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.


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.

 


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.

 


Query: Editors Respond Far Better to Positive

December 11, 2013
beagle-smile

Yes, Gertrude, beagles smile

Nabbed from a query letter:

“I self published a book last year on Amazon to great acclaim, but I realized it’s best to leave publishing to the professionals.”

This isn’t a positive statement, and doesn’t make me excited about asking for pages. Rather, this infers that for whatever reason, the author self-pubbed and didn’t do well promoting it – checking Amazon bore this out. So I have to ask myself whether the author would be equally unsuccessful in promoting a book with us. I understand the uphill battle of the self-pubbed author and that promotion is much more difficult, but I’ve seen plenty self-pubbed authors kick ass and take names. They’re an asset.

Whether it’s a fair assessment or not, I see the author as a liability. It sucks to have to make snap judgements, but publishers have no choice but to weigh the pluses and minuses of an author’s platform because it’s a vital element to publishing nonfiction.

The take away here is that if you don’t have anything positive to say, then don’t mention it. Instead, focus on your book, what it’s about, why it rocks, and why readers will clamor to buy it. It’s a better idea to play up your platform than divulge how poorly your self-pubbed book did. Keep it positive because that’s far more infectious.

And when you’re talking about your book, don’t forget to include the most important elements of your story:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • How did he/she come to this story?
  • What does s/he want?
  • What does s/he discover?
  • What choices/decisions/changes does s/he encounter?
  • What terrible thing will happen/ would have happened if s/he chooses (chose) A; what terrible thing will happen/would have happened if s/he doesn’t/didn’t?

Now go forth and be brilliant!


Beware – Someone is Always Watching

December 3, 2013

Image

And may God have mercy on your soul if you make this blunder in your manuscript or query letter.


Query Letter: There’s Disagreeing and There’s Being Unwise

July 22, 2013

A recent email responding to my rejection:

Thank you for your comment regarding my story, but I have to disagree.  I don’t think my book lacks a plot or specific message.  Please let me know if I can rewrite my query and send it to you. You’ll find that if you read my work, that your conclusions are all wrong.

Um. Here’s the thing; I base my decision to ask for pages on the strength of your query letter. If your query letter lacks pertinent information, then I’ll normally say something so you may consider revising your query letter. I don’t offer critique in order to open a dialog or entertain a difference of opinion, so it does you little good to disagree with me.

It could be that your story rocks the Earth and Moon, and I’d be a simpleton not to immediately sign you. But unless you communicate that fabulosity in your query letter, I’ll be none the wiser. I understand author frustration and the desire to lash out, but rather than blaming me for the fact that you didn’t do your job in your query letter, try standing outside yourself and viewing your query letter objectively. Remember that I didn’t have the advantage of sitting next to you while you wrote your story, so I’m literally blind.

The Art of Objectivity

When authors fall into this trap of “What the heck, Pricey, why don’t you love my query?” it’s usually because they’re too close to their stories. Objectivity allows you to look at your query letter with fresh eyes and answer those pesky questions:

  • Is there a clear intro to my main characters?
  • What situation have they gotten themselves into?
  • What choices are they facing?
  • What do they stand to lose if they don’t take action?

Being too close can get you into trouble. You react defensively rather than taking a step back and allowing your cooler self to take control. This is when you publicly lash out at a bad review, or invite editors to make merry with barnyard animals if they reject you.

Of course there are times when authors have been unfairly rejected, and the editor was simply a cranky pants. But so what? You can’t argue your way back into their inbox, so why bother? Best line of defense is to avoid being like the author above.

Have there been times when you really wanted to bite back? What would you have said, and would it have been right?


No Tree Will Bloom Before Its Time

May 3, 2013

flowering tree

There are these really cool trees on the grounds where I live, trees my SoCal self isn’t used to seeing. When I first arrived to Pittsburgh, the trees were in the process of doing their seasonal striptease, so I didn’t appreciate them until now. Ah, Spring.

Their naked little trunks sat through winter, creating narrow shelves of snow on their branches. Then the snow disappeared, and those naked little trees just sat there, still trying to wake up. Then a few weeks ago, I noticed they were adorned with little red berries. How cute, methinks, those berries are gonna be a headache to clean up. And then they exploded.

