Tuesday

Authorial Misdemeanors

By Richard Curtis

From time to time an author will do something that causes me to scratch my head. I've compiled a list of these foibles and offer it here with a light heart. If you have perpetrated any of these transgressions I'll let you off this time without a fine, but don't let me see you in this courtroom again.

I must say right off the bat that among the things authors do that irk me, delivering manuscripts late is not one of them. Lateness is the medium in which agents live. We breathe late manuscripts and eat late checks and drink late contracts. And lateness in a creative person is certainly more understandable and forgivable than it is in a business organization. I have never known an author to be deliberately late with a book, but I have known many a publisher to be deliberately late with a check.

What kills me, however, is authors who don't tell me they're going to be late. Publishers schedule books many months in advance, and in most cases are able to pull one out of the schedule if given sufficient notice. In most cases, too, a publisher will grant the author a reasonable extension of delivery date. If, however, out of embarrassment or some other reason (such as a moonlighting gig the agent doesn't know about), an author doesn't level with his agent, he will not only get himself into trouble, but his agent as well. An agent who knows the truth can go to bat for his client, make excuses, concoct a fib. But if an agent sincerely assures an editor that a book will be turned in in June because that's what his client told him, when the client knew all the time that there wasn't a chance in hell that he could make the deadline, the agent's credibility will be damaged.

I make very few inflexible rules for my clients, but this is one of them: no matter how embarrassing your reasons may be (one author's dog actually did eat his manuscript), I insist that you tell me the truth so that I can make proper excuses for you. (I, of course, have never lied on behalf of a client. What kind of agent would I be if I lied on behalf of a client?)

Lying to your agent is a mortal sin, but authors commit many venial ones as well, and oddly enough, it is the latter variety that drives me absolutely up the wall.

Take authors who misspell "Foreword," for instance. I strongly feel that anybody who turns in a manuscript containing a "Forward" deserves automatic shredding of his manuscript plus the first three fingers of his right hand. You would think I would not have to explain to professionals who make their livings with words that a foreword is a fore-word, a word that comes before the main text. But as the Forward-to-Foreword ratio on manuscripts submitted to my agency is about one out of three, I can see that the correct spelling cannot be stressed enough. It should be enough to remind you that "Foreword" is usually the very first word one's eyes fall upon when opening a manuscript. (I hesitate, however, to criticize writers for not knowing the difference between a foreword, a preface, and an introduction, since I don't understand it either.)

The Forward-Foreword offense is part of a larger conspiracy to send agents to early graves. I am referring to authors who don't review their manuscripts before submitting them. An occasional, random typo is one thing, but when I realize that the author never bothered to reread his manuscript, have it vetted by a good speller, or run it through the spell-checker on his computer, a murderous rage comes over me and I am compelled to steal into the night to overturn garbage cans and scratch automobile fenders with my ring. Don't authors understand (I growl at alley cats as I kick them) that today's literary marketplace is so intensely competitive that a poorly spelled manuscript can lose somebody a sale?

A subspecies of the above-mentioned type misspells critical words and names, and misspells them consistently, focusing a glaring light on his or her own carelessness. I remember a Biblical novel in which the word "Pharaoh'' was misspelled "Pharoah" throughout, and in a book that long, that's a lot of Pharoahs. I have often wondered why, if the word is pronounced fayro, lexicographers have chosen to place the a before the o. In fact, what is an a doing in the second syllable at all? Such speculations do not mitigate one's intense annoyance at having to correct such errors over and over again in saga-length manuscripts.

Speaking of repetitious errors, I'm reminded of those authors who print the title of their book as a header on every page of manuscript. I don't know where this quaint custom arose. I suppose it has its origins in the paranoiac fantasy that part of a manuscript will inadvertently be separated from the rest in a publisher's office.

Against this remote possibility must be weighed the not-so-remote one that the title you print on every page of your manuscript will be a lousy one. Like many publishing people I am a fanatical believer in the importance of titles: a good or bad one can significantly affect the fate of a book. All too often I'll get a good book with a bad title, and after kicking alternate titles around the author and I will agree on a new one. I'll then prepare a new title page only to discover that the discarded title appears on every page of the manuscript. Now what? I must now either go out with a badly titled book or have the entire manuscript reprinted just to knock the offending title off every page. Luckily, the advent of word processing makes it easier to run off modified manuscripts. Still, do us both a favor and leave the title off the header of every page.

