”

Yes, I can think with that much specificity in mid-sigh, thank you very much. It’s just one of my many, many dubious talents.

All that being said — or, at any rate, thought exceptionally loudly — it is undoubtedly true that more writers than ever before seem to be finding themselves enmeshed in Virginia’s dilemma. Or simply unsure about whether it’s okay to submit to more than one agent at once. Quite a bit of the common wisdom out there, after all, dictates that writers should wait to hear back on one submission before sending out the next.

The short answer to that: poppycock! The long answer — and I sincerely hope that by now you saw this coming — is it depends.

On what? On the individual agency’s policies, of course, as well as how the agent in question phrased the request for pages. And, lest we forget, upon the writer’s planned submission schedule.

Let’s face it, more than one agent’s reading your pages simultaneously constitutes a fairly significant advantage. In an environment where submission volumes are so high that even a requested full manuscript may well sit on a corner of an agent’s desk for a year or more — and that’s after Millicent has already decided she liked it enough to pass it along to her boss– just presuming that any agent would prefer to be the only one considering a manuscript could add years to the submission process. If an agency has a no-reply-if-the-reply-will-be-no policy, stated or unstated, the hapless submitter can have no idea whether silence means (a) no, (b) the manuscript got lost in transit, (c) the manuscript got lost at the agency, d) those pesky giants made a meal of it — or e), most common of all: the agent just hasn’t had time to read it yet.

Well might you turn pale. As agencies have been cutting their staffs over the last few years (and aspiring writers who wouldn’t have had time to query or submit before the economic downturn have been digging old manuscripts out of bottom desk drawers), turn-around times lengthened demonstrably. Not entirely coincidentally, the practice of not informing a submitter if the answer is no has increased dramatically. So has hanging on to a manuscript someone at the agency likes in the hope that market conditions will improve for that type of book.

An unfortunate side effect: more and more submitters who just don’t know whether they can legitimately grant exclusives to another agent or not. How could they, when they have heard that writers should never bug agents while their manuscripts are under consideration?

All of which is to say: let’s not be smug when a fellow writer finds himself stuck in this particular tar pit. It actually isn’t fair to leap to the conclusion that if aspiring writers read agents’ websites and agency guide listings more thoroughly, they would never end up in this situation. Sometimes, an exclusive request does come out of a genuinely blue sky, whacking a conscientious multiple querier or submitter right in the noggin.

How is that possible? Amazingly often, the writer simply does not know that exclusivity is even a remote possibility until an agent asks for it. Unless an agency has an exclusives-only policy (do I need to remind you again to check?), the prospect generally will not be mentioned in its submission guidelines.

Then, too, the request for an exclusive is seldom formulated in a manner that informs a writer not already aware of the fact that she can say no. Or that she can defer saying yes, granting the exclusive at a later date. Or put a time limit on the exclusive, if she agrees to it at all.

All are perfectly legitimate responses to a request for an exclusive, incidentally. But whether any of them is situationally-appropriate depends on the actual content of the request; they vary more than one might think.

I can, however, rule out a couple of possibilities up front. First, there is no such thing as an implied request for an exclusive; such requests are always directly stated. So unless an agent or editor specifically asked for an exclusive peek at all or part of a manuscript or the agency has a clearly-posted exclusives-only policy on its website, a writer does not need to worry at all about offending Agent A by submitting simultaneously submitting the same manuscript to Agent B.

Yes, really. Just mention in your cover letters to each that another agent is looking at it — no need to say which one — and you should be fine.

Would you fling the nearest portable object in my general direction, though, if I swiftly added that the advisability of even this morally blameless route sometimes depends upon factors beyond the writer’s knowledge and control? Back in my querying days, I blithely sent off requested materials to a seventh agent, while six were already considering it. In that, I was being completely ethical: all seven’s agencies websites, communications with me, and listings in the standard agency guides failed to mention any exclusives-only policies. Nor did #7’s request for the manuscript specify that he wanted an exclusive. That being the case, I simply told him in my cover letter that he was not the only agent reading the book.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

I must admit, I didn’t — his irate announcement that his agency never considered multiple submissions left me pretty gobsmacked. But once he had expressed that preference, I was compelled to abide by his rules, even though they were late-breaking news: I had to choose whether to e-mail him back to say I accepted his terms, and would be telling Nos. 1-6 that my manuscript was no longer available, or to apologize for not being aware of what I could not possibly have known and withdraw my submission to him. I chose the latter, and lived to submit another day.

I sense some of you seething, do I not? “But Anne!” the hot-blooded among you cry. “That wasn’t fair! Why didn’t you insist that he abide by what you thought were the original terms of the submission?”

Because, passionate ones, as Thomas Hobbes once so rightly observed, rights are the ability to enforce them. Arguing with an agent about his own submission policies is always a losing proposition for a writer.

So before you say yes to an exclusive, make sure you understand its terms, as well as what granting it would mean for you. Read that request very, very carefully, as well as the agency’s website. (Yes, again; they might have changed their policies since you sent your query.) Will the exclusive be open-ended, or is the agent asking for you to hold off on submitting elsewhere for a particular period of time? If the request doesn’t specify an end date — and most exclusive requests don’t — would you feel comfortable setting the request aside for a few months while you responded to any other agents that had already expressed interest? Or if it took three months to get an answer from an agent that already had the manuscript?

Stop gasping like a beached whale. A three-month turn-around on a manuscript submission would be a positively blistering rate, by current standards.

While you’re asking those follow-up questions, here’s another: are you absolutely positive that the agent is asking for an exclusive? Sometimes, in the heat of excitement at hearing a yes, a successful querier — or, even more commonly, a successful pitcher — will slightly misinterpret what he’s being asked to do.

Yes, really. Many a super-excited conference attendee has floated away from a pitch meeting falsely believing that he and the agent have hit it off so darned well in that ten-minute conference that obviously, the agent must be expecting an exclusive. Heck, good ol’ (fill in polite pitch-listener’s name here) would be positively hurt if her new buddy allowed another agent so much as a peek at it, right?

Um, wrong. Chant it with me now, close readers: unless an agent specifically asks for an exclusive or her agency has an established exclusives-only policy, you are free to submit as widely as you wish. The same holds true if you have indeed received a request for an exclusive, but have not yet granted it. While the manuscript remains in your hands, you retain complete control.

Feel better, submitters? I thought so. Remember, a request for an exclusive is in fact a request, not a command. Even if a writer receives one or more requests for an exclusive, she’s not under any obligation to grant any or all of them– nor does she need to agree to any right away.

That’s vital to know going in: the instant the writer has agreed to an exclusive, she does in fact have to honor it. So it’s in the writer’s best interest to give the matter some advance thought.

I just felt half of you tense up at the very notion of delaying so much as forty consecutive seconds before bellowing, “Yes! Yes! Whatever you want, agent of my dreams,” but think about it. If Virginia had pondered Agent A’s request for a week or two, wouldn’t she have found herself in a much, much happier dilemma when Agent B’s epistle arrived? Then, she would merely have had to decide to which she wanted to submit first, the one that wanted the exclusive or the one that didn’t.

What would have been the right answer here, you ask with bated breath? Easy: it depends.

Upon what? Feel free to pull out your songbooks and sing along: if Agent A’s agency’s had a posted exclusives-only submission policy, he had a right to expect Virginia to be aware of it before she queried, and thus to believe that by querying him, she was agreeing to that condition. If an agency will only accept solo submissions, that’s that: it’s not as though Virginia could negotiate an exception in her case.

It would also depend upon whether the agent put a time limit on the request. It’s rare that an agent or editor includes a start date in an exclusive request (they have other manuscripts waiting on their desks, after all), but they do occasionally specify how long they expect the exclusive to be.

Given Virginia’s surprise, though, my guess is that neither of these conditions applied. That means, ethically, the choice of when the exclusive would commence would be up to her.

The only thing she could not legitimately do was submit to both A and B after A said he would read it only as an exclusive. That does not necessarily mean, however, that if Virginia wanted to submit to A first, she could not suggest a time limit on the exclusive, in order to enable her to take advantage of B’s interest if A decided to pass.

And a thousand jaws hit the floor. Yes, yes, I know: the very idea of the writer’s saying, “Yes, Agent A, although you did not indicate a time limit, I would love to grant you a three-month exclusive — here’s the manuscript!” would seem to run counter to the idea that the requester gets to set the terms of the exclusive. But in Virginia’s case, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere) that Agent A is of the ilk that does not habitually specify an end date for an exclusive. So proposing one would not constitute arguing with him; it would merely be telling him how long she believes she is agreeing to refrain from sending the manuscript elsewhere.

He could always make a counterproposal, after all. Or ask for more time at the end of those three months. It’s a reasonable length of time, though, so he probably won’t say no — as he would, in all likelihood, if she set the time at something that would require him to rearrange his schedule to accommodate, like three weeks.

Why so glum? Was it something I said? “Three months?” the impatient groan. “I thought you were kidding about that earlier. To me, three weeks sounds like a long time to hear back! If the agent is interested enough to request an exclusive, why shouldn’t I expect a rapid reply?”

Ah, that’s a common misconception. 99.999% of the time, what an aspiring writer asked for an exclusive thinks the agent is saying is not, “Okay, your book sounds interesting and marketable, but I don’t want to have to rush to beat competing agents in reading the manuscript. Please remove the necessity of my having to hurry by agreeing not to show it to anyone else until I’ve gotten back to you.”

Which is, incidentally, what a request for exclusivity means, at base. Rather deflating to think of it that way, isn’t it? It is, however, realistic.

By contrast, what 99.999% of aspiring writers in this situation hear is “Oh, my God — this is the most exciting book premise/query/pitch I’ve ever heard. I’m almost positive that I want to represent it, even though I have not yet read a single word of the manuscript or book proposal, and thus have absolutely no idea whether it is written well. Because my marrow is thrilled to an extent unprecedented in my professional experience, I shall toss all of my usual submission expectations and procedures out the nearest window. If you grant my request for an exclusive, exceptional writer, I’m going to clear my schedule so I may delve into this submission the nanosecond it arrives in my office. May I have it today — or, at the very latest, tomorrow — so I can stop holding my breath until it arrives?”

And then the giddy submitter is astonished when weeks or months pass before the agent makes a decision, precisely as if there had been no exclusive involved. The only difference between that and a regular old submission, from the writer’s point of view, is that he was honor-bound not to approach other agents until he heard back.

Pardon my asking, but what did the writer gain by granting that exclusive? Or by not politely attempting to place a time limit upon it from the get-go?

I’m sympathetic to the impulse not to look that gift horse firmly in the mouth, but frankly, many, if not most, aspiring writers confuse initial interest with a commitment. Too often, aspiring writers consider an agent’s request for materials, whether as an exclusive or not, as a signal that the long quest to find a home for that manuscript has come to an end. Acceptance is assured, right?

“Why would an agent ask to see a manuscript exclusively,” they reason, “unless she already thought she might want to sign the author? There must be something else going on. Like hungry giants having overrun the agency.”

A fair enough question, except for the giants part, but I’m not sure you’re going to like the answer. Typically, an agent won’t ask for an exclusive (or to see the manuscript, for that matter) unless she thinks representing it as a possibility; it is a genuine compliment. However, as agents who ask for exclusives seldom make the request of only one writer at a time, it’s not very prudent for a writer to presume that his will be the only exclusive on the agent’s desk.

If that last bit made your stomach drop to somewhere around your knees, please don’t feel blue, or even slightly mauve. The vast majority of writers who have ever been asked for an exclusive peek at their work were under laboring under the same presumption. Often, aspiring writers agree to an exclusive without understanding what it will entail — and usually are either too excited or too shy to ask follow-up questions before they pack off those requested materials.

For the benefit of those overjoyed and/or excited souls, I’m going to invest some blog space into going over what granting that solo peek will and will not require. If you’re planning upon querying an agency that will only consider submissions exclusively, you might want to bookmark this page, for your rereading pleasure.

Within the context of submission, an exclusive calls for a writer to allow an agent time to consider representing a particular manuscript, a period during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules:

(a) only that agent will have an opportunity to read the requested materials;

(b) no other agent is already looking at it;

(c) the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

(d) in return for these significant advantages (which, after all, mean that the agent will not have to compete with other agents to represent the book), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation, but

(e) if no time restriction is specified in advance, or if the agent always requests exclusives, the manuscript may simply be considered on precisely the same timeframe as every other requested by the agency.

Is everyone clear on the rules? Be honest: they differ quite a bit from what you were expecting, don’t they?

Now that we know what Virginia agreed to do in granting an exclusive to Agent A, as well as what her options would have been had she received Agent B’s request before she had sent off the first submission, let’s take a gander what she should do about the situation she described in her question. (You knew I would get to it eventually, right?)

The answer is, as you have probably guessed, it depends. If she wants to play by the rules — and she should, always — her choices are three.

If she specified a time limit on the exclusive when she granted it to Agent A, the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has. On the day after the exclusive has elapsed, she is free to submit to other agents.

What is she to tell Agent B in the interim? Nothing, if the agreed-upon length of the exclusive is reasonable — say, between three and six months.

Breathing into a paper bag will stop that hyperventilation in no time. While you recover, consider: agencies often face monumental backlogs. It’s also not uncommon for agents and editors to read promising manuscripts at home, in their spare time, because they are so swamped.

And no, Virginia, waiting that long before submitting requested materials to B will not seem strange. Agents are perfectly used to writers taking some time to revise their manuscripts. B probably wouldn’t blink twice if she didn’t get back to him for a few months.

Remember, it’s not as though an agent who requests materials sits there, twiddling his thumbs, until he receives it. He’s got a lot of manuscripts already sitting on his desk — and piled on the floor, threatening to tumble of his file cabinet, stacked next to his couch, and causing his backpack to overflow on the A train. Not to mention the legions of paper hanging out in Millicent’s cubicle, awaiting a first screening.

Besides, what would Virginia gain by telling him she’d already promised an exclusive to another agent, other than implicitly informing him that she had already decided that if Agent A offered representation, she would take it? How exactly would that win her Brownie points with B? Or, indeed, help her at all?

And no, Virginia, however tempting it is, informing A that B is twiddling his thumbs, impatiently waiting for A to polish off those pages, will not necessarily speed A’s reading rate. Why should it, when A’s got an exclusive?

In practice, then, all waiting on fulfilling the second request means is that Virginia will have an attractive alternative if A decides to pass on the manuscript. That’s bad because…?

Oh, wait: it isn’t. Actually, it’s an ideal situation for a just-rejected submitter to find herself occupying. Way to go, Virginia!

