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Author! Author!
by:  Anne Mini, First Reader Editing
e-mail:  anne@annemini.com
web:  http://www.annemini.com
All of the things a good writer was supposed to be born knowing -- but none of us actually were. To check out extensive archives or ask a salient question, please visit the Author! Author! website.
February 24, 2014

Please raise a glass (or three) to my 1600th post!

Good news, campers! After an unplanned hiatus, Author! Author! is once again back online! It's quite a relief, I must admit.

The shenanigans that caused the site to go dark have left some residua that will take me some time to clean up, but the important thing is that the archives and ability to comment are once more available to members of our little community. Three cheers, and keep up the good work!

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A few weeks ago, while I was deep in the throes of contemplating what subject I should tackle for this, my 1600th post at Author! Author!, a non-writer -- or so I surmise, from the bent of her discourse -- abruptly flung a rather profound question in my direction. It was, happily for today's post, one of those questions that would never, ever occur to anyone who had devoted serious time to courting a Muse.

"You've been blogging for 7 1/2 years on the same subject?" she gasped, practically indignant with incredulity. "You've posted hundreds of times, haven't you? It's only writing -- what could you possibly still have to say?"

I know, I know: I was sorely tempted to laugh, too. From a writer's or editor's perspective, the notion that everything an aspiring writer could possibly need or want to know about the ins and outs of writing and revising a manuscript, let alone how to land an agent, work with a publishing house, promote a book, and/or launch into one's next writing project, could be covered adequately in a mere 1599 blog posts borders on the absurd. Writing a compelling book constitutes one of the most challenging endeavors life offers to a creative persons mind, heart, and soul; it's not as though there's a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for literary success.

At the same time, I could hear in her question an echo of a quite ubiquitous compound misconception about writing. It runs a little something like this: if people are born with certain talents, then good writers are born, not made; if true writers tumble onto this terrestrial sphere already knowing deep down how to write, then all a gifted person needs to do is put pen to paper and let the Muse speak in order to produce a solid piece of writing; since all solid pieces of writing inevitably find a home -- an old-fashioned publishing euphemism for being offered a contract by an agent or publishing house -- if a writer has been experiencing any difficulty whatsoever getting her book published, she must not be talented. Q.E.D.

With a slight caveat: all of those presumptions are false. Demonstrably so -- egregiously so, even. Just ask virtually any author of an overnight bestseller: good books are typically years, or even decades, in the making.

What could I possibly still want to say to writers to help them improve their manuscripts' chances of success? How long have you got?

We've come a long way together, campers: when Author! Author! first took its baby steps back in August, 2005, in its original incarnation as the Resident Writer spot on the nation's largest writers' association's website, little did I -- or, I imagine, my earliest readers, some of whom are still loyal commenters, bless 'em -- imagine that I will still be dreaming up post for you all so many years into the future.

Heck, at the outset, I had only envisioned a matter of months. The Organization that Shall Remain Nameless had projected even less: when it first recruited me to churn out advice for aspiring writers everywhere, my brief was to do it a couple of times per week for a month, to see how it went. They didn't want me to blog, per se -- in order to comment, intrepid souls had to e-mail the organization, which then forwarded questions it deemed appropriate to me.

As your contributions flew in and my posts flew up, I have to confess, the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless seemed rather taken aback. Who knew, its president asked, and frequently, that there were so many writers out there longing for some straightforward, practical-minded advice on how to navigate a Byzantine and apparently sometimes arbitrary system? What publishing professional could have sensed the confusion so many first-time writers felt when faced with the welter of advice barked at them online? What do you mean, the guidelines found on the web often directly contradict one another?

And what on earth was the insidious source of this bizarre preference for the advice-giver's being nice to writers while explaining things to them? It wasn't as though much of the online advisors actually in the know -- as opposed to the vast majority of writing advice that stems from opinion, rumor, and something that somebody may have heard an agent say at a conference somewhere once -- were ever huffy, standoffish, or dismissive when they explained what a query letter was, right?

That rolling thunderclap you just heard bouncing off the edges of the universe was, of course, the roars of laughter from every writer who tried to find credible guidance for their writing careers online around about 2006.

