Who Says Editors Don’t Squee?

July 13, 2015

A Chick in the Cockpit -final

There is a palpable high I get when completing the final hard edit. This is the point where all the commas are nestled properly in their beds, misspellings are given the hatchet job, and rewording is is given a shampoo and set. It’s the point where Ms. Manuscript goes from being a double-spaced bit of a slop to a formatted thing of beauty. All the chapter headings are prettified, the copyright page gets a facelift, and the cover is completed – all in preparation to going in for the final hard read before going to the printer’s for ARCs (Advanced Reader Copy).

I love this part because Ms. Manuscript is transformed. She’s lost about ten pesky pounds and is now sporting a new hairdo with blond highlights. It’s one of my little rituals with every book to look back to the time when Ms. Manuscript first arrived on my desk, and compare her to her current makeover. Where she was a bit tentative and shy, she now shines and struts her stuff with amazing confidence, and yodels, “Heck yah, I’m ready for the marketplace!” Never fails, I squee every time.

Erika cockpit

And boyo, A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT, written by the achingly talented and hideously indomitable Erika Armstrong, is definitely squee worthy. Every time I finished reading an edited round, I fell in love that much more.

I’ve always been one of those passengers who was afraid to get out of her seat because of the recurring nightmare of spilling my huge glass of water on a passenger’s head. Turbulence. Never been more mortified. Thought the flight attendant was going to laugh up a lung. <shudder>

One of things I love most about our authors is that I always learn something vital that I can apply to my own life.

And Erika’s book really made me think about the choices we make in our professions and the sacrifices we (and our families) make in pursuing our dreams. How many of us become lopsided and only give focus to our job, while ignoring other aspects of our lives that keep us whole and balanced? Guiltily raising my hand here.

It took me a year to write my first novel, and while the book earned awards and such, I’d become little more than part of the dining room furniture (where I’d holed up to write). Upon finishing, I blinked around and wondered when my son sprouted up to six feet and my daughter decided to change her hair color. What else had I missed? Did not get the Mom Award that year.

Living out of balance can ignite subtle changes into great big “Holy Hell!” moments. Taking your eyes off your flight plan can send you crashing to earth. And I needed to hear that. I’m willing to bet a lot of other people need to hear it, too…which is why I’m in squee mode about this book.

So much of Erika’s story is hilarious – I mean, how could it not be when a sweet Midwestern woman is stuck in a cockpit with a bunch of raunchy men for thousands of hours? The idea of taking control of a huge commercial jet and taking hundreds of people from Point A to Point B gives me the willies, but Erika does it with ease and finesse. And a lot of guts. And she takes complete control in her fabulous book, as well.

I hope that come November 10, you’ll, pull away from whatever you’ve been giving an unbalanced amount of focus, fasten your seatbelt, and let Erika take you for one helluva ride.

Yep, I’m still squeeing.

 


Queries the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference Way

July 6, 2015

Mid-July is a special time for me, because it means that it’s time to trek to Seattle for the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference – July 16-19.

I’ve been honored to be a part of this conference for about four years (or is it five?), and I’ve loved every one of them. The talent base is amazing. I’m not sure if it’s because the constant rain keeps people off the streets, thereby increasing their BIC Index (Butt In Chair), or whether talent simply gravitates to the Pacific Northwest because it’s so achingly beautiful. Whatever the reason, I’ve been fortunate to have signed two wonderful authors from that conference over the years – the achingly talented Heidi Cave, author of FANCY FEET, and the equally talented Kim Kircher, author of THE NEXT 15 MINUTES: STRENGTH FROM THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN – so the conference and fabulous staff hold a very dear place in my heart.

Among my duties at the conference is to sit in on a panel about query letters, particularly what grabs my attention. I’ll wait for you to grab your bottle of antacids and bottle of Jim Beam, because we all know that query letters have been written about by anyone with a pulse in the publishing industry, and we’re all ready to take a blade to our own jugulars.

However, if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that there are no rules. Scary, huh? I’ve seen stuff that breaks all the “rules” and stuff that made my eyes glaze over.

The most important thing is make it easy. You can buy books…BOOKS…that talk about nothing but how to write a query letter. Gag me, already. Let’s keep it simple and real. All a query letter does is tell an editor about your book. Since we don’t reside in your head, you gotta be clear, so let’s start with some basics:

Who, What, When, Where, Why?

Who: Okay, this is easy…we’re talking about your main characters. Don’t get hung up on ancillary characters. My eyes have glazed over when authors want to tell me about every character that draws a breath in their stories. If they’re not intrinsic to the overall plot, then leave ’em out. Who cares. Stay on point.

What: Again, this should be easy if you stick to the main points. All the little subplots don’t really matter as much, so don’t bother taking up more than a sentence…and only include them if it’s an added benefit to the overall plot.

