So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part XII: why a talented writer should not see any single rejection as the end of the line, or, some reasons to keep chugging along in the face of long odds

Yes, yes, I know — it’s been a while since I’ve posted, although I have been consistently answering the ever-burgeoning crop of readers’ questions that have been cropping up on archival posts. (Word to the wise: since writers habitually ask such good questions, reading the comments on those posts is often quite worthwhile.) It’s been an even longer while that we’ve been meandering toward the end of this series on the steps and missteps pitchers and queriers take immediately after having pulled off their ostensible goal: to provoke an agent or editor to request manuscript pages.

Yes, I did say ostensible, because you’d be astonished at how frequently successful pitching or querying induces not only the kind of oh-my-God-I-have-to-get-this-out-the-door-instantly! panic we have discussed so much throughout this series, but an actual feeling of letdown. All too often, after expending the intense effort and socially underestimated bravery of presenting one’s baby to someone actually in a position to get it published, the would-be submitter finds herself beginning to doubt whether that yes really did mean yes — or whether it was an enthusiastic enough yes to be regarded as a good sign.

Or even sufficient reason to comply with the request for pages. Over half of requested materials never arrive, after all.

I’m delighted to hear most of you guffawing merrily. “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who have yet to be in this seemingly enviable position scoff, “how insecure would a successful pitcher or querier have to be to experience qualms at that juncture? I can understand experiencing some icy tootsies at earlier points — while working up the immense guts required to pitch a book to a real, live agent, for instance, or in that awful pause between receiving a rejection and sending out the query again. But why in heaven’s name would a sensible, sensitive, intelligent writer feel let down by learning that his pitch or query worked? Or not act upon it when it did?”

Several reasons, in practice. First, pitchers and queriers sometimes harbor false hopes for what they can achieve with an initial approach. One of the most pernicious myths of publishing is that if a writer is really talented, her book will attract serious attention from the industry at first glance, rather than the result of years of persistence. So even if a writer knows intellectually that the best possible outcome at the pitching/querying stage is, in fact, for the pro to ask to see pages, she may still feel disappointed that the agent of her dream’s first response is, “Your premise seems interesting; I’d like to see how you handle it on the page,” rather than “By Jove, that’s the best book concept I’ve ever heard! No need to read any of your actual writing — I’m going to sign you here and now!”

Of course, the latter response had ever actually emerged from an agent or editor’s lips when speaking to a non-celebrity writer’s pitch or query, it would be a bit insulting, right? How could anyone tell whether a book is well-written without reading it — or judge a writer’s potential without bothering to clap eyes upon what he has written? Indeed, what agent or editor in her right mind would even consider signing a writer whose work she’s never read?

But ‘fess up, pitchers and queriers: at least at first, you walked into the process hoping that she would, didn’t you?

Another reason writers suddenly finding themselves on the receiving end of a request for pages sometimes feel low is that it can take a lot of nos to get to yes. Yes, no matter how talented one might happen to be: typically, it takes a writer new to the game a while to figure out which agents to approach, let alone how to approach them professionally. Yet due no doubt to that aforementioned pernicious myth that true talent always finds a home, and instantly, many, if not most, aspiring writers presume that any rejection means that they’re not talented enough to get published.

As a direct a simply staggering percentage of queriers, pitchers, and even submitters make the attempt only once. “I tried!” they protest. “But the publishing world didn’t want my work. So why should I try again?”

Um, because agents and editors are individuals, not merely cogs in a vast collective publishing mind? Logically, no single rejection could possibly equal rejection by the entire industry.

To be fair, though, that’s a heck of a lot easier to say than to believe. Rejection hurts; there’s just no way around that. And if one’s work gets rejected enough, the anticipation of further rejection can render even an awfully gosh darned enthusiastic request for pages seem like a spider’s coyly inviting a trusting fly over for a dinner and a movie.

And then there’s the most common reason that successful queriers and pitchers feel less than thrilled by the advent of a cordial request to send pages: they don’t know how to respond. It’s not that they don’t want to take advantage of the opportunity; they’re simply unsure how to do it. What if they inadvertently do something wrong?

Thus this series, in case you had been wondering. No matter how eager you are to get published, it can be genuinely stressful to be asked to submit your work. Especially if you happen to have bought into that pernicious myth, and believe that the process should be easy and quick.

I can tell you now that it won’t be — and that the length and curviness of a writer’s road to publication is a notoriously poor predictor of authorial success. What’s a better predictor, in my experience? A writer’s persistence — and her willingness to take the time to learn how publishing actually works, rather than stubbornly clinging to any myths on the subject that she might have picked up along the way.

Or, to put it another way: while the publishing world does not always reward writers serious enough to professionalize their outlooks, it has a long and glorious history of preferring those that do.

Which is one aspect of how the publishing industry treats writers that I really like, actually: collectively, it tends to assume not only that anyone who can write well enough to deserve to be published is an intelligent human being, but also that a good writer can and will learn the ropes of the business side of publishing prior to expecting to make a living within it. Just as no rational being would walk into an operating theatre and begin performing brain surgery with no previous training or basic knowledge of human anatomy, the logic runs, what smart aspiring writer would believe that successfully pulling off one of the most complex achievements of the human psyche, the writing of a truly good book, requires no advance practice? Or that the industry devoted to bringing those magnificent expressions of the human spirit to public attention has no internal rules or standards to which someone brand-new to the biz would be expected to adhere?

In this era where even news shows operate on the assumption that the average adult has the attention span of a three-year-old — and one who has been stuffing candy into his eager mouth for the last two hours at that — I find agents’ and editors’ presumption of authorial intelligence rather refreshing. If a trifle optimistic in practice.

How so? Well, many successful queriers and pitchers see only the negative fallout of this industry-wide assumption: since the pros expect writers to do their own research before trying to get their books published, rookie submitters are often stunned that nobody in the industry just tells them what to do. Wasn’t this supposed to be easy and straightforward, as the pernicious myth led us to believe? From a first-time querier’s perspective, it can seem downright counterproductive that agents just expect him to know what a query letter should look like, what information it should contain, and that it shouldn’t just read like a back jacket blurb for the book.

Heck, how is someone who has never met an agented author in person to know not just to pick up the phone and call the agent in question? Magic? Osmosis?

Similarly, agents, editors, and contest judges presume that anyone genuinely serious about her writing will have learned how professional writers format their manuscripts — an interesting presumption, given that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware that professional manuscripts are not supposed to resemble published books.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not information that the average writer is born knowing — which is a real shame, since professionally-formatted manuscripts tend to be taken far more seriously at submission time than those that are not.

Again: thus this series — and thus the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. Chant it with me now, those of you who have been following this series closely: people who read manuscripts for a living assume that since good writers are intelligent people, the only reason that a manuscript would not be formatted properly is that the submitter did not bother to do his homework.

In other words, from their perspective, a query or submission that does not conform to their expectations of what is publishable (in terms of writing) or marketable (in terms of content or authorial authority) indicates that the writer just isn’t ready yet to play in the big leagues. He may not be waiting for the Manuscript Fairy to wave her wand over his just-completed first draft, causing an agent — any agent, for what does it matter? — to appear on his doorstep, clamoring to represent writing she hasn’t read, but he isn’t exactly investing the time in learning how professional writing looks, either.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that the writer question will never produce professional-level work; indeed, folks in the industry tend to assume (and even say at conferences) that they’re confident that if a truly talented writer gets rejected, she will take it as a sign that she needs to improve her presentation. Since the information on how to do that is available — on this website, as a matter of fact — why wouldn’t someone with a genuine gift invest the time and effort in learning to do it right?

In my experience, there’s a very straightforward answer to that: because the average querier or submitter, gifted or otherwise, doesn’t have a clear idea of what he’s doing wrong — or that there is a professional standard to which he should be adhering. And since most rejection letters these days contain absolutely no clue as to what caused the agent (or, more commonly, the agent’s screener) to shove the submission back into the SASE — heck, some agencies no longer respond at all if the answer is no — I don’t find it all that surprising that the aspiring writer’s learning curve is usually quite steep.

That’s why, should you have been speculating on the subject for the last few paragraphs, I am bringing up the expectation of intelligent research at the end of this series on how to respond to a submission request. Indeed, it’s a large part of the reason that I write this blog: from an outside perspective, it’s just too easy to interpret the sometimes esoteric and confusing rules of querying, pitching, and submission as essentially hostile to aspiring writers — and thus as justification for hesitating when faced with a request for pages.

Yes, the hoops through which a new writer needs to jump in order to get his work considered by the pros are many, varied, and sometimes flaming, but that’s not due to any antipathy toward rookies. Honestly, the hoops exist mostly for practical reasons. While many of the querying and submission restrictions have indeed been established in order to narrow the field of candidates for the very, very few new client slots available at most agencies, the intent behind that weeding-down effort is not to discourage talented-but-inexperienced writers from trying to get their work published. The underlying belief is that an intelligent person’s response to rejection will not be to give up, but to analyze what went wrong, do some research about what can go right, and try, try again.

That’s right: the fine folks who toil in agencies and publishing houses don’t expect the writers they reject to disappear permanently, at least not the ones with genuine talent. They believe that the gifted ones will return, this time better equipped for life as a professional writer.

To cite the old publishing industry truism, good writing will always find a home. What the agents and editors who spout this aphorism seldom think to add is: but not necessarily right away. Like learning any other set of job skills, becoming a professional writer can take some time. And one heck of a lot of effort.

Which means, from the business side of the industry’s perspective, writers who give up after just a few rejections — which, as I mentioned, is the norm, not the exception — are those who aren’t genuinely interested in making the rather broad leap between a talented person who likes to write and a professional writer in it for the long haul. Trust me, Millicent the agency screener doesn’t waste too many tears over the loss of the former.

I don’t see it that way, personally: I see the crushed dreams. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that most talented aspiring writers take individual rejections far, far too seriously.

As I said, this is a field of endeavor that not only rewards, but assumes persistence in a writer. Yet in recent years, it seems as though every third aspiring writer I meet has either:

(a) sent out a single query, got rejected, and never tried again,

(b) had a few queries rejected two years ago, and has been feverishly revising the manuscript ever since, despite the fact that no agent had yet seen it,

(c) pitched successfully at a conference, but convinced herself that the only reason four agents asked to see her first chapter was because those agents were too nice not to say yes to everybody,

(d) received a positive response to a query or pitch, then talked himself out of sending the requested materials at all, because his work isn’t good enough — how could it be, when he’s been rejected in that past?

(e) sent out the requested pages, but in order to save herself from disappointment, decided in advance that none of the replies will be positive,

(f) received the first manuscript rejection — and expanded it mentally into a resounding NO! from everyone in the industry, and/or

(g) concluded from conference chatter that no one in the industry is interested in any book that isn’t an obvious bestseller. Why bother to try to break into a biz that doesn’t want new voices?

In short, each of these writers had decided that his or her fears about what happened must have been true, rather than doing the research to find out whether the explanation hurt feelings dictated was in fact the most reasonable one, or even remotely plausible. To address some of the more common leapt-to assumptions, in the order they appeared above:

(a) a single query is not — and cannot, by definition — be indicative of how every agent on earth will react.
A better response: why not try again?

(b) until agents have actually seen the manuscript, there’s no way a writer can know how they will respond to it.
A better response: work on improving the query.

(c) no, the agents and editors weren’t asking everyone to send pages — pitching just doesn’t work that way.
A better response: if your pitch or query garnered a submission request, assume that you did something right and send out the materials.

(d) how do you know for sure until you send it out?
A better response: learn how to present your work professionally, then submit it.

(e) in my experience, foretelling doom does not soften future misfortune, if it comes — it only serves to stultify present hope.
A better response: hedge your bets by continuing to query other agents while waiting to hear back from the first round.

(f) any agent or editor’s opinion of a book is just that, an opinion.
A better response: see (a)

(g) contrary to pernicious myth, the publishing industry makes most of its money on books that are neither bestsellers nor small-run books. Most of the time, the mid-list titles are paying the agency’s mortgage.
A better response: take the time to learn how the industry works, rather than killing your chances entirely by not continuing to try.

None of this is to say that bouncing back from rejection is easy, of course, or that landing an agent is a snap. The road from first idea to publication is long and bumpy, and seems to get bumpier all the time.

Honestly, though, is the pain of rejection worse than the strain of not pursing your dream? As Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Yes, it’s emotionally hard work to prep your pages to head out the door to agents and editors; yes, it is hard to wait for replies to your submissions. To give you a foretaste of what’s down the road, it’s also psychically difficult to watch the weeks tick by between when you sign with an agent and when that sterling soul decides that, in her professional opinion, the time is ripe for her to submit your book to editors. And then it’s rough to wait until those editors get around to reading it, just as it is agonizing to hang around, feigning patience, between the time a publisher acquires your book and it appears on the shelves.

I’m not going to lie to you: it’s all incredibly wearing on the nerves. That’s just a fact of authorial life.

That being said, if you are thinking about throwing in the towel on your book before you have given the querying and submission processes a thorough test, I’m just not the right person to look to for validation of that decision. Sorry. I’ll give you practical advice on how to query until we’re both blue the face; I’ll hand you tips on how to improve your submission’s chances until the proverbial cows come home; I’ll share pointers on the fine art of revision until Doomsday; I’ll answer your questions along the way until my fingertips lose their distinctive prints. I will cheer from the sidelines for your efforts as a writer until even the Norse gods decide to call it a day and burn down the world.

As long as you keep trying. A dream that’s fed only on hope without action will eventually starve.

And, frankly, a plan that’s not based upon a realistic understanding of the possible is harder to act upon. One of the few industry truisms that is actually true 100% of the time: the only book that has absolutely no chance of being published is the one that stays hidden in the bottom drawer of the author’s filing cabinet.

Keep pushing forward; keep sending your work out. Because while it’s time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally wearing, it’s also literally the only way that your book — or any book — comes to publication.

What makes me so sure of this? Long-time readers of this blog will groan with recognition, but once again, I feel compelled to remind you that five of the best-selling books of the 20th century were rejected by more than a dozen publishers before they were picked up — and that was back in the days when it was considerably easier to get published. Feel free to count down with me now:

Dr. Seuss, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET (rejected by 23 publishers)

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

Thor Heyerdahl, KON-TIKI (20)

Richard Bach, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (18)

Patrick Dennis, AUNTIE MAME (17)

The lesson to derive here: keep moving forward. Please don’t dismiss your book too soon, on the basis of some preconceived notion of what will and will not sell — even if that preconceived notion fell from the ostensibly learned lips of the agent of your dreams.

Concentrate on what you can control, not what you can’t. In order to do that effectively, you’re going to need to learn about how the process actually works. The good news is that the writer does have practically absolute control over the technical and cosmetic aspects of the submission.

