Monday, February 28, 2011

Social media as author platform

In Data-mining the SF Writers Conference schedule I wrote, a week before the conference began, that I was "a bit disappointed" to see only a few scheduled sessions that touched directly on the topics of "e-books, the changing landscape of self-publishing options, and What That All Means to writers."

In the actual event, I was glad to partake of an abundance of sessions focused on giving authors and prospective authors guidance on What Is To Be Done to put any book in the hands of readers, whether the book is brought out by a New York publisher or self-published, whether it is distributed in paper or digital form.

The bottom line across all of these means of book packaging and distribution was this message: it doesn't much matter who publishes your book or how. In an age of savaged marketing budgets even for books brought out by the Six Sisters, promoting a book is largely an author's responsibility. Even a novelist needs a platform to succeed.

What does that mean?

As Christina Katz explains in her book Get Known Before the Book Deal, excerpted from Chuck Sambuchino's blog, "The wo[rd] platform simply describes all the ways you are visible and appealing to your future, potential or actual readership. Platform development is important not only for authors; it's also crucial for aspiring and soon-to-be authors. Your platform includes your Web presence, any public speaking you do, the classes you teach, the media contacts you've established, the articles you've published, and any other means you currently have for making your name and your future books known to a viable readership."

The first session I attended at SFWC, titled "Get a grip: be your own best promoter," was given by Teresa LeYung Ryan and Elisa Southard. I wasn't crazy about the style of this session, but I did find value in the core exercise.

Teresa and Elisa led the room through initial development of a "talking tagline": a way of stating concisely what an author claims s/he delivers to a reader. For a non-fiction author peddling an area of her/his expertise, the focus of such a statement is relatively easy to find: it's all about rock climbing, or building birdhouses, or paying lower taxes, or making a relationship work. For novelists, a "talking tagline" might be more elusive. The YA author sitting next to me agreed that it was easier for a novelist to describe what s/he is delivering in a particular book than over the course of many fiction projects. Nonetheless, the attempt to frame what a reader of Consequence would get out of my current novel kept running through my head as I attended other sessions and readied myself to pitch to agents on Sunday morning.

If LeYung Ryan and Southard focused on the message -- what that "viable readership" needs to hear -- sessions I attended that were led by Tee Morris, Rusty Shelton, and Stephanie Chandler focused on the means of getting that message out into the world. In a self-actuated, digitally linked 21st century, they all insisted that the means is social media.

Tee Morris and Rusty Shelton talked up Twitter in a session called "Finding Your Tweet Spot." I know, I know. I went anyway.

I've never quite gotten Twitter. I've also heard about a zillion others say the same thing -- though it's worth a nod to yesterday's blog post from literary agent and "query shark" Janet Reid, who tore into authors who make excuses for avoiding social media. At the conference, Tee and Rusty made a credible case that the ability to rapidly connect with others through a medium that encourages linking out to other social media (videos, blogs, music, any content you can imagine) provides a powerful platform for networking with potential readers and fellow-writers. Rusty offered an interesting pair of similes: if Twitter is a cocktail party, Facebook is a family reunion. If you're aim is to connect with people you know, Facebook's the place. If you're aiming to extend your circle, try Twitter.

I'm giving it a try. Tee Morris's book Teach Yourself Twitter in 10 Minutes is one way to get savvy about the platform; or check out the platform's on-line support and Emlyn's 10-tip guide to Twitter posted last week on Novel Publicity's blog (also follow the links she provides to past posts) ... thanks again to Janet Reid for pointing me to Emlyn.

(It was interesting to read a few days after hearing Rusty and Tee speak that Nearly Half of Americans use Facebook; Only 7% Use Twitter. The article, on, noted that "Twitter [...] is driven largely by so-called power users, and only 21% of registered users are actually active on the site. Another interesting and related Twitter usage stat: 22.5% of users are responsible for 90% of all tweets." This is not necessarily inconsistent with the message I heard at SFWC. If authors, agents, editors, book bloggers, and especially people others trust & like to hear from are the people tweeting, those are the people with whom an author looking for readers wants to connect.)

Stephanie Chandler gave a presentation at SFWC titled "Storming Cyberspace" ... and a lot of what she had to say is outlined in her 22 February Authority Publishing post, Elements of an Online Marketing Plan for Authors -- a great 'consolation prize' for those who didn't have the chance to hear her speak. She echoed something Rusty said in the "Tweet Spot" session and emphasized again in another, titled "Digital Publicity": professional journalists and editors comb the web for stories & topical expertise, and you'll be glad if what they find is you ... because taking a ride in an established media vehicle, whether it's a popular blog or a well-circulated magazine or newspaper is another excellent way to get on readers' radar.

It was interesting to recognize something that happened to me late last year as proof of the fact that established, mainstream media editors are keeping a close eye on the intertubes. In November an old friend who works as an editor for a top-shelf magazine based in New York serendipitously found one of my blogs cross-posted on Daily Kos. He liked what I'd written, and jotted a quick e-mail to tell me so. This was during the middle of a weekday, East Coast time: he was working, not idly surfing. I didn't know you blogged, he wrote. I sent him a link to One Finger Typing. If my editor friend is combing the blogosphere in search of the zeitgeist, so are his peers.

[Of course -- keeping atop latest breaking trends -- the (somewhat silly) question whether blogging is over is in the air. Nathan Bransford asked it the week before last, in his post "You Tell Me: Have Blogs Peaked?" A few days later the NY Times was chewing over the same topic -- Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter -- which may or may not prove that the Grey Lady is following Nathan's blog. But take the NYT's conclusions with a grain of that article I linked to a few paragraphs back: "only 7% use Twitter." And then there's the damper thrown on rushes to judgment by Mathew Ingram, in his post "Blogging Is Dead Just Like the Web is Dead" (thanks to Nathan for that link).]

The self-promotion, the tracking of which channels are viable in a quickly evolving mediascape, the networking as if your literary future depends on it -- none of this is the sort of stuff I thought I was signing up for when I decided to write long-form fiction. But in a world of socially networked content, people turn more and more regularly (and exclusively!) to the internet for things to read, learn, and do. An author trying to attract a readership would be missing the boat if s/he failed to build an on-line presence.

As Janet Reid wrote yesterday, "There isn't any other option."

Thanks to GustavoG for the image of Flickr represented as a network of people sharing photos, circa 2005.

CORRECTION: This post originally misattributed Christina Katz's definition of platform to Chuck Sambuchino (who excerpted from Ms. Katz's book on his blog). Apologies for the error, which has been corrected as of 9 Mar 2011.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Five things about Wisconsin

Everybody's talking about Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker, his attempt to savage public-sector labor unions, multi-state copycat efforts, and the mass protests against these attacks in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.

