Are There Too Many Painters in Your Cave?

July 14, 2014

alien

It’s been going on since the first cave scratchings back in Troglodyte days…unsolicited advice from “Helpful Friends.”

Trog: Dude, awesome rendering of last week’s Wooly Mammoth hunt…but you might want to re-draw Blorg’s broken foot mishap when the Wooly stepped on him.

Grog: Really? Hmm…okay. [artistic editing ensues]

Krog: Dude, cool drawing, but you might want to re-think those bushes. Looks more like green hornets.

Grog: Really? Hmm…okay. [artistic editing ensues]

Wog: Dude, amazing wall painting, but the sunset was more purple than orange…

Grog: Really? Hmm…okay. [artistic editing ensues]

Slog: Dude…what is that you painted on the wall?

Grog: I have no fecking idea.

And this is what happens when there are too many painters in the cave. The original version is now an unrecognizable rendering that doesn’t reflect the painter’s vision.

I’ve seen this many times over the years, and it never ceases to send me running for the tequila bottle because these “Helpful Suggestions” tear away at the author’s confidence.

It usually starts small…“Oh, I loved your book, but you might want to change the _______(fill in the blank).”

Once the author gives power to that suggestion, the “Helpful Friend” realizes he/she wields some power, and offers more “Helpful Suggestions” to “improve” the book. It’s about this time when emails come to me asking whether these “Helpful Suggestions” have merit.

Hmm.

Here are some things to remember:

  • You and your editor spent countless hours poring over your manuscript, discussing intent, nuance, pace, flow…the whole enchilada.
  • No one knows the inner workings of your book or your soul better than your editor. She is your head cheerleader, chief bottle washer, and overall den mother.
  • There is no better, stronger advocate than your editor, and the last thing she wants to change is your voice or your story, or have you wake up one day wondering, “Holy crap, who wrote this?” Eeeek.

Your “Helpful Friends” didn’t take this journey with you. They’re imprinting their version of what they think you should have written…and here’s the thing: Opinions are like belly buttons…everybody’s got one. It’s a fact that you’ll never satisfy every reader, and if you give weight to every critique that comes your way, you’ll be special ordering a designer straightjacket post haste – along with changing your book into something that didn’t come from you.

I know it’s hard – because you adore your friends – but resist the temptation to listen to their every comment. By the time they read it, that book of yours is in granite. It can’t and won’t be changed. The time to elicit offers of critique is when you’ve just completed your manuscript, and you’re asking for beta readers – not when they’re reading your galley proofs!

If you run into some “Helpful Friends,” and believe me, you will, smile politely, grit your teeth (because unsolicited critiques are a pain in the ass), thank them, and put those comments where the sun don’t shine. The literary ship has sailed, and you don’t need the aggravation of wondering if what you wrote is good. It is. Have faith in yourself and your editor that you got it right.

Don’t be Grog. Don’t allow too many painters into your cave.

 


Taking a Pulse on Your Writing

June 27, 2014

pulse

You know, there are all kindsa milestones: Getting married, having babies, having bestselling books, rescuing errant beagles. But I never considered having a heart attack as one of those milestones. I don’t recommend it. I spent this past Wednesday in the ER with one such offender. After rotting in the ER (where I got amazing care), they moved me to a room and did a heart cath – which scared the ever-lovin’ SHIT outta me. But they drugged me so much, that I’m sure I belted out my high school locker combo and my shoe size. The upside was that I didn’t need a stent, so my arteries appear not to have abandoned me. Yay. But now I have a buncho pills that will be hitched to my side for life. Meh. For someone who doesn’t take so much as aspirin, this is a real buzzkill.

I know there’s nothing worse than a reformed anything…ex-smokers (even though I never smoked) and the formerly overweight drive me particularly crazy…but I’m convinced that had I paid attention and taken better care of myself by getting yearly lab tests to measure my cholesterol, I wouldn’t have had this little reminder of my mortality. So if you avoid doing the doctor thang (“I’m too busy,” “I’m fine!”) take note and get thee to the doc and have your labs run. This shit really is a silent killer – or, thankfully, in my case, a silent “Hey, dumbass, take care of yourself.” The alternative is definitely unpleasant.

And it’s the same with writing. It’s so easy for a story to get away from us. Sometimes it’s a good thing because we can go off in directions that we hadn’t considered before. Other times, it’s as bad as ignoring going to the doc for checkups. I’ve been going round and round with one particular author for a couple months now. I think it could really be cool, but I have the distinct feeling she simply doesn’t have a good pulse on what she wants her story to say, so there’s no direction. Just like when the doc says, “Pricey, your enzyme levels just went up again,” (insert Pricey swearing here), your writing is challenging you to check its literary enzymes as well.