Nowadays manuscripts are submitted as email attachments. But many agents still prefer to read submissions in printed form. The peeve potential here is very high. On occasion an author will send me a manuscript ring-bound like a scientist's notebook. I ask myself what terrible thing I did to this person that he should avenge himself on me so cruelly. Am I supposed to read his manuscript standing up at a lectern, or remove the pages from the binding rings knowing that I will have to reassemble it when I am finished?

I think it's time that writers understood something about literary agents: their standard reading posture is supine, head elevated sufficiently to glance at a baseball game or sitcom on television. Now that I've revealed this tightly guarded secret, perhaps you'll be more considerate and submit your manuscript unbound. And is it too much to ask while I'm at it that it be double spaced in 12-point font and printed on one side of the page only?

And when you do post it, may I ask you not to have it bound or specially boxed or wrapped? Just a loose manuscript in a typing paper box wrapped and taped securely enough to get safely through the postal system. There seems to be a law of nature that the quality of a manuscript declines in inverse proportion to the elaborateness of its package. When I receive a manuscript bound by brass screws with a plastic embossed cover, lovingly wrapped in chamois cloth, set in a velvet-lined cedar box, shrink-wrapped, packed in turn in a fireproof strongbox secured with iron bands, I am prepared to stake my career on the likelihood that this book is one colossal dud. And in all likelihood it will be sent via Fedex or courier with the expectation of an overnight response.

There is a particularly lukewarm place in my heart for foreign authors who are obliged to use typing paper of different dimensions - approximately ½ inch too long and ¼ inch too narrow - from the standard American 8½ by 11 inches. I realize how chauvinistic it must sound to deplore the paper that was probably good enough for Thomas Mann, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Graham Greene, but because agents usually place manuscripts in submission boxes to protect them and present them attractively, it drives us crazy to get a misshapen manuscript from the Continent requiring Procrustean measures to package the submission.

Authors who submit their only copy of a manuscript are, to say the least, an intense source of curiosity to me. They brazenly challenge the immutable law guaranteeing that that manuscript will get lost in the mails. The advent of computer document management and cheap photocopy services has stimulated a rise in lost manuscripts, for authors who used to type an original and carbon now type an original only and bring it to a photocopy shop, where another immutable law causes it to get mixed up with somebody's master's thesis. Again, the development of computers will eventually make the question of lost manuscripts academic, but computers can crash. So keeping a hard copy is definitely a good idea.

Then there are the authors who administer tests to their agents. Some try a cute trick of turning one page in their manuscript upside down. If the agent returns the manuscript with that one page still upside down, it proves he didn't read the manuscript page for page. There are authors who quiz their agents about specific scenes and characters. A typical dialogue might sound like this:
AUTHOR: Did you like my book?
AGENT: Oh, yes, loved it, loved it.
AUTHOR: Great. What did you think of my character Pflonk?
AGENT: Pflonk? Terrific character. Nicely developed.
AUTHOR: Hah! Gotcha! There was no such character in my book!

I assure you that when it comes to an important book your agent reads your manuscript carefully. With so much riding on it, he has to. But most agents I know don't have time to read their clients' work page for page, nor do they need to in order to get a sense of its quality, organization, and pace. In fact, they don't even need to in order to sell it. With certain kinds of material, such as books in a series, a light once-over is enough to satisfy your agent that all is in order and the work follows the original outline.

Plainly, the evil that authors do may be categorized as Class B Misdemeanors, punishable by groans, rolling eyes, sighs of frustration, and indulgent smiles. I would like to think that you are as tolerant of your agent's foibles. Agents do have them. (I know this only from talking to authors). There is one extremely successful agent who likes to boast he's never read anything he's sold. And there's another who, every time he makes a big deal for a client, gloats, "That will pay for a new set of radials for my sports car," or, "Now I can put that new wing on my house."
I consider myself truly fortunate in not being possessed of any personality traits that irritate others. Well, maybe one or two. All right, maybe a few more than that. Okay, okay, so I'm riddled with them. But at least I know how to spell "Foreword."

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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2 comments:

  1. Oh, this was great. I interned for a lit agent once and this brought back some funny stories - especially the tricks played on agents. And then there was a submission where the writer asked if we could type his ms. for him, having submitted his first chapter on a legal pad.

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  2. "Then there are the authors who administer tests to their agents. Some try a cute trick of turning one page in their manuscript upside down. If the agent returns the manuscript with that one page still upside down, it proves he didn't read the manuscript page for page."

    Was it Miss Snark or Janet Reid who said that when authors try such tricks on her, she turns that page upside down again/replaces the strand of hair (ew)/puts everything back the way the tricksy authors sent it, just to mess with their heads?

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