Having a tough time narrowing it down? Start small and build up. Pretend you have a friend who has about five seconds to catch her train but wants to know the gist of your book. All you have time for is about two sentences. So figure out what those two sentences are that best describe your book and build from there.

Example:

Twist McPherson is an accidental romance publisher charged with trying to protect the identities of three genteel ladies, all in their seventies, who write some of the hottest, yet refined erotica to hit the shelves in years, and the internationally famous legal thriller author, Jack Crawford, whose secret romance stories help him shatter his writer’s block.

You’re looking only for the high points, but it’s given you enough to begin building a longer query.

When: The time period really helps. I want to know if the story takes place in the 50’s or 2015. Makes a huge difference.

Why: Why is the story taking place? I know, sounds simplistic, but you’d be amazed how often it’s omitted in a query. It’s the Action/Reaction…something happened that caused the story to take place, and it’s important to talk about it.

Example:

Twist McPherson, on permanent hiatus from the rat race, moves to Palm Springs and sets about writing the Great American Novel. Her timing couldn’t be worse; the sour economy has publishers signing only the big blockbusters, like world class author Jack Crawford and his courtroom dramas. After one too many Harvey Wallbangers with her best friend Roz, Twist agrees to dust off her advertising talents and create her own publishing company.

Where: Simple. Where does the story take place? Again, it’s important, because editors include all this information when thinking about marketing and promo plans.

Here’s an example of a synopsis I wrote up for my seminars that gives you the who, what, when, why, where:

Twist McPherson, on permanent hiatus from the rat race, moves to Palm Springs and sets about writing the Great American Novel. Her timing couldn’t be worse; the sour economy has publishers signing only the big blockbusters, like world class author Jack Crawford and his courtroom dramas. After one too many Harvey Wallbangers with her best friend Roz, Twist agrees to dust off her advertising talents and create her own publishing company.

During a chance Mah Jong game with a group of saucy ladies, all in their 70s, Twist casually mentions her publishing plans. Before she can eat the olive out of her martini, Naughty Little Secrets, LLC is born, and Twist has a stable of three new writers who, under nom de plumes, have spent the past three years writing some of the hottest, yet refined erotica to hit the electronic bookshelves. As southern belle, Lucinda Du Pont, drawls over tea spiked with Jack Daniel’s, “Smut sells, dear.”

In the midst of cover designs and distribution, Twist—so named for her metaphorical gifts of rearranging the male anatomy during tough business negotiations—meets the mighty Jack Crawford, newly arrived to the desert to finish his faltering tenth book and meet his thrice-past-due deadline. He absolves his writer’s block by writing for Twist under the name Marcella de la Prentiss.

It wouldn’t have been so bad had Chicago Times book reviewer Carl Beckenham not smelled a story in the young new publisher who blasted onto the scene with her classy advertisements and sophisticated promotion. But Snarlin’ Carl’s nose for a hot story has him digging deeper into Twist’s business to find out the identity of her writers, which threatens Jack’s career and the ladies’ naughty little secrets.

Consistent Voice

One thing I’m very sensitive to is voice in a query letter. I like to get a feel for the tone of the story by the flavor of the query letter. I think it’s easy to see that this synopsis is for a light-hearted rom com, and the writing matches the tone of the query. Too many times I see light-hearted query letters, and get the idea it’s a light-hearted story, only to suffer a shock when I see the writing is very deep and heavy. Misfire!

So see? It’s not rocket science, but it does take lots of thought because this is the intro to you and your story to a total stranger. We’ll be discussing this stuff a ton at PNWA in Seattle on July 16-19, so I hope to see you there. It’s always a ton of fun and a huge wealth of knowledge!


Writing Awards – Somethin’ You Oughta Know…

June 9, 2015

winner

Many of the queries that drop into my inbox talk about the lovely awards they’ve won. It feels awesome to have your work sporting a gold medal. Sometimes there’s an added bonus of having an agent or editor take a look at the winner with the idea of representation or publication. Woot!! You stand out as being a talented writer, and that should give you confidence in your talents. But you’ve only just begun the journey. The biggest hurdle is whether your story is marketable.

I’ve been on many judging panels over the years, and I’ve never seen anything in any of the judging guidelines about marketability…which is the cornerstone of the publishing industry. I’ve put my little gold stamp of approval on many entrees, knowing full well they would be very tough to sell. Which sucks stale Twinkie cream.

Many of these stories (since I’m Memoir/Biography) focus on overcoming/dealing with devastating diseases/addiction/life changes…the list goes on forever. The problem is that these stories have been done to death, and there’s often nothing unique in these stories to set them apart from what’s already on store shelves. So unless the author has a huge platform that can gather national attention, that award winner could gather dust.