“But Anne!” I hear the more empathetic among you fretting. “I’m worried about what might happen to Virginia if Agent A doesn’t get back to her within the specified time frame? It’s not as though she can pick up the phone and tell him his time’s up, is it? (Please say yes. Please say yes. Please say yes.)”

I’m going to say no to that last one — it’s always considered rude to call an agent while he’s considering your manuscript — but relax. Our Virginia still has several pretty good options: one completely above-board, one right on the board, and the last slightly under it.

First, the high road: a week or two after the agreed-upon exclusive expires, Virginia could send Agent A a courteous e-mail (not a call), reminding him that the exclusive has elapsed. Would A like more time to consider the manuscript solo, or should Virginia send the manuscript out to the other agents who have requested it?

Naturally, if A selects the latter, she would be delighted to have him continue to consider the manuscript also. That’s fortunate, because I can already tell you the answer will be the former, if A has not yet had a chance to read it.

It’s also quite possible, though, that the response to this charming little missive will be silence. Quite a bit of it. As in weeks or months of it.

Oh, stop clutching your chests — Virginia’s polite request did not insult A into silence. He was already silent, right? That delay might mean that Agent A is no longer interested, but it might also mean that he intended to answer and forgot. Or that he’s planning to read her manuscript really, really soon. Or that he’s taking her at her word about no longer enjoying an exclusive, but honestly believes he can make a decision on the manuscript before another agent has a chance to make an offer. As each of these is actually pretty plausible, Virginia should not take A’s silence as an invitation to load him with recriminations about not getting back to her.

Which, unfortunately, is what submitters in this situation usually do. It’s entirely wasted effort: if the answer was no, jumping up and down to try to regain the agent’s attention won’t change that; if the agent hasn’t had a chance to read it yet, reproaches will seldom move a manuscript up in a reading queue. And that phone call that seemed like such a good idea at the time will generally result in rejection on the spot.

So what is Virginia to do? Well, ethically, she is no longer bound by that exclusive. She should presume that A’s answer was no, elevate her noble chin — and send out that submission to Agent B without contacting A again.

That’s the high road. The writer doesn’t achieve much by taking it, usually, other than possibly an extension of the exclusive, but you must admit, it’s classy. The level road is cosmetically similar, but allows the writer more freedom.

It runs a little something like this: a week or two after the exclusive has elapsed, Virginia could write an e-mail to Agent A, informing him courteously and without complaint (again, harder than it sounds) that since the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has passed, she’s going to start sending out requested materials to other agents. If A decides he would like to represent the book, she would love to hear from him. Then she should follow through on her promise immediately, informing Agent B in her cover letter that another agent is also considering the work.

I heard you gasp, but you read that right: Virginia should submit those requested materials to Agent B without waiting to hear back from Agent A. That way, she gets what she wants — the ability to continue to circulate her work — while not violating her agreement with Agent A and being honest with Agent B. All she is doing is being up front about abiding by the terms of the exclusive.

Might she receive an e-mail from A afterward, asking for more time? Possibly. If so, she can always agree not to accept an offer from another agent until after some specified date. That was what Agent A had in mind when he asked for the exclusive in the first place, right, the chance to be first in line to ask to represent the book?

The slightly subterranean third option would be not to send an e-mail at all, but merely wait until the exclusive has lapsed, then send out the manuscript to Agent B. Virginia should, of course, inform B that there’s another agent reading it. I don’t favor this option, personally: despite the fact that she would be perfectly within her rights to pursue it, if Agent A does eventually decide to make an offer, Virginia will be left in a rather awkward position.

Enviable, of course, but still a bit uncomfortable. I’d stick to one of the higher roads — unless, of course, after months of waiting, Virginia isn’t certain that she can resist pointing out to Agent A that time is in fact linear, and quite a lot of it has been passing. It’s not in her interest to pick a fight, after all.

The shortness of the space between here and the bottom of this post is making some of you nervous, isn’t it? “But Anne,” you quaver, shifting in your desk chairs, “I’m going to be up all night, wondering what happened next in Virginia’s story. I can see another possible road here: what happens if the exclusive Virginia agreed to grant Agent A didn’t have a time limit? How long must those of us who deal in linear time wait to submit to an Agent B? That seems like the most complicated option of all, so I’m really, really hoping that you’re not planning to trot out that annoying it depends line again.”

Well, her options would depend on quite a number of things, but you’re quite right that discussing the perils and escape hatches of the unlimited exclusive is too complex to toss off in an aphorism. I shall deal with it in depth next time.

For now, suffice it to say that as exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it is not a gift horse to clamber upon without some pretty thorough examination of its dentistry. Before you saddle it — and yourself — take the time to consider what the ride might be like. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Handwritten manuscripts, profanity in queries, and other phenomena that give Millicent pause

I had meant to devote my next post to showing you fine people more examples of title pages done right — and done wrong, so we could discuss the difference. Why invest the time and energy in generating both, you ask? Clearer understanding, mostly. Oh, I know that I could just slap up a single properly-formatted title page and walk away, pleased with myself for having provided guidance to writers submitting to agencies and small publishing houses; I could also, as some other blogs devoted to helping aspiring writers do, post readers’ own pages and critique them. In my long experience working with writers, established and aspiring both, however, I’ve found that talking through an array of positive and negative examples yields better results.

In no area of advice is this more strongly the case than in manuscript formatting. Since very few aspiring writers have had the opportunity to see a manuscript in circulation by a major agency close up, it can be quite difficult to tell whether one is following the rules — if, indeed, the submitter is aware that there are rules. Many are not. By presenting my readers with a plethora of practical examples and ample discussion, I hope to help writers new to the game avoid falling into pitfalls they might not otherwise know exist. It also enables those who have never enjoyed the inestimable advantage of having read manuscripts or contest entries on a daily basis to see first-hand just how much submission quality varies, even amongst the best-written specimens.

I sense some finely-tuned authorial antennae waving out there. Yes, novelists and other aficionados of character development? “Is there a reason that you’re explaining this to us, Anne? Surely, by the middle of a series devoted to explaining the requirements of standard format for book manuscripts, any reader paying even the vaguest attention could be safely relied upon to have picked up on your fondness for compare-and-contrast exercises aimed at helping us develop our collective sense of what will and will not strike our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, as professional means of presenting good writing. Heck, that would be obvious to anyone taking a casual scroll through your blog. So am I correct in picking up a subtext here?”

Well spotted, close observers of human nature: I am in fact leading up to something. And while anyone who works with manuscripts for a living could tell you that what I shall be spending the rest of this post discussing is a pitfall into which eager aspiring writers stumble all the time, sometimes at serious cost to themselves, I’m afraid that explaining what that common trap is and how to negotiate one’s way around it will require sharing an example or two that are far from pretty.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written an industry etiquette post. I normally would not interrupt a series in progress in order to introduce one, but for the last six months or so, I, others who write online advice for writers, and even the excellent individuals toiling away in agencies have been seeing an uptick in a particular type of approach from aspiring writers. Admittedly, it’s always been common enough to drive the burn-out rate for writing gurus sky-high — in this line of endeavor, 7 1/2 years makes me a great-grandmother — yet anytime those of us still cranking out the posts start complaining about the same thing at the same time, it’s worth noting.

What’s the phenomenon? you ask with bated breath. Ah, I could tell you, but it would be easier to get why those of us behind the book scenes have been buzzing about it if I showed you. Fortunately — for discussion purposes, if not for me personally — yesterday, I received a sterling example of the breed of missives those of us in the profession often receive from total strangers, demanding attention and assistance for their writing endeavors.

Before I reveal yesterday’s communiqu? in all of its glory, let’s take a moment to talk about how a savvy writer might want to go about alerting a publishing professional to the existence and many strong points of his or her book. It’s not an especially well-kept secret that in this business, there are not all that many polite ways to go about it. If one is seeking to get a book published with a traditional large or mid-sized publishing house, one can only do so through an agency. If one is seeking an agent for that purpose, one either writes a 1-page query letter containing a specific set of information about the book or registers for a writers’ conference featuring formal pitching sessions to give at most a 2-minute description. If one wishes to work with a small publisher, one takes the time to find out what that particular publisher’s submission requirements are, then adheres to them through storm and tempest.

That’s it. Any other form of approach virtually always results in rejection. on general principle.

Why? Well, think about it: if you were an agent or editor, with which kind of writer would you prefer to work — one who has made the effort to learn the rules and follow them courteously, or one whose blustering demand for attention informs you right off the bat that, at minimum, you’re going to have to sit this writer down and explain that this is a business in which politeness counts?

Aspiring writers, especially those faced with the daunting task of contacting one of us for the first time, often find these simple strictures monumentally frustrating, if not downright perplexing. Many more regard industry etiquette as counterintuitive — or so we much surmise from the fact that the pros constantly find themselves on the receiving end of telephone calls from writers of whom they have never heard. Both agencies and publishing houses with well-advertised no unsolicited manuscripts, please policies get thousands every year. Although all of the major U.S. publishing houses have only accepted agented manuscripts for quite some time, the virtually complete disappearance of the slush pile seems not to have made the national news, if you catch my drift.

Some of you are shifting uncomfortably in your chairs, I notice. “But Anne,” a few of you on the cusp of approaching the pros for the first time murmur, “I understand that the rules of querying and submission might make life easier for agents and editors, but I’m excited about my book! I’ve worked really hard on it, and I’m impatient to see it in print. If it’s the next bestseller, I would think they would want to snap it up as quickly as possible. If it’s well-written, why would anyone in a position to publish it care how I manage to get the manuscript under their noses?”

Several reasons, actually, and very practical ones. First — and the one that most astonishes the pros that anxious aspiring writers so often don’t seem to take into consideration — literally millions of people write books every year. Many, if not most, are pretty excited when they finish them. So from the publishing world’s perspective, while it’s completely understandable, charming, and even potentially a marketing plus that a particular writer is full of vim about placing his book in front of an admiring public, it’s not a rare enough recommendation to justify tossing the rules out the window.

Second, while it pains me to say this, a writer is not always the best judge of her own book’s market-readiness; even if she were, as the industry truism goes, an author’s always the least credible reviewer of her own book. You would never know that, though, from how frequently Millicent hears from writers absolutely convinced that their efforts are uniquely qualified to grace the bestseller lists. Although the once-ubiquitous it’s a natural for Oprah! has mostly fallen out of currency, this kind of hard sell remains a not-uncommon opening for a query:

My novel, Premise Lifted from a Recent Movie, is sure to be as popular as The Da Vinci Code. Beautifully written and gripping, it will bowl readers over. You’ll be sorry if you miss this one!

While it’s not completely beyond belief that this writer’s self-assessment is correct, agents and editors tend to prefer to judge manuscripts themselves. Why? Well, since so many aspiring writers begin approaching agents and publishing houses practically the instant they polish off a first draft, it’s actually pretty common for even quite well-written manuscripts with terrific premises to arrive still needing quite a bit of revision. Millicent remains perpetually astonished, for instance, at how few submitters seem to take the time to spell- and/or grammar-check their work, much less to proofread it for flow and clarity.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes: any reputable agency, much less good small publishing house or well-known literary competition, will receive enough well-written, perfectly clean manuscripts — the industry’s term for pages free of typos, dropped words, protagonists’ sisters named Audrey for three the first three chapters and Andrea thereafter, etc. — not to have to worry about rejecting those that are not quite up to that level of sheen. From an aspiring writer’s perspective, it’s an unfortunate fact of recent literary history that the rise of the personal computer has caused the sheer number of queries and submissions to increase astronomically, rendering it impossible for even the most sleep-sacrificing professional reader to read more than a small fraction of the manuscripts eagerly thrust in his general direction.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, any pro with more than a few months’ worth of screening experience or writing contest judging will be aware that a super-confident writer does not necessarily come bearing a manuscript that will take the literary world by storm. Indeed, one of the reasons that the query above would be rejected on sight is that supreme confidence can be an indicator that the writer in question simply isn’t all that familiar with the current book market or how books are sold. That reference to The Da Vinci Code all by itself would automatically raise Millicent’s delicate eyebrows: in publishing circles, only books released within the past five years are considered part of the current market.

Then, too, since the kind of hard sell we saw above has been a notorious agents’ pet peeve for a couple of decades now, the very fact that an aspiring writer would use it could be construed — and generally is — as evidence that she’s not done much homework on how books actually get published. The popular notion that a good book will automatically and more or less instantly attract agents’ and editors’ attention is not an accurate reflection of current publishing realities, after all. (If that comes as a surprise to you, you might want to invest a little time in reading through the posts under the aptly-named START WITH THESE POSTS IF YOU ARE BRAND-NEW TO PUBLISHING category at the top of the archive list at right.)

Why might giving the impression that one isn’t overly familiar with the proverbial ropes prove a disadvantage in a first approach to a pro? Those of you who have been following my recent series on manuscript formatting already know the answer, right? It’s less time-consuming to work with a writer to whom the ropes are already a friendly medium. And honestly, it’s not that unreasonable for Millicent to presume that if our querier above does not know that boasting about a book is not what a query is for, she might also be unaware that, say, a book manuscript should be formatted in a particular way. Or that it’s now routinely expected that since submissions must arrive at publishing houses completely clean, savvy writers will submit them to agencies already scanned for errors.

It’s not as though a busy agent would have time to reformat or proofread a new client’s work before submitting it to an editor, right? Right? Do those glazed eyes mean some of you are in shock?

I can’t say as I blame you — when the first few agencies began recommending in their submission guidelines the now rather common advice that potential clients not only proofread their manuscripts carefully, but run them by a freelance editor before even considering approaching an agent, the collective moan that rose from the admirable, hard-working aspiring writers who routinely check each and every agency’s website before submitting positively rent the cosmos in twain. It can be a big shock to a writer new to querying and submission just how fierce the competition is to land one of the very scarce new client spots on a well-established agent’s client list.

“But I wrote a good book!” they wail, and with reason. “Why does landing an agent and getting published have to be so hard?”

The aforementioned competition, mostly: it gives agencies, publishing houses, literary contests, and even good freelance editors quite a bit of incentive to read as critically as possible. Lest we forget, most queries and requested materials are not read in their entirety — as we’ve discussed, most submissions get rejected on page 1, and most queries get slipped into the no, thank you pile before the end of their opening paragraphs.

Which makes sense, right? If the opening lines contain typos, clich?s, or any of the other unfortunately common first-approach faux pas, Millicent generally just stops reading. She assumes, rightly or wrongly, that what hits her eyes initially is an accurate representation of what is to follow. That’s the norm for agents, editors, and contest judges, too: if the third paragraph of page 1 is grammatically shaky, or if the writing is unclear, it’s taken for granted that Paragraph #3 will not be the only one that could use some additional work.