Yet the officers of the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless were not the only ones mystified that there was any audience at all for, say, my posts on how to format a manuscript professionally. Or how to give a pitch. Or how to spot editor-irritating red flags in your own writing. They actually tried to talk me out of blogging about some of these things -- because every writer serious about getting published already knows all of that, right?

So why precisely did I think it would be valuable for my readers to be able to see one another's questions and comments? If I was so interested in building writing community, they suggested, why didn't I join them in transforming what had arguably been the writers' association best at helping its members get published into a force to help those already in print find a wider audience? Wouldn't that be, you know, more upbeat and, well, inspirational than giving all of that pesky and potentially depressing practical advice?

Almost a year and many brisk arguments about respect for writers later, I decided to start my own website. That enabled me to turn Author! Author! into a true blog, a space that welcomed writers struggling and established to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and, sometimes, their often quite justified irritation at the apparently increasing number of hoops through which good writing -- and, consequently, good writers -- were being expected to jump prior to publication.

Oh, those of you new to searching for an agent have no idea how tough things were back then. A few of the larger agencies had just started not responding to queries if the answer was no -- can you believe it? Some agencies, although far from all, agents had begun accepting e-mailed queries, but naturally, your chances were generally better if your approached them by letter. And I don't want to shock you, but occasionally, an agent would request a full manuscript, but send a form-letter rejection.

Picture the horror: a book turned down, and the writer had no idea why!

Ah, those days seem so innocent now, do they not? How time flies when you don't know whether your manuscript is moldering third from the top in a backlogged submission pile, has been rejected without comment, or simply got lost in the mail. Sometimes, it feels as though those much-vaunted hoops have not only gotten smaller, but have been set on fire.

Let's face it: the always long and generally bumpy road to publication has gotten longer and bumpier in recent years. Not that it was ever true that all that was necessary in order to see your work in print was to write a good book, of course; that's a pretty myth that has been making folks in publishing circles roll their eyes since approximately fifteen minutes after Gutenberg came rushing out of his workshop, waving a mechanically-printed piece of paper. Timing, what's currently selling well, what is expected to sell well a couple of years hence, when a book acquired now by a traditional publisher would actual come out, the agent of your dreams' experience with trying to sell a book similar to yours -- all of this, and even just plain, dumb luck, have pretty much always affected what readers found beckoning them from the shelves.

But you'd never know that from most of what people say about how books get published, would you? Ponder what you have learned along the way, please, until we meet again in Part II

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February 23, 2014

Part II: yes, but what does this mean for my manuscript?

To hear folks talk, you'd think that the only factor involved was writing talent. Or that agencies and publishing houses were charitable organizations, selflessly devoted to the noble task of bringing the best books written every year to an admiring public.

Because, of course, there is universal agreement about what constitutes good writing, right? And good writing in one genre is identical to good writing for every type of book, isn't it?

None of that is true, of course -- and honestly, no one who works with manuscripts for a living could survive long believing it. The daily heartbreak would be too painful to bear.

But I don't need to explain that to those of you who have been plugging away at writing for a while, do I? Ah, the many learning experiences of the writing life. I'm sure you recall vividly how you felt the day when you realized that not every good, or even great, manuscript written got published, my friends. Or has that terrible sense of betrayal long since receded into the dim realm of memory? Or, as we discussed over the holidays, does it spring to gory life afresh each time some well-meaning soul who has never put pen to paper asks, "What, you still haven't published your book? But you've been at it for years!"

Now, you could answer those questions literally, I suppose, grimly listing every obstacle even the best manuscript faces on its way to traditional publication. You could, too, explain at length why you have chosen to pursue traditional publishing, if you have, or why you have decided to self-publish, if that's your route.

I could also have given that flabbergasted lady who asked me why I thought there was anything left to say about writing a stirring speech about the vital importance of craft to fine literature. Or regaled her with horror stories about good memoirs suddenly slapped with gratuitous lawsuits. I could even, I suppose, have launched into a two-hour lecture on common misuses of the semicolon without running out of examples, but honestly, what would have been the point? If wonderful writing conveys the impression of having been the first set of words to travel from a talented author's fingertips to a keyboard, why dispel that illusion?

