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!

How To Get an Editor to Hit the Delete Button

March 23, 2015


  1. Send two proposals for two different manuscripts, because we love playing “hey, if this one doesn’t work for us, maybe the other will.”
  2. Pull the ultimate laziness factor by not removing the little > marks in your email, so I can tell that your email has been sent to others – like this:

> I would be interested in publishing my book with you because I want to impact the world by bringing >important facts to the audience…

…because nothing says lovin’ like knowing I’m reading a retread query.

Your Manuscript Should Do a Striptease

March 11, 2015

No, no, I’m not talking about you…but your manuscript. Naked is the only way to go. I can hear you now: “What the hellfire are you talking about, Pricey?”

When you submit your manuscript – whether it’s an editor request, or you’re a contracted author handing over your darling to begin the editing process – it’s tempting to want to “help” your editor by formatting your manuscript. This is different from the standard formatting – 12 pt. Times New Roman, standard paragraphs, double-spaced. THIS is all editors want. Keep it simple. Keep it as naked as the day it was born.

No, the make-me-scream-like-a-banshee “helpful”formatting I’m talking about is the stuff that makes editors want to scream for a quick death:

  • Formatting the chapter headings, maybe doing about 10 carriage returns, so the new chapter begins about halfway down the page.
  • Formatting chapter breaks into sections (this one alone has been responsible for my drinking late into the night).
  • Formatting the page numbers, inserting your name on one page, and the book title on the next page.
  • Formatting the first letter in every new chapter so that it’s twice the size of the regular font.
  • Doing artsy fartsy line spacing.

Three words: DON’T DO IT. Don’t do any of this. All that formatting adds a ton of code into the file, and it wreaks havoc when some poor shlub (me) has to go in and undo all of it. Instead, submit your manuscript naked as a jaybird. Bare-assed. In the buff. Sans clothing.

You may think your manuscript looks all pretty, but all publishing houses have a standard way of formatting. And it all has to be undone before editing begins. Wasting precious time removing all the unwanted clothing makes me want to mainline engine grease. If you want to be helpful, send a box of Twinkies. Or Girl Scout cookies (those coconutty caramel things are to die for). But leave your mitts off da manuscript. Your finished product will look really pretty. Scouts honor.

You can keep your clothes on, but let your manuscript go skinny-dipping.


Character Development – Make Me Care

March 6, 2015

Generally when I give a crit regarding the need to fully develop the character, it’s because the author failed to let me into the character’s head enough. If I don’t care about a character, then I won’t give a rip about what they’re experiencing. A lot of writers over-think this and wonder what they’re doing wrong.

Don’t sweat this – it’s a lot easier to fix this than you think.

Think about what it’s like to meet someone new. You don’t know anything about them, so when they say they’re going skiing for the weekend, you’re probably making a mental note to go buy dental floss. Who cares? However, when a friend tells me the same thing, I instantly know that she’s freaking out about it because the last time she went, she broke her leg. Since I know her very well, she’s a fully developed character to me. I know what makes her happy/scared/excited/worried/etc because I know what’s inside her head.And more importantly, I have a good idea how she’ll react.

In this same fashion, it’s the author’s job to introduce the reader to his character(s) and expose enough about that character so we care what happens to her. But this means that you need to know your character very well – something I blogged about in How Well Do You Know Your Character?

In getting to know your character, you may think about The Dangling Carrot, which will help you flesh out your character on a deeper level.

The mechanics of how this is done can be through dialog, inner dialog, and deftly used exposition…

Speaking of dialog, it’s a cool way to show your character rather than tell your character. What I mean is this:

Telling your character:

Jane was the quirky sort who looked at the world through a skewed lens. She was on a few degrees off plumb.

On the face of it, the sentence is fine, but what if her dialog never reveals these characteristics? Then I have no choice but to take your word for it; and I won’t. Ah, the beauty and importance of excellent, smart dialog!

Here’s an example of showing your character through dialog:

“What’s the fun of attending this stuffy tea if we can’t have a little fun? I say we spike the teapot with cheap gin and watch those university wives get down with the funk. With a little bit of luck, they’ll hike up their skirts and splash about the marble fountain. It’d be the most fun they’ve had since having their braces removed.”

The dialog makes the first example sentence (tell) unnecessary. The reader already has it figured out that the character is a few degrees off plumb…and someone I instantly care about. In just that one paragraph, I want to know what else this crazy character is going to do or say.

In truth, it actually takes very little to make a reader care about your characters, but you have to know what you’re doing, and you have to do it consciously.

I always appreciate authors who show rather than tell because this adds an extra layer to character development. You’re getting the idea across about your character by letting her speak, rather than giving your readers a menu. As I always say, you can tell me something ’til the cows come home, but until you show me, well…I’d rather go cow tipping.

Make ’em care.




Rejections – Oh, the temptation…

March 5, 2015

When you receive a rejection, a personal rejection that outlines the specifics as to why an editor or agent is making the pass, it’s very tempting to reply…to justify, defend, or to simply explain.

My recommendation?

Don’t. Just. Don’t. When I reject something – for whatever reason – it’s a signal that I’ve moved on. I’m no longer thinking about that query because, well, I rejected it, and my pea-sized brain doesn’t have enough room to mull over something I let go. I have far too many other queries, chapters, or full manuscripts that require my attention. The last thing I need is for an author to continue a conversation in order to plead his/her case.

To put it succinctly, I’m. Over. You. I’m sure you’re lovely, and we’d have a blast over wine and cheese. But I have a business to run, and your constant emails begin to make my teeth itch.

It’s true that oftentimes I’ll write personal comments in my rejection letters, but I do this in order to help the author improve their query. Whether the hook is missing or I see a serious lack of a platform, I reject for lots of different reasons. A personal rejection isn’t an invitation to open a dialog. I’ve moved on, and so should you.

There are millions of wonderful editors out there, so wasting time emailing me to defend your work doesn’t get you any closer to your objective. Instead, I get a wee bit creeped out.

Be professional. Act professionally. And keep your dignity.

When I Know I’ve Been Working Too Hard…

March 5, 2015


New Editing Marks

February 24, 2015


Behler authors…beware


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