That tends to come as a surprise to many, if not most, aspiring writers. The rather endearing expectation that good writing will be read with a charitable eye often crashes straight into the reality of how many queries, submissions, and/or contest entries a pro has to read in a day. Millicent can only judge writing by what’s in front of her, after all. No matter how lovely the prose may be on page 56, or how stunning the imagery on page 312, if page 1 isn’t sufficiently polished, she’s going to make up her mind before she has a chance to admire what may come later in the book.

The same logic applies to the tone and consideration of the initial approach. If a writer observes the prevailing norms of publishing world etiquette — by, say, e-mailing a query rather than cold-calling the agent or adhering to a small publisher’s posted requirements to send a query containing specific pieces of information about the book instead of just popping an unsolicited book proposal into the mail and hoping for the best — then it’s reasonable to project that level of consideration onto any subsequent relationship, right? If, on the other hand, a writer first contacts the pro by non-standard means or, sacre bleu!, impolitely, it wouldn’t really make sense to expect rigorous rule-adherence or courtesy down the road, would it?

Oh, should I have warned you to sit down before I sprung that one?

Like most people, I suspect, agents, editors, and the people who work with them tend to prefer to devote their efforts to those who will be treat them with respect. This is a business positively stuffed to the gills with nice people. Although it may be difficult to discern from the perspective of a writer trying to break into print, most professional readers are quite aware that they are dealing with writers’ dreams — and do their best to handle them gently.

That’s why, incidentally, so many agencies and publishing houses employ kindly-worded form-letter rejections. More often than not, those sets of vague platitudes like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, we regret to say that this book doesn’t meet our needs at this time, or I don’t think I can sell this in the current market are less attempts at explanation than efforts to spare feelings.

I know, I know: that’s not what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such a communication. It can be maddening not to know for sure why a query didn’t wow Millicent, or whether a submission stumbled on page 1 or page 221; being given a specific rejection reason could help one improve one’s efforts next time.

What the pros know from long, hard experience, though, and what aspiring writers may not consider, is that some rejection recipients will regard any explicitly-cited reason to turn down the book as an invitation to argue the matter further. This is an especially common reaction for conference pitchers, alas: first-time successful pitchers sometimes mistake polite professional friendliness and enthusiasm for a promising book concept for the beginning of a friendship. Or confuse “Gee, I’d like to read that — why don’t you send me the first 50 pages?” with an implicit promise of representation and/or publication.

From an agent or editor’s point of view, issuing a rejection, however regretfully, is intended to end the conversation about the book, not to prolong it. If they want you to revise and resubmit, trust me, they won’t be shy about telling you.

You may also take my word for it that no matter how excellent your case may be that s/he is in fact the perfect person to handle your book, how completely viable your plan may be to tweak the manuscript so s/he will fall in love with your protagonist, or how otherwise estimable your argument that this is indeed the next The Da Vinci Code may be, trying to talk your book into acceptance will strike the rejecter as rude. It’s just not done.

And in all probability, it won’t even be read. The agency may even have established a policy against it.

Don’t want to believe that? Completely understandable, from a writer’s point of view. An agent or editor wouldn’t have to engage in many correspondences like the following, however, to embrace such a policy with vim.

Dear Tyrone,
Thanks so much for letting me read your book proposal for a Western how-to, Log Cabin Beautiful: Arranging a Home on the Range. I’m afraid, however, that as intriguing as this book concept is, I would have a hard time convincing editors that there’s a large audience waiting for it. At best, this book would likely appeal only to a niche market.

Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

Hawkeye McBestsellerspotter
Picky and Pickier Literary Management

Dear Hawkeye,
I’ve received your rejection for Log Cabin Beautiful, and I must say, I’m astonished. Perhaps living in New York has blunted your sense of just how many log cabin dwellers there actually are? It’s hardly an urban phenomenon.

Please find enclosed 27 pages of statistics on the new log cabin movement. I’m returning my proposal to you, so you may have it handy if you reconsider.

Please do. I really did pour my heart into this book.

Sincerely,
Tyrone T. Umbleweeds

Tyrone —

I’m returning both your proposal and the accompanying startling array of supporting documentation with this letter. I’m sorry, but your book just doesn’t meet our needs at this time.

Hawkeye McBestsellerspotter
Picky and Pickier Literary Management

Dear Hawkeye,
Perhaps you didn’t really get my book’s concept. You see…
{Five pages of impassioned explanation and pleading.}
Won’t you give it a chance? Please?

Sincerely,
Tyrone T. Umbleweeds

{No response}

Dear Hawkeye,
Sorry for contacting you via e-mail, but my last letter to you seems to have gone astray. To continue our discussion of my book…

Time-consuming, isn’t it? Not to mention frustrating for poor Hawkeye. And in all probability, this is one of the nicer post-rejection arguments she’s had this month.

Just don’t do it. Quibbling won’t change a no into a yes, and believe me, the last thing any querier wants to be is the hero of the cautionary tale Hawkeye tells at writers’ conferences.

Should I be alarmed by how pleased some of you look? “But this is wonderful, Anne,” a tenacious few murmur. “Hawkeye answered. That must mean that she read Tyrone’s pleas, doesn’t it? And if she read them, there must have been some chance that she could have been convinced by them, right?”

Not necessarily, on that first point — and no on the second. Before any of you who happen to be particularly gifted at debate get your hopes up, it’s exceedingly rare that an agent would even glance at a follow-up letter or e-mail. They wouldn’t want to be confronted by the much more usual post-rejection response, which tends to open something like this:

Dear Idiot —
What the {profanity deleted} do you mean, you just didn’t fall in love with my book? Did you even bother to read it, you {profanity deleted} literature-hater? I’ll bet you wouldn’t know a good book if it bit you on the {profanity deleted}

I’ll spare you the rest, but you get the picture, right? For every 1, 100, or 10,000 writers that take rejection in respectful silence, there are at least a couple who feel the need to vent their spleen. And, amazingly enough, they almost always sign their flame-mails.

Yes, really. I guess it doesn’t occur to them that people move around a lot in publishing circles. Today’s rejecting Millicent might well be tomorrow’s agent — or sitting in an editorial meeting next to an editor who wants to acquire their books the year after that.

The sad thing is, the very notion that manners might count doesn’t seem to occur to quite a few people. Perhaps that’s not entirely astonishing, given how firmly many aspiring writers reject the notion that, as I like to point out early and often, every single syllable a writer sends to anyone even vaguely affiliated with publishing will be considered a writing sample. Those who express their desires and requests in polite, conventional terms tend to get much better responses than those who do, well, anything else.

Even sadder: as anyone in the habit of receiving requests from aspiring writers could tell you, the senders sometimes don’t seem to understand that just because a certain type of phrasing or vocabulary is acceptable in social circles or on television doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be appropriate when trying to interest a publishing professional in one’s book. You wouldn’t believe how often the Millicent working for Hawkeye opens queries like this:

Hey, Hawkeye —

Since you claim on your website to be looking for literary-voiced women’s fiction focusing on strong protagonists facing offbeat challenges, why don’t you do yourself a favor and read my book, A Forceful Female Confronts Wackiness? It’s really cool, and I know you and your buddies at the agency will like it.

Millicent stopped reading just after that startlingly informal salutation, by the way. You can see that the tone is also askew thereafter, though, right? It’s the way someone might address a longtime friend, not a total stranger. And not a friend one particularly liked, apparently: what’s up with that snide since you claim… part? What could the querier possibly hope to gain by implying that Ms. McBestsellerspotter is being insincere in expressing her literary preferences?

Why, yes, it’s possible that the querier didn’t mean to imply any such thing, now that you mention it. Had I mentioned that Millicent can only judge a writer by what’s actually on the page in front of her, and that every single syllable a writer passes under a professional reader’s nose will be read as a writing sample?

What do I need to do, embroider it on a pillow?

I sense a certain amount of bemused disbelief out there. “Oh, come on, Anne,” those that pride themselves on the graceful phrasing of even their most hastily tossed-off e-mails observe. “Surely, addressing someone in a position to help get one’s book published this informally is practically unheard-of. I could see it — maybe — if the book in question was written in the same chatty voice as that query, but even then, I would assume that most writers would be too fearful of offending an agent like Hawkeye to approach her like this.”

Oh, you’d be surprised. Agents and editors who are habitually nice to writers at conferences routinely receive e-mails just like this. So do most of us who offer online advice, as it happens, particularly if we blog in a friendly, writer-sympathetic, and/or funny voices.

It is precisely because I am friendly and sympathetic to the struggles of aspiring writers that I am reproducing yesterday’s e-mail: I could give you made-up examples until the proverbial cows came home, but until one has actually seen a real, live specimen of this exceedingly common type of ill-considered approach, it can be rather hard to understand why someone who receives a lot of them might stop reading them after just a couple of lines. Or — I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty — why so many literature-loving, writer-empathizing folks in the biz eventually just give up on being nice about sharing their professional insights at all.

Naturally, I’ve changed name, title, and everything else that might allow anyone who might conceivably help the sender of this astonishing letter get published, but otherwise, our correspondence remains exactly as I first saw it. To maximize its usefulness as an example, though, I shall stop periodically to comment on where the sender’s message seems to have gone awry and how the same information could have been presented in a more publishing world-appropriate manner.

Heya Anne;

Okay, let’s stop here, and not merely because a semicolon is an odd choice in a salutation (the usual options are a comma, colon, or dash). It would have given most professional readers pause, too, not to see the necessary direct address comma: were heya actually a word, Heya, Anne would have been the correct punctuation.

Can you imagine Hawkeye or Millicent’s facial expressions, though, upon catching sight of a query opening this informally? True, I write a chatty blog, and the disembodied voices I choose to attribute to my readers do routinely address me in posts as Anne, but honestly, I’ve never met the sender before. A more conventional — and polite — salutation would have been nice.

This early in the e-mail, though, I’m willing to assume what Hawkeye or Millicent would not: “Frank” is trying to be funny. I read on.

I’ve drafted a 30,000 word treatise on {currently highly controversial political topic}. I call it Main Title-Reference to Similarly Themed Bestseller from the Late 1980s.

I’m going to stop us again. Treatise is an strange word in this context, but that’s not what would give a professional reader pause here. 30,000 words is quite a bit shorter than most political books; it’s really closer to a pamphlet. It’s also about a quarter of the length of the bestseller referenced here — which was written by a former professor of mine, as it happens, just before I took a couple of seminars with him in graduate school. So, unfortunately for Frank, he’s making this argument to someone who heard over a year’s worth of complaints by the author of the other work about how often his title got recycled.

Surprised at the coincidence? Don’t be. For decades, going into publishing has been a well-trodden path for those with graduate degrees (or partially-completed graduate degrees) who decide not to become professors. Or when professor jobs become scarce. Or when universities decide that it’s cheaper to replace retiring faculty with poorly-paid lecturers, rather than with, say, faculty.

But I digress. More to our current point, this section contains a formatting problem: the hyphen used as a dash in the title would be incorrect in standard format for manuscripts, would it not? What was I saying about Millicent’s tendency to extrapolate an entire manuscript’s formatting faux pas from a slight stumble like this?

If you’ve been murmuring, “My, that’s a lot of reaction to just a few lines of an e-mail,” congratulations. You’re gaining a sense of just how closely professional readers observe every single syllable of every single piece of writing you send them. Speaking of which, let’s move on with our missive-in-progress.

It is not a rant or a historical narrative but a polemic attempt to change the rhetoric.

Sorry to have to stop us again so soon, but just so everyone knows, telling a professional reader that a manuscript is not a rant will automatically raise the suspicion that it is a rant. That’s pretty much the reaction that non-professional readers have to statements like this, too, come to think of it. Just human nature, I’m afraid.

Also, note the non-standard use of polemic. Usually, it means an aggressive attack upon somebody else’s theories. It would have been helpful if Frank had mentioned whose. Pressing on…

Scholarly in tone and temper is how it is presented but metaphors, similes, enthymemes, as well as personal observation and experiences are liberally used.

I’m rather glad that Frank decided to tell, rather than show, the “tone and temper” of his book, because talking about the language in which a manuscript is written is an exceedingly common querying mistake. A book description should aim at informing the professional reader what the book is about, not the kind of linguistic tricks the author has used to tell the tale. Think about it: why should Millicent (or I, for that matter) care that Frank is fond of metaphors, similes, or aphorisms, except insofar as they work in the manuscript itself? Wouldn’t the best — indeed, only — way to demonstrate that they do work be to show them in the writing?

Speaking of demonstrating authorial intentions, as a group, professional readers tend to be suspicious when a book description says the manuscript is written in a style not reflected in the writing of the description itself. Since this letter has not so far been written in scholarly language, the assertion that the book is carries less weight than it otherwise would.

And now that we’re at the end of Frank’s first paragraph, should we not know why he decided to contact me at all? So far, it reads like a query, but why on earth send a blogger a query? He doesn’t seem to have a blog-related question (which should have been posted as a comment on the blog, anyway, right?), nor does he appear to be seeking editorial services. Has he perhaps made the rather ubiquitous mistake of believing that anyone called an editor works at a publishing house?

No, seriously, I hear from aspiring writers laboring under this misconception all the time. Let’s read on to see if that’s what’s on Frank’s mind.

Anyway, I’ve two publishers who want me to send them my manuscript. {He names them here.} They’ve sent me forms to fill out.

Okay, so he’s sent queries to publishers, but I recognize that both of the publishers he names are self-publishing houses. Curious about whether either has recently opened a traditional publishing imprint, I checked both websites. Both offer downloadable forms, asking writers to fill them out and send them along with a manuscript or proposal.

Now I’m even more confused. Both of these printers offer editing services for self-publishing writers. So again, how would he like me to help him? Reading on…

One of the things they want is an annotated table of contents. I googled {sic} it and saw your blog.

Not entirely surprising news, as that’s a standard part of a nonfiction book proposal. As I hope every nonfiction writer reading this is aware, the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand corner of this page includes categories specifically aimed at assisting you in pulling together a book proposal. (You’re welcome.)

If he’s having trouble with his annotated ToC, however — which, to be fair, isn’t always easy to write — why not tell me how? Or, better still, ask a question in the comments on the relevant posts?

Or is he seeking my assistance with something else? The next couple of sentences raise a possibility that rather astonished me.

Man you write up a storm-must be one hellava typer. I can’t type worth a {profanity deleted} -my manuscript was hand written-then hunted and pecked.

More hyphens employed as dashes and other offbeat punctuation — and excuse me, but is he asking me to type his manuscript for him? Because I’m such a good little typer?

Jaw firmly dropped, I read on. The rest of the e-mail will have greater impact, I suspect, if I show it in its entirety. Or as much as I can legitimately reproduce on a family-friendly blog.