Instead of quibbling over whether it's ever likely -- or possible -- for a first draft to take the literary world by storm, may I suggest that those of us who write could use our time together more productively? For today, at least, let's tune out all of the insistent voices telling us that if only we were really talented, our work would already be gracing the shelves of the nearest public library, and settle down into a nice, serious discussion of craft.

Humor me: I've been at this more than 7 1/2 years. In the blogging realm, that makes me a great-grandmother.

At the risk of sounding as though I'm 105 -- the number of candles on my own great-grandmother's last cake, incidentally; the women in my family are cookies of great toughness -- I'd like to turn our collective attention to a craft problem that seldom gets discussed in these decadent days: how movies and television have caused many manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, to introduce their characters in a specific manner.

Do I hear peals of laughter bouncing off the corners of the cosmos again? "Oh, come on, Anne," readers not old enough to have followed Walter Winchell snicker, "isn't it a trifle late in the day to be focusing on such a problem? At this juncture, I feel it safe to say that TV and movies are here to stay."

Ah, but that's just my point: they are here to stay, and the fact that those forms of storytelling are limited to exploiting only two of the audience's senses -- vision and hearing -- for creating their effects has, as we have discussed many times before, prompted generation after generation of novelists and memoirists to create narratives that call upon no other sense. If, at the end of a hard day of reading submissions, an alien from the planet Targ were to appear to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener and ask her how many senses the average Earthling possesses, a good 95% of the pages she had seen recently would prompt her to answer, "Two."

A swift glance at the human head, however, would prove her wrong. Why, I've seen people sporting noses and tongues, in addition to eyes and ears, and I'm not ashamed to say it. If you're willing to cast those overworked peepers down our subject's body, you might even catch the hands, skin, muscles, and so forth responding to external stimuli.

So would it really be so outrageous to incorporate some sensations your characters acquire through other sensible organs, as Jane Austen liked to call them? Millicent would be so pleased.

If you'd really like to make her happy -- and it would behoove you to consider her felicity: her perception of your writing, after all, is what stands between your manuscript and a reading by the agent or editor of your dreams -- how about bucking another trend ushered in by the advent of movies and television? What about introducing a new character's physical characteristics slowly, over the course of a scene or even several, rather than describing the fresh arrival top to toe the instant he enters the book?

"Sacre bleu!" I hear the overwhelming majority of hopeful novelists and memoirists shouting. "Are you mad? The other characters in the scene -- including, if I'm writing in either the first or the tight third person, my protagonist -- will first experience that new person visually! Naturally, I must stop the ongoing action dead in its tracks in order to show the reader what s/he looks like. If I didn't, the reader might -- gasp! -- form a mental image that's different from what I'm seeing in my head!"

Why, yes, that's possible. Indeed, it's probable. But I ask you: is that necessarily a problem? No narrative describes a character down to the last mitochondrion in his last cell, after all; something is always left to the reader's imagination.

Which is, if we're being truthful about it, a reflection of real life, is it not? Rarely, for instance, would an initial glance reveal everything about a character's looks. Clothes hide a lot, if they're doing their job, and distance can be quite a concealer. And really, do you count every freckle on the face of each person passing you on the street?

You might be surprised by how many narratives do, especially in the opening pages of a book. Take a gander at how Millicent all too often makes a protagonist's acquaintance.

A lean man loped into the distance, shading the horizon with his length even from eighty yards away. Tall as his hero, Abe Lincoln, Jake's narrow face was hidden by a full beard as red as the hair he had cut himself without a mirror. Calluses deformed his hands, speaking eloquently of years spent yanking on ropes as touch as he was. That those ropes had harnessed the wind for merchant ships was apparent from his bow-legged gait. Pointy of elbow and knee, his body seemed to be moving more slowly than the rest of him as he strode toward the Arbogasts' encampment.