Rather than add to the cacophony, I'll do my part to amplify a few smart voices. Here are snippets from:

  1. the NY Times editorial board
  2. Nicholas Kristoff
  3. a couple of academics from Harvard and Duke Universities
  4. Mother Jones magazine reporter Andy Kroll
  5. Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday's New York Times editorial, "Spreading Anti-Union Agenda," laid out the partisan reality of the Greedy Overlords' Party's jihad on people's right to organize:

"Republican lawmakers also are trying to cripple the bargaining power of unions -- and ultimately realize a cherished partisan dream of eradicating them. In each case, Republican talk of balancing budgets is cover for the real purpose of gutting the political force of middle-class state workers, who are steady supporters of Democrats and pose a threat to a growing conservative agenda. [...] Some public sector unions have contracts and benefits that are too rich for these times, but even when they have made concessions, Republican officials have kept up the attack. The Republicans' claim to be acting on behalf of taxpayers is not believable."

Does anyone imagine that what's playing out in Wisconsin has nothing to do with class war? No? Then let's take a look at statistics about distribution of income in the United States, courtesy of Nicholas Kristoff in Our Banana Republic, published in the NY Times in November of last year:

"The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. [...] C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent."

From a forthcoming study, Building a Better America -- One Wealth Quintile at a Time, to be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Michael I. Norton of Harvard's Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University conclude:

"Given the consensus among disparate groups on the gap between an ideal distribution of wealth and the actual level of wealth inequality, why don't more Americans -- especially those with low income -- advocate for greater redistribution of wealth? First, our results demonstrate that Americans appear to drastically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality, suggesting they may simply be unaware of the gap. Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States (Benabou & Ok, 2001; Charles & Hurst, 2003; Keister, 2005), beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth. Third, despite the fact that conservatives and liberals in our sample agree that the current level of inequality far from ideal, public disagreements about the causes of that inequality may drown out this consensus (Alesina & Angeletos, 2005; Piketty, 1995). Finally, and more broadly, Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes towards economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences (Bartels, 2005; Fong, 2001), suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap."

Closing the loop on the class war question, in a Mother Jones magazine titled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Funded by the Koch Bros., Andy Kroll wrote last Friday:

"Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, whose bill to kill collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions has caused an uproar among state employees, might not be where he is today without the Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch are conservative titans of industry who have infamously used their vast wealth to undermine President Obama and fight legislation they detest [...] [O]ne prominent beneficiary of the Koch brothers' largess is Scott Walker. [...] Walker's plan to eviscerate collective bargaining rights for public employees is right out of the Koch brothers' playbook."

(The New York Times and Washington Post have since run stories linking these billionaire brothers to "the push to roll back public employee rights.")

In a diary posted yesterday on the Daily Kos, titled Union-busting: The War of Southern Aggression, a contributor who calls himself "modemocrat" quoted Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, from an address given to Congress on December 3, 1861:

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital, producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of the community exists within that relation. [...] No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty -- none less inclined to take, or touch, aught that they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which, if surrendered, will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them, till all of liberty shall be lost .... "

What do you think? Too much verbiage? Too many links? Can't be bothered to figure out what it all means? Does the idea that a few very, very wealthy individuals are manipulating the government to your detriment give you a headache?

That's okay. Don't worry. Be happy. You can turn in all your uncomfortable opinions at the Downsizing Desk on your way out of the building. Going forward, corporate lobbyists will tell your government how best to facilitate their enrichment. You needn't bother yourself with the details.

As a convenience, you are welcome to leave your housekeys at the Downsizing Desk too ... might as well, since if your home hasn't been foreclosed already it will be soon after you lose your job and become part of the new permanent, unemployable underclass, as "abe57" unhappily described himself Tuesday.

(Alternatively you could take Abe Lincoln's advice and "beware of surrendering [your] political power." Act -- as GrumpyWarriorPoet describes the people on the streets of Madison are acting -- or be acted upon.)

Thanks to Botteville and Wikimedia Commons for the image of the Lincoln Memorial.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Publishing ain't dead, but it's a deer in the headlights

I attended the San Francisco Writer's Conference this weekend, met a lot of people, and learned plenty. I also had the unexpected pleasure and honor of falling into a hotel lobby conversation with keynote speaker Dorothy Allison, an author who I have admired since I read Bastard Out of Carolina soon after it was published in the '90s.

There was more at the conference to blog about than I'll ever get to, but I have to remark on an odd session on Saturday afternoon, when eight fiction editors from a mix of large New York houses and small presses introduced themselves to a crowd of some hundred or so writers and then fielded questions. There's a lot of anxious Kremlin-watching among authors and would-be authors in this era of e-books, major publisher consolidations, and mammoth bookstore chains going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Everybody wants to know what's next. Nobody has a clear view of the future.

The editors on the panel had a lot to say about what kinds of fiction they wanted to buy, whether authors should consider hiring a freelance editor, how self-publishing affects a book's prospects for New York publication (poorly) or a second book's prospects (a better story, depending). Good stuff, worth hearing.

Then talk turned to e-books. And here's where it got strange.

Most editors on the panel represented large New York houses. They were mostly thirty-somethings, I guessed, employed by the likes of Macmillan, Bertelsman AG, Simon & Schuster, et al. And when they answered questions about the shift in book format from paper to digital, they weren't copping to the fundamental upheaval in the industry. You can't actually blame them. They're only the tip of a huge, sinking iceberg, and they're not making decisions in the executive suites of the Six Sisters. They can't speak publicly in contradiction to their employers' Official Line. Not if they want to keep their jobs. I'm guessing they're all polishing CVs & working out back-up plans for when the next round of pink slips are handed out. I think I would be.

So the answers to writers' questions tended toward tweaking placement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

Piracy was a big issue for these editors. One trotted out the fascinating confession that publishers are worried Amazon might underreport the number of electronic books sold, since there's no physical check or balance on the retailer's unverified assertion. What we need, the editor mused, is some kind of 'phone home' record of a digital book being unlocked by an end-user. You know, like Microsoft has been printing on their software distribution media for fifteen years.

A couple of brave writers posed more pointed questions to break open the subject behind the subject. After one editor insisted that publishers were existentially bound to Amazon, however devious and untrustworthy Jeff Bezos might be, a writer asked "Why do you need Amazon? Couldn't publishers get out from under Amazon's thumb by setting up a distribution arm that the major New York houses can promote as a go-to destination for buying books without a middleman?"

The answers were breathtaking in their lack of inspiration. There was truth in each. But ... the pedantry!

"The beauty of Amazon," one editor said, "is that everything is there."

"Can you name ten books published by [insert name of any particular publisher here]?" asked another.