Yes, I know — for most of us, getting our thoughts, stories, and worldviews out there is the primary goal of writing a book, so concentrating on the details seems comparatively boring. Most of us want to move directly to unfettered self-expression — and then are surprised and frustrated when the resulting book has difficulty finding an agent, getting published, or winning contests.

But this is a bad idea, both professionally and emotionally. Concentrating almost exclusively on the self-expressive capacity of the book, it’s too easy to read rejection as personal, rather than as what it is: an industry insider’s professional assessment of whether she can sell your work within her preexisting sales network. Ask anyone in the biz, and he will tell you: 99% of rejections are technically-based; the rejection usually isn’t of the submitter’s style or worldview, for the simple reason that those are not considerations unless the basic signs of good writing — in the sense of professional writing — are in the submission.

This can be a very empowering realization. As can coming to terms with the fact that while people may be born with writing talent, the ability to present writing professionally is a learned skill.

Once a writer grasps the difference between technically good writing and stylistic good writing and the distinction between a well-written manuscript and a professionally-formatted one, rejections become less a personal insult than a signal that there may be technical problems. Technical problems are much, much easier to fix than stylistic ones, after all. The question transforms from “Why do they hate me?” to “What can I do to make this submission/query read better?”?

Yes, yes, I know: emotionally speaking, that might not feel like much of an improvement, at least in the short term. But at least when the question is framed in the latter manner, there is something the writer can DO about it.

I’m a big fan of tackling the doable first, and getting to the impossible later. I come from a long line of writers.

Without a doubt, absolutely the best thing you can do to increase your chances is to make sure that your submission is crystal-clear and professionally formatted before you send it out. Pass it under other eyes, preferably those of other writers, people who both know basic good writing when they see it — and have some idea how to fix it.

Why not simply take the advice of anyone who utters the words that sustain so many aspiring writers, “Oh, you write? I’d like to read some of your work sometime.” Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: as marvelous as your kith and kin may be as human beings, they are unlikely to give you unbiased feedback — and unbiased, knowledgeable feedback is going to be a heck of a lot more helpful in hoisting your work up over the professional bar than even the most heartfelt friend’s cry of, “Oh, this is great.” Ask any professional writer.

What else can you control, even a little? Well, you can avoid sending your query or submission during the traditional industry dead times (between the second week of August and Labor Day; between Thanksgiving and New Year’s day), or predictable periods of heavy submission (immediately after New Year’s, right after school gets out for the summer). You don’t want to have your work end up in the read when we get around to it pile.

So for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your hugely polite cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: “Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel.”?

While I’m being governessy, I might as well add: always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope — with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return. Mention the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a courteous writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the peachy range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to reach you to tell you that they love your book.

And remember, no matter how excited you are to get that manuscript out the door, don’t overnight it unless an agent or editor specifically asks you to do so; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. This is true, even if the agent who has had your first chapter for two months e-mails you and asks for the rest of the manuscript immediately. It’s neither appropriate nor necessary to waste your precious resources on overnight shipping.

Trust me on this one: your book may be the next PEYTON PLACE or JAWS, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

Another way to keep your momentum going while you wait: since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your manuscript or book proposal. If an agent turns you down — perish the thought! — you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

Not to mention the fact that you will have less time on your hands. No one is better at conjuring scenarios of doom than a creative person with some leisure time. Keep chugging forward.

Don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt carry you off, my friends. Have faith in your writing — and work hard to learn as much as you can to maximize your book’s chances of success. And, of course, keep up the good work!

A word of caution to the tens of thousands of aspiring writers who resolved last weekend to pop those queries and/or requested materials into the mail at last


Here’s the promised word, New Year’s resolvers: don’t.

Oh, I don’t mean to give up on your estimable resolve to put in the work to land an agent this year, or even to send out queries on a regular basis to any agent at all likely to be interested in representing a book like yours. That’s all quite sensible: if your goal is to land an agent, working up the nerve to query is in fact a necessary step. (Either that, or you are going to have to work up the even greater nerve and financial resources required to pitch at a writers’ conference.) Go forth and query, with my blessings.

Nor would I even dream of dissuading those of you who, having queried or pitched successfully in the past six months or so, have decided that it’s about time that you stopped revising feverishly, screwed your courage to the sticking place, as Shakespeare would have it, and try your luck with the agent(s) that requested manuscript pages. Again, this is a sensible, requisite step to getting published: since no agent in her right mind would sign a writer without having read any of her work — contrary to popular opinion amongst pitchers and queriers — obviously, if you want an agent to offer to represent you, you are going to have to let her read the manuscript in question.

I’ll even stretch the point further: since the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published or landing an agent is the one that just sits in a drawer or on a hard drive, without the writer’s ever exposing it to professional scrutiny — something that requires quite a bit of guts, by the way; queriers and submitters don’t give themselves enough credit for that — I would actively applaud your efforts to get your work under professional eyeballs.

I just would advise against doing it anytime within the first three weeks of the year. The first three weeks of any year.

Why? Look to your left in those starter’s blocks, New Year’s resolvers, and to your right: you’ll find aspiring writers who made precisely the same New Year’s resolution you did. And since the whole point of a New Year’s resolution is that the resolver puts it in motion practically as soon as that shiny ball drops into Times Square, what do you think happens around this time every year?

That’s right, campers: pretty much every agency in the country gets swamped with queries — and with the submissions that the agency requested months ago.

How swamped, you ask, turning pale with horror? Well, let me put it this way: I usually run a caution about this on December 31 — or, at the latest, January 1. Since some of my readers chafed at the bit last year, insisting that my advice was delaying their querying efforts unnecessarily, my New Year’s resolution was that in 2012, I would not issue my yearly warning about the dangers of joining the annual early January lemming run until I had observed another annual phenomenon: the barrage of wondering complaints from people who work in agencies about why their mail bags are suddenly thrice as heavy. At agencies that accept e-mailed queries, inbox input roughly quadruples.

I heard the first of those complaints today. It’s January third — and in the U.S., post offices were closed yesterday.

Not sure why? Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her New Year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this coming weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Starting to get the picture, are we?

Unless some of you wanted to ask a question? Yes, eager beavers? “But Anne,” those of you who have already sent out a query, two, or seventeen this year protest, “what’s wrong with that? Because there are so many people who want to get published, well-established agents at reputable agencies are constantly overwhelmed with queries, aren’t they?”

Before I answer that, beavers, was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a highly laudable New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries, or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria.

At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If any or all of that seems like an oddly disrespectful way to treat the Great American Novel, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries the agency needs to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

“While we’re waiting for those new to the game to recover,” my previous questioners ask impatiently, “can we get back to my question? No matter how many queries might stack up in the early weeks of the year, Millicent will just answer them in the order received, right? Ditto with any backlog of queries that might have come in while she was home for the holidays. So it might take a little longer for me to hear back; big deal.”

Actually, timing in sending a query or submission is a big deal, beavers of eagerness. It’s not as though agencies typically hire additional staff to handle the January onslaught, any more than they call in temps to deal with the increased querying and submission volume immediately after Labor Day, Memorial Day, or any federally-mandated three-day weekend. So our old pal Millicent is faced with a radically increased workload, but the same amount of time with which to deal with it.

I appeal to your sense of probability, campers: if you were Millicent, would you be more likely than usual to reject any given query in that morass, knowing that you had another 10,000 to read, or less? Would you be more inclined to turn from page 1 to page 2 in that submission in front of you or less?

I have an even better question: why on earth do aspiring writers do this to themselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning (and, let’s face it, a hefty proportion of media outlets) encourages us to believe that it’s inherently easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year.

We buy this, interestingly, even though our bodies tell us the opposite, Not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spent yesterday, today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine, well-intentioned people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript’s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

But why must that much-anticipated day be just after the New Year — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1? Or on the Wednesday following any long weekend, rather than on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, when everyone else will be diligently stuffing Millicent’s e-mail inbox to overflowing?

Yes, yes, I know: weekends are when a lot of writers have the time to query, and the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. That last is particularly true: although the NYC-based publishing industry does not shut down as completely between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as in years past, things still do slow down. So many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again.

Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it. For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to that earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “You were just kidding about that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing, right? I thought that good writing was always welcomed, whenever it arrived at an agency. Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’

At the risk of making those of you new to the game hyperventilate, I’m going to ask those readers who followed last autumn’s Queryfest to chant the answer along with me: with any query or submission, an agent must weigh more factors than the quality of the writing. Because agencies are profit-seeking entities, not charitable institutions devoted to the promotion of literature (as much as writers might like them to be the latter), she can only afford to take on manuscripts and book proposals she is relatively certain she can sell in the current literary market.

That means, in practice, that plenty of good writing and good book concepts get rejected. And that in considering which queries and submissions her boss is likely to wish to represent, Millicent has to look not only for good writing, but book category-appropriate voice and storyline, appeal to readers already buying similar books, freshness of book concept, and many, many other factors.

Including — and here is where the statistical probability thing rears its ugly head — the sheer volume of queries and submissions.

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than one might expect: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since Millie’s desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog (or even close readers of this particular post) are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 4!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although a goal of ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right?) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions. Had I mentioned that the average one lasts less than three weeks?

Let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Let her dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

Ditto with Monday mornings — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated ants, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 17. It would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off thereafter, though. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So, you may well be wondering, why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1?

Two reasons. First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It’s probably safe to assume that this year’s mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry, despite the fact that book sales for both e-books and traditional books have been on the rise lately.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes — yet another annual phenomenon.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that agency denizens tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might well be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, not: every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Or maybe you don’t know: aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, you will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter. Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the manuscripts and book proposals they worked so hard to convince Millicent or her boss to request. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks. Every year, good writers with good intentions fling themselves into huge expenditures of energy, only to find themselves burnt out with distressing rapidity.

If you must make a writing-related New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one you can reach in sensible increments. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off for the evening. Next time, I shall be examining another reader-generated query and talking about how to increase its probability of impressing Millicent.

Hey, we’re all about beating the odds here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part VI: seriously, dialogue was the only way to convey this information to the reader?

I begin today’s foray into the niggling little manuscript problems that drive Millicent the agency screener daily another few steps toward cynicism about artistic production with an anecdote. Back when I was in graduate school, I used to spend my summers working at a local hospital, writing patient education literature. When I wasn’t busy figuring out how to explain an MRI in a fourth-grade vocabulary, I was entrusted with guarding the office’s thermostat from the four menopausal women who kept yanking the controls from Antarctica to the Gobi Desert, as the day’s hot flash schedules dictated. No sooner would one sneak over to crank it down than another would appear to spin the dial upwards again. Not once did more than two of them manage to have the same temperature demands at the same time, so working in this environment comfortably required keeping both a tank top and a ski sweater in my desk, in order to avoid perishing from exposure.

So when Marni the medical coder came charging toward my desk one Friday, I instinctively dove toward the thermostat. She had more than the local weather on her mind, however. “Do you happen to have any rubber bands that will fit around this?” She held up pile of papers seven inches thick. “You know, just lying around.”

Since the supply cabinet stocker favored taunting the office staff with rubber bands apparently designed by orthodontists to tug braces a millimeter in this direction or that, industrial-sized rubber bands were not the kind of thing we happened to have lying around. “No, but I’m sure we could order some.”

Marni sighed and reached for the thermostat. “Never mind.”

I was baking in the tropical humidity the following Friday when she repeated the request, this time brandishing a nine-inch stack of papers. “I don’t think I have ever personally handled a rubber band that would encircle that,” I told her. “But since you seem to need large bands on a regular basis, why don’t you pick up a package at a stationary store, and have the hospital reimburse you?”

“No, no,” Marni said, slinking back into the undergrowth where tigers and cobras lay panting in the heat. “I just thought you might have some.”

By midsummer, I had arranged so many office supply catalogs along the path between Marni’s desk and the thermostat that visitors mistook them for seating. Yet still, every Friday, she would reappear to ask for rubber bands, teeth chattering or wiping the sweat from her brow, as the day’s temperature battle dictated.

“Marni,” I was begging by the end of the summer. “Why do you keep doing this to yourself? If you need the darned things, just get some!”

“Oh, no.” She tossed me a sad, disappointed smile. “I don’t really need them. I just thought you might have some around.”

From a character-development point of view, it’s easy to dismiss this as passive-aggressive behavior, right? Marni wanted the rubber bands, but was not brave enough to ask her boss for them; if she asked me often enough, I might break down and ask the fearsome Madge for her. Or I might have become so frustrated that I would invest some of my own cash in behemoth bands. Unfortunately for either of these plans, I always headed back to school in September.

I’m bringing this up not merely as an a example of how to work tension into an otherwise pretty mundane situation — hey, it allowed me to bring up at least two more temperature changes than I could have gotten away with otherwise — but because many, many aspiring writers employ Marni’s logic, if not her methodology. They want an agent to offer them representation, so they regularly send out queries and, when those queries are successful, submissions.

When those queries or submissions get rejected, these writers, like all writers, are sad and disappointed. But is their response to learn a bit more about the publishing industry, to find out if there is a standard format for submissions (there is), if there is an upper length limit that tends to trigger knee-jerk rejection (there is, but it varies slightly by book category), or if agency screeners are trained (and they are) to reject manuscripts that run afoul of certain common agents’ pet peeves?

Oh, I know that your response would be to invest the time in learning about these matters. But not all aspiring writers are as industry-savvy as you: like Marni, they keep doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting the outcome to be different next time.

I realize that it’s frustrating that agencies now only rarely give concrete reasons for rejecting a manuscript — and virtually never justify rejecting a query. Form letters with generalities are the most common response, if indeed an agent chooses to respond at all. There’s nothing an aspiring writer can do to change that.

He can, however, stop expecting that the rubber bands he wants will magically appear, simply because he wants them so much. He can plan ahead so Millicent will have fewer reasons to reject his next submission than did her counterpart at the last agency to which he submitted. He can change his behavior to increase the probability of the outcome he wants.

On a not entirely unrelated note, in my last post, I brought up how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if someone had planned for her to happen onto precisely the clues she needed to solve the book’s central puzzle.

What a happy coincidence, eh? And just in time to wrap up the mystery by the end of the book. Perhaps if she waits long enough, flying monkey will drop a carton of extra-large rubber bands at her dainty feet, too.

This marvelous atmosphere for coincidence is not only indigenous to the end of a plot, either. Ineffectual interview scenes are often employed to slow down a plot, creating false suspense. If the protagonist is too lazy, too distracted, or just too dimwitted to ferret out the truth early in the book, it’s substantially easier to keep the reader in the dark about salient details of the variety that might, if revealed, cause a reasonably intelligent reader to figure out whodunit by the end of Chapter 2.