Now the trees are covered in gorgeous white flowers. They’re so full, it looks like a furry skin.

Watching the process of going from dormancy to explosion of expression reminds me of publishing. You have the trunk that’s in the process of querying. Those little leaves sprout like crazy with each query letter that’s sent out. And then the wait begins. It’s depressing, and those leaves wither and drop off because waiting is a cold, lonely feeling. Your thoughts run amok. Is your writing any good? Is the genre impacted? Does your query letter suck the big one?

But then the weather grows warmer, and you begin to feel those little seeds of confidence grow. Hell yes, your query is bang on, and so is your writing. You’ve done your work, you’ve researched the genre, and you know your stuff. And while you may not have an agent or publisher yet, you bloom with the satisfaction that you wrote something special, and you’re not going to give up on it.

It takes a year for new blossoms to sprout. Most things of great beauty do take time, so don’t despair, or try to short-circuit the process. Lean into the warm sun and show off your stuff. And while you’re at it, plant a new tree. Who knows what that will bloom from those branches!


Cryptic Queries – Head, Meet Desk

March 4, 2013

It happened again. A query that’s basically a sentence or two…one about the story and one about the author’s “developing” platform. The last sentence asked me if I wanted to see the proposal. Um. Here’s the thing, a query letter isn’t like a bite of a Twinkie, and you’re not allowed to eat the rest unless you read the entire proposal. A query is a mouthwatering description of your story. It’s the thing that makes an editor jump up and scream, “I want more!”

It’s too easy to say no, so why would anyone set themselves up for failure by sending less than the bare essentials? That this came from an agent is unforgivable, and my heart goes out to the author because she’ll never know why no one wants to read her proposal.

Please, dear authors, don’t let this happen to you. Query letters are basic things. We need to see:

  • Your main characters
  • The circumstances in which your character finds himself in this story
  • What is he trying to accomplish?
  • What thing(s) is standing in his way? (this is where you show the tension of your story, the conflict)
  • How can he resolve the problem?

It’s pretty straightforward. And this is the same whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Your proposal (nonfiction) seals the deal, but your query opens the door. If you only give one sentence about your book, then I guarantee that you aren’t even close to finding the doorknob.

Are you worried about your query and whether it has enough enticing information that will have agents or editors asking for more?


Is Your Agent an Asset?

February 12, 2013

book deal

In a perfect world, your agent is your bestest buddy and knight in shining armor. She is the one who gets the lovely book deal(s) that propel you to a hungry marketplace. And most of the time, it works. Unless it doesn’t.

Your introduction to editors is The Query Letter, and your agent should know how to write mouthwatery query letters that have editors leapfrogging over one another just to get their ink-stained little paws on your manuscript. If your agent can’t write a mouthwatery query letter, then I hope they have other assets that will work to your advantage.

Spelling

It should go without saying that your agent should write a query letter that’s free of spelling errors, but I just read one that contained some glaring spelling errors, and had me wincing a la fingernails on a chalkboard. If your agent writes “letter’s” when she means “letters,” or “hand writing” when she means “handwriting,” then I’m gonna notice ‘cos that’s sorta what I do.

OK, maybe it’s not fair to judge a query on a couple misspellings, but come on, this is a job interview that someone is doing on your behalf. If she can’t spell, then what does that say about her judgement of quality books? Do spelling errors beget inability to judge a good book? Beats me, but I do have dozens of other queries whose spelling is perfect.

A query letter’s job is to provide information, so editors can decide whether they’d like to see more. If there is very little info, then this forces the editor to either hunt down the information, or simply reject it.

Word count

It’s useful to know the word count. It may not seem like a big deal, but I had a query from an agent that sounded really great. I neglected to ask about a word count. She sent me the first few chapters, which I loved, then I asked for the whole manuscript…and asked for the word count. Come to find out, it was only 36,000 words. Yikes.

Same thing happened, only the book was 200k words. Double yikes. And really, a good agent should know better.

Audience

Does your agent include your intended audience? It may seem elementary, but editors can be confused by a query. I remember reading a fabulous query and the author’s first chapter. Loved, loved, loved it. But I rejected it because we don’t do YA. Oh no, the author wrote back, this isn’t a YA work; it’s meant for adults.