"Amazon handles the piracy issue," yet another explained.

And another was quick to imply that the Six Sisters would be busted for monopoly practices if they tried to move in lockstep.

Does any of this sound familiar? Wasn't there another media industry (hint: used to sell vinyl, then CDs) that has more or less crucified itself on the same sort of recalcitrance over new content formats and business models? I'm not claiming to have a prêt-à-porter solution to hand to NY publishers (if I did, maybe I could convince one to publish my own book and quit all the shilly-shallying around with agents and queries and whatnot).

But did anyone on the panel name alternate means to the NY Times bestseller lists or Amazon's recommender features to refer readers to books they might like? Goodreads? Library Thing? Facebook? Book bloggers? Book tweeters? No, no one did. Of course, none of these are an instant panacea. But nurturing and promoting a diverse ecosystem of distribution and recommendation channels has to be in publishers' best interest, right? To counter the weight of big, bad Jeff Bezos?

Why not invest in doing so?

Sure, any attempt to shift the status quo will be riddled with risk, though perhaps no more risk than sinking slowly (or not) into the tar pit of literary history. No, I don't understand the publishing business one one-thousanth as well as the least knowledgeable editor on that panel. I'm not a good businessperson in the first place. Yes, I get that Bezos has a lot of publishers by the short hairs because Amazon is a distribution channel that must be reckoned with. Yet it doesn't take Warren Buffett to see that publishers are taking refuge in sand castles as a tidal wave approaches.

Here's what editor Jennifer Joseph of of Manic D Press, also included in the panel, said of the publishing industry on Saturday: "This is the most revolutionary time since Gutenberg invented the printing press." Here's something else she said: "We're trying to fit great literature into a different way of living" [i.e., into a way of living that increasingly fails to make time or attention for books].

And what did Dorothy Allison say in her keynote the day before? In her slow Southern drawl she told the room that "publishing ain't dead." Allison was looking at the big picture, considering the simple truth that everything changes. She spoke of attending an historians' conference decades ago, before all the intertubes were fully screwed together, and hearing the academics describe changes coming down the pike exactly like the ones we're experiencing now. As she put it, "historians think long." But just because publishing is changing doesn't mean it's finished. At least not for those who adapt to its evolution.

Jennifer Joseph and Dorothy Allison -- seasoned women who have been around the block more than a time or seven -- sounded like they were grappling with things that are actually happening. Certainly more so than most of the editors representing their very large, very slow-to-respond publishing houses. Or so it seems from the oblique angle this writer has on the industry.

I have nothing against very large publishing houses. I don't think paper books are going away. I would like to see my work published by one of the New York houses sooner than later. But it's not confidence-inspiring when editors from the Six Sisters pretend they're dealing with a little brush fire burning in the far corner of Podunk ... when everybody can see that the brush fire is an inferno and it's burning in the heart of literary New York.

Thanks to wwphotos for the image of Jeff Bezos from the photographer's flickr stream.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How to organize an on-line writers' group

Yesterday I wrote about the question "Does a writer need a writers' group?" Bottom line: nothing beats a group of committed writers if the object is effective feedback on your pages. And you can do it on-line.

When I joined my on-line writer's group the old-timers had an established way of working, and it seemed pretty sound to me.

The process was informally understood. We did find that sometimes the informality left room for divergent expectations about what active membership required. So a few months after I joined we decided to write down what we were up to, to make sure everybody was on the same page. As a relatively new and entirely enthusiastic member of the group, I volunteered for this duty.

It turned out to be useful to have guidelines. One of their purposes is to keep us focused. Another is to orient new members and prospective new members to how the group operates.

Our guidelines currently weigh in at around 1200 words, and we revisit them from time to time. I've included a lightly-edited version below for those looking for a place to start drafting guidelines for their own groups.

But first things first ...

Questions to answer while forming a writers' group

The first thing to do if you're organizing a writer's group -- on-line or face-to-face -- is to ask and answer some questions. A bunch of questions, actually. Here's my proposed set:

  1. Will our group be about supporting each other? Helping each other improve as writers? Figuring out how to approach agents and editors? Vetting work for self-publication? If more than one of the foregoing, in what proportions, and how rigidly do we adhere to these purposes?
  2. Will we limit our members to fiction writers or to those who write non-fiction? Any particular genres, styles, or period focus? Memoirists? Short story writers? A mix of these? Is the mix well-suited to each of us getting the feedback we seek?
  3. Are we sharing first drafts, more polished work, or does anything go depending where a member is in her/his writing process?
  4. How often will we cycle through reading/critiquing sessions -- a week, two weeks, a month, something else?
  5. How much time can each member devote to reading and critiquing others' work each cycle? What does that time commitment translate to in word-count?
  6. How frequently do each of us want to have our own work critiqued? Each cycle? Every other cycle? Every three?
  7. Given that some people will need to step back from full participation every so often -- that's the way life happens -- what's a good group size to ensure we're getting a variety of perspectives each time a member's work is critiqued?
  8. Taking account of all the cycle and quantity questions so far, how many people per cycle should share how many words for how many others to review and critique?
  9. What ground rules or expectations should we establish about about how members ought to participate? What if some members fail to give as much attention to others' work as they receive on their own work?
  10. How do we recruit new members? How do we respond if some think that a member isn't working out?
  11. Who will facilitate the group's logistics -- scheduling and so on? One person or more? Is this a "permanent" position or a responsibility we share in turn?
  12. If we're an on-line group, will we just exchange e-mail or will we use some kind of discussion forum or website? Which? Who will maintain it?

The mechanics of forming an on-line writers' group

Having thought through the questions listed above, let's say you're interested in forming an on-line writer's group, or overhauling one you're in. There are mechanical issues to resolve ... including choices about technology you'll use to support your group. A full comparison of lots of options is more than I'll tackle in this post, so here's a concise description of the "infrastructure" my group uses.

Because the group began by using Google Groups for pretty much all its needs, we're pretty solidly embedded in Google's many offerings:

  1. We now use Google Calendar to manage our posting schedule
  2. Google Groups supports our communication (discussion threads), as it has from the start
  3. A Google Site is how we bring it all together
  4. Our guidelines (below) are maintained as a Google Doc

With links to "how do you do that?" pages, the calendar and the Google Groups discussion forum are embedded in pages on our Google Site. Our guidelines, as I mentioned, are a Google Doc, and we embed that too.

Other flavors of on-line tools are possible, of course, from Wordpress to Drupal to Joomla and beyond. If there's interest, maybe I'll circle around and review some alternate choices in a future post. Google's offerings work for us because the Googleplex worries about the infrastructure, all we have to do is respond to the sometimes-unpredictable changes in what's on-offer.

