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?

 


Writing vs. Publishing

September 26, 2014

Screw top corkI think it’s fair to say that writers cherish the anonymity of writing a book because no one sits in judgement of its quality. Writing is the unabashed luxury of editing ’til your eyes bleed or you’ve exhausted all the cheap gin in your batcave. In short, writing is where the delusional process is alive and well – for better or worse.

Publishing, on the other hand, is where authors get a crash course in grace and humility. There is a middle ground that one has to walk. For example, your editor may mainline antifreeze if you are consistently shocked that people are buying your book. The same may happen if you take umbrage with unfavorable critique. The idea is to be a class act at all times.

Many years ago, one of our authors (no longer with us) blew his spleen over a less-than-thrilling Kirkus review, and told me he was going to write them a nastygram. It took me a couple days to talk him off the ledge. This is not a class act, and we chose never to speak of it again.

An editor friend of mine with one of the Big Guns told me how one of her authors wrote a blog post bashing the editing job her editor had done on her book, and to please not buy it. This is not a class act. My friend and the author chose never to speak of this again…well…because they dumped the author.

My point with these extreme examples is that knowing what’s “out there” in Published Land is as important as the writing process itself. I remember meeting a woman who consciously chose not to query her work because she recognized her potential of being a “Writer-zilla.” Very commendable when I look at my own eleven-year collection of “Holy sh!t” experiences.

So before you sit down to bang out a chapter or three, ask yourself whether your heart, brains, and intestines are ready for the mental rigors of being a published author. We can only hope everyone will love us, but there’s more truth to knowing that’s little more than a pipe dream.

Oh, and by the way – yah, I’ve done the same exact thing depicted in the photo. I’m a dork. I realize this.


Feel the Urge to Spam? Don’t…Just Don’t

September 24, 2014

spam1

I hate Spam. No, I’m not talking about the mystery meat that comes in a can -which I hate as well. Doesn’t everyone? Well, except maybe the Hawaiians…and my mom, who tried to pass it off as ham back when I was a wee bairn. We weren’t fooled, and rebelled mightily. Nice try, Mom.

No, the Spam I’m talking about is the annoying drek that authors send to my BUSINESS ACCOUNT (for godsakes!) that announces their new books, their accomplishments/cries for support, blah, blah, blah. Makes me want to hurk in my Cheerios.

On any given day, my email account is filled with hundreds of emails, and every one of them gets read. Imagine getting piece upon piece of unwanted announcements about how you completed your cancer walk in the name of your new book, and may I count on your support? Wha’? I’m an editor, for cryin’ out loud. Long hours do not equal big pay. Only causes I’m currently supporting are those that keep the Rescue Beagles in designer doggeh chewies.

Other announcements are the typical “My book got published! Go buy! Go read!” They are invariably from authors whose manuscripts I rejected, and they feel the need/desire to rub my nose in it. Bully for them. No, really, I’m thrilled for anyone who realizes their dreams. I just don’t need to know about it because…well…um…I don’t care. I know that sounds harsh, but come on…editors and agents reject thousands of manuscripts a year. Can you imagine if even a third of those authors decide to spam everyone who rejected them? That’s a lot of crap mail clogging up a lot of email accounts.

I can assure these people of one thing: I will NEVER read their books or take them seriously again. Oh, I know…you’re thinking, “Come on, Pricey, the authors don’t care at this point. They got published, so really, they don’t care if they piss you off because they don’t need you anymore.” True. But burning bridges is a dangerous game.

Case in point: I rejected a manuscript after reading the full, which means I’d had a bit of back and forth conversation with the author. Ultimately, I decided he project wasn’t right for us and wished them the best of everything. A few months later, I got a spammy in my inbox announcing the publication of that book. Wow, that was fast, methinks. I ignored it and deleted it – mildly annoyed. About a week later, another spammy from the same author dumped into my inbox, gushing about how wonderful her publisher is, and come join her at a book event. Getting steamy at this point. A third one suggested I support her cause célèbre, which she’d written about in her book. Officially pissed off.

I emailed her and asked her to please remove me from her distribution list. She fired back something about “Oh, I’m not good enough for you, huh? Well, you’ll be sorry you didn’t publish my book when it hits the NY Times bestseller list!” If I had a dime for every time an author has spat that in my face, I’d own Europe.

