Facts vs. Fiction – Avoid the Lena

December 16, 2014

In the nonfiction genre, a publisher’s job is to be confident that the books they publish are fact, not fiction. This can be a tough nut to crack in cases where the only proof they have is the author’s word. And I don’t want to even address those queries that insist theirs are memoirs, but have been fictionalized. WTF?

Being able to verify facts are the very reason I pass on a number of projects. I’m talking about the “Insider story!! I was there working in the Pentagon!! Explosive information that will blow the lid off America! Must read! A sure bestseller!!!” Unless they can present verified proof, then I’m really not looking for a tax audit and listening devices planted in my Vickie Secrets trouble.

End game is that we don’t wanna be sued. And we certainly don’t want our authors to be sued. Who needs the aggravation? We talk to lawyers, the authors, and their agents because we don’t want to ruin our hard-earned reputation, our author’s reputation, or the reputation of anyone who’s mentioned in the story, through intentional or thoughtless creation. And yes, sometimes the author has ulterior motives that the publisher isn’t aware of, which can be a real buzzkill.

But sometimes publishers are aware…

Which leads me to another Lena Dunham story. Yes, I realize I just blogged about her in another post, but she’s really a one-person wrecking crew. Her screw ups are valuable lessons to writers because she represents the perfect storm where idiots in positions of power are let out of their straight-jackets to run amok and destroy lives.

If Lena’s happy admission of sexually abusing her sister wasn’t enough, she went went for the double slam by discussing her college rape at the hands of a fellow student. She named him Barry, and offered up enough specific details to toss suspicion in one man’s direction…a man named Barry, whose college life mirrored the description in Lena’s tome. Predictably, he got fingered as being the college rapist. and public suspicion grew. Lena knew it. Random House knew it, because the man had been contacting them since the beginning of October. And no one did anything about clearing up the mess, until it reached critical mass. It wasn’t until the second week of December that they finally decided to cut Bary a break and admit this wasn’t the Barry in Lena’s book.

Six weeks this man was left twisting in the wind by the author and Random House.

Dunham finally wrote a statement:

“To be very clear, ‘Barry’ is a pseudonym, not the name of the man who assaulted me, and any resemblance to a person with this name is an unfortunate and surreal coincidence. I am sorry about all he has experienced.”

So it’s all a co-hinkey-dinky that Dunham’s intricately detailed description of her fictional rapist exactly matches the actual student named Barry? And she and Random House did nothing to prevent this from ever happening? I’m utterly gobsmacked at this overreaching stupidity.

The Lenas of the literary world always have an agenda, which is why it’s so important that the publisher is a real grown-up – not only to protect their author from looking like a queen-sized asshat, but also to protect themselves. Where was the editor on this, and why didn’t her bloody red editing pen intersect Lena’s manuscript with a hearty “‘Scuse me, but are you on drugs?”?

As a writer, I understand how easy it is to write with great prejudice, which is why first drafts are a writer’s bestest buddy. But at some point, the pain, anger, or agenda needs to be confronted and banished from the finished product so that the story has the highest degree of legitimacy. Narratives that spew malicious invective are on equal footing to the sixth grader who got dumped on the playground via note-passing because the boy lacked little chestnuts to break up in person. Okay, I was in fifth grade, but I digress…

Memoirs are often cathartic, so I see many manuscripts that are dripping with pain – sometimes to the point of being counterproductive. It’s my job – every editor’s job – to help show the author how to refine and shape their pain into something powerful and sage in order to maximize their story.

It’s also the editor’s job to seek out and question anything that doesn’t look to be true because lives can be destroyed. Know how long it takes to destroy someone’s reputation? About an hour, given our online lives. Authors may not care what kind of impact they make on those they write about, but publishers damn well have to. Do publishers really want to risk shouldering that responsibility?

Lena’s a putz, and life will go on just fine without her asshattery. But Random House…in all their largesse…really has me wondering exactly what the hell is going on over there. How did one book create such a hot mess of ineptitude? Such an infantile, immature decision allowed Lena to drag a man’s reputation through the muck, and they sat by and did nothing.

It’s irresponsible writing and publishing. Both author and publisher should be extremely ashamed. Avoid the Lena.

 

 


Spiffy Up Before You Query

December 15, 2014

The time to tweak your manuscript is BEFORE you query any editor. I know it seems that editors have oodles of freebie time, lunching and laughing uproariously with lovely agents, who pick up the tab. It’s a myth. Really. Only lunching I do is with the Rescues, and their table manners are abhorrent. And they never pick up the tab.

In the real world, editors’ time is precious. I try to maintain some semblance of organization by apportioning tasks to certain times. Reading submissions has to fit into a packed schedule, but I pull time aside each month in order to fire all my working brain cells on those submissions.