But the most important mechanics have to do with how the group functions, not the technology it uses to implement its processes. To that end, I've included my group's guidelines below, in the hope they might help shape other groups' operation. We started out with lots of bullets, but that looked too daunting ... so our guidelines are written in a less formal tone than, say, a national constitution (!) ... but at the same time we tried to be reasonably clear and concrete.

You're welcome to adopt or adapt our guidelines if they fit your needs. Please take note of the Creative Commons licensing terms under which the guidelines are shared.

Guidelines for an on-line writers group

[If you republish or repurpose these guidelines, please cite the author -- that would be Steve Masover -- and provide a link to this blog post. Permission to use these guidelines is granted under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.]

We are a group of writers committed to improving our work through engagement and mutual critique.

The main activity and primary responsibility of members is posting and reviewing pages of original writing, on a regular schedule.
Our cardinal rule is: What happens in the group stays in the group. No member may publish, post, blog, distribute, or make public in any way the original writing of any other member unless s/he asks for and receives explicit permission. Violation of this rule is grounds for immediate ejection from the group.

Our culture assumes that members are in the group because they are willing to give and respond to honest critique. No one's work is unanimously praised. All of us learn to swallow our defensive instincts in order to understand and consider feedback our fellow-members have taken time to offer. We rarely get a chance to post a whole work; we give and receive feedback on work that is often read out of the context or flow of its place in a larger work. This takes getting used to. We either incorporate & apply lessons learned from members' feedback, or are able to articulate how our different choices strengthen the piece(s) on which we're working. The give-and-take is not always easy, but it makes us stronger as writers. Those who stick with it find in the group a source of support and strength for our writing, and are "toughened up" for the kind of reading and critique to which we each hope to be subjected by agents, editors, and reviewers.

Core Activities

Members post pages on which they are actively working and which are intended for publication. Pages on which members are "actively working" are usually fiction (a chapter, scenes, a short story); but might also be an outline or precis for work in development, a query letter, a synopsis for an agent or editor, etc. Questions about craft or the publishing business that are relevant to the member's work and direction are also fair game. Fiction is our usual focus, but non-fiction can be part of the mix; non-fiction with a narrative arc is preferred.

Each week, those members whose turn has come up on the group's Posting Schedule make their work available in a new discussion thread in our Forum (or, commonly, as a file in a commonly-readable word processing format); deadline to post is Saturday at 11:59 pm, poster's local time. However the material is made available, the poster initiates a new discussion thread to notify the group that material is ready for review and to serve as the thread in which feedback is given. Other members respond to posted pages by the following Wednesday, at 11:59 pm, respondent's local time.

These regularly scheduled postings are coordinated by a designated member of the group. Weekly pages to be reviewed are limited to under ~5000 words total, from all members scheduled to post -- e.g., 2500 words each from two posting members. If a member posts a larger quantity of work than is appropriate for that week's review & feedback, s/he is expected to indicate which within-size-limits portion is to be reviewed. Posted pages may be included in a discussion thread, or uploaded as files in a format accessible to all members.

Members posting pages are encouraged to ask for the type of feedback they want or need. Members offering feedback are encouraged to tailor feedback to what the poster has asked for; to honestly praise what's praiseworthy; and to couch criticism constructively. When a member enters or re-engages with the group, s/he is expected to "dive in" to the middle of other members' works-in-progress, responding to the currently-posted pages with whatever understanding s/he has of the larger context; the group will not 'rewind' to the beginning of their projects. The new or re-engaging member is welcome to catch up by reading previously posted chapters, but need not do so. Posting members are encouraged to provide an overview or synopsis to help new or re-engaging members get their bearings.

Members who are posting are expected to offer feedback on other members' posts. This is core to the 'economic proposition' of the group: the time a member commits to offering feedback is the 'dues' for receiving feedback on her/his own work. Members who have recused themselves from the posting schedule because they are unable to consistently offer feedback are welcome to participate in those discussion threads for which they have time and interest, including "other discussions" described below.

Members are encouraged to ask the scheduler for more or less frequent 'assignments' if they wish; accommodation depends on the group's aggregate needs. Members maintain a rough 'declaration' of the lengths and types of posts they expect to submit over the coming months on a simple table at the bottom of the group's Posting Schedule page. The posting schedule will be set 2-6 weeks in advance, give or take.

Optional Activities
Other discussion threads are initiated on an ad hoc basis, as individual members wish. For example:

  • Thematic scene threads: members might be invited to post a sex scene or an action scene from work-in-progress or older work for general discussion/comparison/critique/fun
  • Threads that treat an aspect of craft (voice, show-vs-tell, grammar, point-of-view, dialog, etc.)
  • Threads that summarize and/or discuss points from a How-To-Write book or article (or contrast advice from multiple sources)
  • Longer or 'extra' materials can be uploaded for optional reading and review. These might be full manuscripts, re-worked material, draft queries, older work, and other pages for optional, 'out of band' review. (Recognizing that time necessary to review additional material is non-trivial, prospective posters are advised to canvas members to see whether there's interest and ability to provide additional review.)
The group recognizes that material of this "optional" sort may or may not get reviewed, due to time constraints and/or member interest; and that no member is obligated to read or review 'extra' pages or posts.


Any member can propose new candidates for group membership. Proposals from members who have been with the group long enough to have a solid feel for its processes and dynamics are strongly preferred. New members are screened. The screening process seeks to assure that a candidate is an active writer; is willing and able to regularly and constructively participate in the group's core activities; and agrees to abide by these guidelines.

It's expected that members will need to take a break from the group from time to time, whether for personal reasons or because their writing process requires it. As a courtesy to other members, and because unexplained disappearances may weaken the group, notice of intent to take a break should be posted in a Discussion thread.

Thanks to AE, LG, SL, and SW for taking in this stray novelist. Thanks to DB, MM, and KR for joining us a few months later. Thanks to WallyG for the image of Jack Kerouac's manuscript of On The Road.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Does a writer need a writers' group?

If you're a writer and ever talked to an agent or editor, one of the first questions you might have been asked is: "Do you have a writers' group (or critique group)?"

What's that about? Well, the theory goes that it's all well and good to let your friends and your family read your work. But they're your friends. Or your family. They may like to read, but they also probably like you, and want to support you, and have this hilarious idea that what 'support' means is to tell you that your work is fantastic.

In the real world, almost nobody's work is fantastic when they first drag it onto a page. Everybody's work can use a critical editor's eye. A good writer is good at casting a critical eye on her/his own work, and making changes for the better. This ability improves with practice. It is said that this ability improves exponentially in a circle of practice, that is, in a group of people who regularly read and critique each others' work. In a writers' group, people do just that, and discuss (or even argue sometimes) about conflicting ideas concerning what works and what doesn't in a dialog, a scene, a chapter, or a whole manuscript. This is a great way for writers to get better at writing.