A protagonist who is bad at asking questions — and his creative Siamese twin, the antagonist or supporting character who is suspiciously eager to cough up information — are also frequently used as means to speed up a narrative by shoehorning necessary information into the plot. It’s a classic tell, don’t show strategy, good for heaping backstory into the book, but typically, low on conflict, believability, and character development.

How might that annoy Millicent on the page? Observe, please, the lethal combination of a passive interviewer and a too-active interviewee compresses what could have been a relatively lengthy but conflict-filled interrogation scene into a few short exchanges:

interview bad

“Wait a second,” Millicent mutters upon encountering a scene like this. “Who is interviewing whom here? And what are all of those rubber bands doing in my desk?”

Well might she ask. This kind of inverse interview, as well as plot giveaways every bit this broad, turn up in manuscript submissions and contest entries all the time. These techniques may well be the quickest way to tell a story, but they make it pretty easy to see the wheels turning in the authorial mind. That’s not a complex plot — that’s a straight line.

None of these quite legitimate complaints would necessarily be Millicent’s primary objection to the scene above, however. Any guesses? Hint: it’s one of her perennial pet peeves.

Oh, wait, that doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?

Give yourself a pat on the back if you instantly cried, “This kind of implausible exchange pulls the reader out of the story!” Even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in more interesting ones.

Was that wind that just blew my cat from one side of my studio to the other the collective irritated sigh of those of you who have been laboring to revise Frankenstein manuscripts? “Oh, fabulous, Anne,” the bleary-eyed many whimper, wearily reaching for their trusty highlighter pens. “Now I not only have to scrub my manuscript until it gleams at the sentence level, but I also have to make sure all of my interview scenes are both plausible AND contain surprising plot twists? When do you expect me to be ready to submit this baby, 2018?”

Well, yes and no. No, I don’t expect you to spend years polishing your manuscript — unless, of course, it needs it — and yes, I do expect your work to abound in gleaming sentences, believable, conflict-ridden interview scenes, and twists I couldn’t see coming. So, incidentally, does Millicent.

That expectation, incidentally, serves her well in winnowing down any given day’s stack of submissions, because interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. Especially toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creator? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth.

At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am, right under this neon sign — discover me, already! ”

Since almost every book-length plot involves some element of detective work, however minor, it’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow, excitement, and plausibility. In fact, I would recommend making those interview scenes your first stops for tightening (or, less commonly, slackening) the pace of your narrative. Besides presenting a pacing problem, clues that seem too anxious to fling themselves in a protagonist’s way, feigning casualness when they are discovered littering the path, can actually render said protagonist less likable to readers.

Why? I refer you back to our question-averse reporter above. Just as it doesn’t make a character seem like a stellar interviewer if he just strolls into a room at the precise psychological moment that the taciturn miner who’s kept his peace for 57 years abruptly feels the need to unburden himself to the nearest total stranger, it doesn’t make a protagonist seem particularly smart if he happens upon a necessary puzzle piece without working to find it.

And the protagonist is not the only one who runs the risk of coming across as a trifle dim-witted: a mystery or conflict that’s too easy to solve or resolve doesn’t offer the reader much food for conjecture. Readers like to feel smart, after all; piecing the puzzle together along with — or even a little ahead of –the protagonist is half the fun, isn’t it?

It’s considerably less amusing when the protagonist just stumbles onto necessary information, is slow to act, or isn’t on the ball enough to ask the right questions of the right people. While a poor interviewer is almost always an obstruction to the reader finding out crucial information, too-garrulous antagonists and the interview scenes that enable their yen to spout monologue tend to make the stakes seem lower, causing the reader to care less about the outcome.

Why, you gasp in horror? As convenient as a suddenly chatty secret-hider can be to moving the plot along, information discovered too easily runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.

Think about it: if the reader gets to watch the protagonist run down a false lead or two, struggle to remove that rock from in front of the cave to rescue the Brownie troop, a brace of nuns, and three golden retriever puppies gasping for breath within, genuinely have to put two and two together in order to make four, etc., it’s not only usually more exciting than an unresisted search, but your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined than if she just stands around while these things happen around her. She’ll also be more likable, someone a reader might be eager to follow throughout an entire book.

(I heard some of you gasp, but that last bit’s not a foregone conclusion. If the reader, particularly a professional one, does not either like or love to hate a manuscript’s protagonist, he’s unlikely to keep reading for long. Just a fact of the life literary.)

That plot-level logic applies equally to an individual interview scene. If the information the protagonist is seeking just drops into her lap, as it does in the example above, the reader has no reason to become invested in the search: after the first couple of times, tremendous, long-held secrets being blurted out will simply become the normal way the manuscript reveals things.

But what if our scheming reporter above had been forced to try really, really hard to pry Mrs. Quinine’s whereabouts out of Ernest Borgnine? What if he was not only recalcitrant, but had an agenda of his own? What if he told her half-truths that would require still more backstory to render useful? Wouldn’t the information she elicited — even if it consisted of precisely the same set of facts Ernest blurted out spontaneously in the version above — seem more valuable? Or at least more fun for the reader to watch her ferret out?

The answer to both of those last two questions was yes, by the way. As you would have known had you not been playing with those giant rubber bands.

Contrary to popular belief amongst that sizable portion of the aspiring writing community that apparently enjoys killing conflict on the page practically the moment it draws its first breath, readers like to see protagonists struggle to achieve their goals. It’s interesting, as well as character-revealing.

Stop shooting rubber bands in my direction. I was going to call on you. “But Anne,” those of you limp with revision fatigue murmur, taking aim, “complexity is all very nice, but I’m worried about my manuscript’s getting too long, or the pace starting to drag, if I start inventing a digressions in my hero’s pursuit of the MacGuffin he’s desperately seeking throughout my story.”

While it is quite reasonable to draw a line on the length of a manuscript you’re planning to submit to an agent, whether a particular scene seems overly lengthy to a reader is largely a matter of presentation, not actual number of lines on a page. There are plenty of short books, and even short scenes, that, to borrow a phrase from industry parlance, read long.

The trick lies in selectivity. Try ridding your interview scenes of plot shortcuts or too-easy revelations. Some suggestions:

(a) Any line in which anyone’s pointing out something obvious (“Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s been walking around town, asking all of those pesky questions?”)

(b) Any line that consists entirely of one character agreeing with or simply prompting another to speak. While “Yes, dear,” and “You’re so right,” may be charming to hear in real life, it seldom adds much to a scene.

(c) Simple yes or no answers to simple yes or no questions. Yes or no is almost never the most interesting way to frame a question or response, and the latter often shuts off interesting follow-up questions.

(d) I don’t know tends not to add much to a scene, either, especially if a first-person narrator is given to saying it. If your protagonist doesn’t know, have her take steps to find out.

(e) Any new development that’s not actually surprising. (“Wait — you mean that your long-lost brother first described as a miner on pg. 4 might possess a map to the very mine we need to explore? Astonishing!”)

(e) Any scene where the interviewer doesn’t have to work to elicit information from the interviewee.

These may not seem like big cuts, but believe me, they can add up. In many manuscripts, making these revisions alone would free up pages and pages of space for new plot twists, if not actual chapters of ‘em.

It’s also worth your while to consider whether a low-conflict interview scene is even necessary to the storyline: could your protagonist glean this information in another, more conflict-producing manner?

That question is not a bad one to write on a Post-It note and stick to your computer monitor. If a scene — or even a page — does not contain recognizable conflict, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.

A grand place to start excising the unsurprising: the first scene of the book, since that is the part of any submission that any Millicent, agent, editor, or contest judge is most likely to read. If you’re going to have your plot surprise or your protagonist impress the reader with her interview acumen anyplace in the book, make sure that she does it within the first 5 pages.

That’s just common sense, really: an agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end. Therefore, it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where an irritated Millicent is most likely to stop reading.

Was that giant gust of wind the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene? I’m sympathetic to your frustration, but next time, could you aim away from my cat?

An AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a telephone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà, an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details. While he says, “Uh-huh,” four times.

Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.

“Uh-huh,” she says. “Go on, Mrs. Smith.”

Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis. “Uh-huh, that’s the problem,” one of them says ruefully. “But what are we going to do about it?”

Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?

“What kind of bad trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins. Probably with a lot of agreement in it.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for the last decade and a half, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been imploring aspiring writers to open their books with overt conflict, to let the reader jump right into the action, without a lot of explanatory preamble. Conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information or character development very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

Those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a good long time are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know, apparently for no other reason than to provide the audience with background information as easily and non-conflictually as humanly possible.

As it happens, you were right, oh gigglers. Openings of novels are notorious for being jam-packed with Hollywood narration. As in:

“So, Serena, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Oh, Theobold, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”

“At least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Archie — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

“Yes, I know. How right you were to follow Archie’s advice, given that in his former, pre-atoll life, he was a famous psychologist, renowned for testifying in the infamous Pulaski case, where forty-seven armed robbers overran a culinary snail farm…

Well, you get the picture. That’s not just information being handed to the protagonist without any sort of struggle whatsoever; it’s backstory being spoon-fed to the reader in massive chunks too large to digest in a single sitting. Just about the nicest comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is a well-justified shout of, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the habitual cry of the Millicent, “Next!”

While we are contemplating revision, did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Serena for over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature. As character development goes, this is the equivalent of knocking Gilligan on the head with a coconut to induce amnesia when the Skipper needs him to remember something crucial: a pretty obvious shortcut.

Besides, as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did. Besides, revealing a character’s favorite book is not a very telling detail.

I hear writerly hackles rising all over the reading world, but hear me out on this one. Writers who include such references usually do so in the charming belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.

It’s never a good idea to assume that any conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes, literary or otherwise. Or worldview.

But let’s get back to analyzing that Hollywood narration opening. Give yourself an A+ for the day if you said, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Serena know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”

And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”

Good call. This is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It often lurks in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Will glanced over at his girlfriend. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Joceyln snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”

“I’m not jealous.” Will reached over to pat her on the head. “Having been your hairdresser for the past three years, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

She jerked away. “Get your broad-wedding-ring-bearing fingers away from my delicate brow. What would your tall, blonde wife, Cynthia, think if you came home with a long, red hair hanging from that charm bracelet you always wear on your left wrist, the one that sports dangling trinkets from all of the various religious pilgrimage sights you have visited with your three short brunette daughters, Faith, Hope, and Katrina?”

Granted, few submissions are quite as clumsy as this purple-prosed exemplar, but you’d be surprised at how obvious some writers can be about introducing their characters. Remember, just because television and movie scripts can utilize only the senses of sight and sound to tell a story doesn’t mean that a novelist or memoirist must resort to Hollywood narration to provide either backstory or physical details. We writers of books enjoy the considerable advantage of being able to use narrative text to show, not tell, what we want our readers to know.

Pop quiz, campers: why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?

If you said that Will and Joceyln are telling each other things they obviously already know, kiss yourself on both cheeks. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would not know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length. Thus, the only reason this information could possibly appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party.

Like, for instance, the reader. Who might conceivably prefer to be shown such details, rather than hear them in implausible dialogue.

How can a conscientious writer tell the difference between Hollywood narration and good old physical description? A pretty good test: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go — to free up page space for more intriguing material and good writing.

If you also said that Will and Joceyln are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.

It’s just not necessary, and it’s not interesting conversation. I am a chatty person, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say over dinner, “Pass the peas — and incidentally, your eyes are green.”

My habitual tablemate’s eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want you to know it. But honestly, was just blurting it out — and to him, no less — the most interesting way to introduce this information?

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out that being possessed of a mirror — nay, several — he already knew.

Who could have seen that plot twist coming, eh? And aren’t we all stunned by the depth of that character and relationship development in the last few paragraphs?

While I’m at it, let me share one of my pet peeves, both on the page and in real life: men who keep commenting on how pretty their dates are. To their dates. As in:

“Mona, there’s something I’ve been wanting to say for weeks now…” Alex waited until the waiter had poured the wine and retreated. “Um, you look great tonight.”

She dimpled prettily. “Thanks. After a long day’s work at the nuclear physics lab, I figure I deserve a nice night out.”

“You have such pretty eyes. Brown, aren’t they?”

“Well, more of a neon green, since that radioactive spider bit me.” She reached across the table for his hand. “But enough about work. What did you want to say?”

He squeezed her hand. “I love your hair. So wavy and alive.”

Her hand flew to her scalp self-consciously. “Snakes are so hard to handle. I’ve just washed them, and I can’t do a thing with them. I wouldn’t recommend peeking into Medusa’s cage until we find an antidote.”

“You’re lovely, you know that?”

Mona suppressed a sigh. Did he honestly think she didn’t own a mirror? Well, come to think of it, if she looked in one now, she would be turned to stone. Perhaps he thought he was doing her a favor. “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you.”

He jerked his head sideways, to avoid the nearest snake’s trajectory. “I just love looking at you. That’s such a nice dress.”

You can hardly blame the snake for lashing out at him, can you? As gratifying as compliments are to hear, a flattery barrage like this should not be confused with conversation. Not only isn’t it particularly interesting for the reader — a simple physical description would have been a far more effective way to display Mona’s charms — but as we may see from her reaction, it isn’t even interesting to the person being complimented.

On the page as in life, a single compliment is sweet. But when fifteen of them tumble out of your dinner partner’s mouth, you start to wonder if he’s avoiding saying something. It’s auditory filler.

And did you notice that even after Alex has rhapsodized about her looks, we still don’t have a particularly clear idea of what Mona looks like? Oh, the narrative sentences give some specifics, but the dialogue is vague: she looks great, has pretty eyes, has mobile hair, is lovely, is sporting a nice dress.

Hardly enough to enable the reader to pick her out of a police lineup, is it?

Yes, a lot of people, especially shy ones, do pepper their conversation with compliments, but as we have discussed, the point of dialogue is not merely to provide a transcript of real-world conversations. It’s to entertain the reader, develop character, and move the plot along. And frankly, don’t you suspect that Mona has quite a bit more going on in her life than Will’s conversational choices are revealing?

Heck, those snakes seem to have more on their minds than he does. Keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part IX: good news, less-good news, and why you should keep the faith, or, go fish!

Before we launch into today’s post, I have some good news and some less-good news to announce. No, make that fantastic and all-too-real news.

First, the phenomenal: please join me in a gigantic round of cheering for long-time Author! Author! reader Jay Kristoff, who had just landed a three-book deal with St. Martin’s/Tor UK for his STORMDANCER, a dystopian fantasy set in steampunk feudal Japan. Congratulations, Jay!

It just goes to show you: it can be done, people. Keep those chins high as you press forward.