When an author writes back to give me the “Hold on while I tweak it,” I can only gawk. I mean, they rushed to query, captured my attention, then pulled out the literary carpet from underneath me to do the work they should have done before “Dear Kindly, Benevolent Editor” was ever written on cyber paper. So the time I put aside is now tossed out the window, and I move on to other things…grumbling all the way because I know it’ll probably be another few weeks or so before I can return to the submission.

By then, I can usually count on getting a nudge-gram asking me if I’ve had time to read their manuscript. Double argh with a side of loud sighs.

I know I sound all ranty, but for years I’ve been bleating like a goat on crack about the importance of being the consummate professional. Pulling an “oops, I’m not ready” is the antithesis. I actually had one author give me the “oops, gotta tweak it” reply, then go on to explain that he’d only sent out the query to see if anyone thought it was any good. He never expected anyone to respond! Pissed me off, it did, and I suggested that perhaps he wasn’t quite ready for prime time.

Think that author would have told a prospective employer calling for an interview, “Oh, hang on while I spiff up my resume”?

It just ain’t good bidness…spiff before you query.


Challenging Ideas Need a Platform

December 11, 2014

If your book challenges traditional thinking, you MUST have the platform to back it up. I’m all for rocking the boat and making people think. That’s the cornerstone of Behler Publications. However, I can’t possibly consider anything based solely on the merits that it challenges traditional al thinking. Ya gotta be able to back it up.

Just because you can happily survive on $12,000 a year doesn’t mean everyone can.

Just because you lost weight eating pistachio shells doesn’t mean everyone else can.

Just because you found true peace living in a tree house doesn’t mean everyone will.

You need to have cred. You need to be a respected expert to advocate and prove your premise – whatever it is – is viable. After all, the world already has enough dreamers and nutters, and that doesn’t offer carte blanche on a marketable book.

Go for the different, but be able to put your platform where your mouth is. Or be prepared for lots of rejections…


Thou Shalt Not Be a Noob

December 9, 2014

I’ve written about noobs over the years – writers who don’t know what they don’t know…and don’t care. There are all kinds of noobish behavior; sending editors nasty grams over being rejected; not researching those they query; writing synopses that don’t cough up the plot…the list is long and depressing. Depressing because all these noobish symptoms can be so easily avoided.

So here’s another one:

One of the most overused sentences in back-cover thriller, mystery synopses: “Nothing is as it seems.” – though I have seen it in other genres as well.

Please, dear writers, this is a throwaway sentence that says nothing because it has zero power. Thrillers and mysteries are, by their nature, meant to mislead and keep the reader guessing whodunit, so stating the obvious is pedestrian.

It’s equally eye-bleach worthy with other genres because you’re telling, not showing…along with being cliché.

If I see this sentence in a query or on the back of a book, I will avoid,  avoid, avoid because it smacks of noobishness. Don’t be a noob.


Queries: Be the Coach Purse

November 20, 2014

It’s a small thing, I suppose, this ranty McRant of mine. I mean, it won’t cure world hunger or lower taxes. But it may…MAY…prevent soulless editors from rolling their eyes. What am I talking about? The maddening manner in which too many authors open their query letters with The Hypothetical Question(s).

  • Have you ever been trimming your toenail cuticles and wondered what it would be like to be confined to a wheelchair? No. Actually, all I’m trying to accomplish is achieving comfy toesie status. I’m shallow that way.
  • Have you ever sat in a bar and wondered what it would be like to dance on the bartop? Um. Yes. I’m equally shallow that way.
  • Have you ever sat in traffic and wondered what it would be like to have a giant skiploader clear out all the cars? Please. I’m from California. Traffic has been elevated to a fine art.

What’s really going on with these hypothetical questions is that you’ve taken me out of your query and into my own inner dialog. You want to avoid this. At. All. Costs.

And it’s simply annoying to boot. Rather than asking me questions that are sure to draw answers infinitely different from your story, simply start your query out with a statement that draws out the set up in one easy peasy slice.

  • While in the throes of trimming his toenail cuticles, Karl sliced too deeply, drawing enough blood to fill a thimble. Damn, he thought, I’ll have to wrap the toe, which will make my shoes tight, which will make me limp all day long. Upon reflection, limping would have been a fair trade-off for what Alice, his wife, had to endure every day. Life in a wheelchair…

See how much more engaging this beginning is than a hypothetical question? The author immediately sets the stage to engage me – soulless editor – to what the story is about. Not only am I getting a bit of thought process from the protagonist, but also his sense of shame for his minor inconvenience, and empathy.

This is how you pull someone into your web…like the adorably tempting Coach purse sitting in the store window. Come to Mama! Conversely, Hypothetical Questions are the icky, gluey seepage that traps victims in, just like a stinkin’ spider so they can bite the crap out of you. Don’t be a stinkin’ spider by taking the easy way out with a Hypothetical Question. This is your time to show your talent. Be the Coach purse.