But, you're wondering, can't I just read The Elements of Style, Writing Fiction, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, The First Five Pages, and Letters to a Young Novelist? Well, you should do that too.

But, you're wondering next, can't I just pay an editor? You can, yes. But caveat emptor. Be warned that if your editor is any good, s/he's going to charge a hefty fee. And even so, if your book is going to be a contender you're going to have to filter all that editorial advice ... it's up to you whether to take it or leave it. It would help a whole lot if you were well-equipped to make those decisions. Nathan Bransford, my favorite blogging former-agent, had some great advice in this vein in October 2009: Should You Pay Someone to Edit Your Work? Worth a read.

I went for years thinking I had no need to work with other writers. Workshops didn't interest me. I am fortunate to have many well-read friends, some of whom are writers, and over the years many of these friends read my stories and novel manuscripts, and gave me terrific, helpful, critical feedback.

It wasn't enough.

Forming or finding a writers' group

So if you're a writer, and you don't have a group ... what do you do?

What you can't do is throw any six or dozen writers together and call it an effective, worthwhile group. Some writers have a good eye for reading others' work, others don't. Some are good at articulating what can be done to improve a piece of prose, some can't quite figure out how to tell you what comes to them naturally. Some are good at talking about the fine points of craft, some are good at analyzing character or narrative arc or stylistic tics.

If you want a good writers' group, you'll need to pick your focus and balance your members carefully. And then you'll need to nurture the group along.

Many writers' groups (on-line and face-to-face) exist and seek new members. Try Google or Bing. If you search for "writers' group" you'll find lots of advice.

I got lucky myself: I got invited into an existing writers' group, one that was already on a roll. I attended the SF Writers Conference last year, and met some good people who are also good writers. They asked me to join their writers' group. I hemmed, I hawed, I e-mailed a few of the people I'd met, then I took the plunge. This turned out to be a very smart move.

Within a couple of months I'd learned enough from these writers that I was able to embark on a major overhaul of a novel I thought was finished when I met them. My manuscript is radically improved by this most recent go-round. I can't actually explain what took me so long to find an arrangement like the one I have now. Mind you, none of the members of my group had published more fiction than I have ... it's not only about publishing credits. It's about attention, care, craft, engagement.

This can happen to you if you attend writers conferences: networking goes a long way. (There are those who would say that the fact I found my group attending SFWC wasn't luck at all. It was, they might say, a corollary of the choice I made to attend the conference. With a little bit of luck, I would hasten to add.)

Alternatively, you could try books like The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide published by Writers Digest Books, and build from the advice you find there. You can search for needles in haystacks like the one maintained by The Writer magazine (actually, their search interface permits you to narrow pretty quickly, but doesn't help you pick out the online groups -- which don't depend on members' location). If you're hooked into LinkedIn you can seek group members there. eHow has an article enumerating steps to take if you want to start a writers group that holds face-to-face meetings ... it's kind of old-school, but if you supplement locally-focused on-line venues to their advice about advertising in local newspapers the advice seems reasonably sound to me.

If the first group you join (or try to form) doesn't work out after you give it a serious chance, try another.

The on-line option

My writers' group works on-line. Some of us live in California; some in the midwest; and our founder lives in France ... he just moved there from Canada, and is lobbying to hold an in-person conclave on the lovely property where he and his family now live. How cool is that?

What do we write? Well, we're not all cast from the same genre mold. If I were pressed to describe common characteristics I might put it this way: Each of us writes work that doesn't quite fit a single category. What we share is a commitment to quality. We all want our books to be compelling, but are not satisfied if they are only entertaining.

We share our work by exchanging files, and use a discussion forum format to exchange feedback. It's not the same as face-to-face, but it actually works. In some ways, it works better: we don't have the difficulty of finding times everyone can meet, and no one has to get out of their pajamas to participate. For me, it's ideal.

I'd like to tell you how our group works in detail because I think the example might be helpful to folks trying to form an on-line writers' group. I'd also like to propose a set of questions to ask and answer in the course of forming and organizing a new group, whether on-line or face-to-face.

Alas, this post is getting pretty long.

So I'll extend my Monday & Thursday blog-posting habit and continue with "How to organize an on-line writers' group" tomorrow. Stay tuned...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Aleksandar Hemon on Narrative, Biography, Language
Drafting vs. editing

Thanks to Greg Turner for the image from his Flickr stream.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lessons from Egypt: demonstrations work

What good comes of all that protesting?

As a longtime activist I have often gotten this question from all sides: what good comes of all that protesting?

On the one hand there are people who don't participate in grassroots politics and think those who do are wasting their time (despite all the obvious counter-evidence; if you don't know what I mean by that, keep reading).

On the other, pickets, boycotts, marches, and demonstrations through all the months and years when nothing much comes of them leaves attendees and organizers alike discouraged by the seemingly-poor return on investment ("ROI" as the business folk would have it): the microscopic changes (if any) effected by effort that is actually pretty taxing, on a personal level.

Yes, it's true. It takes a lot to organize even an 'unsuccessful' movement. This isn't contradicted by the welcome social aspect to grassroots politics: hanging out with people you like (or at least a mix of people that includes some you like!), and the camaraderie of roughly aligned beliefs about what's good and important. Countering these pluses, though, is the time, attention, and energy that get debited from other stuff you might like to do. Raising kids, lying on a beach, finishing school, writing a book, learning to cook, climbing a career ladder, sailing a boat, bowling.

Is it worth the effort, the sacrifice, the time? Or is demonstrating an exercise in futility?

The answer seems obvious this week.

Every so often we get unmistakable evidence that, whatever else demonstrations might be, they're not futile. Evidence of just this truth unfolded in North Africa -- Tunisia and Egypt especially (so far) -- in the early weeks of this year. And here comes Algeria.

So if the answer is obvious, why all this typing? For me it's worth typing about because people forget. I've heard the "what good comes of all that protesting?" question come from people who may have been in grade school in 1991, but can't possibly have missed reading about mostly-unarmed masses defending a Soviet government against what amounted to a KGB coup, so it could dissolve itself later the same month. Perhaps they're taking the long view of history, knowing now that the KGB would rise again in the person of Vladamir Putin.

But for all the compromise and backsliding inherent in human affairs, how can anyone think that no good came of the Civil Rights protests in the U.S., or the worldwide protests that helped the A.N.C. and their allies bring down P.W. Botha and South African apartheid? Let alone the Velvet Revolution of 1989? Or resistance to British colonizers in Ghandi's India?

Giddy celebration may be premature...