Jay’s book sold at auction, and, good community member that he is, he has posted a really interesting account of it on his blog. How’s that for timely, since we’ve spent the last few weeks focusing upon how books move from manuscript to publication?

Speaking of which — and moving on to the less-good news — as those of you who check in here regularly may have noticed, I have been posting rather spottily for the last couple of weeks. That’s been due to a combination of positive (my niece’s wedding is next week) and less-positive factors (those pesky post-car crash injuries have been acting up again). Sensing a pattern here?

In an effort to save myself my now-habitual daily guilt when I do not post, as well as to save faithful readers a few minutes on those days, I’m going to take the next week off from posting. After I’ve finished throwing rice at relatives, I shall return, in theory refreshed. Or, at the very least, with a bit more time on my hands.

So do enjoy yourselves between now and the 17th. How about investing the time you would have spent reading my blog in sending out a couple of extra queries, or in doing a spot of revision on that manuscript?

Just a suggestion. On to the topic of the moment — which, as it happens, has everything to do with the ups and downs of a writing career. That, and predictability.

I freely admit it: I’m perpetually astonished at the things that are supposed to flabbergast otherwise reasonable adults. That characters on television shows who have been flirting for seven consecutive seasons suddenly end up romantically entangled during episodes aired during sweeps week, for instance: um, who precisely is not going to have seen that coming? Or that any major political initiative is greeted by anything but the unanimous approval of any given legislative body: as nearly as I can tell from the news every night, we’re all supposed to be floored by the fact that politicians disagree with one another from time to time, even when those splits run along precisely the party lines that characterized the last 17 major disagreements. Or that anyone’s cockles wouldn’t be warmed by the magic of Christmas.

Frankly, I like to think that people are a trifle less credulous than that — and more inclined to learn from experience. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, I don’t think too much of people who are not wiser today than they were yesterday.

Which is one aspect of how the publishing industry treats writers that I really like: it assumes not only that anyone who can write well enough to deserve to be published is an intelligent human being, but also that a good writer can and will learn the ropes of the business side of publishing. In this era where even news shows operate on the assumption that the average adult has the attention span of a three-year-old — and one who has been stuffing candy into his eager mouth for the last two hours at that — I find agents’ and editors’ presumption of authorial intelligence rather refreshing.

Unfortunately, most aspiring writers see only the negative fallout of this industry-wide assumption; since the pros expect writers to do their own research before trying to get their books published, those brand-new to the biz are often stunned that nobody in the industry spontaneously tells them what to do. Which is completely understandable, right? From a first-time querier’s perspective, it can seem downright counterproductive that agents just expect her to know what a query letter should look like, what information it should contain, and that it shouldn’t just read like a back jacket blurb for the book.

Heck, how is someone who has never met an agented author in person to know not just to pick up the phone and call the agent in question? Magic? Osmosis?

Similarly, agents, editors, and contest judges presume that anyone genuinely serious about her writing will have taken the time to learn how professional writers format their manuscripts — an interesting presumption, given that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware that professional manuscripts are not supposed to resemble published books. (To those of you who just gasped: you might want to take a barefoot run through our recent Formatpalooza series.)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not information that the average writer is born knowing. That’s a real shame, since professionally-formatted manuscripts tend to be taken far more seriously at submission time than those that are not.

Why? People who read manuscripts for a living tend to assume that good writers are intelligent human beings, that’s why. From Millicent the agency screener’s perspective, the only reason that a manuscript would not be formatted properly is that the submitter did not bother to do his homework.

Why does that matter? Well, a query or submission that does not conform to their expectations of what is publishable (in terms of writing) or marketable (in terms of content or authorial authority) is a sign that the writer just isn’t ready yet to play in the big leagues. In other words, even if the writing is pretty good and/or the book concept pretty engaging, Millicent might toss that fish back into the waters where she caught it.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that she believes the writer will never produce professional-level work; indeed, folks in the industry tend to assume (and even say at conferences) that they’re confident that if a truly talented writer gets rejected, she will take it as a sign that she needs to improve her presentation. Since the information on how to do that is available — although nowhere near as readily or conveniently as most agents who say this sort of thing seem to think — why wouldn’t someone with a genuine gift invest the time and effort in learning to do it right?

From the writer’s side of the game, there’s a very straightforward answer to that: because the average querier or submitter, gifted or otherwise, doesn’t have a clear idea of what he’s doing wrong. Since most rejection letters these days contain absolutely no clue as to what caused the agent (or, more commonly, the agent’s Millicent) to shove the submission back into the SASE — heck, some agencies no longer respond at all if the answer is no — no one should be particularly surprised if an aspiring writer’s learning curve isn’t always steep.

Why bring up the expectation of intelligent research toward the end of this series on how writers bring their books to publication, you ask? Because from an outside perspective, it’s just too easy to interpret the sometimes esoteric and confusing rules of querying, pitching, and submission as essentially hostile to aspiring writers.

That’s not really the case, you know. While many of the querying and submission restrictions have indeed been established, as we have discussed, in order to narrow the field of candidates for the very, very few new client slots available at most agencies, the intent behind that weeding-down effort is not to discourage talented-but-inexperienced writers from trying to get their work published.

The underlying belief is that an intelligent person’s response to rejection will not be to give up, but to analyze what went wrong, do some research about what can go right, and try, try again. Believe it or not, the fine folks who toil in agencies and publishing houses don’t expect the writers they reject to disappear permanently, at least not the ones with genuine talent. They believe that the gifted ones will return, this time better equipped for life as a professional writer.

Go back to your native element, little fish. We’ll see you again when you’re bigger.

Understanding this attitude is key to handling rejection with aplomb — or even translating agent-speak into writers’ English. Take, for instance, that old publishing industry truism, good writing will always find a
home
. What the agents and editors who spout this aphorism seldom think to add is: but not necessarily right away. Like learning any other set of job skills, becoming a professional writer can take some time.

Which means, from the business side of the industry’s perspective, writers who give up after just a few rejections — which is the norm, incidentally, not the exception — are those who aren’t seriously interested in making the rather broad leap between a talented person who likes to write and a professional writer in it for the long haul. They don’t waste too many tears over the loss of the former.

I don’t see it that way, personally: talking to so many writers over so many years, I see the crushed dreams behind the writer who gives up after a single rejection as clearly as those belonging to the writer who is struggling through year 7 of an agent search. That pain is real. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that most talented aspiring writers take individual rejections from agents far, far too seriously.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s very easy to overrate the importance of no. These days, it seems as though every other aspiring writer I meet has either:

(a) sent out a single query, got rejected, and never tried again,

(b) had a few queries rejected two years ago, and has been feverishly revising the manuscript ever since, despite the fact that no agent had yet seen it,

(c) pitched successfully at a conference, but convinced himself that the only reason four agents asked to see his first chapter was because those agents were just saying yes to everybody,

(d) received a positive response to a query or pitch, then talked herself out of sending the requested materials at all, because her work isn’t good enough,

(e) sent out the requested pages, but in order to save himself from disappointment, decided in advance that none of the replies will be positive,

(f) received the first manuscript rejection — and expanded it mentally into a resounding NO! from everyone in the industry, and/or

(g) concluded from conference chatter that no one in the industry is interested in any book that isn’t an obvious bestseller.

In short, each of these types of writers had decided that his or her fears about what happened were true, rather than doing the research to find out whether the response that fear and hurt dictated was in fact the most reasonable one. Don’t believe me? Just look how easily each of the conclusions above can be debunked:

(a) A single query is not — and cannot — be indicative of how every agent on earth will respond.
A better response: why not try again?

(b) Until agents have actually seen the manuscript, there’s no way a writer can know how they will respond to it.
A better response: work on improving the query, then try again.

(c) No, the agents and editors were not asking everyone to send chapters — pitching doesn’t work that way.
A better response: assume that you did something right and send out the requested materials.

(d) How do you know for sure until you send it out?
A better response: learn how to present your work professionally, then submit it.

(e) In my experience, foretelling doom does not soften future misfortune, if it comes — it only serves to stultify present hope.
A better response: hedge your bets by continuing to query other agents while waiting to hear back from the first round.

(f) ANY agent or editor’s opinion of a book is just that, an opinion.
A better response: see (a)

(g) the publishing industry makes most of its money on books that are neither bestsellers nor small-run books. Most of the time, the mid-list titles are paying the agency’s mortgage.
A better response: take the time to learn how the industry works, rather than killing your chances entirely by not continuing to try.

None of this is to say that bouncing back from rejection is easy, or that landing an agent is a snap. The road from first idea to publication is long and bumpy, and seems to get bumpier all the time.

As Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Yes, it’s emotionally hard work to prep your pages to head out the door to agents and editors; yes, it is hard to wait for replies to your submissions. To give you a foretaste of what’s down the road, it’s also psychically difficult to watch the weeks tick by between when you sign with an agent and when that sterling soul decides that, in her professional opinion, the time is ripe for her to submit your book to editors. And then it’s rough to wait until those editors get around to reading it, just as it is agonizing to hang around, feigning patience, between the time a publisher acquires your book and it appears on the shelves.

I’m not going to lie to you: it’s all incredibly wearing on the nerves.

That being said, if you are thinking about throwing in the towel on your book before you have given the querying and submission processes a thorough test, please do not look to me for validation of that decision. I’ll give you practical advice on how to query; I’ll hand you tips on how to improve your submission’s chances; I’ll share pointers on the fine art of revision; I’ll answer your questions along the way. I will cheer from the sidelines until I’m blue in the face for your efforts as a writer.

As long as you keep trying. As Jay’s triumph clearly illustrates, aspiring writers are still landing agents — as he did fairly recently — and selling first books.

But not if they give up. One of the few industry truisms that is true 100% of the time: the only book that has ABSOLUTELY no chance of being published is the one that stays hidden in the bottom drawer of the author’s filing cabinet.

Keep pushing forward; keep sending your work out. Because while it’s time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally wearing, it’s also literally the only way that your book — or any book — comes to publication.

Long-time readers of this blog will groan with recognition, but once again, I feel compelled to remind you that five of the best-selling books of the 20th century were rejected by more than a dozen publishers before they were picked up by publishers — and that was back in the days when it was considerably easier to get published. Everybody count down with me now:

Dr. Seuss, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET (rejected by 23 publishers)

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

Thor Heyerdahl, KON-TIKI (20)

Richard Bach, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (18)

Patrick Dennis, AUNTIE MAME (17)

The lesson to derive here: keep moving forward. Please, please, PLEASE don’t dismiss your book too soon, on the basis of some preconceived notion of what will and will not sell — even if that preconceived notion fell from the ostensibly learned lips of the agent of your dreams.

Concentrate on what you can control, not what you can’t. In order to do that effectively, you’re going to need to learn about how the process actually works.

That’s the less-good news. The good news is that the writer does have practically absolute control over the technical and cosmetic aspects of the submission.

Yes, I know — for most of us, getting our thoughts, stories, and worldviews out there is the primary goal of writing a book, so concentrating on the details seems comparatively mundane. Applying and adhering to the rules of standard format is not a joy for anybody; when the aspiring writer first embraces it, it can seem like a necessary evil. Most of us want to move directly to unfettered self-expression — and then are surprised and frustrated when the resulting book has difficulty finding an agent, getting published, or winning contests.

But this is a bad idea, both professionally and emotionally. Concentrating almost exclusively on the self-expressive capacity of the book, we tend to read rejection as personal, rather than as what it is: an industry insider’s assessment of whether she can sell your work within her preexisting sales network. Ask anyone in the biz, and he will tell you: 99% of rejections are technically-based; the rejection usually isn’t of the submitter’s style or worldview, for the simple reason that those are not considerations unless the basic signs of good writing — in the sense of professional writing — are in the submission.

This can be a very empowering realization. As can coming to terms with the fact that while people may be born with writing talent, the ability to present writing professionally is a learned skill.

Once a writer grasps the difference between technically good writing and stylistic good writing and the distinction between a well-written manuscript and a professionally-formatted one, rejections become less a personal insult than a signal that there may be technical problems with how she is presenting her writing. The lesson to be learned from a rejection transforms from, “Why do they hate me?” to “What can I do to make this submission/query read better?”

Yes, yes, I know: emotionally speaking, it’s not much of an improvement, at least in the short term. But when the question is framed in the latter manner, there is something the writer can do about it. I’m a big fan of tackling the doable first, and getting to the impossible later.

Without a doubt, absolutely the best thing you can do to increase your chances is to make sure that your submission is crystal-clear and professionally formatted before you send it out. Out comes the broken record again: pass it under other eyes, preferably those of other writers, people who both know basic good writing when they see it AND have some idea how to fix it.

Does that giant gasp that just rent the ether mean that some of you had not thought of your first readers that way? Had you simply handed your manuscript to your nearest and dearest, or even to just anybody who asked to see it? As understandable as the impulse to share the product of your creative labors is, this practice is not likely to help you get your work published.

Why? Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: as marvelous as your kith and kin may be as human beings, they are unlikely to give you unbiased feedback — and only unbiased, knowledgeable feedback is going to help hoist your work up over the professional bar.

What else can you control, even a little? Well, you can avoid sending your query or submission during the traditional industry dead times (between the second week of August and Labor Day; between Thanksgiving and New Year’s day), or predictable periods of heavy submission (immediately after New Year’s, right after school gets out for the summer). You don’t want to have your work end up in the read when we get around to it pile, do you?

So for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your HUGELY POLITE cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel…

While I’m being governessy, I might as well add: always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope – with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return. In fact, you might want to mention the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a courteous writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the peachy range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to reach you to say that they love your book.

And no, green-minded aspiring writers: asking them to recycle your submission if they do not like it is no substitute for an appropriately-sized SASE. Sorry. In the first place — hold on to your hats here, because this is a genuine shocker by local standards — most of the offices in the industry do not even have recycling bins. (I know; it’s appalling, when you think about how much paper they see in a day.) And in the second place, they’ll just think you’re being rude. Sorry again.

One last thing, another golden oldie from my broken-record collection: do not overnight your manuscript; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. This is true, even if the agent who has your first chapter calls or e-mails you and asks for the rest of the manuscript immediately. It’s neither appropriate nor necessary to waste your precious resources on overnight shipping.

Trust me on this one: you may be the next John Grisham, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

Another way to keep your momentum going while you wait: since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your chapters or your book proposal. If an agent turns you down — perish the thought! — you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

Hey, not every fisherman agrees on what size of fish to throw back.

The only circumstance under which you should not continue querying is if the agent has asked for an exclusive look at your manuscript — which, incidentally, you are under no obligation to grant. However, politeness generally dictates agreement. If you do agree to an exclusive (here comes another golden oldie), specify in advance for how long you are granting it. Three months is more than generous. Then, if the agent does not get back to you within the stated time, you will be well within your rights to keep searching while she tries to free enough time from her kids, her spouse, her Rottweiler, etc. to read your submission.