About a year later, she wrote this gushy email about how mahvelous Behler is, what mahvelous books we publish, blah, blah, blah…I hardly need convincing; you’re singing to the choir, babe…and would I mind taking a look at her book? Yes, it was pubbed a year ago, but she’s grown disillusioned with her publisher and received her rights, and is now shopping around.

I remembered this little tart as my spammer with anger issues, and told her I’d rather someone stuff my Vickie Secrets with hot jellybeans and molasses than ever entertain a publishing relationship with a serial spammer. Okay, I didn’t really say that, but I did let her know that not only did I remember her, but I wasn’t in a forgiving mood.

Burned bridges are never a good idea because you never know when you’ll need that person at a later date. What feels like rainbows now may be a dog’s smelly behind in the future.

The lesson here is that publishing a book is a big deal. A BIG DEAL. You want to scream from the mountain tops about your lovely new baby. But there are effective ways to promote and ineffective ways. Spamming may be quick, down, and dirty, but it’s also a major pisser to the receiver. If you’re tempted to spam those who rejected you – you do so at your peril. Those rejecting agents and editors don’t care. Your rejection wasn’t personal, it was business. Don’t be tempted to slap someone’s face because your writing wasn’t their cuppa tea.

Instead, put up a blog post about your accomplishments. Shout it out on your Facebook page and Twitter. Create a newsletter and only send to those who sign up. But leave my email addy alone. Please. Otherwise, I’ll have to send out the Rescue Beagles after you – and they’re murder on tires and new shoes.


Avoid the Kablooey

September 23, 2014

whahuh

It’s hard to believe that in this day and age of readily available publishy information that people still don’t understand the query process, but it appears peeps either believe the rules don’t apply to them, or they have no clue there are any rules. Whatever the delusion, these aren’t authors I want to rub elbows with because time is money, baby chops, and the learning curve is steep. These are the Kablooey Authors.

Here are a couple examples I’ve seen fairly consistently over the years – and they really need to be tossed under a dump truck where they can be mashed, smashed, obliterated, and mutilated.

“My Publisher Has Gone Kablooey”

These aren’t so much query letters as they are a tale of woe. Lots of publishers are going kablooey these days, and they leave a lot of authors wondering how expensive it is to hire a hit team. First instinct is to immediately try to find another publisher. So the usual Kablooey query goes something like this:

“I haven’t heard from my editor in over five months, and I’m tired of waiting. Wanna take a look at my book?”

or

“I hate my publisher. They’re trolls who are little better than Bantha fodder. Wanna take a look at my book?”

And unfortunately, they don’t include much more info than that. Head, meet desk. If you’re in a Kablooey situation, you need to provide some things in your query, or face instant death rejection, or worse…deletion without reply:

  • A reversion of rights letter: Without it, I won’t touch it because I can’t. Until I know differently, the Kablooey publisher retains those rights – so my interest is about as expansive as my attempts at baking.
  • State the condition of your book – is it published or still in editing?: If your book is still in editing, then it hasn’t been out on the marketplace. This makes a big difference when entertaining a project. For example, I won’t accept published works. A number of publishers will; I’m just not one of them.
  • Does it have an ISBN?: If it’s been assigned an ISBN, then your title is in the system, and it’ll need to be canceled out. Nothing is a bigger mess than a title with two ISBN’s. I’ve seen Amazon nearly stroke out because they have the wrong ISBN listed on a book. ISBNs are assigned to publishers, so if Amazon, for example, gets the wrong ISBN, the wrong publisher will be listed. Then when sales go through, the money isn’t going to the right publisher. If that’s not enough to put a publisher off its feed, nothing is.
  • A synopsis: I know, it sounds simple, right? But you’d be amazed at the number of Kablooey queries I’ve received that failed to tell me anything about the book! Merde! If I have to ask…well, I’m not going to bother. I may simply delete the query – which is rude, I totally grok that – or fire off a quick form rejection letter.

Kablooey situations suck stale Twinkie cream because you’ve already been screwed once, and you’re not in the best frame of mind. But you have to be smart about your subsequent moves. First move is to figure out if your book is free and clear. If it isn’t, wishing and cussing about your Kablooey publisher isn’t going to alter the fact that you’re stuck. Don’t waste your time or the time of those you want to query.