Many look at writing awards as helping to establish a platform, and this is worrisome. See, readers, on average, don’t follow writing awards. They look for content and a great plot…and maybe a really cool cover. With the gajillions of books on the marketplace, a writing competition win isn’t enough to help a book swim upstream because readers have a huge amount of reading options. A publisher can advertise, screech from bartops, hire airplanes to lug banners, and thrust free copies into hands of anyone with a heartbeat…and they still may not sell. It’s a crapshoot, which is why publishers are very choosy about the projects they accept for publication. Which takes us right back to, “Can I market this book?”

I still think writing competitions are cool, and I think it does a lot of good for a writer’s self-esteem to win one. But don’t rest on your laurels. Ask yourself if your book is marketable. And the only way to know that is to be keenly aware of your competition.

Happy writing!


Books That Blow My “Mother” Doors Off

May 19, 2015

Even though Mother’s Day has recently come and gone, I spent some time looking at our wonderful list of books that made me think of how amazing mothers are, and three instantly came to mind.

heart-warriors-smHEART WARRIORS by Amanda Adams blew my “mother” doors off the first time I read it because of the dedication and sacrifice Amanda made for her son, Liam. Let’s face it, moms are the heart and soul of most families. When we fumble and flail, so does the family. We have to be stronger than the sum of our parts, and Amanda’s brave and terrifying story highlights the guts and love it takes to be a mom by standing up to doctors, asshat observers, and anyone who failed to help Liam get better. Brava, Amanda, you’re one helluva Momma Bear.

 

Amy-TimesUnionFSO - lo RESFIGURING SH!T OUT by Amy Biancolli made me sit back and take stock of what it’s like to deliver tough news, be strong, and have all the answers. My life has been pretty gilded, but one flaw (of the many) is that I always felt I had to have all the answers for my kids when they were younger. And sometimes there aren’t any answers, and the only thing you can do is hug them and admit that you’re floundering just like they are.

We would do anything for our kids not to hurt, and a piece of us dies when we see them suffering. One poignant scene in Amy’s raucous, tender, brilliantly written book is when one of Amy’s daughters is so bereft over losing her father that her own thoughts turn fairly dark. Amy fervently prays for her husband to visit her daughter. Next morning, the daughter awakens with a whole new perspective, saying her father came to her in a dream and told her he was happy and that he loved her. Niagra Falls…went through a box of Kleenex. But what Amy’s book also did for me is show the power of not being afraid to redefine oneself through losing a cherished love. It made her a better person and mom. That has my mom-o-meter quivering over Achingly Stunning.

 

Cockpit-smA CHICK IN THE COCKPIT by Erika Armstrong is an upcoming release (Nov. 2015). Erika’s book, in a nutshell is “A brilliant career in the sky brings aching despair on the ground.” What mother doesn’t become a Bitch-Bear-From-Hell when her kids are at risk? Erika’s skyrocketing career as an airline captain is seriously damaged when her abusive husband threatens her life and the welfare of her two daughters. The lengths of what she endures is stuff you just can’t make up, and I cheer and screech every time I think of her journey to protect her life and her kids. The angst and fabulously amusing humor popped my #1 Mom of the Century cork. And who doesn’t love a plucky book club who comes to Erika’s rescue at a hugely critical time? I salute them and bow before Erika’s incredible fortitude, MamaBear-itude, and brilliance.

Definitely put this on your To Be Read list. In fact, go buy all three. They’re feel-good-in-the-face-of-shit-odds stories that make all the cells in me vibrate at a different frequency. And that’s a good thing!


Upstaged…

April 30, 2015

image

It’s a fact…so write about your dog with great care. The Rescue Beagles insist they’re far cuter than their owner…


Mainlining Drano

March 31, 2015

There are a number of things that make me want to drink/mainline Drano. I’ve talked about them over the years…and wouldn’t you know, but I have a new batch of goodies.

  • Font color: Write your query letter in light gray, so that my weary eyes strain to the point of crossing.
  • Begin your query by admitting your work probably doesn’t fit our guidelines: (actually, this is a benefit of sorts, because I can delete that much faster without having to read the entire query). For crying out loud. If your work doesn’t fit a publisher’s guidelines, then why in the name of all that’s holy are you querying them? Editors are busy folks, and they’ll simply delete without replying – so you’ve wasted not only your time, but the editor’s as well. Not a smart idea.
  • Word Count: Make sure your manuscript is miles under the minimum word count. For example, the sweet spot for most mainstream publishers is between 50k – 100k words. They will usually specify that they publish shorts. But if you’ve written something that clocks in at about 30,000 words, it becomes more of a pamphlet than a book. This is especially irritating with nonfiction because, really? A nonfiction pamphlet on how to survive getting laid off/leaving a cult/dealing with falling in love with your best friend’s boyfriend…How much depth can you attain with 30,000 words? Puhleeze.
  • Request Help: Ask me for help in directing you to a publisher who does publish your kind of work. Um. Yah. Nothing would excite me more than to do your work for you.
  • Query Length: Just today I had a query that went on for six pages. SIX. Deleted without reply.