There are two enormously important aspects of recent events in North Africa and the Arab states that everybody's talking and writing about. I feel a need to acknowledge these, but don't want to dive down the same rabbit holes others are busily plumbing. These aspects are: why are regime-toppling demonstrations occurring? and will the outcomes for people in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen be better or worse than if the status quo held?

Joel Brinkley thinks that widespread unrest has a lot to do with spiraling food costs that most deeply affect poor people and nations:

"The world is heading into a food crisis again, barely three years after the last one, in 2008. That, not political reform, animated the riots and demonstrations across the Arab world and beyond - until Tunisia's president fell from power on Jan. 14. After that, hungry demonstrators aimed higher."

Brinkley is not alone in his opinion, and neither are the Tunisians or Egyptians alone in their hunger. If, and very probably when, China loses most of its wheat crop this year due to major draught, as Keith Bradsher reported in the NY Times on Thursday, and starts buying massive quantities of grain on world markets, food costs will soar even higher. This is going to hurt people, and strongly motivate them to make political and economic demands of their governments. 2011 could be a rough year for dictators.

To the second question, there's no end of writers and journalists pointing out that the Egyptian people, in the latest example, aren't necessarily going to get bread and roses for their trouble, despite the heroism of their collective stand against terrifying power. Yes, they've chased off a despot. Now what? History is particular, and its lessons are often unhappy. As David Remnick put it in The New Yorker dated today:

"[...] Tahrir Square is not Wenceslas Square, in Prague, nor is it Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, or Revolution Square, in Moscow. The Egyptians, for all their bravery, do not possess the advantages of the Czechs of a generation ago. Liberated from the Soviet grip, the Czechs could rely on the legacy of not-so-distant freedoms, the moral leadership of Václav Havel, and many other particulars that augured well for them. Circumstances were not as auspicious in Romania, China, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Opening acts can be ecstatic and deceptive. The Russian prospect, in August, 1991, which began with the collapse of a K.G.B.-led coup, soon encountered its own historical legacies, including the lingering hold of the security services and the corruptions of an oil economy. Modern Russia is far better off than it was in the teeth of the Communist era, but it is not the state that so many had hoped for two decades ago."

The new (same old) military leaders of Egypt are promising to "eventually hand power to an elected government," say Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Lee Keath of AP, printed in the SF Chronicle yesterday under a headline "Military says it won't hold onto power." A spokesman for the country's council of generals is quoted saying: "the military is 'looking forward to a peaceful transition to permit an elected civil authority to be in charge of the country to build a democratic free nation.'" In the same article, the reporters assert that "on the face of it, the elderly generals are no reformers. The deeply secretive military has substantial economic interests, running industries and businesses that it will likely seek to preserve."

Egypt's parliament has been dissolved. Elections have been promised. The military will "appoint a committee to draft constitutional amendments," says the NY Times, but says they will be subject to referendum. Time will tell.

... yet the bottom line holds

But if we take a moment to step back from these vital questions, we're left with a very clear message.

Demonstrations work. They can change history.

Change can start with a mass of unarmed people and proceed to a change of government, even when the government is highly armed. The Egyptians in Tahrir Square did not have weapons, a plan, a single leader, a single party, or even a strong coalition of parties. Nonetheless, Mubarak has fled.

In my just-finished novel, Consequence, the protagonist is asked by a skeptic why he pours so much of his time and talent, year after year, into protest that seems, on its face, ineffective. He responds, "Waving signs and blocking traffic may seem pointless, but it holds open a space. Someday people are going to jump into that space, when the moment comes around again."

And people do. Consider a very distant relation of the protests in Egypt ...

AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s.

To see this episode of grassroots activism in historical context, let's take a roundabout path back to the twentieth century. Here's Michael Specter from the 15 November 2010 issue of The New Yorker, on Preventing tuberculosis deaths in India:

"In the developing world, though, tuberculosis has surged dangerously, and this year, according to the World Health Organization, there will be ten million new cases, the largest number in history. As people join the great migrations from villages to crowded cities, slum life and tuberculosis await them. With India’s urban population expected to double in the next thirty years, to seven hundred million, its cities will remain fertile ground for an infectious epidemic. Yet—no doubt owing to the fact that rich people in the West rarely get the disease—tuberculosis receives fewer resources, fewer research dollars, and less attention from the global health community than either AIDS or malaria—the two other most deadly infectious diseases. TB activists don’t march on Washington or chain themselves to the gates of pharmaceutical firms to demand better treatment."

Look at that last sentence.

Marching on Washington and chaining themselves to the gates of pharmaceutical firms is exactly what AIDS activists did in the '80s and '90s, among many other sign-waving and traffic-blocking modes of protest. I was there, friends and lovers were too, people from far and wide joined in disruptive protest over the course of six or eight years. Not all of us survived. Many in the movement were there because they were deathly ill, and many of those succumbed before modern treatments were developed. The fight is hardly over, in that people without political clout continue to die even when public health measures and treatments for their illnesses exist to contain and/or cure them -- and here we're talking AIDS or TB, pick your poison, and there's more where they came from.

What has changed since the late 1980s is that now it is widely recognized, matter-of-factly as Specter's reporting shows, that the development and availability of medical treatment is politically influenced and can be transformed by grassroots politics. That was not even obvious, let alone acknowledged, in the 1980s when Larry Kramer lit a fire at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York, and ACT UP was born.

Demonstrations worked. The way sick people approach the medical-industrial complex, certainly in the U.S. and other wealthy nations, was fundamentally changed.

To the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria ...

... here's to people all over the world who live under despots' rule.

Yes, change is uncertain. And the factors that cause feckless demonstrations to crystallize into fundamental shifts in power are complex. These complexities are often under no person's or organization's or government's control.

But have no doubt. Refusing to submit to power is massively powerful itself, however slow it is to wake.

It's foolish to pretend that protest is futile. It is certainly not.

Thanks to Floris Van Cauwelaert for the photo from Tahrir Square; and to Paul Dalton for the ACT UP image. Today marks one year and 108 posts since One Finger Typing was born. Viva le stylo!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Data-mining the SF Writers Conference schedule

A tentative schedule of sessions to be given at the 2011 San Francisco Writer's Conference was published last week. The conference is next week -- 18-20 Feb -- at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and it's sold out ... though there's always next year.

(Word to the determined: I was able to attend last year even though the conference was sold out by the time I decided I absolutely had to go. I got on the waiting list, and there was a cancellation that yielded me a place.)

A few facts about SFWC. The conference website lists 21 editors, 25 agents, and nearly 50 authors who will present or hunt for fresh, content-extruding meat (that's us, the writers). Guesstimating from last year, there are three or four hundred writers who pay to get in, many of whom are looking for an agent or some other way to get traction on work that's either finished or in progress.