Anyway, for {profanity deleted} and giggles I just thought you might give me something to work with and/or recommend. Although they haven’t given a deadline I’ve set mine for early next month-this things {sic} been three years in the making and its {sic} time to fish or cut bait.
Thanks for your time and attention-good luck to you.
Sincerely,
Frank Lee Wantstogetpublished

I’m at a loss for words. I also still don’t know for certain why Frank contacted me in the first place — to what, I wondered, could I just thought you might give me something to work with and/or recommend possibly refer? Advice doesn’t make sense — presumably, he turned up what I had to say about annotated ToCs when he Googled the term. Or at any rate would have, had he checked out the posts under the cryptically-named ANNOTATED TABLE OF CONTENTS category on the archive list.

Here, though, is where I part company with most other professional readers. Millicent, for instance, probably would not have taken the time to ask follow-up questions if a query was unclear — or if it swore at her, for that matter. I did consider not answering it for that reason. Still, if Frank was harboring some question that he was too shy to post on the blog, I was reluctant to leave him hanging. Ditto if he just didn’t understand the difference between a freelance editor and the services for which he would be paying at either of the presses he cited.

While I was at it, I thought it might be a good idea to nudge him back toward a professional tone. As I said, it’s surprising how often writers contacting the pros don’t seem to regard it as an occasion for formal courtesy.

Hello, Mr. Wantstogetpublished —

Congratulations upon completing your book, but I’m afraid that your e-mail was a trifle unclear. Are you asking me to recommend a book on how to write a book proposal? Are you asking to book some consultation time with me on the telephone to go over the forms and how to write the annotated table of contents? Or are you looking for someone to hire to computerize your manuscript for you, since no publishing house would accept a handwritten manuscript?

If you are looking for a word processing professional, I have to say, paying a editor with a Ph.D. to do it is probably not the best use of your resources. To find someone in your area with the skills and expertise to present your manuscript professionally, you might want to call the English department at your local community college; students often are eager for this sort of work. Anyone you hire could find both the rules of manuscript formatting and visual examples on my blog.

If, on the other hand, you were asking for a book recommendation, would you mind posting that request on the blog itself? That way, my answer could be of benefit to other writers. I understand the impulse for personal behind-the-scenes contact, but part of the point of blogging is that it permits me not to have to address thousands of readers’ individual concerns one at a time.

Just so you know, though, many, many writers have used my blog’s directions on how to write a book proposal to write a successful annotated table of contents. Check the Nonfiction heading on my archive list. Should you have questions on what I recommend in those posts, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section.

That seemed to cover the bases — but see why Hawkeye and her ilk have fallen out of the habit of responding to vague e-mails like this? If the writer isn’t clear about what he wants, it takes quite a bit of time and effort to spin out a guessing-game’s worth of logical possibilities.

Another reason the pros tend to burn out on following up on these types of missives: about half the time, a thoughtful response like this will go unanswered. Then the writing guru ends up feeling a bit silly for having been nice enough to try to answer a question that was both asked in the wrong place (if the guru happens to blog, that is) and in an indistinct manner.

While I had Frank’s attention, though, there was no reason I shouldn’t try to help him become a better member of the online writing community. After politely expressing the hope that he would find the guidance he was seeking on my blog, I added:

To assist you in your publication efforts, do you mind a little free advice? People in publishing tend to judge writing quality by every single thing a writer sends them. Your e-mail contained two clich?s, something to which editors are specifically trained to respond negatively, regardless of context. You might want to choose your words with a bit more care.

Also, publishing is a formal business; manners count. It would never be appropriate to use even minor profanity in a communication with a publishing professional a writer had never met — and even if we had, it would not be advisable in an initial approach. A word to the wise.

Best of luck with your book!

Not out of line with the advice he might already have seen on the blog, right? Now, if Frank was like most aspiring writers, he would be glad of some feedback from a professional. He would also, I hoped, be pleased that I had told him where to look on my blog for writing tips. As Hawkeye and Millicent would be only too eager to tell you, however, not all aspiring writers who ask for help are particularly overjoyed to receive it.

You can see it coming, can’t you? Very well: here is Frank’s reply in its entirety. Please be kind enough to read it all the way to the end before shouting, “I told you so,” Millie.

Anne-
Your blog is-well a BLOG-its {sic} really hard to navigate and way to {sic} pedantic-as are you. Anyway my proposal letter worked! My manuscript is processed-it was drafted by hand. Oh fyi-Tolstoy re-wrote War and Peace 10 times before he submitted to the printer. Bye, Bye Ms. PHD
Well isn’t that special!
Frank Lee Wantstogetpublished

One hardly knows where to begin, does one? Leaving aside the obvious questions about why somebody who hates blogs would turn to one for advice and why one would go to the trouble of tracking down a blogger whose advice one found pedantic, I can only assume that my subtle hints about formality of tone were lost on poor Frank. And while clearly, he continues to operate under the assumption that a print-for-pay press is the same thing as a traditional publisher, he’s certainly not the only aspiring writer confused by ambiguous wording on a self-publishing site. The best of luck to him, I say.

But if typing was not what he was seeking, why did he contact me in the first place?

We shall never know. I shall limit myself, then, to observations that might help other writers. First, even if Frank found my response unhelpful, a reply that merely vented spleen served no purpose other than to burn a bridge. That made me feel sorry for him, but that would not be most pros’ reaction.

Second, if one feels compelled to cite pop culture references, do try to keep them within the current decade. Better still, avoid them entirely; by definition, quotes are not original writing, and thus not the best way to show off your unique literary voice or analytical acumen.

Third, as hard as I laughed at his evidently not having been able to come up with a stronger zinger than a reference to my degree (“You…you…educated person, you!”), it bears contemplation that the professor he admired enough to cite in his own book’s title graded me in graduate school. As I mentioned above, publishing is stuffed to bursting with former academics; an aspiring writer can never be sure on a first approach if, where, or with whom the publishing professional he’s asking to help him went to grad school. So if one’s tastes run to credential-bashing, a letter to someone in a position to help get a book published might not be the best venue for it.

Oh, and to address an amazingly common misconception about formal salutations: femaleness is not a universal solvent of credentials. If one wishes to address any holder of an earned doctorate formally, the letter should open Dear Dr. X, regardless of whether the recipient is a man or a woman.

Above all, though, if you decide to make direct contact with anyone who works in publishing, do be polite — and do be clear about what kind of favor you’re asking, if you’re writing anything but what Millicent would expect to see in a garden-variety query. Remember, answering aspiring writers’ questions is not part of most professional readers’ job descriptions: agents make their living representing their already-signed writers, just as editors make theirs handling manuscripts and guiding them to publication. Most of the time, it’s entirely up to the recipient whether to respond to such non-standard approaches or not.

Your mother was right, you know. People really will like you better if you use your manners.

Next time, we shall be delving back into the wonderful world of title page examples. Why? Because we like you. Keep up the good work!

The rules, part IV: so that’s how a book manuscript should appear on the page!

Sorry about the unexpected hiatus between my last formatting post and this one, campers; I honestly did mean to follow up within two or three days. My blogging time has been a trifle more difficult to schedule since my car crash, however — I never know when someone is going to decide to pop me into an MRI machine. Or decide to cut my computer use in half.

I’m back on the job this evening, however, and raring to polish off our list of requirements for a professionally-formatted book manuscript. At the risk of repeating myself, allow me to underscore book manuscript: if you are planning to write anything else (say, a short story, article, or a tasty little tidbit for an academic journal), I would strongly urge you to look elsewhere. Different venues for publishing writing have different standards. So while I would always encourage even those writing books to check agency and small publishing house’s submission guidelines — like literary contests, the individuals who evaluate submissions sometimes harbor personal preferences — a writer’s best bet is always to find out how professionals submit their work to that particular venue and emulate it.

Rather than, say, do what most first-time submitters do: simply assume that presentation doesn’t matter if the writing is good. In any writing venue, adhering to its expected presentation will make your work look more professional to the pros, for the exceedingly simple reason that all professional manuscripts circulated by agencies in the United States conform to standard format.

Or, to put it another way, everything that editors at major publishing houses are used to reading, will look like the pages we saw in the first post in this series’ brief visual tour of a properly-formatted manuscript. So does our old pal, Millicent the agency screener.

Why are these expectations important for a writer to bear in mind while preparing a submission? Well, think about it: if editors want manuscripts in standard format (they’re easier to edit that way, incidentally), a savvy agent would make sure that all of her clients’ work adhered to that norm, right? It follows as night the day, then, that taking on a writer fond of formatting his work in any other manner will necessitate training him in professional formatting.

Which — are you sitting down? — pretty much everyone in publishing circles expects a writer serious about seeing his work in print to have invested the time and energy in learning before approaching an agency or publishing house. Knowing how to format a book manuscript properly is a basic professional skill for an author, after all. And arguably, it’s never been easier to pick up that skill.

Of course, those who argue that typically don’t spend much time trawling the Internet for tips. As I’m morally certain won’t come as even a vague surprise to those of you who have discovered this post — and only this post — in the course of an web-wide search on how to format manuscripts, there’s a heck of a lot of conflicting advice out there. Not all of it is equally well-informed, and an astoundingly high proportion fails to mention — as I may have pointed out fifteen or sixteen times throughout the course of this short series — that the rules the site in question is touting should not be applied to all writing, anywhere, anytime.

Why is that supposition problematic? Shall we chant our mantra, writers who have been following this series? Standard format for book manuscripts is not proper for every form of writing known to humanity, anywhere, anytime. It’s for — wait for it — books.

No one is born knowing that, however, nor with the publishing experience to tell good advice from, well, the other kind. I think a excellent case could be made that since the rise of the Internet — and the concomitant rise of the expectation that everything someone new to the publishing world needs to know should be possible to locate in, if not a bullet-pointed list, then at least in a 500-word post appearing on the first page of a Google search of the phrase manuscript format — it’s actually become quite a bit harder for those new to the game to learn the rules.

Understandably, then, many aspiring writers’ response to the plethora of advice floating around out there has been not to seek out the most credible, or even the one that appears to be speaking to the type of books they might happen to be writing, but rather to pick and choose elements from a buffet of options. The inevitable result: Millicent’s inbox has been awash in some rather odd admixtures in recent years. Mixing and matching standard format for book manuscripts, short stories, magazine articles, etc., perhaps with the piquant addition of an element or two from a published book, has become the norm in recent years, not the exception.

Am I correct in concluding that audible intake of collective breath indicates some personal experience with this phenomenon? “But Anne,” buffet-lovers across the world protest, and who could blame them? “I tried to find out how to do it, but there were so many different sets of rules — and virtually all of them barked as orders, instead of explained nicely, as I notice you have tried to do in this series — I just assumed that there wasn’t really a single standard. I can’t be the only one who’s felt this way. If so many of us are submitting our work in ways other than standard format would dictate, why doesn’t Millicent just, you know, lighten up and not pay attention to anything but the writing?”

Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? So would the overwhelming majority of writers trying to break into print. And if the publishing industry were run to please aspiring writers, Millicent might embrace your suggestion with vigor. Ditto if there were not hundreds of thousands of talented writers competing for the limited publication slots in any given book category in any given year.

Which is to say — and you might want to sit down for this one — it’s very helpful to Millicent that so many submissions arrive on her desk incorrectly formatted. Trust me, if she works for a well-established agent, she already receives a few hundred well-written, perfectly-formatted submissions for every opening her boss has for a new client. So if other manuscripts’ formatting allow her to draw the conclusion that their writers would be more time-consuming to represent than those who have made the effort to learn the ropes, well, can you really blame her for regarding them as less professional writing?

I sense some of you grumbling, and with some reason. “What about individual expression?” nonconformists everywhere cry, bless their ornery hearts. “How my writing appears on the page is part of my vision for my book. Why shouldn’t my manuscript reflect that?”

A fine question, and one that richly deserves a direct answer: because non-standard presentation will distract Millicent. In publishing circles, formatting matters like font size, margin width, and whether a new chapter begins on a fresh page are not matters of individual preference; standard format is just that, standard. That means, in practice, that when anything else appears on a submission’s pages, a professional reader’s eye is going to zoom right to it.

So I ask you: which would you rather have Millicent focus upon, your unique formatting vision — or your writing?

Remember, too, that neither Millicent, her boss, the agent of your dreams, nor your future lucky acquiring editor will expect your manuscript to resemble a published book. Standard format differs in many significant respects, from being double-spaced and printed on only one side of the page to how a dash appears on the page.

That comes as a surprise to many aspiring writers: all too often, they assume that deviating from standard format in order to, say, place the first letter of a chapter in a larger font size, or to remove the indentation from its first paragraph, will make sense to Millicent, because it’s sometimes done in published books. The way the manuscript is formatted for submission, they reason, will be their best chance to show their future acquiring editors how they would like to see their books appear in print.

How that reasoning plays out on the page will send a different message to Millicent, unfortunately. To her, as to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living, all such a page conveys is that the writer is not very familiar with the book publishing process. Specifically, the part in which the publishing house, not the author, gets to make the decisions about what the book looks like.

Does that glum silence mean that I’ve convinced you, or merely depressed you into a stupor? Both are quite normal reactions for writers hearing about all of this for the first time, or even the second or third. (Hey, there’s a reason I go over this every year.)

While you’re absorbing it all, let’s go over the rules we’ve discussed so far:

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

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on only one side of the page and unbound in any way. For submission to US-based agencies, publishing houses, and contests, the pages in question should be US-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

(3) The text should be left-justified, not block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should not resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

(5) The entire manuscript should be in the same font and size — no switching typefaces for any reason. Industry standard is 12-point.

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered — except the title page. The first page of text is page 1, not the title page.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page. The chapter title should appear on the first line of the page, not on the line immediately above where the text begins.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, not on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

(12) The beginning of every paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break

(14) Nothing in a book manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

Before we move on, allow me to revisit #14, as it’s one that’s often misinterpreted. There are in fact forms of writing in which it is still quite proper to underline certain words under certain conditions. In a book manuscript (or a book proposal, as it happens), however, this is not acceptable.

No, no matter how much you want to emphasize a word or phrase; italics should be used for that. Ditto for any phrases you might choose to import from a foreign language — you wouldn’t want the agent of your dreams to think you had misspelled a word in English, would you? — and titles of books, songs, newspapers, and magazines. If you should desire to refer to an article, a poem, or a short story, however, those titles should appear within quotation marks.

You’ll find list of the rules for italics use in my last post, but as I’m a great fan of visual examples, here are those principles in action.

Minette waved the paper at him. “Honestly, Patrice, it’s all here in The Anytown, U.S.A. Gazette.”