Don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt carry you off, my friends. Have faith in your writing — and work hard to learn as much as you can to maximize your book’s chances of success.

Enjoy your week off, everybody. Keep up the good work!

How to find agents to query-palooza, part XII: pushing boldly forward…and let’s talk about this

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Before I wrap up this series on how to figure out which agents do and do not belong on your querying list, I have two quick questions to ask of you, campers: what clever means do you use to find agents who represent books like yours — and what’s the one thing you most wish someone had told you just before you sent out your first query?

If that second one sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve asked it of members of the Author! Author! community before — and received some very enlightening answers. I’m a big fan of mutual aid: let’s allow our individual experiences to help one another.

So please be generous with your reminiscences, folks. The Comments function below is hungry for ‘em.

Why end this series with questions, you ask? Because, really, the publishing world is changing so fast that rather than providing prescriptions for agent-finding, I feel as though I’ve been mostly writing about preliminary questions aspiring writers can ask themselves in order to prepare to examine an agent’s listing in one of the standard guides, page on an agent search site, conference brochure blurb, and/or agency’s website.

Why is know thyself (and thy book) an absolutely indispensable prerequisite to generating a recherché querying list? Because — feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers — the surest path to rejection is to query agents who do not (or do not still) represent books in your chosen category. No matter how beautifully-written your manuscript or proposal is, or how exquisitely crafted your query letter may be, it is a waste of your valuable time to approach agents who do not have both a current interest in and a solid track record selling books like yours.

Obviously — at least I hope it’s more obvious to you now than at the end of the summer — it’s going to be a whole lot easier to avoid wasting your time with non-starters if you know what it is you are trying to market: your book’s category, target audience, and why your book will appeal to those readers in a manner that no other book currently on the market will.

Yes, yes, it’s sounds like a tall order, but I sincerely hope you find it empowering, rather than depressing. Of all the many, many things about the path from finished manuscript to publication that are completely outside a writer’s control, you have absolute authority over this one aspect: you, and only you, can decide whom to query and how.

Besides, now you have the tools in your writer’s marketing kit to pull it off with aplomb. As may not have entirely escaped your notice in recent months, I’ve been devoting quite a lot of blog space to helping you do just that. In Querypalooza, we spoke at length about how to customize a query letter for each individual agent on that carefully-selected list you are now contemplating; late in that series, and in the Synopsispalooza and Authorbiopalooza series that followed, we discussed query and submission packets and the things you might be asked to tuck inside them.

So if you have made it all the way through this fall of ‘Paloozas, either reading them as I posted or in retrospect, please give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. By committing to learning how querying and submission works, you can avoid the most common mistakes that lead to rejection — and approach the process of finding an agent for your work not as a massive, ugly mystery, but as a professional endeavor that’s going to take some time.

You know how I’d like you to celebrate? Devote some time this weekend to researching a few new agents to query. Five is a nice number. (Ten is better, but I know how busy you are this time of year.)

Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and not unreasonably, “wouldn’t now be a rather un-sensible time to be sending out a flotilla of queries? Doesn’t the publishing industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — and then get overwhelmed with new queries just after New Year’s Day?? If I haven’t gotten a raft of queries out by now, shouldn’t I wait until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? (That’s the third week of January, for those of you reading outside the US, and are we not clever to be able to convey parentheses in speech?)”

I have to admit, that’s quite the reasonable, well-argued objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put beefing up your query list on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument. Happy now?

Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be combing book reviews for agent leads, much better than the dead of winter. There are always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves in the fall, including most of the year’s crop of literary fiction and culture books. Traditionally, the fall is when publishers release books they expect to be in the running for big awards, although that calendar, like the century-old practice of releasing first novels in the spring, when they will not have to compete as directly with all of those established potential award-winners, has been becoming more flexible recently.

But some parts of the calendar have not changed: you’re quite right that if you actually send out queries now, you’re likely not to hear back for a couple of months. Not just because of the many, many holiday functions between the beginning of Hanukah and New Year’s Eve, but due to the tens of thousands of aspiring authors who will suddenly decide at the end of December that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month.

They’d better get cracking on those query lists, hadn’t they?

Actually, most of needn’t: since the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks, January is when all of those well-meaning resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks — right after a long holiday break and in the middle of tax-preparation time for agencies. (Legally, agencies must provide clients with the previous year’s tax information on royalties by the end of January.) With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a mite testy around then.

Since the vast majority of those rejected during that period will not query again until, oh, about twelve months later — if they try again at all — Millicent the agency screener’s life calms down considerably after the long Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. And wouldn’t you rather have your query under her nose while her joie de vivre is on the upswing?

The moral of the story: if you didn’t get your queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’re better off sitting out the Christmas vacation and New Year’s rush. Wait until Millicent will be happier to see you headed her way.

All that being said, even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push to generate a really solid query list now — or update your old one, if you haven’t done so within the last six months –rather than after the New Year, will make it easier to keep up the momentum an aspiring writer needs to keep a query cycle going as long as necessary to land an agent.

Stop groaning. If your manuscript deserves to get published — and I’m betting that it does — it deserves to make the rounds of the fifty or hundred agents that even the best books sometimes make these days. Yes, that’s a long haul, but nothing extends the querying process like running out of steam. Or not picking oneself up after a rejection, dusting off that query list, and moving on to the next name on it.

Believe me, that’s a whole lot easier to do if you have a lengthy, well-researched, and up-to-date query list. It’s especially helpful if you are going to be trying to keep 5-10 queries out at any given time, beginning the end of January.

Yes, I do mean sending that many out at once at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion. Keep that momentum going.

Why send out a new query on the same day as the last comes back? Because it’s the best way to fight off rejection-generated depression, that’s why: it’s something you can do in response to that soul-sapping form letter. Recognize that rejection by an agent, any agent, is only one person’s opinion (or, more commonly, one person’s screener’s opinion), and move on.

At the risk of repeating myself: it can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes, even a very good writer with a great book. Remember, you don’t want to sign with just any agent, any more than you would want to marry just anyone the law says you can. A relationship with an agent is, ideally, a very long-term commitment.

You want to find the best one for you. Finding that special someone may well take some serious dating around.

And that is not, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily any reflection at all upon your level of writing talent. Oh, you’ll want to write a good query letter, as well as avoiding the most common writing problems that lead submissions to be rejected. That, like other matters of format and craft, can be learned.

Talent, however, can’t — but you can’t know for certain how talented you are until you get the technical matters right, so you can get a fair reading from the pros.

But if you’ve been following the fall of ‘Paloozas, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you? At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time to work on polishing your manuscript.

Oh, and to generate a truly top-notch query list, specialized for your particular book. Perhaps it’s not the best time to query, but you certainly can keep moving forward toward your goals in the interim.

I feel in my bones that some of you out there are resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. “But Anne,” those of you who are suffering from query fatigue wail, “I’m just so tired of querying. I hate being rejected, either via e-mail, that SASE I’m supposed to stuff in my mailed queries so I may pay the postage on my own rejection, or, most soul-sucking of all, by simply not hearing back at all on a query or submission. Can’t I just take a breather until, say, next March? Or June? Maybe by then, I will have gotten my second, third, or fifteenth wind.”

I feel for your plight, fatigued ones, but in my experience, it requires considerably more energy for an aspiring writer to re-start a stalled querying push than to keep putting energy in it consistently over a long period. So ’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to try to dissolve that most common of query-process stallers: the tendency to take the vagaries of this often attenuated process personally.

It doesn’t make sense to do so, you know.

And you should know, if you’ve been a regular part of our ongoing ‘Palooza party this autumn. I have been trying, in my own small way, to educate aspiring writers to the hard facts of the current literary market: it is, in fact, as difficult as it has ever been to land an agent and/or sign a publication contract. In my experience, understanding the basics of how the acceptance (and rejection) process works can save good writers time, chagrin, and wasteful expenses of despair.

Falling prey to despair is a genuine danger here: we’ve all, I’m sure, been hearing gloom-and-doom predictions of the death of the printed word over the last few years. Oh, I certainly haven’t been exaggerating, say, how small, inadvertent mistakes can and do lead to instant rejection or the level of competition one must beat in order to sign with a good agency; by comparison with the conversation you’d be likely to hear behind the scenes at a top-flight writers’ conference, my rendition has been positively sunshiny.

Of course, the printed word has been declared dead by naysayers with clockwork regularity since the mid-19th century. And, frankly, if the most recent batch of predictions had been correct, the last book in existence would have been bound a couple of years ago. Yet the sale of books seems to be marching on — weakened, perhaps, but still moving forward.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a news item from 2007.

Hachette moves to firm sale on backlist
Hachette Livre UK is taking the radical step of moving its backlist publishing to a firm sale basis for environmental reasons. The UK’s largest publishing group, which includes Orion, Hodder, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown, told staff and authors this morning…that it intends for all of its trade publishing to be put on a backlist firm sale footing by the end of 2008, following consultation with retailers. (For the rest of this article, follow this link.)

If this piece of news did not make you gasp spontaneously, I would guess that you are only dimly aware of just how many books are already pulped each year — that is, sent back to the publisher unsold for paper recycling — or how backlist sales typically work. Most bookstores buy new books from publishers on a provisional basis, with the understanding that they can send clean, unread copies back if they do not sell within a specified period of time. Often, the returns, especially paperbacks and trade paper, will be ground down into pulp to provide the raw material to print other books (thus the term pulping: they are reduced to paper pulp).

From a marketing point of view, this arrangement makes quite a bit of sense: with certain rare exceptions (think Harry Potter), it’s pretty hard for a bookseller to know in advance how well a book will sell. Stocking extra copies encourages browsing, potentially good for brick-and-mortar bookstores, publisher, and reader alike. In recent years, however, books have been remaining on shelves for shorter stints than in the past. The length of time a bookseller will choose to keep a particular book on a shelf varies considerably by book and retailer; the same book may be allowed shelf space for a year at a small bookstore, yet last only a few weeks at a megastore like Barnes & Noble.

Now that online and electronic book sales make up such a hefty proportion of the book market, fewer and fewer books are ever occupying retail shelves at all. That, too, encourages smaller print runs, in order to reduce the number of books ultimately pulped. This, in theory, is the primary benefit of print-on-demand (POD) publishing: only the actual number of books needed are produced, thus reducing pulping.

It also, of course, reduces browsing. All of which means, in practice, that these days, a new book typically does not have very long to establish a track record as a seller before being subject to return. This, in turn, renders it more expensive for publishers to promote books, as the window of opportunity can be pretty small.

See why publishers might be willing to pay a premium to have their books displayed face-up on tables for the first few weeks, rather than spine-out on a shelf? (Knowing that space is often rented can really change how one walks through a big chain bookstore, let me tell you.) Or why authors sometimes see fit to hire their own publicists for the first month after a book’s release?

Backlist titles, by contrast, have been out for a while; they’re the releases from past seasons that the publisher elects to keep in print. Although they do not receive the press attention of new releases, backlist books have historically been the financial heart of most publishers’ business. This, too, has tended to work to all of our benefits.

How often, for instance, have you discovered a genre author three books into a series? Or fell in love with a writer’s latest book and went back to read everything she ever published? (As I sincerely hope you do; after all, if we writers won’t purchase the more obscure works of living writers, who will?)

If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore or online, you’ve been buying backlist titles, gladdening publishers’ hearts and keeping the heartbeat of the industry alive. Because of readers like you, stocking backlist titles has been good bet for retailers: you might not move many copies of Clarissa in a given month, but when a reader wants it, it’s great if you have it to hand.

But if a bookseller has to buy those backlist titles outright, with no opportunity to return them, it becomes substantially more expensive to keep, say, the complete opus of Sherman Alexie in stock in the years before he won the National Book Award. (His latest, an excellent and intriguing collection of shorts entitled War Dances, is now out in paperback, should your Secret Santa be casting about for gift ideas.)

Let’s get back to that old news clipping about Hachette. Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I was darned worried when I first read this: having heard on the literary grapevine that other UK publishers were considering implementing similar policies, I fretted myself sick about all of those British writers whose work might have gone out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.

Hasn’t happened yet, however. Why, I just sent away for some backlist volumes last week. Only now, I order directly online from a U.K. distributor.

See? Change does not always equal demise.

But, of course, the overall trend toward shorter shelf times is genuinely worrisome, especially if one ponders the financial prospects of authors already in print. Just as increasingly quick shelf turn-around for a current season’s books have rendered retailers less likely to take a chance on new authors (how much word-of-mouth can a small book garner in under a month, after all?), it’s probably safe to assume that a policy shift like this will make it harder for backlist authors to remain in print.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you saying, “you’re always telling us that publishing trends change all the time — and that even if I get an agent tomorrow, it might be a couple of years before my book hits the shelves. Do I really need to worry about return policies now, while I’m plugging away at building my query list, as you have successfully guilted me into moving up on my to-do list?”

Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when thinking about your writing career in the long term. Working authors often rely upon sales of their backlist works to pay the bills. If backlist sales decline — as they well might, if such a policy is embraced industry-wide — it may be significantly more difficult to make a consistent living as a writer of books in the years to come.

In other words, this change may affect your ability to quit your day job after you’re published. Indeed, many of the quite solid debut novelists of the last few years have not — which, naturally, affects their ability to promote their current books (now largely the author’s responsibility, especially online) and write their next ones.

In the short term, however, I think it’s always helpful for an aspiring writer to be aware that there is almost always more to an editor’s decision to acquire a book — and by extension, to an agent’s decision to offer it representation — than simply whether the writing is good. During periods when booksellers are taking fewer risks, publishers have historically relied more upon their tried-and-true authors than upon exciting new talent.

Thus tightening the already tight market for what used to be called writers of promise, excellent authors who don’t catch on with the public until the fourth or fifth book. (Mssr. Alexie’s first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was originally published in 1993. Fortunately, it’s still available as a backlist title.)

Do I think this change is cause for rending your garments and casting your hard-collected query lists into the nearest fire? No, certainly not. But I do think that aspiring writers who approach the querying and submission processes as though the book market has not become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection than those with a more up-to-date view of how the business works.

Why are the former more likely to succumb to querying and submission fatigue? Unfortunately, no matter how much publishing does or doesn’t change, one constant is apparently immortal: that perniciously pervasive myth out there that the only reason a manuscript, or even a query, ever has trouble finding a professional home is because of a lack of writerly talent.

That is simply not true. Like the common fantasy of walking into a writers’ conference, pitching to the first agent in sight, getting signed on the spot, and selling the book within the month, that misapprehension makes too many good writers stop trying after only a handful of efforts.