Translation: there are plenty of networking opportunities here.

The promotional materials promise "over 50" sessions; my count from the just-posted schedule is 75. Stepping back from that list of 75 sessions, I was curious about the big picture about what's on offer at a major writer's conference known for its focus on the business of publishing. Pursuing that big picture view, here's how I sliced & diced, in order by the number of sessions in each of my categories:

  • 15 - Fiction (adult or general)
  • 15 - Promotion (platform building, etc.)
  • 13 - The industry: how it works & how to work it
  • 9 - Craft and practice of writing
  • 7 - Books for kids and young adults
  • 7 - Non-fiction
  • 4 - Self-publishing & E-books
  • 5 - Miscellaneous

Others might count some of the sessions differently than I did, and some would come up with different categories. My idiosyncrasies include a decision not to break out the two sessions touching on memoir (I put one in Fiction, one in Non-fiction); or the three on poetry (one in Promotion, two in Miscellaneous).

But hey, this is my blog. Your job is to complain in the comments.

Another way to slice and dice is with a word cloud (cf. image, thanks to Wordle). I did a bit of editing on the input end to de-emphasize meals and frequent recurrence of "a.m." and "p.m." ... but otherwise the word cloud is a view uninflected by my categorizations. Words that occur more frequently in the SFWC's session schedule are larger in the word cloud.

I signed up for this year's SFWC in Fall, and got the idea from initial publicity that there was going to be a heavy tilt toward the herd of elephants camped out in publishing's living room. What herd? E-books, the changing landscape of self-publishing options, and What That All Means to writers as publishers shed editors, huge bookstore chains declare bankruptcy, and the highly-consolidated New York based industry wonders what's next.

I'm kind of surprised -- and a bit disappointed -- to see only four sessions that touch on these topics directly. As you can see from my first-pass spread, above, none of those four made it onto my dance card yet ... but before the conference kicks off I'll pare back on Promotion and Craft sessions to get some skinny on where Those Who Know think books and publishing are heading in the 21st century.

Attending the conference should provide plenty of benefits beyond the sessions. I'll get to hang out with some members of my on-line writers/critique group, into which I was invited at last year's SFWC. I'll be looking to network with writers who might want to join our group (look for more about that next week). And I hope to speak with agents and editors who might be interested in my novel manuscript.

I'd love to hear from this post's readers: what have you gotten out of writers' conferences you attended, and how has that matched up with what you hoped for?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Speed dating for the bookish

Speed dating for lurve

In Friday's print-edition of the SF Chronicle, the article Singles check one another out at SF Main Library told a story that would warm any bookish heart: the San Francisco Public Library sponsored a speed-dating event for readers. Actually, there were two events scheduled on successive evenings, one for people seeking opposite-sex partnerships, another for same-sex.

As reporter Jessica Kwong tells it, "Twenty-five lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender participants, and 38 straight participants the night before, got a chance to find love before Valentine’s Day [...]." Books in hand, participants spent five minutes talking about what they're reading, how they chose the book, and how they like it so far. Then a bell rang, and they'd lather, rinse, and repeat.

There was nothing magical about it, says Kwong. Awkward pauses, shy fumbling, all that. You have to figure that speed-dating always has awkward moments, squirmy silences, and what-am-I-doing-here crises -- as does blind-dating or even the vast majority of first dates. Perhaps it's fair to say that literary speed-dating is bound (is that a bookish pun?) to be especially awkward because the participants are more likely to be introverts than your average club kid. These are speed-dating bookworms.

I met the love of my life on a blind date at a café in a San Francisco bookstore. More than a dozen years later, we read together in cafés, at the breakfast table, on public transit, and at home in the evenings; and we're still jabbering away about what we're reading and writing with each other and our reading group pals.

The SFPL set up their event for folks in their 20s and 30s, which left a lot of single San Franciscans out. In fact, the library turned away 50 would-be participants because they didn't have room for everybody who wanted to come. But because of the huge interest in speed-dating for bookworms, in the coming months "the library is looking to include silver foxes and cougars for their own speed-dating event."

San Francisco isn't the only city where bookish convergence is the stuff that matches are made on. On the same day the SFPL speed-dating event was reported in the newspaper, Rachel Stout of New York's literary agency Dystel and Goderich, blogged about a bookstore called Word in Greenpoint (Brooklyn, NY) that features a board to which slips of paper are tacked by people looking for ... other people. As Ms. Stout explains, "They’re all the same format, with spaces only for "I'm a _____ looking for a ______" and what books/authors you do like and those you don’t. That’s it! No other personality traits or qualifications, these matches are made based on books and writing preference alone."

Speed dating for authors and agents

I first discovered "Speed Dating for Agents" when I looked into attending the SF Writer's Conference last February (I'll be attending again at the end of next week). To play this game, attendees pay fifty bucks beyond the base cost of attending the conference for a chance to spend an hour lobbing three-minute pitches at agents seated around the perimeter of a hotel conference room.

The recommended best practice is to spend a minute or so introducing yourself and making your pitch in a conversational way (60 seconds is a very short time for this), then take a deep breath and let the agent begin to lead (120 seconds is not very much more for Phase Two). If you're lucky, you win the prize by the time the bell rings -- an agent "date." This is not to be confused with the formality of engagement, let alone of marriage. What you're hoping for is a business card and an invitation to send a query -- and perhaps some pages -- with the hallowed words "Requested Material" on the envelope or in an e-mailed subject line.

In other words, the prize is a chance to query an agent above the scrum of the slush-pile.

The experience was nerve-wracking for me last year. No more nerve-wracking, I suppose, than the query-from-home process that I blogged about last week, except that it's all concentrated in that one intense hour of three minute performances.

I did pretty well at SFWC 2010, all things considered. I hadn't shopped my manuscript around to any literary agents before the conference, yet I finished the hour with six invitations to query from among the eight agents with whom I spoke. None offered representation in the end, but I got some excellent (albeit concise) feedback about my novel mss. That feedback helped to fuel last year's revision of Consequence ... very much for the better, judging by the response of friends and writing-group members. And I also gained valuable insight into pitching my work ... not something that comes naturally to this writer. Selling oneself and one's work are cultivated skills for many who spend as much time alone as writers do with their pages and their imaginary friends (a.k.a. "characters").

Jim McCarthy, also of the agency Dystel and Goderich, blogged a couple of weeks back from an agent's perspective about the agent-writer form of literary speed-dating. The event in which he participated was in Manhattan, at the "Writer's Digest Pitch Slam at which seemingly every agent in the universe sat around the perimeter of a Sheraton ballroom in midtown while aspiring authors lined up for the opportunity to pitch them."