He shrugged. “Chacun ? son go?t. I prefer to get my news from the moon, the stars, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and ‘The Road Not Taken,” my sweet.”

A less-than-convincing argument from a man whose idea of a first date flick had been Gore on Parade and whose most-quoted rhyme was “There Once Was a Man From Nantucket.” “Oh, look, honey. The article’s even called ‘Stuff Patrice McStubbornhead Habitually Gets Wrong.’ I think it might conceivably speak to you.”

He reached for his guitar. When she was in a mood like this, nothing soothed her so fast as a quick rendition of Greensleeves.

God, how I hate that song,” she muttered.

Everyone happy with that, at least provisionally? If not, this would be a dandy time to post questions in the comments. Please don’t be shy: believe me, if you have been wondering about any aspect of italics use, so have a quarter of a million of your fellow aspiring writers too shy to speak up.

Do ‘em a favor: ask. While you’re formulating your questions, let’s move on.

(15) Numbers over 100 and those containing decimal points (like currency) or colons (like specific times) should be written as numerals. Numbers under 100 should be written out in word form. Thus, twenty-five is correct; so are 1,473, 2:47 p.m., and $15.90. Page numbers, of course, should appear as numerals.

The instinct to correct this particular set of mistakes when they appear on the submission page is universal in professional readers. That’s potentially problematic for a submission. Why? Well, from that impulse to rejection is often a fairly short journey, because once the notion gee, this writer hasn’t taken the time to how book writing should be presented has occurred to a professional reader, it’s hard to unthink. After that, anything from a major clich? to a minor typo would just seem like corroboration of this uncharitable — and in some cases unfair — conclusion.

Translation: not presenting your numbers correctly will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This one makes our teeth grind.

It also ties in with the publishing industry’s always-strong sense of its own history. Like pointing out foreign-language words with special formatting, this formatting rule was originally for the benefit of the manual typesetters. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

And honestly, what could a manuscript possibly gain artistically by violating this particular rule? If Millicent will be happier to read text like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/82

The sandwich cost $3.76.

On November 11, 1492, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took 157 rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

Rather than (stop it, teeth!) like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/Eighty-two

The sandwich cost three dollars and seventy-six cents, cash American.

On November eleventh, fourteen hundred and ninety-two, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took a hundred and fifty-seven rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

Why not humor her? She puts in a long day at a hard job; she doesn’t have time for extra trips to the dentist.

Do I spot some hands waving in the air? “But Anne,” inveterate readers of newspapers protest, “I’m accustomed to seeing numbers like 11, 53, 18, and 72 written as numerals. Does that mean that when I read, say, a magazine article with numbers under 100 depicted this way, that some industrious editor manually changed all of those numbers after the manuscript was submitted?”

No, it doesn’t — although I must say, the mental picture of that poor, unfortunate soul assigned to years of searching tirelessly for those numbers and making such a nit-picky change saddens me. (Hang in there, brother!)

What we have here is yet another difference between book manuscript format and, well, every other kind of formatting out there: in journalism, they write out only numbers under 10. Yet — stop me when the song begins to sound familiar — there are many, many sources out there insisting that the over-10 rule should be applied to all forms of writing, anywhere, anytime. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but in a book manuscript, it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this issue? More than once? And within the last year?

AP style differs from standard format in several important respects, not the least being that in standard format (as in other formal presentations in the English language), the first letter of the first word after a colon should not be capitalized, since technically, it’s not the beginning of a new sentence. I don’t know who introduced the convention of post-colon capitalization, but believe me, I’m not the only one who read the submissions of aspiring book writers for a living that’s mentally consigned that language subversive to a pit of hell that would make even Dante avert his eyes in horror.

That’s the way we nit-pickers roll. We like our formatting and grammatical boundaries firm.

Heck, compared to most professional readers, my feelings on the subject are downright non-confrontational. I’ve been in more than one contest judging conference where tables were actually banged, modern societies deplored, and the rise of the personal computer berated to the skies.

Again, I ask you: do you really want your contest entry to be the one that engenders this reaction?

So let’s all shout it together, shall we? The formatting and grammatical choices you see in newspapers will not necessarily work in manuscripts or literary contest entries.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, newspaper enthusiasts? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk in a book manuscript.

And no, there is no court of appeal for such decisions; proper format, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. So if you were planning to cry out, “But that’s the way The New Moreford Journal-Sentinel does it!” save your breath.

Although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to know that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well. The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasons are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

And that, in case any of you lovely people had been wondering, is why I revisit the topic of standard format so darned often. How can the talented mend their ways if they don’t know how — or even if — their ways are broken?

(16) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash, as my blogging program forces me to do — with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces at either end, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, yes, I know: you’ve probably heard that this rule is obsolete, too, gone the way of underlining, large advances for novelists, and the dodo. The usual argument for the doubled dash’s demise: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy, so many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned. But you’re starting to get used to that, right?

Your word-processing program probably changes a double dash to an emdash automatically, but CHANGE IT BACK. If only as a time-saver: any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

Don’t stand there and tell me that you’ve seen the long dash in countless published books, or that those self-same volumes have not placed a space between the dashes in question and the words on either side. None of that is relevant. Standard format is invariable upon this point: a doubled dash with a space on either end is correct; anything else is not.

And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of doing it properly only when you think about it, or not doing a search for it before you submit your manuscript. It may seem like a minor, easily-fixable phenomenon from the writer’s side of the submission envelope, but believe me, inconsistency drives people trained to spot minor errors nuts. Seriously, the pros bemoan how often they see manuscripts in which this rule is applied inconsistently: two-thirds of the dashes doubled, perhaps, sometimes with a space at either end and sometimes not, with the odd emdash and single dash dotting the text as well.

Remember, consistency is not only a hallmark of a well-developed authorial voice; it’s a sign of professionalism in formatting, too. Or did you expect your future agent to invest the time in cleaning up your formatting and/or punctuation before submitting your work to editors? Even in the unlikely event that he would be willing to do it — good agents are very busy people — wouldn’t that expectation mean that he could never send out any of your writing without proofreading it?

As opposed to, say, a writer who had already gotten into the professional habits of consistent dash formatting and proofreading?

I’m going to leave the consistency-haters among you — oh, I know you’re out there — to ponder that one while the rest of us move on. Those who have spent the last few paragraphs resenting the necessity of going over your manuscript in this detail prior to submission will be pleased to hear that the next rule is one that will eat up very little of your time.

(17) Turn off the widow/orphan control in your Word program; leaving it on can result in pages containing varying numbers of lines.

Told you so: this is something that can be accomplished by highlighting your entire text (the shortcut for that in Word is COMMAND + A), then pulling down the FORMAT menu. Select PARAGRAPH…, then LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. Un-check the Widow/Orphan control box.

Voil? ! Every full page of text will have the same number of lines!

Oh, those of you new to the term would like to know why you did that, would you? Fair enough: as some of you clever souls may have already surmised, the widow/orphan control dictates how many lines appear on any given page. The default setting prevents the first line of a new paragraph from being left alone on a page if the rest of the paragraph is on the next (a line so left behind is called an orphan) or the last line of a paragraph begun on a previous page from appearing at the top of the next page all by itself (and that’s called a widow). Thus, if the widow/orphan control is left on, lines will be stolen from one page and added to the ones before and after.

Result: some of your pages will have more lines of text on them than others. Why might that be problematic? Well, unless your pages are standardized, you can’t justify estimating your word count (at # of pages x 250 in Times New Roman). Since word counts for book-length projects are expected to be estimated (you’ll need to use the actual count for short stories or articles), and actual count can be as much as 20% higher than estimated, it’s certainly in the best interest of anyone who tends to run a little long to estimate.

And even if your manuscript isn’t over 400 pages (100,000 words, estimated) — the time-honored dividing line for Millicent to cry, “Oh, too bad; it’s too long for a first novel in this book category. Next!” — she’s going to dislike seeing an extra inch of white space on the bottom of some of your pages. Not necessarily enough to shout, “Next!” all by itself, but need I ask you again if this is the response you want your writing to evoke?

I thought not. Let’s tackle the last rule.

(18) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, not what it being done on the moment in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet.

In other words, “But I’ve seen other writers violate that rule!” is not going to fly here. Assume that Millicent graduated with honors from the best undergraduate English department in the country (or at least the fifteenth-best), taught by the grumpiest, meanest, least tolerant stickler for grammar that ever snarled at a student unfortunate enough to have made a typo, and you’ll be you’ll have set the level of proofreading concern just about right.

Why? Well, if you can bear yet another rhetorical question, do you really want to encourage Millicent to wonder whether you broke a rule on purpose — or if you simply were not aware of it?

Grammar aside, there’s been a tendency in recent years for submissions to ape the trend of paper-saving publishers across writing types to leave only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period or colon. The rationale runs thus: printed books often do this now: the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it. Since we’ve all seen it done in recently-released books, some argue — and vehemently — it would be ludicrous to format a manuscript any other way.

Indeed, some insist that the single-space convention is the ONLY way to format a manuscript. A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of, if not the present, then at least the future. They aver that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look old-fashioned. Some even claim that retaining the second space is a universal instant-rejection offense.

At the risk of sounding like the harsh grammar-mongers of my youth, poppycock. Agents, very good ones, routinely submit manuscripts with doubled spaces to editors, also very good ones, all the time. Successfully. That might be due to the fact that most editors who deal with manuscripts in hard copy actively prefer it.

Truth compels me to point out, though, that there are also agents, good ones, who have embraced the single-space convention, and quite adamantly. It’s become a less common preference over the last few years, but those who feel strongly about it tend to — you can see it coming, right? — feel strongly about it. In practice, the doubled space is still the norm — except amongst the minority who insist that it is not. In either case, though, it’s not a common rejection criterion.

Clear as pea soup, right?

So which convention should you embrace? The answer, as it so often is, involves doing your homework about the specific agent or publisher you are planning to approach, rather than treating submissions, as so many aspiring writers do, as generic. It’s always a good idea to check each and every agency’s submission guidelines before tossing that manuscript in the mail, anyway .

Fortunately for aspiring writers everywhere, agents with a strong preference for the single space tend not to keep mum about it. If they actually do tell their Millicents to regard a second space as a sign of creeping obsolescence, chances are very, very good that they’ll mention that fact on their websites. If you happen to be submitting to folks who specifically asks for single spaces, by all means, bow to their expressed preferences.

Sensing a pattern here?

Spoiler alert: once you get in the habit of doing that research, I suspect those of you who have heard horror stories about how everybody now positively hates the second space convention will be astonished to see how few agencies even mention it in their submission guidelines. If they don’t, it’s usually safe to assume that they adhere to the older convention — or don’t care.

Why should that be the default option, since proponents of eliminating the second space tend to be so very vocal? Those who cling to the older tradition tend to be, if anything, a shade more vehement.

Why, you ask? Editing experience, usually. Preserving that extra space after each sentence in a manuscript makes for greater ease of reading, and thus of editing. As anyone who has ever edited a long piece of writing can tell you, the white space on the page is where the comments — grammatical changes, pointing out flow problems, asking, “Does Ambrose the Bold really need to die so peacefully?” — go.

Less white space equals less room to comment. It honestly is that simple.

And just between us, it drives traditional-minded grammar-hounds nuts to hear that time-honored standards must necessarily be jettisoned in the name of progress. “What sane human being,” they ask through gritted teeth (I wasn’t kidding about those trips to the dentist), “seriously believes that replacing tonight with tonite, or all right with alright constitutes betterment of the human condition? Does any literate person genuinely believe that a colon means a new sentence has begun? Dropping those letters and spaces doesn’t even save significant page space!”

They have a point, you must admit. Yet as rule-seeking web-crawlers have no doubt discovered, traditionalists tend not to be nearly so well-represented online — nor so vitriolic in their condemnations — as advocates of the new. I don’t think that’s merely because proper grammar and spelling do not really require defense; to literate people, they just look right. I suspect that it’s for the same reason that agents and editors don’t habitually go online to check out what people are logging into any particular writers’ forum to suggest is the current rage in formatting: if you already know the rules, why would you be looking online for them?

Then, too, there’s a practical reason: until everyone in the industry makes the transition to editing in soft copy — which many of us find significantly harder and less efficient than scanning a printed page — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change universally. Just ask a new agent immediately after the first time she’s submitted to an old-school senior editor: if she lets her clients deviate from the norms, she’s likely to be lectured for fifteen minutes on the great beauty of the English language and the imperative to protect its graceful strictures from the invading Goths, Visigoths, and journalists.

I sense that some of you are beginning to wring your hands and rend your garments in frustration. “I just can’t win here! Most want it one way, a few another. I’m so confused about what’s required that I keep switching back and forth between two spaces and one while I’m typing.”

Again, you might want to sit down for this one: inconsistent formatting is likely to annoy both sides of the aisle. Whichever choice you embrace, be consistent about it throughout your manuscript; don’t kid yourself that an experienced professional reader isn’t going to notice if you sometimes use one format, sometimes the other.

He will. So will a veteran contest judge. Pick a convention and stick with it.

But I wouldn’t fret over it too much. This honestly isn’t as burning a debate amongst agents and editors as many aspiring writers seem to think — and definitely nowhere near the snarling division so many online sources were claiming it was ten yeas ago. But as always: check before you submit.

And be open to the possibility — remember, I already advised you to sit down — that you may need to submit your manuscript formatted one way for a single agent on your list, and another for the other nineteen. That needn’t worry you at the querying stage, of course, but it might affect the order in which you will want to submit your work if, say, four of them ask to see your manuscript.

Hey, you’re busy, too, right? And it’s not as though what I’ve been suggesting throughout this series isn’t going to require setting aside some time to tinker with your manuscript. I realize that if you already have a full manuscript formatted in any other way, the very notion of applying all of these rules may seem intimidating.

Which is, if you will excuse my saying so, an awfully good reason to get into the laudable habit of writing your manuscripts in standard format from the get-go — in the long run, it will save you time to be consistent about applying the rules. It’s a very sensible long-term investment in your writing career, after all. Literally every page you will be showing to your future agent or editor will need to look like this; why not use the opportunity to practice the rules until they are imbedded into your very bones?

That, too, I shall leave you to ponder; I recognize that it’s a commitment. But doesn’t your good writing deserve the best possible presentation you can give it? Keep up the good work!

Continuing our discussion of standard format for book manuscripts: not all truths are self-evident

gumballs

Hard to believe anyone in his right mind would actually need to be told that those are gumballs, isn’t it? They strike me as the epitome of the breed: large, spherical, colorful, and — dare I say it? — potentially jaw-breaking. Yet clearly, at some point in the probably not-too-distant past, some passing myopic presumably asked the proprietor, “What are those, gumballs?”