What is true is that the competition is fierce, and the more a writer learns about how the business works, the more she can hone her queries and submissions to increase their likelihood of success. There is an immense gulf between the difficult and the impossible — and, as I have stressed time and again, the only impossible hurdle for a book to overcome is the one that confines it in a desk drawer, unqueried and unread.

No matter how tight the book market becomes, it’s not the industry that controls the lock on that drawer; it’s the writer. Never, ever allow the prospect of rejection to seal that drawer shut permanently.

This is your dream — give it a fighting chance. Keep that querying momentum going.

One more ‘Palooza is lurking in the wings between now and the solstice, the official end of autumn. Tune in tomorrow for its unveiling — and, now and always, keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part IX: for those who are beginning to feel overwhelmed, or, there is a proper time and place for primal screaming — and the synopsis page isn’t it

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I meant to post yesterday, honestly; blame my physical therapist’s fondness for crying out, “Just lean on your hands for another few minutes while we try X…” I use those hands for other things, as it turns out. I even had this half-written before PT yesterday, but all of my hand and wrist strength had been used up for the day.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: life is no respecter of deadlines.

As we’ve been working our way through Synopsispalooza, I’ve been worrying about something over and above my aching wrists: has my advice that virtually any aspiring writer will be better off sitting down to construct a winning synopsis substantially before s/he is likely to need to produce one coming across as a trifle callous, as if I were laboring under the impression that the average aspiring writer doesn’t already have difficulty carving out time in a busy day to write at all? Why, some of you may well be wondering, would I suggest that you should take on more work — and such distasteful work at that?

I assure you, I have been suggesting this precisely because I am sympathetic to your plight. I completely understand why aspiring writers so often push producing one to the last possible nanosecond before it is needed: it genuinely is a pain to summarize the high points of a plot or argument in a concise-yet-detail-rich form.

Honestly, I get it. The newer a writer is to the task, the more impossible — and unreasonable — it seems.

And frankly, aspiring writers have a pretty good reason to feel that way about constructing synopses: it is such a different task than writing a book, involving skills widely removed from observing a telling moment in exquisite specificity or depicting a real-life situation with verve and insight, the expectation that any good book writer should be able to produce a great synopsis off the cuff actually isn’t entirely reasonable.

So it’s probably not utterly surprising that the very prospect of pulling one together can leave a talented writer feeling like this:

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Rather than the way we feel when we polish off a truly stellar piece of writing, which is a bit more like this:

singing-in-the-rain

There’s just no getting around it: synopsis-writing, like pitch- and query-writing, is not particularly soul-satisfying. Nor is it likely to yield sentences and paragraphs that will be making readers weep a hundred years from now — fortunate, perhaps, because literally no one outside of an agency, publishing house, or contest-judging bee is ever going to see the darned thing. Yet since we cannot change the industry’s demand for them, all we writers can do is work on the supply end: by taking control of WHEN we produce our synopses, we can make the generation process less painful and generally improve the results.

Okay, so these may not sound like the best conceivable motivations for taking a few days out of your hard-won writing time to pull together a document that’s never going to be published — and to do so before you absolutely have to do it. Unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores wailing under time pressure, though, procrastinating about producing one is an exceedingly bad idea.

But as of today, I’m no longer going to ask you to take my word for that. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one – taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you have an actual conversation with an agent (either post-submission or at a conference) is going to make it easier for you to talk about your book professionally.

Don’t sneeze at that advantage, perennial queriers — it’s extremely important for conference-goers, e-mail queriers, and pretty much everyone who is ever going to be trying to convince someone in the publishing industry to take an interest in a manuscript, because (brace yourselves) the prevailing assumption amongst the pros is that a writer who cannot talk about her work professionally probably is not going to produce a professional-quality manuscript.

I know, I know — from a writer’s point of view, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: we all know (or are) shy-but-brilliant writers who would rather scarf down cups of broken glass than give a verbal pitch, yet can produce absolute magic on the page. Unfortunately, in contexts where such discussion is warranted, these gifted recluses are out of luck.

Why? Well, it’s sort of like the logic underlying querying: evaluating a 400-page manuscript based solely upon a single-page query letter — or, even more common, upon the descriptive paragraph in that query — is predicated upon the assumption that any gifted writer must be able to write marketing copy and lyrical prose equally well. (Cough, cough.) Similarly, conference pitching assumes that the basic skills an agent must have in order to sell books successfully — an ability to boil down a story or argument to its most basic elements while still making it sound fascinating, a knack for figuring out how it would fit into the current market, the knowledge to determine who would be the most receptive audience, editorial and reader both, for such a book, the bravery to tell someone in a position to do something about it — are lurking in the psyche of your garden-variety brilliant writer as well.

Come to think of it, querying and synopsizing effectively require most of those skills as well, don’t they? Particularly synopsizing, if you think about it like a marketer, rather than like a writer.

And yes, you should try to do that from time to time: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, being market-savvy does not necessarily mean compromising one’s artistic vision or selling out. As any working artist could tell you, one can be a perfectly good artist and still present one’s work well for marketing purposes. Refusing to learn professional presentation skills does not improve one’s art one jot; all it does is make it harder to sell that art.

So force yourself to think like a marketer for a second, rather than the author of that 380-page novel: if you were the book’s agent, how would you describe it to an editor? Perhaps like this:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Or, if you were the agent for your nonfiction book, you might go about it like this:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter,

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it,

(3) mention any large group of people or organization who might already be working on this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject,

(4) give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail and saying what kind of proof you will be offering in support of your points,

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (again, ideally, backed up with statistics), and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the known universe to write the book.

In short, you would be describing your book in professional terms, rather than trying to summarize the entire book in 1-5 pages. In fact, try thinking of your synopsis as the book’s first agent: its role is not to reproduce the experience of reading your manuscript, but to convince people in the publishing industry to read it.

Tell me: does thinking of the pesky thing in those terms make it seem more or less intimidating to write?

Although it may feel like the former, in the long term, taking the time to do this well usually helps a writer feel less intimidated down the line. Investing some serious time in developing a solid, professional-quality synopsis can be very, very helpful in this respect. The discipline required to produce it forces you to think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of complex art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating.

Not only will it be easier for you to sit down and write a synopsis for your next book (and the one after that), but by training yourself not to answer the question, “So what do you write?” with a short, pithy, market-oriented overview of the plot or argument, you are going to come across to others as much more serious about your writing than if you embrace the usual response of, “Well, um, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Again, that progress is nothing at which to be sneezing. An aspiring writer who has learned to discuss his work professionally is usually better able to get folks in the industry to sit down and read it. That’s not a value judgment — it’s a fact.

Half of you are shaking your heads in resentful disbelief, aren’t you? “But Anne,” those of you annoyed by the brevity of a requested synopsis point out, “you keep saying that every syllable an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample. So how can I NOT think of the 3-page synopsis they want me to send as a super-compressed version of my book? Let me be all stressed out over trying to fit 100 pages into a paragraph or two, already.”

I can tell you how: because you’ll drive yourself crazy if you think of it that way. The purpose of a synopsis is not to summarize the entire book; it is to give a swift overview of its high points. Thus, the synopsizer’s problem is not compression — it’s selection.

Does the sound of a thousand pairs of eyebrows crashing into hairlines mean that some of you had never thought of it that way before? Cast your eyes back over those lists of what is supposed to be in a professional synopsis: do any of those steps actually ask you to summarize the book?

No, they are asking you to hit the high points — but to present those high points like a readable story or single-line argument.

Don’t get too upset if you hadn’t thought of it that way before. Even writers who are absolutely desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. As I have mentioned earlier in this series, in the throes of resenting the necessity of producing a query letter and synopsis, it is genuinely difficult NOT to grumble about having to simplify a beautifully complicated plot, set of characters, and/or argument.

But think about it for a second: any agent who signs you is going to have to be able to rattle off the book’s high points in order to market it to editors. So is any editor who falls in love with it, in order to pitch it to an editorial committee.

See why they might want to have a synopsis by their sides? This is not a pointless hoop through which agents, editors, and contest rule-mongers force aspiring writers to jump in order to test their fortitude; a synopsis is a professional requirement, necessary for any of these people to help you bring your writing to your future reading public.

You’re feeling just the teensiest bit better about having to write the darned thing, aren’t you?

Here’s another good reason to invest the time: by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that perennial bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die.

Those of you who have pitched at conferences know what I’m talking about, right? Everyone who has hung out with either pitchers or pitch-hearing agents has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that. Your manuscript has many, many other high points, doesn’t it?

For those of you who haven’t yet found yourself floundering for words in front of an agent or editor, allow me to warn you: the unprepared pitcher almost always runs long. When you are signed up for a 10-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters.

You know, mundane little details, such as whether the agent wants to read the book in question.

Contrary to the prevailing writerly wisdom that dictates that verbal pitching and writing are animals of very different stripes, spending some serious time polishing your synopsis is great preparation for pitching. Even the most devoted enemy of brevity will find it easier to chat about the main thrust of a book if he’s already figured out what it is.

Stop laughing — I have been to a seemingly endless array of writers’ conferences over the years, and let me tell you, I’ve never attended one that didn’t attract at least a handful of aspiring writers who seemed not to be able to tell anyone else what their books were about.

Which, in case you were wondering, is the origin of that hoary old industry chestnut:

Agent: So, what’s your book about?

Writer: About 900 pages.

The third inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, or to tuck into your submission packet with your first 50 pages, or to send off with your query packet, you will look like a star, comparatively speaking.

You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission or query letter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off in the ten minutes prior to the post office’s closing, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all. I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect lack of preparation.

Hmm, wasn’t someone just talking about unprepared pitchers always going long?

I also suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all; to them, it’s just busywork that agents request of aspiring writers, a meaningless hoop through which they must jump in order to seek representation.

No wonder they hate it; they regard it as a minor species of bullying. But we all know better than that now, right?

All too often, the it’s-just-a-hoop mentality produces a synopsis that gives the impression not that the writer is genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, but rather that he is deeply and justifiably angry that it needed to be written at all.

And that’s a problem, because to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up beautifully against the backdrop of a synopsis. It practically oozes off the page.

Unfortunately, the peevish synopsis is the norm, not the exception; as any Millicent who screens queries and submissions would be more than happy to tell you, it’s as though half the synopsis-writers out there believe they’re entering their work in an anti-charm contest. The VAST majority of novel synopses simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents to see aspiring writers suffer.

(You’re chortling at this attitude by this point in the post, aren’t you, even if you were one of the many who believed it, say, yesterday? If not, you might want to go back and reread that bit about why the agent of your dreams actually does need you to provide her with a synopsis. But back to the resentment already in progress.)

Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just do the bare minimum they believe is required, totally eschewing anything that might remotely be considered style. Or, even more commonly, they procrastinate about doing it at all until the last possible nanosecond, and end up throwing together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

It’s the query letter and the manuscript that count, right?

Wrong. In case you thought I was joking the other 47 times I have mentioned it over the last couple of weeks, EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample.

If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand. It honestly is that important to your querying and submission success.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or to crank it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit represents your best writing.

Realistically, it’s not going to help your book’s progress one iota to engage in passive-aggressive blaming of any particular agent or editor. It’s even less sensible to resent their Millicents. They did not make the rules, by and large.

And even if they did, let’s face it — in real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole darned book, if you liked my pitch or query, because the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING! AAAAAAAAH!”

Okay, so it’s mighty satisfying to contemplate saying it. Picture it as vividly as you can, then move on.

I’m quite serious about this. My mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length. Be as specific as possible about your complaints, but try not to repeat yourself; the goal here is to touch upon every scintilla of resentment lodged in the writing part of your brain.

Then find the nearest mirror, gaze into it, and tell yourself to get back to work, because you want to get published. Your professional reputation — yes, and your ability to market your writing successfully — is at stake.

I know, the exercise sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen — but I’ve never seen it work to the venting writer’s advantage. I’ll spare you the details, because, trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

Next time, I shall delve very specifically into the knotty issue of how a synopsis folded up behind a cold query letter might differ from one that is destined to sit underneath a partial manuscript. In the meantime, try to indulge in primal screaming only when nobody else is around, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XVIII: wrapping it all up and (not) tying it with a big, pretty bow

Okay, I admit it: I’m being a bit inconsistent today. Last night, I got so carried away talking about how to write a query for a multiple-protagonist novel that I completely forgot that I would not have time this morning to polish off the example-rich follow-up post I had planned. So I woke up this morning with half a dozen entirely unrelated query examples, no framework in which to put them, no time in which to create that framework, and a significant other cheerfully calling out, “So you’ll be ready to go in an hour, right?”

The result: this morning, you’re going to see that I had originally prepared to run this morning. This evening, running-around schedule permitting, I shall be inundating you with lovely examples of good and bad queries, so you may gain a stronger sense of what it looks like when it all fits together well.

Try to think of it as cross-training.

To our muttons. Before I decided to plunge back into the nitty-gritty of query composition, we were chatting about how to put together query packets, as well as their more illustrious cousins, submission packets. Even in these mercurial days of e-mailed queries, electronic submission, and Hubble telescope photographs of far-flung celestial bodies (I’m a sucker for a nice snapshot of Jupiter), most agencies still prefer paper submissions. Heck, many still insist on mailed queries as well.

Why? Well, fear of computer viruses, for one thing. But even more important: it’s so much easier for an electronic submission to get lost.

Hey, when Millicent gets on an online submission screening roll, she hits the DELETE key more than any other. Not too surprising that her finger would slip occasionally, is it? Force of habit, really.

For reasons both of tradition and prudence, then, a lot of writers are going to be in the market for shipping containers for their manuscripts in the months to come. Yet as insightful long-time reader Jen wrote in to ask some time back:

Sending off all those pages with nothing to protect them but the slim embrace of a USPS envelope seems to leave them too exposed. Where does one purchase a manuscript box?

This is an excellent question, Jen: many, many aspiring writers worry that a simple Manila envelope, or even the heavier-duty Priority Mail envelope favored by the US Postal Service, will not preserve their precious pages in pristine condition. Especially, as is all too common, if those pages are crammed into an envelope or container too small to hold them comfortably, or that smashes the SASE into them so hard that it leaves an indelible imprint in the paper.

Do I sense some readers scratching their heads? “But Anne,” some of you ask, “once a submission is tucked into an envelope and mailed, it is completely out of the writer’s control. Surely, the Millicents who inhabit agencies, as well as the Maurys who screen submissions at publishing houses and their Aunt Mehitabels who judge contest entries, are fully aware that pages that arrive bent were probably mangled in transit, not by the writer who sent them. They can’t blame me for mashed mail, can they?”