Henriette eyed him as he approached. His eyes were blue, as washed-out as the baked sky above. Bushy eyebrows punctuated his thoughts. Clearly, those thoughts were deep; how else could she have spotted his anger at twenty paces?

His long nose stretched as he spoke. "Good day, madam," he said, his dry lips cracking under the strain of speech, "but could I interest you in some life insurance?"

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with this description, as descriptions go. Millicent might legitimately wonder if Henriette is secretly Superman, given how sharp her vision seems to be at such great distances (has anybody ever seen Henriette and Superman together?), and it goes on for quite some time, but she might well forgive that: the scene does call for Henriette to watch Jake walking toward her. Millie be less likely to overlook the five uses of as in the first paragraph, admittedly, but you can't have everything.

Oh, you hadn't noticed them? Any professional reader undoubtedly would, and for good reason: as is as common in the average submission as...well, anything you'd care to name is anywhere it's common.

That means -- and it's a perpetual astonishment to those of us who read for a living how seldom aspiring writers seem to think of this -- that by definition, over-reliance on as cannot be a matter of individual authorial voice. Voice consists of how an author's narratives differ from how other writers' work reads on the page, not in how it's similar. Nor can it sound just like ordinary people talk, another extremely popular narrative choice. For a new voice to strike Millicent and her boss as original, it must be unique to the author.

The same holds true, by the way, for the ultra-common narrative practice of blurting out everything there is to know about a character visually at his initial appearance: it's not an original or creative means of slipping the guy into the story. It can't possibly be, since that tactic has over the past half-century struck a hefty proportion of the writing population as the right or even the only way to bring a new character into a story.

Don't believe that someone who reads manuscripts all day, every day would quickly tire of how fond writers are of this method? In Part III, I shall give you a taste of Millicent's luncheon, so to speak.

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February 23, 2014

Part III: let me see! Let me see!

Ready to be appalled? Excellent. Call to mind our last example, then take a peek at the next few paragraphs of the opening of Henriette's saga.

She backed away, her brown suede skirt catching on the nearby sagebrush. She tossed her long, blonde hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes, just the color of the trim on her prim, gray high-necked blouse, so appropriate for the schoolmarm/demolitions expert that she was, snapped as strongly as her voice. A pleasing contralto, when she was not furious, but Jake might never get a chance to hear her sing.

"On your way, mister," she hissed, adjusting her two-inch leather belt with the fetching iron clasp. Marvin had forged that clasp for her, just before he was carried off by a pack of angry rattlesnakes. She could still envision his tuxedo-clad body rolling above its stripy captors, his black patent leather shoes shining in the harsh midday sun. "We don't cotton to your kind here."

An unspecified sound of vague origin came from behind her. She whirled around, scuffing her stylish mid-calf boots. She almost broke one of her lengthy, scarlet-polished fingernails while drawing her gun.

Morris grinned back at her, his tanned, rugged face scrunching into a sea of sun-bleached stubble. His pine-green eyes blinked at the reflection from the full-length mirror Jake had whipped out from under his tattered corduroy coat. It showed her trim backside admirably, or at least as much as was visible under her violet bustle. Her hair -- which could be described no other way than as long and blonde -- tumbled down her back, confined only by her late mother's cherished magenta hair ribbon.

Morris caught sight of himself in the mirror. My, he was looking the worse for wear. He wore an open-collared poet's shirt as red as the previous day's sunset over a well-cut pant of vermillion velvet. Dust obscured the paisley pattern at the cuff and neck, embroidered by his half-sister, Marguerite, who could be spotted across the street at a second-floor window, playing the cello. Her ebony locks trailed over her bare shoulder as her loosely-cut orange tea gown slipped from its accustomed place.

Had enough yet? Millicent would -- and we're still on page 1. So could you really blame her if she cried over this manuscript, "For heaven's sake, stop showing me what these people look like and have them do something!"

To which I would like to add my own editorial cri de coeur: would somebody please tell this writer that while clothes may make the man in some real-world contexts, it's really not all that character-revealing to describe a person's outfit on the page? Come on, admit it: after a while, Henriette's story started to read like a clothing catalogue. But since it's a novel set in 1872, long before any of the characters could reasonably have been expected to watch Project Runway marathons, could we possibly spring for another consonant and let the man wear what most people call them, pants, instead of a pant?