Mr. McCarthy wrote that would have liked longer to talk to the authors he met. I suspect that desire was mutual ... three minutes do fly.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Losing libraries (guest post)
Six things about e-books
Book clubs in a box from the public library

Thanks to the SFWC for permission to use a photo of Agent Speed-Dating from the conference website; and to theunquietlibrary for the photo of Speed Dating Article Interviews on Social Media for Social Good ... in a library ... on flickr.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Querying for agents is a lot like fly fishing

With all the advice books, blogs, workshops, and worry about getting it right when you query a literary agent, it's no wonder the process is nerve-wracking.

I sent out a few queries for my current novel project, Consequence, in November ... hoping to beat the holiday exodus from the World of Publishing (and pretty much everything else, excepting retail). I got some encouraging responses, but no offers of representation. I figured after the turn of the year would be a good time to query a few more carefully considered and selected prospective agents.

That's when I ran into an author friend in the hot tub at the YMCA. "I'd wait until February," he warned me. "It takes a month for these guys to get their desks cleared after Christmas." In the hot tub, right? When you least expect it, there's some new theory about getting it right to get anxious about.

I waited until February.

It's something between wondrous and dispiriting how much time this querying business takes. I like to write fiction, that's fun. Work, but fun work. Finding an agent is strictly business. For me, and for the agents. I mean, think about it...

These people get 15,000 solicitations a year from authors they've never heard of. On average, each inquiring author has a snowball's chance in hell of helping the agent make a living (in case this little corner of the publishing world is unfamiliar, agents work on commission -- whether they sell determines whether they eat). An agent's side-job is to figure out which half-dozen of those 15,000 inquiries are the snowballs that aren't going to melt. It's a side-job because their real job is to take care of the authors they already represent. If an agent isn't able to sift the query wheat from the query chaff efficiently, she's toast.

So from an author's perspective, getting that query right is paramount. Figure you've got fifteen seconds to make a first impression; a minute, maybe two to get past an agent's defensive predisposition to say "nope"; and then -- well, then your material better be pretty bloody compelling or it's off to the form-rejection pile you go.

Here's the thing though: there's no one way to get it right.

One of the first things you need to convey during that first fifteen seconds of agent-attention is that you are troubling the very busy agent only because, through diligent research, you have specially chosen them from among the hundreds of literary agents listed in each of a half-dozen published guides ... and you chose them, specially, because they are perfectly suited to represent your book.

That means you've got to do that diligent research before you pick the agents you intend to query. Better block out a big chunk of hours for that step. Reading the guides, checking the web sites, tracking agent and and other industry blogs, looking at forums in which authors testify to their experience with agents, good and bad.

So now you think you know who to query. At this point, it dawns on you that each agent has a slightly different spin on how s/he want to hear from you. And -- unless your name is familiar to your prospective agents because you're a regular guest on Oprah -- you'd better pay attention.

Some want just a letter, and they want it written just so. Some want that just-so letter and a synopsis. Some want a slightly different sort of letter, a synopsis, and ten pages. Some want the letter and fifty pages. Some want three chapters with their just-so letter. Some want you to query via postal mail. Some only accept e-mail queries. Some have their agency web sites set up to accept submissions directly via a form and/or upload of materials formatted particularly to that agency's requirements.

Querying several agents? A half-dozen even? More? (Better not be too many more, or it'll be obvious you're taking a shotgun approach, which is very unpopular with shotgun targets.) However many agents you're querying, don't mix them up. Don't follow Agent A's guidelines when querying Agent B. Don't send Agent C's materials to Agent D. Don't address your query to Agent Smith when you're writing to Agent Jones. Don't even think about taking a shortcut and addressing everyone as "Dear Agent" ... that's a shotgun-approach giveaway, and a quick shortcut to the circular file.

In general, there are no second acts in the life of a querying author. If you blow it, you lose your chance -- next time you get to query somebody else, never mind that the agent whose query you blew would have been perfect. C'est la guerre.

One of the agents I queried this week has one of those submit-via-website setups. It looks to me like a really fine agency, the agent represents an author whose work is enough like mine (without being too close a relative) that it seems reasonable to expect she'd have an interest in Consequence. And the way one is to submit a query letter, synopsis, and the initial pages of one's manuscript is quite particular: all in one file, using one of several permitted formats.

Well, okay. That's not so hard. Hey, I'm a professional IT dude, I can run a word processor.

But when you take three documents you've developed and formatted and paginated separately, and mash them all together, what you end up with can look a little dicey. Query letter, synopsis, mss. pages. In that order, page one of your mss. is page four or five of the all-in-one document. And don't you really want the header on the synopsis pages to indicate clearly that this is synopsis, differentiating the synopsis from the mss. pages?

Well, yes, you do. Remember, fifteen seconds. The easier I make it for this agent to see what I'm sending, the better a chance she can take it in without becoming irritated. Don't irritate the agents. That's a no-brainer, right?

Modern word processors allow one to divide a document into sections, set up headers in a document to change from section to section, and restart pagination from whatever number you like in each section. I know that. I just haven't done it for about ten years. So: off to the help screens.

The whole operation kind of reminds me of fly-fishing. Not that I know very much about fly-fishing. In fact, most of what I know about fly-fishing I learned from reading John McPhee in The New Yorker on the topic of fly-fishing for shad. But all that business about understanding what fish you're fishing for; what that fish is striking at on a given day in a given season; tying the fly just right; casting to land the fly in the right spot; angling the fly onto the water from just the right angle; drawing it through the current at just the right speed ... it takes a true neurotic. Just like querying agents.

I caught a couple of trout one time (see photo). It was up in Montana, at a spot a former employer (and former Montanan) told me about when I up and quit on him so I could drive across the continent in a VW Van whose engine I'd rebuilt with my own two hands. You can still see the scars. On my hands, I mean, not on the continent. From the rebuild.

Anyway, I got up really early that morning, and fished my little heart out. I was traveling with a couple of really good friends. While I fished, they slept. I had to wake them up to get one of them take a photo from his sleeping bag (hence the camera's tilt). Then I gutted the fish and fried them up for breakfast. They were delicious, but if that were the only reason I'd driven to Montana it'd be fair to say I'd gone a bit over the top. For that reason and others I bought a pair of cowboy boots in Billings, but that's a different story.

Anyhoo ... let's get one thing clear.

If I were a literary agent, I'd be just as strict and fussy as the very strictest and fussiest of them all. I write fiction, and I don't (yet) make a living at it. So I know what it's like to have to hoard one's minutes and hours in order to spend them on the thing you most love to do. That's got to be what it's like to be an agent. I mean, if you didn't love agenting, how the heck could you justify reading fifteen thousand queries a year???

Thanks to John and Eric for not biting my head off when I knocked on the tent flap to show off my catch.