You gotta be present at all times, or you may end up with something that requires electricity, a mile’s worth of wires, some bells and a whistle, two paddles slathered with gel, and a brave soul who will yell, “CLEAR!” You are the heart and soul of your story, so be very clear and confident about its direction.

I will say that the ER went very quiet when it was determined that I was, indeed, in possession of a heart. Who knew?


Is Your Story Unique?: Beating The Proverbial Smooshed Spider…

June 17, 2014

stepped onI hate spiders and simply stepping on them isn’t enough satisfaction for me. I have to smoosh them into the pavement with sweated brow, gritted teeth, and a “take that, you hairy six/eight-legged biting bastard.” Reason being, I’ve had more than one spider beat feet for cover after I’ve stepped on him. Gah! The horror! Any spider that’s survived one of my stilettos is bound to be pissed off and seek the immediate services of every poison-fanged arachnid this side of the Rockies. I’m certain of this.

So for me, it’s overkill in spite of my hub’s admonishments: “Babe, you spread him all over the patio. I’m pretty sure it’s dead.”

Which is what brings me to the point of my post: Being Unique

It’s been said a million billion times at writer’s conferences and writer’s sites on the ‘Net…IF YOU WRITE IN A CROWDED CATEGORY, YOU MUST MUST MUST DISCUSS THE UNIQUE QUALITIES OF YOUR STORY.

It’s not enough to talk about your personal issues with infertility, because, well, um, no one cares. This is a discussion that’s crowding store shelves in every bookstore and online store.

The only way to capture an editor’s attention is for you to show the elements that make your story different from everything else out there. I’ll yawn hearing about the lengths you went through to have a family, because I’ve read this before, and you’ll become the proverbial smooshed spider. Many times over, in fact.

However, if you tell me that inverting your eyelids while doing the Hokey Pokey in a biker bar got those eggs and sperms doing the mambo, I assure you that I’ll read further.

Platform – Who You Be?

Yes, yes, I know. Much has been made of author platform, so I’ll continue to belabor the point. You may be well known in a particular field – say advertising, or website production – but that won’t transfer over to your topic of infertility. So the question for me is always, “Who are you? Do you have a big enough presence that I can promote you?”

Let’s face it, a national figure can pretty much break wind in church, write a book about it, and have it hit the NY Times bestseller list. But we mortals can’t. It’s incredibly helpful if your platform complements your subject matter. It’s incredibly helpful if LOTS of people know you.

There are many good books that die an unnatural death (much like any spider that dares cross my threshold), and it’s because the authors’ platforms aren’t large enough to attract an audience. No one knows them. Those books get caught up in the white noise of every other title clamoring for a readership.

So, once again, I bleat on like a yak strung out on crack…please, dear writers, if you write in a crowded category, do your homework and read your competition so you understand what makes your book different. Then ask yourself why someone would buy your book instead of the well-known actor/researcher/politician/expert in the field. If you’re not sure, then you need to work on finding a way to carve your own niche.

And speaking of carving niches, I think my friend, Sonia Marsh, is a prime example of doing an amazing job of creating one’s own niche. She took her story, Freeways to Flip-Flops, a wonderful travelogue about living on a tropical island, and turned it into an industry of what she calls Gutsy Living. She’s worked her apostrophe off promoting her book and ideaology into the mainframe, and it’s heartening to see the response. There are many travelogues in the marketplace, but Sonia added a twist of Gutsy Living, which is something that everyone can mumble, “Hell yeah, I’d like to live more gutsy.”

I’m sure Sonia would agree that creating her platform was the hardest thing about publication – and she’d be right. You can write like the wind, but if you don’t have a unique message and an established footprint in the marketplace, you may find yourself the goo under someone’s shoe.

Don’t be the spider. Tell me what makes your story unique and how your platform supports/enhances your story.


Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference – The Best…Accept No Imposters

June 16, 2014

I adore the PNWA for many reasons. First of all is the location. Who doesn’t love gorgeous Seattle? I think it’s why there are so many wonderful writers there. Seattle attracts all kinds of talent.

The second thing I love is how they spoil us editors and agents. They work us like dogs, but they are the only conference I’ve gone to that has the best goody bags…including wine! Wheee!