About Those Log Lines…

November 5, 2014

big-Mouth

Whenever I talk to authors at conferences, they seem to be all about delivering their log lines, which is fine because time is short, and they only have mere nanoseconds to tell me the concept of their books. It’s an invite for me to say, “Tell me more.” I’m usually rushing down the hallway to a meeting, seminar, or pitch sessions, so brevity is much appreciated.

However, a log line isn’t your pitch – it’s a concept – so these aren’t helpful in a query letter. For that, you need to lead with your story’s plot.

If you lead with this:

Log Line: “Newly free from the rat race, Twist McPherson becomes the reluctant publisher to five saucy ladies in their seventies and an internationally famous legal thriller writer with a nasty case of writer’s block and urgent desire for anonymity.”

An agent may do the literary equivalent of hanging up on you and stop reading after one sentence. Yah. It happens. A. Lot.

If you want them to keep reading, just jump right in and belch out the plot:

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 her weekly 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, Dirty Little Secrets, LLC is born, and Twist has a stable of five 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’ dirty little secrets.

It may seem a small thing, but I know many in the business who will stop after the first sentence. If that first sentence is cliché, the person reading it will roll their eyes in your general direction. And that’s the thing with log lines; they can be quite cliché, and that’s okay…so are lots of movie log lines. However, your job is to tell the acquiring editor or agent what your book is about, and a log line only offers up the overall scheme. Big difference.

Save the log line for racing down hallways with errant editors and your neighbor, who you really haven’t forgiven for borrowing your weed whacker and never returning it.


Beware the Action Beginning

October 13, 2014

actionYou know what I’m talking about…the opening pages are filled with action, action, action – be it bombs exploding, screeching tires into a dark alley, or a midnight robbery. It’s about movement and immediately capturing the reader’s attention so they keep turning the pages and pulling out their credit card to buy the book.

But here’s the thing about Action Beginnings…you have a lot to live up to. The question is: Can you?

Cheap Trick

I’ve read many submissions that have Action Beginnings, and many times I’ve belched out a “Aw, such a cheapie move!” It’s like the movie trailer that shows all the funny lines, thereby seducing movie goers that the movie is a laugh riot…only to find out that all those funny lines were in the trailer, and the movie really sucks stale Twinkie cream.

So what makes it a cheap trick?

Inconsistency:  What I mean here is that the subsequent chapters are snooze fests.The Action Beginning is amazing and pulls the reader in, but then the next chapters are about as exciting as my attempts at meatloaf. These often read like two writers collaborated; one says, “Let me write the coolio begining, and you write the rest.” Only the other writer has no clue how to match the voice, pace, and flow of the Action Beginning.

This happened when I read a submission where the story opened with a dramatic, fingie-nail-bitey scene of a doc caring for a patient with a gunshot wound in the ER. Ooo, my heart was a-pumpin’, let me tell you. But then the following chapters backtracked to the doc getting up in the morning, figuring out what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, and walking the dog…the mundane. Being the heartless, ill-tempered editor that I am, I allowed The Rescue Beagles to use it for bed lining because the author’s fast-paced, tension-filled chapter was followed with the achingly everyday. It was like the author sent me from zero to 90 mph, only to suddenly stop and slam me into a brick wall.

Action Beginnings are great when they gradually let you down and slide you into the following scene. The boring chapters about the doc’s day made me want to go back to the first chapter, where something was happening. I felt dragged to the next chapters kicking and screaming…I didn’t go there willingly…because the author didn’t know how to properly organize his story. All the literary talent of the Action was missing from the next chapters.

Be consistent, or go home.

Logical: My other Cheap Trick litmus test is whether the Action Beginning is logical.

I remember reading a submission years ago where the story opened with a tension-filled robbery in the dead of night. Great chapter. Totally into it. After that chapter was over, the story went backwards in time to twelve years before, and was about as exciting as a root canal. There was no action, very little character development, and no indication of a plot. It became evident that the robbery chapter wasn’t a pivotal piece to the story, but merely a misadventure of one of the characters.

In short, it wasn’t logical. There wasn’t anything important about that Action Beginning other than it was a really cool chapter. It had very little to do with the overall plot.

Upon asking why he led with it, the author replied that he’d been told  it was a good idea to start a book with action. Ouch. Since the author only used the Action Beginning in order to draw the reader in, I labeled it a Cheap Trick and suggested that he yank it out and put it further back in the book, where it made more sense.

Ask yourself if it makes sense to put the Action chapter at the beginning. Is it important to the plot?

More importantly, ask yourself why you’re using that particular Action chapter for your beginning. Is it a good lead-in to your next chapters? Understanding your motivation is important to your writing arsenal. Don’t get me wrong; Action Beginnings can be a fabulous writing tool, but it can also go horribly wrong. If you start with a bang, you gotta keep that bang going.

Have you read Action Beginnings that you felt belonged there, or did you want to give the author a wedgie?

 


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