Does that slumped posture and defeated moaning mean that some of you manuscript-revisers are finding seeing these storytelling habits from Millicent's perspective convincing? "Okay, Anne," you sigh, "you got me. Swayed by the cultural dominance of visual storytelling, I've grown accustomed to describing a face, a body, a hank of hair, etc., as soon as I reveal a character's existence to the refer. But honestly, I'm not sure how to structure these descriptions differently. Unless you're suggesting that Henriette should have smelled or tasted each new arrival?"

Well, that would be an interesting approach. It would also, I suspect, be a quite different book, one not aimed at the middle grade reader, if you catch my drift.

Your options are legion, you will be happy to hear: once a writer breaks free of the perceived necessity to run a narrative camera, so to speak, over each character as she traipses onto the page, how to reveal what appearance-related detail becomes a matter of style. And that, my friends, should be as original as your voice.

If my goal in blogging were merely to be inspirational, as Author! Author!'s original hosts had hoped, that would have been a dandy place to end the post, wouldn't it? That last paragraph, while undoubtedly possessed of some sterling writing truths, did not cough up much actual guidance. And you fine people, I know from long experience, come to this site for practical advice, illustrated by examples.

For insight into how breaking up a physical description for a new character can knock the style ball out of the proverbial park, I can do no better than to direct your attention to that much-copied miracle of authorial originality, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. To render this example even more frantically literary, I have transcribed these excerpts from the 1908 F.F. Collier and Son edition (W. Blaydes, translator) Philip K. Dick gave me for my eleventh birthday.

Why that particular edition, for a reader so young? Because the Colliers had the foresight to corral another novelist in whose work Philip had been trying to interest me, into writing the introduction. Henry James was considered a real up-and-comer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Feeling sufficiently highbrow? Excellent. Here's the reader's first glimpse of the immortal Emma Bovary:

A young woman, clad in a dress of blue merino trimmed with three flounces, came to the threshold of the house to receive M. Bovary, whom she introduced into the kitchen where there blazed a big fire. The breakfast of the household was ready prepared and boiling hot, in little pots of unequal size, distributed about. Damp clothes were drying within the chimney-place...

That's it. Rather sparse as physical descriptions go, isn't it, considering that this novel's account of this woman's passions is arguably one of the most acclaimed in Western literature? Yet at this moment, set amongst the various objects and activities in M. Roulaut's household, she almost seems to get lost among the furniture.

Ah, but just look at the next time she appears. Charles, the hero of the book so far, now begins to notice her, but not entirely positively.

To provide splints, someone went to fetch a bundle of laths from under the carts. Charles selected one of them, cut it in pieces and polished it with a splinter of glass, while the servant tore up sheets to make bandages and Mlle. Emma tried to sew the necessary bolsters. As she was a long time finding her needle-case, her father grew impatient; she made no reply to him, but, as she sewed, she pricked her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth and sucked.

That's a nice hunk of character development, isn't it? Very space-efficient, too: in those few lines, we learn her first name, that she's not very good at sewing, and that she's not especially well-organized, as well as quite a lot about her relationship with her father. Could a minute description of her face, figure, and petticoat have accomplished as much so quickly?

But wait: there's more. Watch how the extreme specificity of Flaubert's choice of an ostensibly practically-employed body part draws Charles' sudden observation. At this point in the novel, he and Emma have known each other for two pages.

Charles was surprised by the whiteness of her nails. They were bright, fine at the tips, ore polished than the ivories of Dieppe, and cut almond-shape. Her hand, however, was not beautiful: hardly, perhaps, pale enough, and rather lean about the finger joints; it was too long, also, and without soft inflections of line in the contours.

His being so critical of her caught you off guard, did it not? Clever, that: it introduces a crosscurrent to the trajectory of the narrative. But to see what happens next, you'll have to wait until Part IV, I'm afraid.

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February 23, 2014

Part IV: are you looking for something?