“Look At My Website”

Oh, if there were a place of suffering and pain, I’d send authors a one-way ticket if they dare insist their websites are far more effective than writing a query letter. Just the other day, an author urged me to look at her website in order to “get a better feel for my book.” This was in response to my informing her that she’d done a marvelous job talking about her circumstances, why she wrote the book, and that her entire family lurved her book…but failed to actually TELL me what the book is about.

Look at your website? You mean, stop what I’m doing and do your work for you because you can’t be bothered to write a proper query letter? Nah, I don’t think I wanna play. Instant, Sudden Death Rejection.

Head bangy stuff. Here’s the thing; I don’t need all the blabby stuff – why you wrote your book, the fact that people find you utterly hysterical, and that your cats sleep under your chin (god help me). I simply need to know what your book is about. Period. Nothing more, nothing less. If you have a website, absolutely include it, because I definitely go check them out on projects that look interesting. But for the love of all that’s holy, don’t tell me to go look at it to “find out more.” If your query don’t gots it, I ain’t gonna go huntin’ for it.

If you come off as a professional, you’re going to attract a quality publisher. If you treat your query with the sincerity of a politician, you’re going to attract sleazoid publishers who may turn you into a Kablooey author. Avoid the Kablooey.


A Word About That Incomplete Manuscript

September 22, 2014

ScribbleSince we publish Memoir, it’s not unusual to get queries on incomplete manuscripts. Can I be honest? I really don’t like this practice. An incomplete anything equals WAIT to me. And I’m an impatient soul. When something rocks my world, I want it NOW!

Wanna hear an even scarier confession? I currently reject every query that only has a book proposal and offers no sample chapters. I learned this the hard way, because every single contract I offered based on a book proposal ended up with my canceling the project. Every. Single. One. The problems were that the proposals rocked, but the manuscripts didn’t deliver. Didn’t even come close. And the reason for that was because the writers were up against a deadline, which meant that I got what read like first drafts.

I don’t want anyone’s first draft. My heart simply isn’t that strong.

First Draft or Polished?

But my impatience isn’t the only factor. It’s also about quality. A book proposal isn’t enough for me. I need to see the first three chapters so I can see how the writer organizes her thoughts, and get a feel for the writing style. If the author is busy still writing the manuscript, how polished are those first three chapters…provided they have chapters to offer? If you send me chapters that aren’t really polished because you’re still in the writing phase, then you’re probably going to receive a rejection. And that just sucks, right?

Changey Mindey

There is real danger in trying to pitch an incomplete manuscript based on the first three chapters – namely, those first three chapters aren’t gonna look the same when you’re done. I don’t know of a single author who hasn’t changed the beginning of their stories, be they fiction or nonfiction, because of how they ended it. Finishing a manuscript influences all kinds of possibilities that you didn’t have when you first started out…even if you’re working from an outline. And those changes often turn a so-so story into something much bigger and better. Now, imagine trying to pitch the story with its original three chapters.

When I think of my own novel’s humble beginnings, my intestines want to explode.

I Want More

Then there’s the case where your first chapters rocked and I want more. But, alas, there isn’t any more. I gotta wait, which gets me back to my impatience issues. I’ll remain on the fence about the project because three chapters does not a rockin’ story make. I’ve had many, many cases where the first chapters were fabulous, but the rest of the manuscript fell apart. I have to weigh that against the possibility that the writing will stay strong throughout. When I consider how much $$ we sink into every book, I’m usually pretty leery of going forth with the project. It may hurt to see the sale go somewhere else, but my gamblin’ days are behind me.

Do You Know WHO I Am?

The case can be made for offering a contract based on a proposal only when the author is experienced and has a good following. They have published work I can refer to. They’re a known quantity.

The debut author doesn’t have that, so it’s important to consider what elements about the author and their story will encourage a publisher to take a chance on nothing more than a proposal.

What’s Da Rush?

Back in the day, authors sold proposals all the time, and the idea was that the advance would give them the financial stability to write the book. But those kinds of deals are few and far between for the average writer…especially a debut author. The world is a different place, so trying to adhere to old-time practices will yield little more than frustration. Most writers can’t give up their day job. Because we have so many more books and writers and publishers in the world, sales are a lot more spread out, and publishers don’t have the capital to spend like drunken sailors.

The idea is to put your best foot forward, and having a complete manuscript is the surest way to capture a deal. Life is too tenuous to dally with a lot of unknowns. Finish your manuscript. Take your time. Do it right…and conquer the world!


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