But most importantly is the staff who makes this conference possible. They bring in top speakers, offer wonderful seminars, and are incredibly helpful at helping new writers who are looking for advice. There have been any number of time when someone working the conference brought a writer over to me, suggesting that I could answer a lot of their questions. That’s why we are there, and the conference makes full use of that.

If you’re looking for a great conference staffed with friendly people and lots of great information, you will love the PNWA. The conference is July 17 – 20. Here’s a cool video they put up. Hope to see you there!


Editing…A Dying Art?

June 11, 2014

image

I’m not sure what’s up with the growing lack of knowing the rudimentary basics of English. It’s a rarity to read a news article that’s error free. Are we,  as a nation, being dumbed down? Years ago, a blunder like the pic above would have never happened because the person writing it would have done it right in the first place. Or the person editing would have caught it. Or the printer would have caught it. But now? No one is minding the literary chicken coop.

So while it’s funny and proffers up the expected how-horrible! groans, it’s a symptom of something far worse and pathetic. Really, we should aspire to excellence, right?


It’s an Either/Or Kinda Thing

June 8, 2014

confused1
Words that don’t incite a lot of confidence when reading a query letter:

“My story is 60,000 words and counting…”

Um. Either you’re done writing, or you aren’t.

I rarely have my tinfoil hat on these days (messes with my hair and gives the Rescue Beagles too much mirth), so I have no idea what “and counting” means, other than you’re still tinkering/rewriting. This makes me wonder why you’re querying. It’s a small thing, but you can see where it may put an editor’s mindset.

Only query if you’re done done done. That way, your word count will be a finite thing – 65,000 words. Not “and counting.”

Thus endeth today’s tidbit.

 


What Is Your Goal?

June 3, 2014

image

It’s not as nutty as it sounds. If you find yourself tinkering, obsessing, waking up at odd hours of the night, and overall re-editing to ad nauseum, you may need to check into the Betty Ford Finish the Damn Manuscript Clinic. Of course, conscientious writers go over their manuscripts a ton of times to make sure it reads exactly the way they want it to – but they also realize when it’s right and ready. This isn’t what I’m talking about. This is the author who messes about structure, organization, voice, and the story itself. Yikes.

Many years ago I had an author who simply couldn’t let her manuscript go. She refused to finalize it so we could go to print. She wanted to change this, rearrange that. The manuscript was perfect, and her changes were beginning to warp the original voice and pace. She wouldn’t listen, and I couldn’t go to print without her permission, so we reached a rectal/cranial inversion impasse. We were dangerously close to missing our deadline, but she kept her claw-like grip on her work.

Not having any choice, I canceled the project. Yes, it cost me dearly, and I was beyond pissed off, but I realized the author had no intention of ever finishing. I’m not sure if writing her story gave her a reason to get out of bed in the morning, or whether she’d invested so much of her soul writing this particular story that she didn’t know who she was once it was finished. But I suspect there were underlying issues that prevented her from psychologically letting go.


Your Narrative – Is Your Ignition Switch in the ON Position?

May 19, 2014

ignition

Lots of stories – fiction and nonfiction – have characters who undergo some sort of change. Like in real life, characters don’t normally experience something and punch through on the other side completely unaffected. Those experiences (basically the plot of your story) is what alters their way of looking at themselves and the world around them.

Transformation.

In a writer’s perfect world, the character’s evolution and plot resolution come together like the Rescue Beagles and margaritas. But there are times when stories become unbalanced, and one overtakes the other. When this happens, it’s because the literary ignition switch is in the OFF position.

Sure sure, I see you scratching your head and cursing me for being confusing – so let me offer an example. I recently read a story about a man who lost his father and decides to go on a surfing Walkabout. Totally get that…when something horrible happens, escaping the confines of the everyday can be an attractive solution. The problem was that the author spent most of his time in his own head with long lyrical and esoteric passages of talking to nature and the waves, asking for answers – but he never fully developed the relationship between him and his father – his humor, his wisdom, his love for his son, and sadness knowing he was dying. The result was that I couldn’t appreciate the author’s sense of loss; the achingly long narratives; or the journey itself. In fact, there was very little attention paid to the actual physicality of the surf Walkabout, so he could have easily stayed home and knit toilet paper doilies,  replacing the surf and sand for knitting needles.

In this case, the key wasn’t even in the ignition, and the action was AWOL.

If you’re going to take some sort of action (walkabout, live on a boat, join the Hari Krishnas/join a group of space trash collectors) due to an igniting experience (divorce/death/threat to world peace/alien invasion), then it’s vital readers understand how influential the ignition and action are in altering you/your character’s life.