Or maybe it was not a solitary forgetter of much-needed spectacles, or even a half-dozen passers-by with a shared clawing, pathological need to have even their most mundane personal observations confirmed by external sources. Perhaps the poor proprietor simply got tired of answering the same question 4,217 times per week and slapped up a sign.

Those of us who work with manuscripts for a living can sympathize. Merely breathing an editor (or my preferred title, a book doctor), preceded by the pronoun I and the verb to be in quick succession, anywhere in the vicinity of someone harboring even the slightest urge to pen the Great American Novel is to invite an avalanche of questions about manuscripts: how to get them published, how to position them under the eyes of an agent, how to keep them from getting rejected, and, surprisingly often, what they should look like.

Perfectly reasonable questions all, of course: no writer, regardless of how many times the Muses may have whacked her with their talent wands, is born knowing all about the practical aspects of manuscript production. As Plato suggests in his Theaetetus (oh, you thought I was just a pretty face?), in order to recognize something for what it truly is, one first must have a mental image of that thing with which to match it.

To put it a trifle less esoterically: it’s much, much harder to make your pages look right if you’ve never seen a professionally-formatted book manuscript. Call me zany, but in my experience, the best remedy for that is to show aspiring writers — wait for it — a few dozen examples of professionally-formatted book manuscript pages, rather than making them guess.

In close-up, even, as in the first post in this series. I like to think of this endeavor as both pleasing to ol’ Plato and a serious contribution to, if not the future of literature, at least to human happiness. Too many good writers have gotten rejected over the years for not being aware of the rules, or even that rules exist.

Look, kid, here’s a gumball. Study it well, so you may recognize it in the wild.

I know: how nice would it have been had some kind soul discreetly pulled you aside 35 seconds after you first decided to write a book and explained that to you, right? If you’re like most writers, it would have saved you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin to have known before you sat down to compose page 1 that since (a) all professional book manuscripts in the U.S. look more or less alike and (b) any writer who has worked with an agent or publisher would presumably be aware of that, (c) those of us who read for a living can often tell just how long an aspiring writer has been at it by the briefest glance at the page. Thus, contrary to what virtually every aspiring writer completely reasonably presumes at first, (d) one of the best things you can do to get your writing taken seriously by the pros is to format it according to their expectations.

Let me guess, though: you did not tumble squalling into this world knowing any of that, did you? The weird thing is that neither were agents, editors, contest judges, or screeners. Once you’ve had the benefit of seeing a few hundred thousand correctly-formatted manuscript pages, however, you don’t even have to look very hard to notice the difference between a page 1 like this:

And one that looked like this:

You can see the difference from halfway across the room, can you not? So, as it happens, can Millicent the agency screener, her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor who will someday, the Muses willing, acquire your book. That’s the inevitable result of experience. Year in, year out, come rain, shine, or hailing wildcats, we cast our eyes over book manuscripts done right and, well, the other kind.

And that, in case any of you perplexed by how much of the information about manuscript formatting floating around out there seems to come from somewhere in the ether, rather than directly from, say, an agency or a publishing house, is why professional readers don’t spend much time doing what I’m sure a lot of aspiring writers positively long for us do, policing the Internet for rogue advice on manuscript formatting. Why would someone who already familiar with the rigors and beauties of standard format bother to look it up online, much less fact-check?

We already know a properly-formatted page when we see it — and when we don’t. “What do you mean — are those gumballs?” we mutter, incredulous. “Isn’t it self-evident?”

So strongly do some of us have the Platonic standard manuscript page in mind that it might not even occur to us that, say, there exist writers in the English-speaking world not aware of what a slug line is. It astounds us to hear that indented paragraphs are not the automatic choice of every literate person. It makes sense to us that, as much as anyone might want to conserve paper, submitting a manuscript printed on both the front and back sides and/or — sacre bleu! — spiral- or perfect-bound would generally result in its being rejected unread.

Because we are so steeped in the standard format tradition, even the smallest deviation from it draws our attention like the lone zebra in a crowd of centaurs. How could it not affect our perception of a writer’s eye for detail to discover that s/he apparently thought her page 2 would look better like this:

Than like this:

Less obvious that time, wasn’t it? Still, I suspect you were unlikely to confuse the bona fide gumball with the stick of spearmint. Unless, of course, you’d heard someplace that the last thing Millicent ever want to see in gum is a spherical shape.

Oh, don’t bother to deny it — most aspiring writers glean at least a bit of misinformation while constructing their first book-length manuscripts. How do I know? Those of us who spend any time at all around aspiring writers find ourselves constantly in the position of being asked to confirm what to us has become through long experience self-evident. Even more often, we’re called upon to defend the shape of the Platonic gumball to those who have heard somewhere that even so much as a curled-up edge will result in instant and contemptuous rejection.

“What do you mean, paragraphs have to be indented?” writers who have entertained alternate theories often snap at us, flabbergasted. “I’ve heard that’s considered old-fashioned now. And are you mad, recommending doubled dashes?”

Since either of those formatting innovations would be news to folks who read manuscripts for a living, it can be a bit trying to be told otherwise, sometimes at ear-splitting volumes, early and often. Even as a great proponent of explanations as yours truly tends to find it wearying the 87th time in any given month that a total stranger burning for publication accosts me like the Ancient Mariner, wanting to spend two hours arguing about the latest rumor flying around the web about how standard format has abruptly altered in some fundamental-yet-mysteriously-secret manner rightly understood by only whatever generous soul chose to promulgate the change.

No one knows who this public benefactor is, of course; aspiring writers seeking confirmation of such rumors name their sources so seldom that by the turn of the century, I had begun to think of them collectively as He Who Must Not Be Named. (Take that, Voldemort!) In recent years, however, I have rechristened this shadowy figure by the name his proponents must often cite: But I heard…

But I Heard is an insidious opponent, believe you me, as only a faceless entity can be — he seems to be everywhere. His power, as nearly as I can tell, stems almost entirely from his amorphousness. Because it’s impossible to find out where he’s getting his ostensibly inside information, no amount of proof can refute his arguments to his adherents’ satisfaction; because he so seldom explains himself, logic has been known to bounce right off him and hit innocent bystanders. And that’s kind of annoying to those of us who juggle manuscripts on a daily basis, because But I Heard seems to be retailing some pretty wacky notions these days.

That puzzles the pros: standard format for manuscripts actually hasn’t changed all that much since Saul Bellow was a callow youth, much less since he shuffled off this mortal coil. Once typed manuscripts became the norm, standard format pulled up a chair and stayed for a while. And contrary to astoundingly popular opinion, it has shifted in its seat relatively little since Truman Capote joined the choir invisible.

But that’s not what you’ve heard, is it? The rise of the personal computer has made less of a difference than But I Heard would have you believe. Oh, underlining is out and italics are in to designate words in foreign languages (in the post-Capote universe, one should never underline anything in a book manuscript; I’ll be getting to that), and how one actually figures out how much to indent a paragraph has altered a bit with the adoption of Microsoft Word as the industry standard for electronic submission (unlike a typewriter, Word measures its tabs in fractions of an inch, not character spaces). Overall, though, the professionally-formatted book manuscript of today quite closely resembles the professionally-formatted book manuscript of, say, 1958.

Which is to say: not very much like the short stories of that very good year for short stories. The gumball’s shape has not altered much over that period, either.

The relative lack of change, But I Heard tells me, is far from self-evident. He would prefer to believe that all writing should be formatted identically, regardless of type. In that, alas, he is misinformed: short story format is different from standard format for books and book proposals, and has been for quite some time. So are essay format, academic format, journalistic format, and even how a published book will look on a page.

That very notion makes But I Heard squirm. But that’s not going to stop me from saying what I know from experience to be true: book manuscripts presented in standard format look professional to people who handle book manuscripts for a living. If those are the people a writer is trying to please, does it really matter what anybody else thinks writing should look like on the page?

Does that mean every professional reader, everywhere, every time, will want to see your work formatted as we have been discussing? No, of course not: should you happen to be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest that specifically asks you to do something other than I advise here, obviously, you should give him, her, or it what he or his stated guidelines request.

That’s just common sense, right? Not to mention basic courtesy. Yet judging by the plethora of ambient speculation on the subject, it’s not self-evident.

Yet if an agent or agency has been considerate enough of its future clients to post submission guidelines, it just makes sense to acknowledge their efforts. I would actively encourage every writer currently milling about the earth’s crust not only to check every agency’s website, every time, to make sure that any individual agent to whom you were planning to submit does not harbor alternate preferences — some do — but also to Google him, to double-check that he hasn’t stated in some public forum that, for instance, he is so deeply devoted to paper conservation that he actively prefers only a single space after a period or a colon. Or that due to a childhood trauma involving a newspaper (she doesn’t like to talk about it), she positively twitches at the sight of Times New Roman instead of Courier. Or that a particular agency’s staff believes that a doubled dash is the secret symbol of the kind of murderous cult that used to populate 1970s horror movies.

Really, though, if the agent of your dreams says he wants to see your submission formatted a particular way, can you think of any particular reason you wouldn’t want to honor that preference?

“I can think of one!” But I Heard shouts. “It would be considerably less work to format my manuscript once and submit it that way to every agent currently drawing breath, rather than taking the time to hunt down a specific agent’s expressed preferences, saving a separate copy of one’s manuscript, applying those preferences to it (and only it), and sending a personalized version to that agent. Why, think of how time-consuming to go through those same steps for every agent, every time!”

It might be, if alternate preferences were either widespread (they’re not, particularly) or often posted on agency websites (see previous parenthesis). At the risk of repeating myself, standard format is called that for a reason.

But I Heard certainly has a point, though. He also has, as you may have noticed over the years, an exceedingly simple means of promoting that point and ones just like it: by leaping to the conclusion that because one has a strong preference for a non-standard format element, every agent or agency must necessarily have tossed all previous norms to the winds in order to embrace that preference. And, for reasons best known to themselves, they’ve elected not to notify any working author you might care to mention about this monumental collective decision, preferring instead to disseminate the information via the much more reliable and trustworthy game of Telephone.

You remember that game, right? The first kid whispers a secret to the person next to her; #2 repeats what he heard to #3, and so on around the circle. By the time the news has passed through a dozen pairs of lips, the original content has become so transfigured in transit that it’s hardly recognizable.

I hate to spoil But I Heard’s good time — there’s little he likes better than inflating something someone said someone else overhead an agent said say at a conference once upon a time into the new trend sweeping the nation — but personal preferences do in fact exist. And contrary to what you might have heard, agents and agencies that favor specific deviations from standard format tend not to be all that shy about mentioning them.

In case I’m being too subtle here: check their websites. Or their listings in one of the major guides to literary agents.

Do I spot some timid hands raised out there in the ether? “But Anne,” point out some confused by conflicting advice — and who could blame them, given how busy But I Heard has been in recent years? “I’ve been checking websites, and the overwhelming majority of agency websites I’ve found don’t talk about manuscript format at all. Does that mean that they don’t care about how I present my writing?”

Of course, they care, but standard format is just that: standard. If what they want is a gumball, why should they take the time to explain that they don’t desire a bar of chocolate?

Yes, But I Heard? You would like to add something? “I get it,” he moans, rattling the Jacob Marley chains appropriate to his disembodied state. “All my long-time nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, cares about in a submission is how it looks, not how it is written. How literature has tumbled from its pedestal! No one cares about good writing anymore!”

Did you see what that dastardly wraith just did to my non-threatening piece of sugar-laden analysis? But I Heard is a past master at ripping statements out of context, blowing them out of proportion, and whisking them off to parts unknown to their original utterers. But you’re too savvy, I’m sure, to join him in the wild surmise that Millicent’s paying attention to how a manuscript looks means, or even implies, that how a submission is written doesn’t make a difference. Of course, writing talent, style, and originality count. Yet in order to be able to appreciate any of those properly, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.

That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what But I Heard just shouted in your ears, necessarily the result of mere market-mindedness on Millie’s part. After you’ve read a few thousand manuscripts, deviations from standard format leap out at you. As will spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clich?s, telling rather than showing, and all of the tried-and-true submission red flags about which But I Heard has been kind enough to keep us informed over the years.

Again, he has a legitimate point: all of these are distractions from your good writing. So, as it happens, are deviations from standard format, to a reader used to seeing writing presented that way. That means, in practice, that presenting your manuscript as Millie expects to see it is the way that she is least likely to find distracting.

What does she see if you present your manuscript as she expects to see it? Your writing.

I hear those of you who have spent years slaving over your craft groaning — believe me, I sympathize. For those of you who have not already started composing your first drafts in standard format (which will save you a lot of time in the long run, incidentally), many of the tiny-but-pervasive changes I am about to suggest that you make to your manuscript are going to be irksome to implement. Reformatting a manuscript is time-consuming and tedious, and I would be the first to admit that at first, some of these rules can seem arbitrary.

At least on their faces. Quite a few of these restrictions remain beloved even in the age of electronic submissions because they render a manuscript a heck of a lot easier to edit — and to read, in either hard or soft copy. As I will demonstrate with abundant examples later in this series, a lot of these rules have survived for completely practical purposes — designed, for instance, to maximize white space in which the editor may scrawl trenchant comments like, “Wait, wasn’t the protagonist’s brother named James in the last chapter? Why is he Aloysius here?”

Ready to take my word for that in the meantime? Excellent; help yourself to a gumball. Let’s recap the rules we covered last time:

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

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way. For submission to US-based agencies, publishing houses, and contests, the pages in question should be US-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Is everyone happy with those? If not, I await your questions. While I’m waiting, however, I’m going to move on.

(5) The entire manuscript should be in the same font and size — no switching typefaces for any reason. Industry standard is 12-point font.

No exceptions, please. No matter how cool your favored typeface looks, be consistent. Yes, even on the title page, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out.

No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.

It’s high school book report. Need I say more?

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and not even there, it’s not a particularly good idea.

This seems like an odd one, right, since word processing programs render including boldface so easy? Actually, the no-bolding rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. Historically, then using bold was considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: it’s a subtle display of wealth.

You didn’t think all of those white shoes the Victorians wore cleaned themselves, did you? Shiny white shoes denoted scads of busily-polishing servants.

You may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be in boldface. (Unless it’s a section heading in a nonfiction proposal or manuscript — but don’t worry about that for now; I’ll be showing you how to format both a book proposal and a section break later on in this series, I promise. I shall also be tossing many, many examples of properly-formatted title pages your way, never fear.)

(7) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered, except the title page. The first page of text is page 1, not the title page.

Even if you choose to disregard literally everything else I’ve said here, please remember to number your pages. Millicent’s usual response to the sight of an unnumbered manuscript is to reject it unread.