After thirteen years in this business, I still remain gobsmacked at the ability of authors to shoot themselves in their own feet and guarantee instant, sudden death rejection…especially since it takes so little research to understand how this crazy business works and the most beneficial ways to approach an editor or agent in a professional manner.

Okay, pass me the Drano…

 


Burden of Proof – Does Your Pitch Match the Content?

March 23, 2015

I see a lot of fabulous query letters that show oodles of promise, but what invariably happens is that the manuscript fails to deliver, and here are a couple reasons why:

  1. The bells and whistles elements are only a small part of the story
  2. The author fails to recognize the marketable, mouth-watery aspects.

The bells and whistles elements are only a small part of the story

Let’s say your story is about suffering a tragic car accident right before striking it big in Hollywood. The stars are all in alignment, and you’ve been cast in the movie role of a lifetime. Your receiving an Oscar is all but assured, until you’re t-boned by a drunk driver that shatters about every bone in your body. You spend the next seven years healing, learning to walk again, and clawing your way back to Hollyweird.

Naturally, I expect the story to be built around this struggle and triumph. But what I invariably run into is a lack of sufficient red meat to sustain the story because the author feels it’s important to write huge chunks of backstory. And here’s the problem with that:

  • Unless your college experiences are germane to the story arc, then I don’t care.
  • Unless your dating and ultimate marriage to your spouse is germane to the story arc, then I don’t care.
  • Unless your family issues are germane to the story arc, then I don’t care.
  • Even the backstory of getting into acting isn’t germane to the story, so I don’t care.

You’ve pitched a very narrow experience, so all the backstory reduces your main selling feature in the part of bit player. And why does this happen?

A) That narrow experience may not have enough red meat to sustain a book-length manuscript (and may be better     as a magazine article)
B) You haven’t outlined your story carefully enough to know what’s important. And this can depend on your readership. Depending on who will read your book can influence the elements you focus on. For example, if your readers will be other acting wannabe’s, you might bring out more narrative about how hard it is to be a “used-to-be” who’s trying to break back into the biz. There are all kinds of ways to develop your story depending on your audience.

A story filled mostly with backstory instead of red mean is not a marketable story. Rejection is inevitable…and this is because:

The author fails to focus solely on the marketable, mouth-watery aspects

Here’s the easiest way to ensure your story matches your query letter: Does your pitch accurately explain the guts and red meat of your manuscript, or do you have a ton of other elements that have nothing to do with the pitch?

I know it sounds dreadfully simple, but I’m amazed at the number of manuscripts I reject because the pitch (which is mouth-watery) plays second fiddle to what’s actually written in the manuscript. It feels like bait and switch. If I’m pitching a story about unicorns that take over the world by farting rainbows then I’m going to infuriate editors when they see that my story focuses more on the gremlins who corralled and rode the unicorns in order to raid the camps of local hoodlum elves.

The pitch MUST match the content of your book, or I’ll have a hissy fit and stamp my little feet.

Another problem is that the author doesn’t recognize the marketable elements of their story. Let’s use an example. A woman mentions being part of the first female firefighters ever hired, but her pitch is more about growing up on the mean streets of Detroit, a child of divorce whose parent suffered from chemical dependency and prostitution, and discovers she suffers from PTSD over her childhood issues.

Here’s my problem: There are a million books on growing up poor; children of divorce and whose parents were less than stellar; and PTSD over childhood issues. HOWEVER, there are zippo books about being a part of the first female firefighters. That, I can sell. The other issues would send my sales guys after me with a sharpened blade.

So while I’ll definitely ask for pages in order to see the quality of writing, and to see where the focus really is, I’ll probably hit a crossroad. If the writing is really good, I’ll probably suggest a major rewrite that focuses on the one thing I know I can sell – the firefighter bit. Or I’ll reject it because it’s too big a misfire for me to take on.

It’s frightfully easy to misfire, but only if you aren’t doing conscious writing and lack a clear intent on the marketable elements of your story. You’re the captain of your writing ship, and the burden of proof about communicating your story in a query letter rests squarely on your shoulders.

Your query MUST match your manuscript, and you need to know exactly what makes your story a “gotta have it.” In order to know if you have a “gotta have it” story, you need to be well-versed in the genre you write and be aware of what sells well vs. what’s been overdone.

Hey, if it were easy, everyone would be a best-selling author, right? Go forth and be brilliant!


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