When writers strike a perfect balance between cause and effect/affect – ignition/action, then I can happily follow them into the depths of hell because I get it. I feel what they’re going through, so I’m silently sobbing/cheering them on to find their happy place, and I appreciate the lengths they went through (walkabout, live on a boat, join the Hari Krishnas/join a group of space trash collectors) to find equanimity. It’s impossible to have one without the other. Write without the ignition in the ON position, and your readers will toss your book against a wall.

How about your story? Is your literary ignition is on? If so, how? Is your character’s inner journey in balance with the plot?

 

 


Hanging On – The Surefire Way to Get Your Editor to Kill You

May 16, 2014

frustrated

So I’m out here in SoCal at the mo visiting friends/family/going to my future d-i-l’s bridal shower – squee! – and cleaning out our house so we can get it ready to rent out. It’s amazing the amount of detritus you hoard over the years. I think the attic alone could appoint several abodes.

There are the trophies the kids won, the drawings and scratching from early years in school…old baby clothes – including one very stained baby USC sweater…it’s hard to let go. There’s so much I want to keep, but I don’t have room for it all. And where would it all go? It’s not like I’d put them out on display – so is my desire to keep them a matter of really needing them or because they’ve wrapped themselves around my heart, even though they serve no purpose? I mean, the stained glass paper art is ripped to shreds, but I remember my son bringing it home, and I hung it on the fridge until it was replaced by another kid’s attempts at Picasso.

Same goes for the old pictures of my daughter’s softball days…a conglomeration of toothy 8-yr-old girls, wearing their uniforms and freckles – ready for battle. It’s a reminder of younger days, where she taught herself to pitch – and proceeded to either strike girls out with the arm of a heat-seeking missile or bean them hard enough so they had to limp to first base. Our motto: If you’re gonna walk ‘em, make ‘em limp.

How do I throw this stuff out? It’s fecking hard, I tell you. It’s the same for writing. You write brilliant tomes and fall in love with every single word. You send those loving words off to your editor…where those soulless, heartless harbingers of evil rip the snot out of them by saying, “Um, this doesn’t have anything to do with this scene, or the plot, for that matter.”

WHAT?? Kill. Your. Darlings? Unholy mother of banshees…why don’t we editors just run you through with a javelin while we’re at it? Could it be any more painful? Alas, we know it hurts. It hurts ‘cos you wrote it, so we expect the reply: No No No No…not gonna do it! Can’t do it.

Oh. Yes. You. Will. You will because you want your finished product to be strong and beautiful – and your editor has something you don’t: an unbiased eye. Hanging on won’t serve you or your book. Be willing to let go.

There’s also the pain of letting go of your finished manuscript. It’s a test of wills. Your editor wants to get it off to the printer. You want to tweak, rewrite, ponder, and hang on ’til it’s right. By this time, the moon has threatened to fall from the sky. You can’t agonize anymore about whether it’s perfect because, know what? – you’ll never be convinced it’s perfect. If allowed, you’ll continue to rewrite, re-think, rehash every steenkin’ word until your editor sends out a hit team to prep you for cement shoes.

You can’t hang on forever – you gotta let go. And that’s hard – I get it. Your book will be out there for-ev-er, and you don’t want to cringe four years later because that ONE word should have been “belly jelly” instead of “muck.” But like the dust on all the stuff in the attic, you’re gonna sneeze so much that you need to give it up because there simply isn’t enough Kleenex to continue blowing your nose.

I can’t repair the torn up stained glass picture or go back in time to when my kids were 8 and wore braces and skinned knees. I gotta move on, because I need to live in the now. And if you ever want to see your book on the shelves, you gotta move on, too. Listen to the advice of your editor and throw out stuff that no longer serves your manuscript. Let go of the desire to read, re-read, re-re-read, so your editor doesn’t have to pry it from your cold, dead fingers.

Take comfort that it’s not meant to be easy. If it were, then everyone would be a bestselling author.

Okay, I’ll admit that I found the hub’s old letters he sent me before we got married, and he was working in Saudi. I don’t care what anyone says, those puppies are coming home with me.


The Collision of the Unholy Cinquinities and “Holy Crap!”