Are you finding that the narrative's having left you largely to your own devices in forming a mental image of Emma up to this point has erected a barrier to caring about what's going on? Are you gnawing your fingernails to the quick, expecting to have your cherished illusions contradicted?

No? Well, just wait. The paragraph continues:

A feature really beautiful in her was her eyes; although they were brown, they seemed black by reason of their lashes, and her glance came to you frankly with a candid assurance.

This passage reveals as much about Charles as about Emma, I think: how brilliant to show the reader only what happens to catch this rather limited man's notice. Because his observation has so far been almost entirely limited to the physical, it isn't until half a page later that the reader gains any sense that he's ever heard her speak. Even then, the reader only gets to hear Charles' vague summaries of what she says, rather than seeing her choice of words.

The conversation at first turned on the sick man, then on the weather, the extreme cold, the wolves that scoured the fields at night. Mlle. Rouault did not find a country life very amusing, now especially that the care of the farm devolved almost entirely on herself alone. As the room was chilly, she shivered as she ate, and the shivering caused her full lips, which in her moments of silence she had a habit of biting, to part slightly.

Didn't take Charles -- or the narrative -- long to slip back to the external, did it? Now, and only now, is the reader allowed the kind of unfettered, close-up look at her that Millicent so often finds beginning in the first sentence in the book that mentions the character.

Her neck issued from a white turned-down collar. Her hair, so smooth and glossy that each of the two black fillets in which it was arranged seemed a single solid mass, was divided by a fine parting in the middle, which rose or sank slightly as it followed the curve of her skull; and, covering all but the lobe of the ears, it was gathered behind into a large chignon, with a waved spring towards the temples, which the country doctor now observed for the first time in his life. Her cheeks were pink over the bones. She carried, passed in masculine style between two buttons of her bodice, eye-glasses of tortoise-shell.

Quite a sensuous means of tipping the reader off that she's a fellow reader, isn't it? Two paragraphs later, we hear her speak for the first time:

"Are you looking for something?" she asked.

The initial words a major character speaks in a story, I've found, are often key to developing character on the page. Choose them carefully: in a third-person narrative, it's the first time that this person can speak for herself. Make them count.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not urging any of you to copy Flaubert. His narrative voice would be pretty hard to sell in the current literary market, for one thing -- did you catch all of those which clauses that would have been edited out today? -- and, frankly, his work has been so well-loved for so long that a novel that aped his word use would instantly strike most Millicents as derivative. As some wise person once said, a strong authorial voice is unique.

Oh, wait, that was me, and it was just a few minutes ago. How time flies when we're talking craft.

I hear those gusty sighs out there, and you're quite right: developing an individual voice and polishing your style can be time-consuming. It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary.

Take that, naysayers who cling to the notion that the only true measure of talent is whether a first draft is publishable. The Muses love the writer willing to roll up her sleeves, take a long, hard look at her own work, and invest some serious effort in making sure that all of that glorious inspiration shows up on the page.

So what, in the end, did I say to the lady who exclaimed over the notion that I could possibly have spent more than seven years writing about writing? Oh, I treated to her the usual explanation of how tastes change, trends waver, and the demands of professional writing differ from year to year, if not day to day. If the expression in her stark blue eyes was any indication, she lost interest midway through my third sentence.

The true answer, however, came to me later: in all of these years, and in 1599 posts, I had never shared my favorite depiction of falling in love with you charming people. A shallow love, to be sure, but a memorable description. And for the prompt to whip out this volume, I owe that lady some thanks.

Do I have more to say about writing? Just try to stop me. Keep up the good work!

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November 28, 2013

Talking turkey, or, how to avoid the holiday writer's blues

new potatoes, chopped 2

My apologies for the long, long posting hiatus, my friends. I've been on crutches since July 4, and it turns out that, contrary to what Tiny Tim may have led even the best of us to expect, hobbling is not necessarily conducive to comedy writing. At least not to the type of bright, witty banter about deadly serious topics we like to cultivate here at Author! Author! Yet another major holiday is upon us, however, so it's time to dust off the keyboard and get cracking again.