Yes, really; this omission is considered genuinely rude. Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission or contest entry. It ranks right up there with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, Dear Agent instead of Dear Ms. Smith.

Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down. If the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper, and the writer who sent it did not bother to number those pages…well, picture it for yourself: two manuscript-bearing interns walking toward each other in an agency hallway, each whistling a jaunty tune. Between them, a banana peel, a forgotten skateboard, and a pair of blindfolded participants in a three-legged race clutching a basket stuffed to the brim with ping-pong balls between them.

You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of what would happen should any two of those elements come into direct contact. After the blizzard of flying papers has subsided, and the interns rehash that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial’s dialogue (“You got romance novel in my literary fiction!” “You got literary fiction in my romance novel!”), guess what needs to happen?

Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in proper order, that’s what. Just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?

Obey Rule #7. Trust me, it is far, far easier for Millicent to toss the entire thing into the reject pile than to spend the hours required to guess which bite-sized piece of storyline belongs before which in an unnumbered manuscript.

Wondering why the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such? Or why, if your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of that is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1?

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because gumballs are round, and books manuscripts do not resemble published books.

The title page is not the only one commonly mislabeled as 1, by the way: epigraphs — those quotations from other authors’ books so dear to the hearts of writers everywhere — should not appear on their own page in a manuscript, as they sometimes do in published books. If you feel you must include one (which you might want to reconsider at the submission stage: 99.9999% of the time, Millicent will just skip over it), include it between the chapter title and text on page 1.

If that last paragraph left your head in a whirl, don’t worry — I’ll show you how to format epigraphs properly later in this series. (Yes, including some discussion of that cryptic comment about Millicent’s wandering peepers. All in the fullness of time, my friends.)

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it. Or be able to tell your submission from the other one that ran afoul of the banana peel in our earlier example.

The slug line should appear in the upper left-hand margin (although no one will sue you if you put it in the upper right-hand margin, left is the time-honored location) of every page of the text except the title page (which should have nothing in the header or footer at all).

A trifle confused by all that terminology? I’m not entirely surprised. Most writing handbooks and courses tend to be a trifle vague about this particular requirement, so allow me to define the relevant terms: a well-constructed slug line includes the author’s last name, book title, and page number, to deal with that intern-collision problem I mentioned earlier. (The slug line allows the aforementioned luckless individual to tell the romance novel from the literary fiction.) And the header, for those of you who have not yet surrendered to Microsoft Word’s lexicon, is the 1-inch margin at the top of each page.

Having trouble finding it in our page examples above? Here’s a subtle hint:

Since the only place a page number should appear on a page of text is in the slug line, if you are in the habit of placing numbers wacky places like the middle of the footer, do be aware that it does not look strictly professional to, well, professionals. Double-check that your word processing program is not automatically adding extraneous page numbers elsewhere on the page.

Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word page. Trust me, Millicent will know what that number is, provided that it appears here — and only here:

Sensing just a bit of urgency on this one? Good. Those of us predisposed to regard gumballs as inherently spherical are always surprised to see how many aspiring writers regard page numbering as a tempting forum for self-expression. Remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as matters of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative visual impact, but to provide practical guidance in reestablishing sequence should those ping-pong balls start bouncing about underfoot.

If your book has a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if it boasts a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. Millicent needs to be able to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.

Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. (A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type. Aren’t you glad you asked?) Let’s assume for the sake of example that I’ve written a novel entitled THE SMILING FROWNER BEMUSED– 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:

Mini/The Smiling Frowner Bemused/1

If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters all by itself, including dash — I might well feel compelled to abbreviate.

Montenegro-Copperfield/Smiling Frowner/1

Incidentally, should anyone out there come up with a bright idea for a category heading on the archive list for this issue other than SLUG LINE — a category that already exists, but is unlikely to be found by anyone not already familiar with the term — I’d be delighted to hear suggestions. I’ve called it a slug line ever since I first clapped eyes on a professional manuscript (an event that took place so long ago my response to the sight was not, “What’s that at the top of the page, Daddy?” but “Goo!”), so I’m probably not going to be coming up with a good alternative anytime soon. Thanks.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page. The chapter title should appear on the first line of the page, not on the line immediately above where the text begins.

That’s fourteen single-spaced lines down, incidentally. The chapter title (or merely “Chapter One”) should be centered, and it should neither be in boldface nor underlined. To revisit today’s first example:

“But Anne,” But I Heard protests, “why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text? I’ve often seen that suggested — and illustrated online. What gives?”

Would any of you care to field that one? Perhaps someone who took the time to read the text of today’s positive and negative examples? Feel free to chant the answer with me, sharp-eyed perusers: “Because that’s where the title of a short story lives, not a book’s.”

Self-evident once you’ve heard it, isn’t it?

Because confusing the two formats is so common, very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that have the title of the book, by Author’s Name, and/or the writer’s contact information floating in the space above the text. To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems like it just ended up in the wrong office. Clearly, the writer wanted not the agency to which she sent it, but the magazine down the street.

So where does all of that necessary contact information go, you ask? Read on.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, not on page 1.

This is one of the most obvious visual differences between a short story submission (say, to a literary journal) and a book-length manuscript. To submit a manuscript — or contest entry, for that matter — with this information on page 1 is roughly the equivalent of taking a great big red marker and scrawling, “I don’t know much about the business of publishing,” across it.

Just don’t do it. Millicent likes her gumballs.

“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “My gumball — I mean, my manuscript — needs a title page? Since when?”

What a timely question.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

This one seems to come as a surprise to a lot of aspiring writers. You should include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages.

And again, But I Heard expresses disgruntlement. “More work!” he cries. “If you’d only let us shoehorn our contact information onto page 1 (as I notice you have artfully resisted showing as a counterexample, lest some reader mistake it for acceptable book format), this would not be at all necessary!”

At the risk of sounding callous, so what? You want to make it as easy as humanly possible for the agent of your dreams to let you know that she wants to represent this book, don’t you? And it’s not as though she would ever dream of sending anything you wrote to an editor at a publishing house without a title page.

Yes, really. Literally every manuscript that any agent in North America submits to any editor in hard copy will include one, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s the page that includes the agent’s contact information.

Yet, astonishingly, a good 95% of writers submitting to agencies seem to be unaware that including it is standard. I blame But I Heard: to him, the cover letter, address on the SASE, or the e-mail to which the requested materials were attached are identification enough. But in practice, it’s none of those things will necessarily still be attached to your pages at the point when your ideal agent says, “By jingo, I’m thoroughly wowed. This is a writer I must sign, and pronto!”

Oh, you thought that your SASE won’t go flying when those interns collide in the hallway? Or that e-mails never get deleted accidentally? Once those ping-pong balls get rolling, they end up everywhere; the damage they do is incalculable.

On the plus side, the broad reach of But I Heard’s pernicious influence — coupled, I suspect, with the fact that including a title page just never occurs to a lot of first-time submitters — means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?

If you do not know how to format a proper title page — and yes, Virginia, there is a special format for it, too — please see the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right. Or wait a few days until I cover it later in this series.

It’s entirely up to you. No pressure here. Have a gumball while you wait.

Before anyone who currently has a submission languishing at an agency begins to panic: you’re almost certainly not going to get rejected solely for forgetting to include a title page. It’s too common a gaffe to be an automatic deal-breaker for most Millicents. Ditto with improperly-formatted ones. And yes, one does occasionally run into an agent at a conference or one blogging online who says she doesn’t care one way or the other about whether a submission has a title page resting on top at all.

Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I have pointed out to relative strangers roughly 147,329 times in the past year, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it isn’t a stickler for professionalism?

I sense some shoulders sagging at the very notion of all the work it’s going to be to alter your pages before you send them out. Please believe me when I tell you that, as tedious as it is to change these things in your manuscript now, by the time you’re on your third or fourth book, it will be second nature to you. Why, I’ll bet that the next time you sit down to begin a new writing project, you will automatically format it correctly.

Think of all of the time that will save you down the line. Goody, goody gumdrops.

More guidelines follow in the next couple of posts — yes, those of you whose hearts just sank audibly, standard format does indeed have that many rules — and then we shall move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice. I want you to have enough information on the subject to be able to understand why following them might be a good idea.

Rather than, say, walking away with the vague feeling that you heard about these rules somewhere. Keep up the good work!

You asked for it: a one-post overview of the rules of standard format for manuscripts. With pretty pictures!

As I don’t see how anyone prone to hanging out here at Author! Author! could fail to be aware, I’m not a big fan of making aspiring writers guess what they’re supposed to do; writing and submitting a first book is stressful enough without having to wonder what page 37 should look like or what query with synopsis means in practical terms. That’s why once a year, whether anyone likes it or not, I devote at least a couple of weeks to going over how professional book manuscripts should be formatted.

And yes, new readers, I do it in my trademarked level of detail. Nary a period, dash, or margin width shall go unexplained, if I can help it.

I didn’t incorporate illustrations into these explanations when I first began blogging, but after the first couple of years, I started including page shots. Why? Well, I kept hearing that many, many submissions and contest entries were striking Millicent the agency screener and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, as unprofessional. That’s usually not an instant-rejection offense, but it does tend to mean that even if the writing on a wackily-presented page is very good, the pros begin reading it with a slightly jaundiced eye.

The logic runs thus: if a writer is really serious about getting published, s/he will take the time to learn how professional book manuscripts are formatted; if the manuscript/contest entry in front of them deviates from standard format in one or more significant respects, the writer must not have done that homework. From there, it’s not a very great conceptual leap to concluding that the writer has not taken the time to learn much about his or her chosen book category, writing craft, or other matters essential to becoming a successful author.

Personally, I don’t think a lack of authorial seriousness the usual reason manuscripts and contest entries so often show up looking like the writer isn’t aware of professional standards. I think it’s almost always because the writer has only a vague notion of what a book manuscript should look like — or simply does not know that a standard format exists. Most of the time, rookies simply assume that a manuscript and a published book should be, if not identical, at least close.

Adding to the ambient confusion: a staggeringly high proportion of the formatting information floating around out there does not draw a distinction between what’s proper for a book manuscript and how, say, a short story or magazine article should be formatted for submission. Contrary to popular belief, not all writing should be presented identically. Indeed, the first page of a short story and the first page of a book manuscript look so different that Millicent can tell at first glance whether the submitter knows the difference.

Yes, really — and yes, the difference honestly is that stark to those of us who deal with manuscripts for a living. Unfortunately, though, some of the particulars can be awfully hard to spot for someone who has never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript before.

Which is to say: virtually everyone submitting a manuscript to an agency for the first time.

Today, I’m going to attempt to remedy that. In this post, I shall be going over the rules of standard format very briefly — and, for the benefit of those of you brand-new to considering how words should look on a page, I shall be sharing snapshots of what your baby should look like on the page.

Never fear, extensive explanation-lovers: in the days to come, I shall revisit these rules, explaining them in greater detail. I just wanted to define our terms visually, since so many writers have difficulty picturing what they’ve never seen in person.

Which is, of course, completely understandable. But just try telling that to Millicent and Mehitabel.

Actually, I don’t only want to define the terms — although if you would like me to clarify anything below, please feel free to drop a question in the comments section at the end of this post. Many of you have asked over the years for a single-post rendition of the formatting rules, and frankly, I’ve resisted. I don’t like to lay down the law without telling you why adhering to a particular standard is necessary; I think barking unexplained orders is an insult to a writer’s intelligence.

Let’s face it, though: the Internet is a haven for one-stop information dumps. I hear all the time from writers new to this site that they would love to see here what they’ve found elsewhere, a bullet-pointed list of rules that they can scan in a few minutes. To which my response has, I’m afraid, habitually been: arf, arf.

I’ve been listening for years, however, to how members of the Author! Author! community talk about how talk about how they did — or didn’t — find out about the industry’s standards, and I have to say I’ve been hearing that most writers start out looking for one-stop answers. I’ve also noticed that the more visual examples I’ve worked into earlier posts on the subject, the better folks seem to like it. And, frankly, I’ve been wondering what someone for whom English was, say, a fourth or fifth language would make of the plethora of manuscript formatting out there.

Here, then, are the rules of standard format, suitably illustrated and with all of the relevant terms defined. I would encourage each and every one of you to learn more about how book manuscripts are put together, but hey, it’s a start.

No, wait: before we start, let’s take a quick look at the first couple of pages of a professionally-formatted manuscript. Page 1 or a book manuscript (remember, other types of writing adhere to other standards) should look like this in person:

If you’re having trouble seeing the individual words, don’t worry — for now, I just want to concentrate on the general shape of words on the page. If you prefer, though, you can either double-click on the image or hold down the COMMAND key and press + to enlarge the image. Here’s page 2, under a slightly brighter light:

Yes, yes, I know: full-spectrum light bulbs might have been a great choice for my studio in most respects, but untinted photography was not one of them. Ignore the golden tint, then, please: we’re looking for overall shapes and placement here. With them firmly in mind, let’s launch into the rules.

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

Let’s unpack all of that terminology, shall we? Handwritten manuscripts are not acceptable for books these days, but it is in fact possible to produce an acceptable manuscript on a typewriter. Eventually, your future agent and editor are going to expect you to be able to produce a copy of your book in MS Word, but unless an agency, publishing house, or contest’s rules specifically state that pages must be produced on a computer, submitting a typed version will seldom result in rejection. It will save you time in the long run, however, if you just write your book in Word.

Double-spacing is, I hope, fairly self-explanatory: unlike published books, manuscripts are not printed on every available line on the page. The margins are the spaces left blank on the left and right sides of the page, as well as the bottom and the top.

Okay, so I probably didn’t need to show you a picture of the margins. I invite you to notice, however, the impressive proof that I spent kindergarten reading while other children were acquiring much better arrow-cutting skills; the only scissors editors find themselves called upon to use regularly are metaphorical.

Am I correct in assuming, though, that some of you would enjoy seeing some clarification of what’s meant by 20-lb. or better white paper? Paper quality is measured by how much a certain number of pages weigh; as you’ve probably noticed in office supply stores, the heavier the paper, the more expensive it is. You’ll usually find the weight printed on the end of the ream:

As you may see, I generally use 24-lb. paper: it holds up better on repeated readings. That can be important in a submission, as more than one person at an agency, publishing house, and contest judging environment typically reads a page. 20-lb. paper is just fine for most submissions, though — it’s heavy enough that the type on the second page in a stack is not visible through the first.

Generally speaking, the greater the contrast between the whiteness of the paper and the darkness of the ink, the sharper your manuscript will look on the page, so this is no time to be trotting out the buff or ecru. Yes, choosing an off-white would make your pages stand out from the crowd, but believe me, it would not be in a good way.