May 14, 2014

holy crapitude

I appreciate a good story that says, “Holy crap, Pricey, wanna hear what happened to me?” But the operative is “holy crap.” It’s like when jan-storyBarry Petersen’s wife, Jan, was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s while he was still CBS’ Asian correspondent. How do you care for the love of your life and still maintain your career? JAN’S STORY oozes “holy crap!”-itude…by opening a vital discussion about the unique problems of Early Onset Alzheimer’s – which include love, working, saying goodbye, all while trying to maintain a job. There’s nothing else like it on the marketplace and there’s a huge readership, so it’s easy to see why it’s a bestseller.

And I reject many, many other Alzheimer stories because they lack those qualities.

Now, I realize “holy crap!” stories are subjective, and what I perceive to be a “holy crap!”-tastic story and the author’s perception of “holy crap!”-tastic could be as far apart as my bank account and retirement. Since we pour time and gobs of money into each title, I have to depend on the marketplace. What’s already out there? Is what you’re saying unique? Will they buy it?

Using that as a litmus, I’ve been going through my latest round of query letters, and nearly all of them lack that “holy crap!” element that will merit the marketplace’s attention in numbers large enough to blip the reader radar.

I know – I can hear you screaming from here: “What the hell, Pricey, what makes a memoir “holy crap!”-worthy?? It’s all so subjective.” Well, here’s my take on it: We all experience life in a myriad of ways. Some get debilitating diseases or have the motherlode of Bandini drop in their laps. The thing with memoirs is that Life happens to us, not through us…and it’s how we choose to deal with that crap that makes a story.

Or not…

Ye Olde Cancer/Addiction/Death/Divorce/Life Change

These are the members of the Unholy Cinquinity tribe – so named because there are 5 instead of 3 – get it (oh the cleverness abounds)? These are the hot buttons that usually melt my brain before I finish reading a query letter. Why? Because they’ve been Written. To. Death. Unless you have a huge platform or have an incredibly unique message, these books are next to impossible to market.

But don’t despair…be aware.

FSO - lo RESFor example, when Amy Biancolli’s lovely agent sent me her proposal over Christmas vacation – I wanted to reject it outright because it’s about losing her husband. In my mind’s eye Joan Didion already sailed that ship with THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. But her agent prodded me, so I huffed and puffed and committed to read the first chapter. Well, a few hours later I finished the entire manuscript because I couldn’t put it down. Not only is Amy’s writing some of the best I’ve ever read, but her story is unique when compared to all the other books of the same genre.

Of course, it details losing her husband, but it’s also about putting the pieces back and FIGURING SHIT OUT. It’s irreverent, poignant, honest – and carries the universal theme that we all have shit that needs figuring out, and we don’t always have to do it with dark-cloaked-respectful-whispers-knit-eyebrows seriousness. Sometimes gallows humor is the closest thing to sanity, yanno? I see Amy’s book as an inspiration for anyone wallowing in their own shit.

That is a “Holy crap!” story I know I can sell.

Conversely, I’ve rejected two other “death” books in the past two weeks that were, indeed, sad, but basically rode on Joan Didion’s coattails. Heartbreaking, yes, but there was no hook.

  • “My husband died.”
  • “I have/had cancer.”
  • “I suffered from addiction.”
  • “My husband left me after 30 years of marriage.”

I feel horrible for all of these stories, but what makes it marketable? These same experiences have happened to many others, so I always have to ask mysel, “Who cares?” Sure, it’s cutthroat and heartless (I have no soul, remember?), but so is publishing. If you don’t have your Big Girl/Boy panties on and objectively pre-screen yourself, then you’re going to suffer a lot of rejection. Which sucks.

I see many stories that are more like therapy sessions than marketable books. They’re too personal, so I sometimes feel like a Peeping Tonya. Many times, the stories are a rehash of books that are already crowding store shelves, so the “holy crap!” elements already exist…in someone else’s book.

If you write in one of the Unholy Cinquinites, you have to be able to defend your story’s viability:

  • What specific elements make my book unique?
  • Why would readers read and recommend my book?
  • Who is my direct competition – how does my book compare and contrast?
  • What specific kinds of people will read my book (intended readership)? -  I get a lot of, “This is a book that will appeal to everyone,” which makes me reach for the bottle. I can’t market to “everyone,” but I can market to cancer groups, bereavement groups, addiction groups, etc…so if you have a platform within those kinds of groups, it makes it easier to get bookstores interested in writing a big fat purchase order.

Writers of the Unholy Cinquinities who have a grip on these questions are in a better position to understand the “holy crap!”-ness of their stories and highlight those elements in their query letters so a heartless, soulless editor won’t reach for the bottle before hitting the Reject button.

Like I said, Don’t despair…be aware. Now go out and embrace your “holy crap!”-ness.

 


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