Well, yes and no, head-scratchers. Yes, pretty much everyone who has ever received a mauled letter is cognizant of the fact that envelopes do occasionally get caught in sorting machines. Also, mail gets tossed around a fair amount in transit. So even a beautifully put-together submission packet may arrive a tad crumpled.

Do most professional readers cut the submitter slack for this? Sometimes; as I’ve mentioned before, if Millicent’s just burned her lip on that latté that she never seems to remember to let cool, it’s not going to take much for the next submission she opens to annoy her. In the case of contest entries, I don’t know Aunt Mehitabel personally, but I have heard contest judges over the years complain vociferously to one another about the state in which entries have arrived on their reading desks.

All of which is to say: appearances count. You should make an effort to get your submission to its intended recipient in as neat a state as possible.

How does one go about insuring that? The most straightforward way, as Jen suggests, is to ship it in a box designed for the purpose. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this:

Just kidding; we’re not looking for a medieval Bible box here. What most professional writers like to use looks a little something like this:

This is the modern manuscript box: sturdy white or brown corrugated cardboard with a lid that is attached along one long side. Usually, a manuscript box will hold from 250 to 750 pages of text comfortably, without sliding from side to side.

While manuscript boxes are indeed very nice, they aren’t necessary for submission; the attached lid, while undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing, is not required, or even much appreciated at the agency end. Manuscripts are taken out of the boxes for perusal, anyway, so why fret about how the boxes that send them open?

In practice, any clean, previously-unused box large enough to hold all of the requested materials without crumpling them will work to mail a submission.

Some of you are resisting the notion of using just any old box, aren’t you, rather than one specially constructed for the purpose? I’m not entirely surprised. I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use — over and above clean, sturdy, and appropriately-sized, that is — and not without good reason. In the old days — say, 30+ years ago — the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping. These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads.

For sending a manuscript, though, there’s no need to pack it in anything extravagant: no agent is going to look down upon your submission because it arrives in an inexpensive box.

In fact, if you can get the requested materials there in one piece box-free — say, if it is an excerpt short enough to fit into a Manila folder or Priority Mail cardboard envelope without wrinkling — go ahead. This almost always will work for the briefer stack of materials acceptable to send in a query packet.

Do bear in mind, though, that for either a query or submission packet, you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent. Double-check that your manuscript will fit comfortably in its container in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle, crease, or — perish the thought! — tear.

Remember the Sanitary Author’s advice about printing all of your query and submission packet materials on bright white 20 lb. paper or better? This is part of the reason why. It honestly is penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions; not only does heavier paper ship better, but it’s less likely to wilt over the course of the multiple readings a successful submission will often see at an agency. (Good rule of thumb: if you can look at a stack of printed pages and see even a vague outline of page 2 while you’re examining page 1, your paper isn’t heavy enough.)

Look for a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. In general, it’s better to get a box that is a little too big than one that’s a little too small. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap or handfuls of peanuts around it, not wadded-up paper.

Yes, the latter is more environmentally-friendly, but we’re talking about presentation here. Avoid the temptation to use newspaper, too; newsprint stains.

Most office supply stores carry perfectly serviceable white boxes — Office Depot, for instance, stocks a perfectly serviceable recycled cardboard variety — but if you live in the greater Seattle area, funky plastic toy store Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. My agent gets a kick out of ‘em, reportedly, and while you’re picking one up, you can also snag a bobble-head Edgar Allan Poe doll that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Robert Goulet:

If that’s not one-stop shopping, I should like to know what is.

Your local post office will probably stock manuscript-sized boxes as well, as does USPS online. Post offices often conceal some surprisingly inexpensive options behind those counters, so it is worth inquiring if you don’t see what you need on display.

Do be warned, though, that the USPS’ 8 1/2” x 11” boxes only LOOK as though they will fit a manuscript comfortably without bunching the pages. The actual footprint of the bottom of the box is the size of a piece of paper, so there is no wiggle room to, say, insert a stack of paper without wrinkling it.

Trust me, that’s not something you want to find out after you’ve already printed out your submission.

Yes, yes, I know: the USPS is purportedly the best postal service in the world, a boon to humanity, and one of the least expensive to boot. Their gallant carriers have been known to pursue their appointed rounds despite the proverbial sleet, hail, dark of night, and mean dogs. But when faced with an only apparently manuscript-ready box on a last-minute deadline, the thought must occur to even the most flag-proud: do the postal services of other countries confound their citizens in this way?

What do they expect anyone to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box OTHER than a manuscript? A beach ball? A pony? A small automobile?

All that being said, far and away the most economical box source for US-based writers are those free all-you-can-stuff-in-it Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides:

Quite the sexy photo, isn’t it, considering that it’s of an object made of cardboard? Ravishing. If you don’t happen to mind all of the postal service propaganda printed all over it, these 12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″ boxes work beautifully, with a little padding. (Stay away from those wadded-up newspapers, I tell you.)

While I’m on the subject of large boxes, if you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript — not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent — don’t even try to find a box that opens like a book: just use a standard shipping box. Insert a piece of colored paper between each copy, to render the copies easy to separate. Just make sure to use colored printer paper, not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

Whatever difficulties you may have finding an appropriately-sized box, DO NOT, under any circumstances, reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. As desirable as it might be for your pocketbook, your schedule, and the planet, never send your manuscript in a box that has already been used for another purpose. Millicent considers it tacky.

Don’t pretend you’ve never thought about doing this. We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but is now covered with thick black marker, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the lines intended to obfuscating that Amazon logo into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard-and-ink landscape.

As dandy as this recycling is for birthday presents and the like, it’s not appropriate for shipping a submission. It’s unprofessional — and if there’s ever a time when you want your work to be presented as professionally as possible, it’s when you’re submitting it.

Think about it: do you really want your manuscript to arrive looking as if you just grabbed the nearest cardboard container? Or to prompt an allergy-prone Millicent to mutter between sneezes, “Why does this submission smell of fabric softener?” (One drawback of nicer paper: it soaks up ambient smells like a sponge. My memoir editor evidently smoked a couple of cartons over my manuscript, and even now, years later, the marked-up pages still smell like the employee handbook in a Marlboro factory.)

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 3 inches high. It just cries out, ‘Stuff your manuscript into me and send me to an agent!’”

A word of advice: don’t take advice from cardboard boxes; they are not noted for their brilliance. Spring for something new, and recycle that nice Amazon box for another purpose.

And you do know, I hope, that every time you send requested materials, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower left-hand corner of the submission envelope, don’t you? (If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.) This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile or recycling bin.

Yes, readers who have had your hands raised since this post began? “This is all very helpful, Anne, but a bit superficial, literally. I want to know what goes INSIDE that manuscript box and in what order.”

Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about REQUESTED materials here, not just sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited pages.

I know, it’s a trifle counter-intuitive that a blanket statement on a website, in an agency guide, or from a conference dais that a particular agent would like to receive these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t. The logic runs thus: guidelines that recommend submitting extra material with a query are generic, aimed at any aspiring writer who might conceivably be considering sending a query.

By contrast, a solicited submission, a.k.a. requested materials, is one that an agent is WAITING to see because she has asked a particular writer to send it following a successful pitch or query. Because the agent expressed positive interest in seeing those pages, the lucky requestee is fully justified in scrawling REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters two inches high in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope or shipping box, just to the left of the address, to assure that the submission lands on the right desk instead of the slush pile made up of, you guessed it, unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Dandy.

Just as generic requests vary in what agents ask queriers to send, so do requests for solicited material. While every agency and small publishing house seems to have a slightly different idea of what constitutes a standard submission packet (word to the wise: read those requests CAREFULLY), here are the most commonly-requested constituent parts, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter
You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude, as well as strategically unwise.

“Oh, please, Anne,” the submission-weary murmur. “Rude? What do you call making a querier write ANOTHER letter to an agent who has already agreed to read my work?”

I sympathize with the submission fatigue, oh weary ones, but don’t get your hackles up. In the first place, there’s no need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. It’s hardly onerous.

In the second place, the submitter is the one who benefits from including a cover letter — all the more so because so few writers remember to tuck one into their packets. An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these submitting writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I’m not going to depress you by telling you just how unlikely this is to be the case. Suffice it to say that it’s in your best interest to assume that the person who heard your pitch or read your query won’t be the first person to screen your submission, for the very simple reason that it is, in fact, often a different person.

It doesn’t really make sense to presume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with who you are and what you write. In fact, you should assume precisely the opposite. (Why do you think a properly-formatted manuscript has a slug line identifying the author on each and every page?) The poor strategic value of not being polite enough to identify your work and thank the agent for asking to see it aside, though, it’s very much in your self-interest to include a cover letter.

Does anyone out there want to take a guess at the practical reason omitting both a cover letter and a title page might render a submitter less likely to get picked up?

If you instantly cried, “Because it renders the agency’s contacting the submitter substantially more difficult!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Like a query letter and a title page, a good cover letter should include all of the sender’s contact information — because the last response you want your submission to generate is a heart-felt, “Oh, it’s too bad we have no idea who sent us this or how to contact him or her; all we have is the author’s last name in the slug line. This saddens me, because I really liked this manuscript!”

Yes, that little piece of dialogue is pretty lousy, now that you mention it. But you get my point, right?

“Okay, Anne,” the former head-scratchers concede, “I should include a cover letter. What does it need to say?”

Glad you asked. Under most circumstances, all it needs to say is this:

Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Like any other thank-you letter, the courtesy lies more in the fact that the sender took the time to write it, rather than in what it actually says.

A couple of caveats:

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

While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, along with REQUESTED MATERIALS. Heck, it’s a very good idea to write the conference’s name on the outside of a query to an agent one has heard speak at a conference, too, or to include the conference’s name in the subject line of a query e-mail. The point here is to render it pellucidly clear to the agent why you’re contacting her.

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

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent now has your manuscript.

(c) Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as I have shown above) or under your signature. Again, you want to make sure that the agent of your dreams can call you up and rave about how much she loved your submission, right?

(d) Make absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks. (Yes, it happens. Don’t ask; just prepare for the contingency.)

Everyone comfortable with the cover letter? For more tips on how to construct one with aplomb, please see COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS (where do I come up with these obscure category titles?) on the list at right.

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

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.

Also, like the cover letter, a properly-constructed title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format, unbound in any way.
The operative word here is requested. If an agent or editor asked you for a partial, send PRECISELY the requested number of pages. Don’t fudge here — even if your novel features a tremendous cliffhanger on p. 51, if the agent of your dreams asked for the first 50 pages, send only the first 50 pages, period.

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there.

As to sending pages in standard manuscript format, please, it’s impossible to over-estimate the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. If you’re brand-new to reading this blog or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last five years, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

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

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not the annotated table of contents appropriate for nonfiction. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents.

Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis. As I mentioned last time, I haven’t done a synopsis how-to in a while, so if you would like me to run a Synopsispalooza, drop me a line in the comments. For those of you in a greater hurry, please check out the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category at right. (How do I come up with these category titles?)

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter. (Authorbiopalooza, anyone?)

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game, and for a submission or query packet, it should be large enough to send back every scrap of paper you’re mailing to the agency.

Emphasis on the stamped part: always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE. That’s probably going to be a lot of stamps: due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds.

If the requested pages fit in a Manila or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. But how does one handle this when using a box as a SASE?

Well, it would be impracticable to fold up another box inside. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal. (You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but sometimes, they evidently have trouble figuring it out.)

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because Millicent’s rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage — or of aspiring writers shelling out the dosh to overnight their submissions. Neither is necessary, and quick shipping most emphatically won’t get your work read faster.

Or taken more seriously. Don’t waste your money.

7. Optional extras.
For a partial, if you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for Millicent to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

It’s also a good idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time. You can also have the post office track the box for a low fee.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.

Why, this suggestion seems strangely familiar, somehow…oh, yes, we spent the top half of this post talking about it.

And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. Don’t forget that EVERYTHING you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing please. No smudges or bent corners, either. Make it all pretty and hope for the best.

This evening — that’s 7 pm PST, for those of you new to Querypalooza — we shall be plunging back into the murky world of query creation. Have a nice Saturday, and keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part III: lights, camera — revisions?

spotlights2

A quick reminder before we begin today: entries for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest must be in by midnight in your time zone on May 24th — or, as we like to call around here, the point at which next Monday becomes next Tuesday. The exceptionally easy-to-follow rules may be found here.

I’m hoping that many of you will enter the first pages of your manuscripts, but I’d especially like to encourage those of you who write YA to seize this opportunity: the lucky winners of the YA category will win a first-page critique by no less a storytelling-for-youth authority than YA author Phoebe Kitanidis. I’m excited about judging in the adult category myself, of course, but I’m also really looking forward to hearing her insights on your work!

Okay, that’s enough contest promotion the nonce. Let’s get back to work.

All this week, I’ve been taking a fine-tooth comb, a magnifying glass, and a huge grain of salt to a real, live reader’s real, live first page, pointing out the nit-picks, large and small, that might cause our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to become distracted from the inherent beauty of the writing, originality of the story, or any other selling point a writer might wish her to notice instead. As those of you who have been following this series may have noted with alarm, I’ve been talking for three days straight about potential sources of distraction in what is, frankly, a page 1 that would not have raised most readers’ eyebrows in the slightest.

Just in case you haven’t been keeping score, Millie’s cumulative remarks would have looked like this, had she been noting them on the manuscript page:

marked-up page 1

That’s not an unusually high level of feedback for professional critique, by the way: the pros read closely. While some writers might find facing that level of scrutiny a trifle intimidating, jumping on every last little manuscript error is considered perfectly normal amongst agents and editors. Why, they reason, would a good writer want not to know how to improve her manuscript?

In fact, extremely nit-picky feedback is considered indicative of respect in publishing circles: trust me, they don’t bother to jump all over manuscripts that they do not believe to be worthy of publication.

The moral, lest the combination of the image and that last insight not have driven it home with sufficient force: despite the fact that it’s Millicent’s job to screen submissions in order to find exciting stories and fresh literary talent, it’s also her job to read manuscripts critically. Many submissions (and contest entries, come to think of it) get knocked out of consideration not because of a single mistake, but due to an array of small, avoidable missteps.

What practical lesson might we derive from that? Perhaps that it behooves a writer (or literary contest entrant) to scan his manuscript as closely as Millicent would before submitting it, rather than assuming — as most aspiring writers do — that an agent seriously interested in literature would readily forgive technical mistakes, reading ten, twenty, a hundred pages before deciding whether this is a book she wants to represent.