Doubt that? Okay, compare the page 1 image above with page 2. If you were a Millicent expecting pages to be white, which would strike you as easier to read?

Stick with a bright white. Brightness levels can usually be found on the side of the ream, too.

All of that is clear, I hope? Excellent. Let’s move on to the second rule.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on one side of the page and unbound in any way. For submission to US-based agencies, publishing houses, and contests, the pages in question should be US-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

Again, much of this is probably self-explanatory, but since aspiring writers sometimes read the rules quite differently from those of us who work with manuscripts every day, I don’t want to take any definitions for granted. In that spirit, then, allow me to point out that the back of every page of your manuscript should look like this:

There’s a full page of text on the reverse side of that sheet, by the way, and your humble servant’s shadow cast near the bottom. See what I mean about the benefits of higher-quality paper? If an agent or editor wanted to write notes on it, there would be no visual distraction from bled-through ink.

Like many of us who handle manuscripts professionally, I’m always astonished if they show up bound, but spiral-binding does seem to be popular with a heck of a lot of aspiring writers. That’s fine for circulating your manuscript to your kith, kin, and writers’ group, but an agent or editor is going to want to be able to separate those pages. Your manuscript should pop out of its shipping container looking like this:

You will want to form it into a nice, neat stack, of course, but beyond that, it’s on its own. In order to help it navigate a long journey more happily, writers submitting to US-based agencies and publishing houses do need to be aware that regardless of whether requested materials arrive by mail or via e-mail, the expectation will be that the manuscript will be formatted for US business-size paper, not A4. (Don’t worry — I shall be tackling this sometimes thorny problem later in this series.)

Where might one find paper size, you ask? How about on the end of the ream, with the other relevant information?

Any questions so far? Lay ‘em on me. In the meantime, let’s move on to another rule.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should not resemble published books in this respect.

This one seems to puzzle quite a few submitters — and even more literary contest entrants — I suspect because of the wording. It’s really not all that complicated: block-justified text produces a page on which the beginnings of the first word of each line form a straight line down the page on the left, while the end of each line on the right also ends at the same place.

We see this in magazines and newspapers all the time, right? I’m reluctant to show an example of block-justification, lest I throw anyone off. It’s easy, though, to get the basic idea from what the left margin is doing here.

As we can see in that example, though, a book manuscript is not block-justified, but left-justified. That means it boasts a straight margin on the left-hand side of the page, but an uneven right margin. Washing out the image a little makes the pattern down the page a bit easier to notice.

What Millicent will be expecting to see, in other words, are left and right margins that don’t look the same, like this:

All of which is, naturally, just another way of saying: just because you’ve seen formatting in print does not mean that it’s acceptable in a manuscript submission. It may look cool on the page, but remember, Millicent is not looking for cool. She’s looking for strong stories and good writing; non-standard format is only going to distract her from what the text is actually saying.

That’s also likely to be the case if the font is funky, by the way. Let’s talk about that next.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and only one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Aspiring writers often believe, wrongly, that if MS Word offers a font, it should be fair game to use in a manuscript. To be quite candid, this pervasive belief drives professional readers nuts, for precisely the reason we just saw: since professionally-formatted manuscripts utilize only a couple of font options, anything else just looks odd to Millicent.

Let’s see why. Here is a properly-formatted page of dialogue in 12-point Times New Roman, the industry standard:

Now here’s that same run of dialogue in Courier. Notice how many fewer words fit on the page.

Perfectly readable, right? Now take a gander at our interaction in one of the more fanciful fonts offered by Word:

Hard to read, isn’t it? It also comes across as unprofessional: clearly, the writer who sent this Millicent’s way did not understand that presentation mattered. That means, unfortunately, that this page would simply scream at her that this writer would require an unusual amount of work to represent. Someone would need to sit down with the person that considered this font nifty and explain what standard format is: the least distracting way possible to show one’s writing to an agent or editor.

Did you catch the extremely common gaffe in those last two examples? No? Okay, here’s a close-up:

Catch it that time? The slug line — that concise run of information in the header — was in Times New Roman, while the text below was in Courier. Sort of looks like our writer wasn’t paying very close attention, doesn’t it? It also violates our next rule.

(5) The entire manuscript should be in the same font and size — no switching typefaces for any reason. Industry standard is 12-point.

No exceptions, I’m afraid, no matter what you have seen in published books. Any funky font choices in print are the publisher’s call, not the author’s.

The same principle applies, incidentally, to the title page; as we shall discuss later in this series, aspiring writers tend to go a little nuts there. Remember, though, the goal is not to grab Millicent’s eye with graphics, but with your writing. With that in mind, compare a properly-formatted title page in 12-point Times New Roman:

With the same title page with an array of fonts, some larger than 12 point:

The overwhelming majority of submitters would not see a great difference between the two — or, if they did, most would consider the second more visually appealing. As you may recall my having mentioned about thirty seconds ago, however, a savvy submitter does not lobby for an agent’s attention with anything other than the high quality of the writing and the strength of the story being told.

Trust me, you’re better off with something less flashy. Let’s move on.

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and I would advise against it even there.

Again, just because Word provides a formatting option does not necessarily mean it is proper to include in a manuscript. If you want to emphasize words or phrases, use italics.

And on the title page, stick to the basics: remember, it’s the first part of your manuscript Millicent will see; it’s a great time to impress her with your professionalism. That being the case, I’m afraid the following is as dressed-up as a properly-formatted title page can manage:

Not much more exciting than the non-bold version above, is it? So it is really worth the trouble?

(7) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered — except the title page. The first page of text is page 1, not the title page.

For some reason that absolutely no one who habitually works with manuscripts can understand, aspiring writers often don’t number their pages. It’s rude to the reader, period. It also makes it perfectly obvious that the writer has never read his own manuscript in hard copy; it’s very, very easy to mix up unnumbered pages.

Fortunately, standard format provides a number on every page. It belongs in the header.

A title page, though, is neither numbered nor included in the page count. As, indeed, our exuberant arrow indicates:

But what else is going on in that header, you ask? Good question.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

Don’t let the slimy name intimidate you: a slug line is simply the author’s last name/book’s title/page #, included so that if a page accidentally falls out of the manuscript, someone at the agency will be able to figure out from which manuscript it tumbled. Let’s take another look at it on the page:

This is the only exception to the one-inch margin on all sides of the page, right? The slug line sits in the middle of the header, and the page number rests within it. If you have been working with a version of Word that automatically places the page number somewhere else, it’s your responsibility to change it.

Yes, it matters that much. Millicent won’t look for the page number anywhere else.

Speaking of elements of standard format that don’t always mesh seamlessly with Word’s defaults, here comes our next rule.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page. The chapter title should appear on the first line of the page, not on the line immediately above where the text begins.

This is another one of the areas in which published books, short story format, and standard format for book manuscripts differ: a new chapter begins on a fresh page, 1/3 of the way down. And no, just because an agency’s submission guidelines ask queriers to send the first five pages with the query does not mean that it’s permissible to ignore the opening space requirement. Millicent is expecting page 1 to look like this:

And while we’re on the subject of how little standard format for book manuscripts and short story format look alike…

(10) Contact information for the writer belongs on the title page, not on page 1.

A surprisingly number of online sources seem not to make this distinction clear (or at all), but in a manuscript for a book-length work, the writer’s information should not be crammed onto page 1. That’s proper for a short story or article. It just goes to show you: not everything called a manuscript is identical — or aimed at the same group of professional readers.

Still, you will want to make it as simple as humanly possible for an agent who falls in love with your work to tell you so, right? We’ve already seen where it will be best appreciated — and where Millicent will be looking for it.

And yes, in response to what the overwhelming majority of writers who have been asked to submit partial manuscripts, just thought very loudly indeed, Millicent will be looking for that information if her boss requested only the first 50 pages as well. Which brings us to our next rule:

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

Again, omitting a title page is seldom an instant-rejection offense, but honestly, it looks more professional than simply stacking a cover letter on top of page 1 — and much, much more professional than just shoving the manuscript into an envelope with no toppers at all. Yet Millicent and I are perpetually gob smacked by how many requested partial manuscripts show up without any authorial identification at all. At least if the submitter has adhered to short story format, his contact information will be on the first page, but astonishingly often, the writer’s last name and title in the slug line constitute the only clues to the sender’s identity.

Don’t see why that would be a problem? Okay, pretend that you’re Millicent, and you’ve just opened a box containing a requested manuscript. This would be what you would see:

See the problem? If Millicent or her boss, the agent of this submitter’s dreams, fall in love with those opening pages, the agency’s staff will have to dig up the query letter or leaf through a few thousand e-mails to find the writer’s contact information. Millie thinks this is just inconsiderate, but I suspect something else is going on here: the writer who sent the title page-free manuscript simply doesn’t understand how many submissions a well-established agency receives in any given week.

By contrast, look how simple it is for Millicent to figure out who sent this little number:

Make it easy for them to ask for the rest of your manuscript. Include a title page with your contact information on it with any requested pages, no matter how few.

(12) The beginning of every paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.

This would not have been a topic of discussion even thirty years ago, and frankly, most of us who read for a living don’t really accept that this would require explanation at all. The rise of both e-mail and business correspondence style has misled some aspiring writers into believing, wrongly, that it’s perfectly acceptable to omit indentation. Instead, they separate paragraphs by a skipped line.

That’s not how Millicent will expect a manuscript to be presented — or how her boss, the agent, would even consider submitting it to an editor at a publishing house. Everyone concerned will want your paragraphs to commence like this:

In other words, just the way paragraphs would be indented in a published book. Which means, of course, that those skipped lines that would have been necessary to keep paragraphs from running into one another have no place here. With one exception.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not necessary to do anything fancy to demonstrate in a book manuscript that one section of text has ended and the next has begun, as it is in a short story. (And in some contests for book-length works — check the rules.) For a book, all a writer has to do is hit the SPACE bar once. The result:

It resembles a section break in most published books, doesn’t it? Our next rule also adheres to that principle.

(14) Nothing in a book manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and phrases you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

Actually, we’ve just seen this one in action in our previous example. As our attention was focused elsewhere, let’s take another peek.

I sense those of you fond of using italics to denote thought or find the common publishing practice of including an italicized opening champing at the bit, but hold those horses: I shall be devoting an entire post later in this series to the burning issue of when italics use is and is not acceptable. For now, let’s just assume that you’re going to be dotting your manuscript with ‘em, so we can move on to another peculiarity of book manuscripts.

(15) Numbers over 100 and those containing decimal points (like currency) or colons (like specific times) should be written as numerals. Numbers under 100 should be written out in word form.

So twenty-four should be written that way, but 1,557, 12:32 p.m., and $68.34 would be expressed numerically. Let’s see these principles in action on a page of text.

That’s fairly clear, I hope. One last rule that could bear a visual example, then we shall be done for the day.

(16) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash like this — with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces at either end, as in self-congratulatory.

My blogging program does not permit me to include manuscript-style dashes, I’m sorry to report — it automatically replaces them with that long line between words gracing this very sentence. I am forced, then, to resort to a page shot to provide you with the gratifying sight of proper dash use on a manuscript page.

See how the doubled dash and the spaces between the dashes and the words that surround them render it impossible to mistake the intended dash for a hyphen? Sometimes, aspiring writers mistakenly use this format for a hyphen, but that would be incorrect in any context. Why? Well, a hyphen joins parts of a single word — counter-intuitive, ten-foot pole, a three-year-old child — while a dash sets off a part of a compound sentence. As, indeed, two of them did in that last sentence.

You want to see a few more dashes and commas in their natural habitat, don’t you? Perfectly reasonable. Here are a few dancing across a manuscript page, suitably marked.

And those, my friends, are the basic contours of a book manuscript in standard format. If all of these images went by too fast, don’t worry: my next few posts will be going over the rules at a more leisurely pace, for the benefit of those who enjoy extensive explanations. After that, I shall be delving into some of the more common formatting faux pas. Sounds like fun, eh?

Well, maybe not, but would you rather guess how to do it? Or have me bark at you? Keep up the good work!

Before you pop that first query or submission of the year into the mail, may I have a word?

And would you mind very much, New Year’s resolvers, if that word were wait?

I know, I know: you want to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, especially the last: as the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst.

Or, at the very least, the time when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected. Why? Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates go up in the first few weeks of January.

Was that resounding thunk that just reverberated throughout the cosmos the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting the floor? I’m not entirely surprised. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? By the same logic, if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

Meanwhile, tomorrow morning, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries will open their e-mail inboxes and moan, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions, you see.

So did the tens of thousands of successful queriers from last year who decided that after December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It doesn’t occur to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of, say, February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3. Or, really, any time of the year that the sheer weight of numbers would guarantee that competition would be stiffer for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but in practical terms, it would be impossible. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling their work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume. That means agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit? First, high querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets translate, inevitably, to less time spent on each query and submission. Equally inevitable — and you might want to sit down for this one: the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions, most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox tomorrow if you hit SEND today? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

To be fair, the overwhelming majority of those queries will be easy for the screener — known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that she’s a human being with individual literary tastes working for an agent with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing. At this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Out comes that logic we saw earlier: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories: fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc.; it’s a matter of reaching a specific target audience. While an individual reader may well buy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book tend to share expectations, and publishers market categories accordingly. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if he picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel she’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

Acquiring editors also harbor those expectations — and since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. They, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

Again, why should this trouble a writer longing to land an agent, any agent, as quickly as possible? There is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, it’s a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, in January. New Year’s resolvers, after all, are frequently in a hurry to see results. Too much of a hurry, often, to do much research on any given agent before sending off a query. You would not believe, for instance, how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google and e-mail the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list.

Usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent. And that’s a pity, because not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books — that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to landing one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent advice was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements — it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or, as is even more common, if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information an agent would want to know before requesting pages.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of these problems could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, it’s fairly common for agents and editors alike to use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course; they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. All through the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve.

Picture, then, what will greet your garden-variety Millicent when she walks into the office on the first working day of January. Not only will the usual post-vacation backlog await her, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Tell me, if you were Millicent, how quickly would you be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for, to pluck an example out of thin air, the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you answer any of those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence clear her schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor does they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the New Year’s resolution energy tends to peter out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (An increasingly common agency policy, by the way: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal part of the publication process. Just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

Translation: it may feel like a rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s: if you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less quickly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates tend to be higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for all of their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five typos in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be perusing it within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

I raise my glass to toast those dreams. As always, my New Year’s resolution is to help good writers realize theirs, not just through general encouragement, but also practical advice. Keep up the good work!

“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!