Why so surprised? You didn't think I was going to send you into Thanksgiving dinner without a few words of encouragement, did you?

Already, the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. "But Anne," bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, and who could blame you? "What makes you think that writers, of all people, would need to gird their loins prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of their respective families and/or dining rooms of their invariably supportive friends?"

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

Why, those new to the game ask breathlessly? Because, let's face it, most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published.

Don't believe me? Okay, what do make of it when Aunt Myrna plucks your sleeve and asks tenderly, "Honey, why isn't your novel out yet? I keep telling my friends that you write."

Or when Uncle Clark chortles, "Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about?"

Or, heaven help us, when Cousin Ritchie wheels out his annual passive-aggressive attempt at encouragement: "Still no agent, eh? I had really thought that a book as good as yours would get snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing?"

A sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well answer: "Why, yes, Ritchie, I have. As I had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up and pass the darned yams."

Or pipe merrily, "Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you'd like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but disagreeable role, could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?"

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

But most of us aren't up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, are we? And for good reason, too: in the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can sound very much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin living in the back of the creative mind.

"If you were truly talented," that little beastie loves to murmur in moments when we're already feeling discouraged, "an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work."

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

Even so, you're entitled to be a little startled when Bernie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly nice person your brother brought along to dinner because she's new in town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Try to be charitable: your brother's friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.

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

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

I'm relatively certain that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove these writers to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. However, the short answer to that well-justified wail is an unfortunately cruel one: because that's how society at large judges writing.

I know, I know: I don't like it, either, but it's pervasive. Not only does popular misconception holed that the only good book a published book -- a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively choke with mirth -- but also that if a writer were really talented, publication would be both swift and inevitable. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased is the quality of the writing, right?

Are you laughing yet? More importantly, is Bernie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be.

Yet I sense that you're not laughing. Okay, let's tease this logic out a little. If all of those suppositions are true, there are only two possible reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it's not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn't any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). Accordingly, the only kind response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one's eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.

Or to change the subject altogether. Because, honestly, it isn't your sister's coworker's fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the wound of someone who clearly has no talent for writing?

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

So would the length of that last sentence, come to think of it. Ol' Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one.

Yet I sense that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. "But Anne," frustrated writers point out, "although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS -- AND DOESN'T category on the archive list at Author! Author!), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me wants to believe that's not really the case. Or at least that it will not be the case in my case."

See what I mean about the holiday table's capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? In Part II, let's listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something.

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A R C H I V E / H I G H L I G H T S

Talking turkey, part II: the hobgoblins of self-doubt
originally posted: November 28, 2013

Returning to the self-doubt already in progress…

"If the literary universe is fair," writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason, "a good manuscript should always find a home, right? And if that's true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at the Thanksgiving table is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it."

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

"Whoa!" still a third sector shouts. "Send out work persistently? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any talented writer need to query more than one or two times?"

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

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

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn't matter, right? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the writing quality would count -- and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if that writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written.

Heck, by this logic, it's hardly necessary for the writer to make any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book, is it? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off a first draft -- because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? -- then wait patiently until an agent is magically wafted to her doorstep. (Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.)

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

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

You would be astonished at how pervasive this narrative of authorial success actually is amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually -- they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it's a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually represent books in one's chosen book category -- but at a gut level, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that your manuscript isn't nearly as good as you thought, right? Why else would an agent -- any agent -- who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn't quite as it should be. So Aunt Myrna may have a point.

Come on, admit it -- you've thought this at least once. Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to be a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn't it?

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

Either can result in rejection. Or, even if the manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent that the agent cannot afford to take on as many talented new clients as she would like.

But those are not the justifications that pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin in the dead of night, are they? Nor are they likely to convince Uncle Clark, or to awe Cousin Ritchie into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince. Which is interesting, as offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we've been discussing represents an actual career trajectory.

If you have fallen prey to these feelings, especially after having spent even a few minutes having to defend one's writing habit to non-writers with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening, try not to be too hard on yourself. The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking.

There's a reason for that, I suspect: all of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there's no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile to the top of the acceptance heap.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That's understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the Muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that they do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with talent. (Edgar Allan Poe didn't exactly die a happy man, people.)