But Millie is not paid to read with a charitable eye, nor should she; she’s well aware that if anything, her boss is more likely to reject a manuscript on technicalities than she is. (Yes, really — it’s significantly less time-consuming to represent a client whose self-editing skills are demonstrably immaculate.) Because the agent doesn’t have time to read every submission in its entirety, she employs Millicent to narrow the field down to a few manuscripts already of publishable quality AND likely to sell in the current market AND packages professionally.

Or, to put it another way: the little stuff matters. Quite a lot, as a matter of fact.

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, professional readers — screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges, to name but a few — do not read like other people. Instead of reading an entire scene or page before making judgments about the story and the writing, they judge each line as they encounter it. Typically, when Millicent encounters a line of which she does not approve, she does not read on in the hopes of finding one she will enjoy more — she generally will simply stop reading.

What does this mean for most submissions, in practical terms? Well, take our example from yesterday, the manuscript that opened with an unattributed piece of dialogue. The vast majority of submitters would assume that Millicent would see the page like this:

page 1 example wrong

Whereas what Millicent is likely to see for evaluation purposes is this:

first line page

What makes me think she might choose to stop reading at that point — and not, say, immediately after spotting the unusual slug line or odd pagination? As I mentioned earlier in this series, small formatting errors are seldom instant rejection triggers; presentation gaffes may affect how seriously Millicent reads the text (see my earlier comment about how much more time-consuming it is for an agent to represent a client who doesn’t know the self-editing ropes), but it’s rare that she would dismiss it entirely on cosmetic grounds alone.

She may reasonably be expected to read what follows with an a slightly jaundiced eye, though, if not an outright expectation that the writing will not be polished up to professional standards. Which is precisely what happens in our example: manuscripts that open with unidentified speakers are a notorious Millicent pet peeve.

Actually, cutting the narrative off here gives us a sterling insight into why. Take a gander at the first sentence (and first paragraph) of this manuscript, forgetting that you know anything about the story to follow:

“It’s your ex, hon.”

What does it tell us, stripped of context? We already established last time what this opening doesn’t tell us: who the speaker is. Or who the listener is, for that matter, beyond the fact that s/he has evidently participated in a relationship prior to the beginning of the story. It also doesn’t tell us whether the speaker or the hearer whether is male or female, anything about his/her tone, what the environment is like, the speaker’s motivation in bringing this information to the listener’s attention…

We don’t even know how crucial this statement is to the actors, whether it’s the key to the story to come or merely one line of dialogue amongst many. Standing alone, this speech could serve equally well in the mouth of a bored operator transferring the thirtieth perfectly mundane call from a civil ex and coming from the lips of a horrified onlooker who has just spotted an axe murderer standing behind her best friend.

Even more serious from Millicent’s perspective, it also doesn’t really give us any hit about who the protagonist is or what conflict s/he faces — which are, lest we forget, questions that she fully expects a well-written page 1 to answer, at least provisionally. While naturally, it would be a tad unreasonable to expect the first paragraph of a manuscript to answer both of those questions (which form, presumably, the basis for a 350-page book), is she so wrong to expect that first paragraph to whet her appetite about the story to come?

Bearing all that in mind, let me ask you: in Millicent’s shoes, would you keep reading?

A forest of hands just shot into the air. Yes — you in front? “I wouldn’t keep reading,” an inveterate conference-goer points out, but not because I was confused about who was saying the speech, or because I was not sufficiently intrigued by it as conflict introduction. No, if I were Millie, I would have stopped reading as soon as my gaze hit that first set of quotation marks: I’ve heard agents say at conferences/in interviews/on their blogs that they just don’t like to see manuscripts open with dialogue on the first line.”

I’ve heard this one from time to time, too. Usually, one agent sitting on a panel will begin a critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like to see dialogue in the first line.” Almost invariably, the agent sitting next to him will turn to him and say, “Really”

It’s not a universal pet peeve, in short. As simple observation of the literary world will tell us: a lot of very good books open with dialogue. That being said, I would certainly advise a writer who hears an agent express such an opinion immediately to make a mental note never to send that agent a manuscript that opens with dialogue. That’s just basic prudence.

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it.

Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

Unfortunately, the writer of our ongoing example is quite unlikely ever to find out whether the Millicent who passed on her submission harbored a lingering resentment against opening dialogue, or didn’t like the unattributed dialogue, or indeed, any other actual cause of complaint against the manuscript itself. These days, it’s quite rare for a rejection to contain any concrete reason at all. Most of the time, queries and submissions alike are rejected with the same form letters filled with stock phrases: we’re sorry, but it did not meet our needs at this time; I just didn’t fall in love with this protagonist; I don’t feel I can sell this book in the current market.

Which makes it rather hard to learn much from the rejection experience, admittedly. All an aspiring writer can do is keep pushing ahead, polishing her craft in private, until she finds the right agent. Keeping an eye on what’s been published lately in her chosen book category can’t hurt, either.

Yes, persistent hand-raiser off in the corner? “Okay, Anne, I understand both that it’s a good idea to avoid opening a manuscript with an unattributed piece of dialogue, and that since there are a few agents out there who will reject submissions with dialogue in their first lines, attributed or not, I cannot please all of the people all of the time if I want to keep my initial dialogue. But let’s say that I just love my opening quote, and I’m willing to trust my luck that it will land on the desk of someone who doesn’t hate initial dialogue. How would you suggest I present it without running afoul of your second critique from last time, over-using tag lines? Or, to take advantage of our ongoing example, how would you suggest changing it to be more appealing to Millicent?”

Ooh, that’s a tough question, persistent hand-raiser. As you point out, the easiest way to correct the first problem would be simply to add a tag line, identifying the speaker:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma said.

It’s not a very creative solution, though; it neither adds much interest to the paragraph nor gives the reader much insight into who Emma is, what her primary conflict might be, etc. Also, this approach might be problematic if Casey turns out to be the protagonist — as, indeed, Millicent would have assumed from the original submission.

And why would she have leapt that conclusion, you ask wearily? The same answer as before: selective reading. Here’s the point in the text where she would have made up her mind on the subject:

second line

Generally speaking, Millicent will assume the first named character on page 1 of a novel to be the protagonist until proven otherwise — especially if that character is the most active one in the opening scene. Since she doesn’t always appreciate being informed later in the text (or even on the page) that she was wrong about that, you might want to construct your opening scene accordingly.

Let’s assume for the sake of example, though, that Emma, and not Casey, is the protagonist, since it’s entirely possible that this was the author’s intended implication by having her speak first. (At least I assume that it is Emma who speaks first in this scene, rather than someone in the background.) What our exemplar’s quickest revision options for steering a middle course between no speaker identification in the first paragraph and applying tag lines indiscriminately?

Why quickest, you ask? Oh, you’ve never caught a manuscript problem ten minutes before you were about to stuff it into an envelope — or two minutes before hitting the SEND button? Lucky you.

No, but seriously, folks, it’s been my experience that once an opening scene hits a page, many, if not most, aspiring writers are rather reluctant to change its structure or even its wording much. Writers can get extremely attached to their opening sentences and paragraphs; even those tinker endlessly with mid-book phraseology are often downright defensive about their initial scenes.

We all imagine future browsers lovingly pulling our books off shelves years hence, you see, sitting down to devour our first pages at a glance. Who wants some third party, even one as advantageously placed to help you get your book published as Millicent, to dictate the first impression we will make on our as-yet-unborn fans?

Back to the problem at hand. Identifying the speaker in a separate sentence within the first paragraph is the method most editors would suggest, as it provides ample opportunity for providing context for an opening comment, giving characterization hints, introducing the protagonist as active, and so forth.

It’s also, if you play with the running order a little, a dandy way to side-step the perils of running afoul of opening-dialogue-hating agents. You simply have the narrative sentences come first.

What might this look like in practice? Instead of simply using a tag line to identify the speaker, like so:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma said.

The reviser could add some action to the opening — ideally, action that sets the tone for the scene to follow. Since the line of dialogue follows immediately thereafter, the direct implication is that the primary actor in the first paragraph is also the speaker.

Emma dodged the knife-wielding maniac, escaped, panting, down the hallway, and collapsed at her best friend’s usual lunch table. “It’s your ex, hon.”

No doubt about who is speaking there, eh? Or that the protagonist is an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Beefing up a dialogue-bearing opening paragraph can also provide a great opportunity to introduce physical characteristics of both protagonist and place. Be careful in what you choose to put here, though — mundane descriptors tend to imply rather ordinary protagonists. Telling details, however, can be worked in beautifully. Borrowing from lower on our example page:

Emma’s collection of silver rings danced under restaurant track lights. “It’s your ex, hon.”

I see a few more raised hands waving frantically at me. “But Anne, the reason I’m starting my manuscript with a piece of dialogue is that I feel that the spoken words themselves are important — so much so that I genuinely like seeing them all alone at the top of the page, as in the example. What you’re suggesting seems to water down their impact a little. Couldn’t I just, you know, add a tag line with an adverb attached, providing enough information that Millicent won’t jump down my throat, but still preserving the opening sound that I like?”

Well, you could, oh frantic ones, if you minimized the tag lines throughout the rest of the scene AND you happen not to be writing in a book category where tag lines are positively to be avoided (literary fiction, for instance, eschews them to a remarkable extent). If the initial statement is crucial to the scene — as it should be, if you’re opening with it; as in a screenplay, the first thing the protagonist says in the book sets up the reader’s idea of what kind of a person she is — it might well make sense to highlight a particularly startling statement that reveals character or conflict in a surprising or original manner.

In other words, don’t try it with an everyday statement; it’s probably not worth the risk.

If you’re going to incorporate a tag line in the first sentence of your book, make sure it pays off. There’s just no getting around the fact that adding a tag line might not pass muster with a Millicent who believes that tag lines are always avoidable (as they almost invariably are, with some rhetorical gymnastics), but if you feel that it’s the best means of kicking off a conflict, go a head and give it a try. It helps if you choose an interesting speaking verb, instead of the prosaic and ubiquitous said:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma spat, slamming her tray down on the tiny, slick table.

Casey Winter blanched. Her stomach twisted into snake-knots…

You want to read on, don’t you? That’s because these initial lines jump straight into a conflict. (One that I have no reason to believe exists in the manuscript as it is currently written, but work with me here.)

Still, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to maintain a similar energy while trimming the tag line. Implication is the writer’s friend, after all.

Emma swerved her way through the crowd of tray-wielding lunchers, slamming her tray down loudly on Casey Winter’s table. Gossip boiled in her system, and she could hold its hot fire inside no longer. “It’s your ex, hon,”

Casey blanched. Her stomach twisted into snake-knots…

Up go those hands again. “But Anne, what if Casey, and not Emma, is the protagonist? How would you suggest revising the opening then?”

That’s a good question, talking hands — frankly, in that case, I would be reluctant to allow Emma to speak first. I would be easy enough to move the content of the initial piece of dialogue into her mouth, after all. I would, however, trim her reactions so that they all take place inside of her (as opposed to blanching, something Emma might see from the outside), to ramp up the intensity of the opening:

“My ex?” Casey Winter’s stomach twisted into snake-knots. She had a psychosomatic ache in her face and temple and a not-quite-so-matic one in her right knee. She wanted to tap on something, a glass, the tabletop, maybe Emma Parker’s skull, and bleed some of her tension out. “What does he want?”

Emma leaned forward…

My overarching point, should you care to know it: good revision — on the stylistic front, at least — is less about applying hard-and-fast rules than making choices. Nowhere is that more true than on page 1 of your manuscript, for once a reader gains an impression of your protagonist (even if it’s an incorrect one), that’s going to inform how he responds to the rest of the book.

Page 1, in essence, is your story’s introduction to the world. How do you want it to appear?

And, of course, Millicent’s decision whether to keep reading or reject is based entirely on page 1, necessarily. She will be deciding line by line, sentence by sentence, whether to push on or reach for the form-letter rejection pile.

At the submission stage, then, there’s no such thing as a throwaway line on page 1 — or page 2, or page 15, or in the first 50 pages. Grabbing and keeping the attention of as nit-picky a reader as Millicent requires not only telling a good story well, but also paying attention to the details.

Practically nothing escapes her notice, you know. But isn’t that ultimately a very gratifying reader to have for your work, one who notices and appreciates all of your fine work, all of your intelligent choices?

Sort of strange to think of ol’ Millie in that light, isn’t it? Give it a ponder — and, of course, keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VIII: taming the many-headed beast, or, what do you mean, you want me to sum up a 12-protagonist novel in a single page?

gargoyles at Mirapoix2

The very title of today’s post made most of you cringe, didn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. Although they require great care and effort in construction, they’re not documents that one’s fans are ever likely to see, after all: they are used purely to market one’s books to agents, editors, and, frequently, contest judges.

In short, anyone who might be inclined to judge your manuscript without reading it. Hard to imagine why any writer would resent that, eh?

But our feelings about synopses run even deeper than disliking their potential substitution value, don’t they? As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces. That, too, is understandable: obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to 1, 3, or 5 pages.

Does all of that bated breath out there indicate that those of you who have been following this series on juggling protagonists are hoping that I’ll tell you that you don’t even have to try?

Sorry, my dears: not this time. If one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time.

The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. Distract your mind from trying to visualize it by looking at the pretty picture of gargoyles above, please. (Oh, you thought I included all of these photos just to separate the posts?)

The bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s also the basic goal of the query letter descriptive paragraph and any length of pitch. Unlike a query or pitch, however, the synopsis needs to show the entire story arc, not just the premise of the book.

If you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect may seem quite daunting. If you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done.

Once again, the key lies in telling the story of the book, not the protagonists. Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option.

Before I elaborate upon that horrifying thought, I should set a few ground rules. Since I’ve gone over the ropes of short-short synopsis-writing in some depth in this forum (for a few dos and don’ts for writing a 1-page synopsis, please see the HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS category on the archive list at right. Or if you dug up this post in the archives in the midst of a frantic last-minute search, try starting here), I don’t propose to start from scratch here.

What I would like to do instead is talk about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. (Is it more helpful or terrifying to think of it that way, do you think?) Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in our protagonist-juggling series? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

In a single-page synopsis, the goal is to tell what the book is about. So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere protest, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. To answer it, write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the book. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript. Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story briefly may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most aspiring writers to try. Do bear in mind, though, that opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — in chronological order, for instance, if your narrative jumps around in time, or by leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book. Just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags, trying to regularize your breathing again: believe me, this suggestion is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically, though: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of a synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may strain your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts. “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that showing off that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of the synopsis?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this series. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk about the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short. Which brings me back to another suggestion from a few days ago.

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more strategy in the writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. And there’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which isn’t for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel, but bear with me here; it’s what I have on hand):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complex plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the second example exhibits in spades but the first avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses. Don’t be afraid to do some trimming, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!