Ah, the lights turn on, the angels sing. And she was absolutely correct. The War of the Rosens is definitely an adult novel, and fabo, fabo, fabo. Anyone who loved Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season would adore Janice Eidus’ book, and want to take little Emma into their hearts. Makes me wish I still accepted fiction.

But the takeaway is that since I didn’t know the intended audience, I nearly lost a fabulous book. Wouldn’t it be awful if you were rejected because you or your agent didn’t discuss the intended audience in the query letter? Most editors will send a form rejection letter, so you’ll never know why it was rejected.

Why is the book important? 

Obviously, this isn’t a necessary tool for fiction, but it’s very important for nonfiction. Remember, I don’t know your book inside out the way you and your agent do, so it’s near impossible for me to connect the dots. I gotta be told. If your book reveals who really killed JFK, then it would be nice to know why this particular book is important, considering that many of these books already exist. What’s different about yours? If your agent doesn’t tell me, then I tend to question the book’s viability.

Platform

And keeping on that theme of who really killed JFK, your agent needs to include your platform. Again, this is for you nonfiction writers. Are you an investigative reporter who has uncovered more information through your many-year’s-long sleuthing? Are you someone who was close to those involved with the JFK administration, and have access to someone’s dying confession? Or are you just someone who’s always been fascinated with the JFK assassination and believe you found proof through your own independent investigation?

In short, who you are gives legitimacy to the book you’ve written. On one hand, you have the credentials to entice an audience to perk up their ears and read what you have to say. On the other hand, you could be just another crackpot with yet another theory as to who killed JFK…and the world is filled with those.

Before your agent ever agrees to represent your nonfiction, she will look at your platform – who you are, and how many people know you. Or at least she should because she has to turn around and sell you to an editor. And trust me, no editor will go before a submission committee without the author having a huge platform in order to take on a tall order like the JFK assassination. She’ll get laughed out her zip code.

Ideas are great, but you must have the goods to back up whatever you’ve written about. It’s the cop who writes about the crimes he solves, the doc who writes about his life in the OR, the psychologist who writes about keeping your mental well-being while being unemployed. Their platforms compliment their books. They are a legitimate and unimpeachable source for what they’re writing about.

If you don’t have that, are you necessarily the best person to have written your book? What is it about you that will make reviewers and the media listen to what you have to say? If your agent doesn’t include that in the query letter, then I’m forced to either look it up, or simply reject it.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Like I said, a query letter is a job interview, and if your representative can’t write a good one, then what else can’t she do? I remember many years ago, our finance guy had to walk an agent through her author’s royalty statement. It was embarrassing because not only are our royalty statements achingly easy to read, the experience revealed the agent’s complete lack of basic math skills.

You always want to be proud of your agent. So how do you put your best foot forward? Ask to read the query letter they plan on sending out. I think many authors miss this step because they believe they’re in good hands, and don’t want to be bothered. The stuff I talked about here is why you should be bothered. These examples I have here really happened, and my heart ached for the authors.

Never forget that this is your book…the book you spent a long time writing, so you don’t want to blow it at the most critical time.

Check the query letter over:

  • Does it list the word count?
  • Does it talk about the intended audience?
  • Does it state why your book is necessary to the marketplace?
  • Are there any freaking misspellings?
  • Do they begin with the dreaded rhetorical questions (which many editors hate, hate, hate because it doesn’t say anything)?

I’ve often passed around the quote of how it’s better to remain unpublished than be published badly. Well, the same goes for poor representation. You’d rather be unrepresented than represented poorly. Reason being, they are doing a piss-poor job at trying to sell your manuscript. Should you change agents, your new agent won’t be able to re-query the editors your previous agent queried, so your selection pool is that much smaller.

The idea is to work smart, so you can increase your chances for a good book deal. Working smart is making sure your agent is an asset, not bug repellant.


Oh, woe is the author who…

February 7, 2013

…asks rhetorical questions in their query. You know what I’m talking about. The queries that start with,

What would you do if you had a million dollars? Would you give it away, or spend it on buying up Scottish castles? Or would you use it to kill your fifth grade teacher?

Gah. Enough already. Would you open a conversation this way? No? Then don’t do it in a business letter, which is what query letter is. If you insist on playing the rhetorical question game as a query opener, I have two rescue beagles who would love to tear it to shreds.

beagle kittehs speech bubble


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