In non-writers, though, this attitude can seem a bit less reasonably derived. What, after all, does an otherwise upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon's forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, "You must write a book!" possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded?

Yet even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often seem to cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy. "So when is your book coming out?" that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never-been-clear will ask. "And would you mind passing the gravy?"

"What do you mean, you haven't finished writing that book yet?" Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. "You've been working on it for years."

"Writing?" Grandpa demands incredulously. "Still? I thought you'd given up when you couldn't sell your first book.

Your cousin's wife might try to be a bit more tactful. "Oh, querying sounds just awful. Have you considered self-publishing?"

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

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

The Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right? On the off chance that she doesn't do that within the next thirty seconds or so, let's talk a bit more in Part III.

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Talking turkey, part III: you see, Aunt Myrna...
originally posted: November 28, 2013

Am I beginning to sense a bit of restlessness out there in the ether? "Okay, Anne," writers eager to find agents mutter. "I get your point: the ambient expectations regarding self-publishing are not necessarily any more accurate than people's beliefs about traditional publishing. In the face of such mistaken notions, how can I safely navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of holiday merry-making without sounding either highly defensive or like an encyclopedia entry on publication practices in North America?"

An excellent question, murmurers. Contrary to what some intrepid readers might be beginning to suspect, I'm not bringing all of this up in order to depress everyone into a stupor about just how difficult it is for a first-time author to bring a book to publication, or even as a precursor to breaking the sad, sad news that a good 80% of the fine folks who don't now get that agents don't magically appear on good authors' doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed also won't understand when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity.

Yes, really. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, "Oh, you have an agent? When's your book coming out?" we could construct our own publishing house. We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders.

No, I'm raising these unpleasant realities to provide a bit of ego salve for the many, many aspiring writers whose otherwise charming Thanksgiving table partners might not have been as supportive of their writing aspirations as they might have liked. Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn't have any idea how publishing actually works.

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

I'm not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing. In fact, I've been deliberately delaying my own foray into the kitchen in order to help you avoid that particular argument -- or, more likely because writers tend to be awfully nice people, avoid the hurt feelings that those unwilling to fight often find hard to swallow.

How might one side-step that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent government shutdown? Or universal healthcare?

You see the point, don't you? Just as it's risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it is always dangerous to presume that everyone at an agency or publishing house will share the worldview or life experiences of the submitter. Or that everyone around the holiday table will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually happens.

So how might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy's adherents do to protect his digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to, "The writing's going very well. How's your handball game these days, Ambrose?"

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

If pressed, you could always add, "I'd love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a manuscript, right?"

If you do feel compelled to try to nudge your loved ones toward a more supportive attitude while they are gnawing upon drumsticks, dinner might be an excellent time to disabuse them of the also quite ubiquitous notion that author's kith and kin routinely receive free copies of books. Yes, publishers do generally provide their authors an extremely limited stock of their books, but it's with the expectation those will be used for promotion, not to grace one's mother's bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise free copies, you will almost certainly be buying them yourself. And to answer your mother's next question: yes, Mom, authors do often receive a discount upon their own books, but the books the author buys do not count toward sales totals.

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

Or just bookmark this page and forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. I don't mind playing the heavy here. I've spent a lifetime explaining to everyone's relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it's up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives. I see no reason to stop now.

Your writing deserves that support, doesn't it? Happy digestion to all, and to all a good night. And, as always, keep up the good work!

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A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R

Anne Mini multipliedAnne Mini grew up in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard in the Napa Valley. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, writing for Let's Go, and composing back label copy for wine bottles, she spent several years teaching Plato and Confucius to frat boys at a large, football-oriented university. She has since gratefully given up academia in order to write and edit full-time. Her memoir, A Family Darkly: Love, Loss, and the Final Passions of Philip K. Dick, won the 2004 Zola Award. She has also won numerous writing fellowships, as well as being a finalist for an NEH Fellowship. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. She currently lives in Seattle, writing and book doctoring for good writers.


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