Your Manuscript Should Do a Striptease

March 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Character Development – Make Me Care

March 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling your character:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make ‘em care.

 

 

 


What’s At Stake?

February 16, 2015

What’s at stake? So many queries go wrong because authors don’t focus on what’s at stake for their characters. Instead, they focus on details and minutiae, like how Robby’s second cousin’s best friend is really good at math, which helps him with his fantasy football team. Meanwhile, Robby hits puberty and discovers he turns into a Minotaur during a full moon, which wreaks havoc on his attempts to woo Linda Lou, the head cheerleader and cutest little pie face of Salamander High. Mr. Second Cousin’s Best Friend has nothing to do with the main thrust of the story – so it’s insane to mention him.

But authors do. Well, they don’t mention Mr. Second Cousin’s Best Friend, per se, but they mention some disconnected facet of their stories because they’re too close to their own story to be able to parse it down.

So a quick, down and dirty guide to help you keep your query on track is to simply start with asking yourself, “Who’s my main character, and what’s at stake for him/her?”

And the stakes have to be high – not whether Bessie will manage to glue back her favorite teapot in order to serve her award-winning tea (which is only award-winning because she spikes it with Jim Beam) to the new town mayor, who she has the hots for. That’s just filler.

The stakes would be that Bessie is up against a stipulation in her father’s will that she must be married by May 15 or lose all the bucks to the Save the Ardvaark Society. Problem is, she’s spent her life being a disagreeable moonbat, and no one will have her…Jim Beam notwithstanding. So about now, the new town mayor could be an answer to her problem. If only he didn’t have that incurable sweating problem…

If we understand exactly what’s at stake, it’s easy to determine whether it’s a story we feel will be marketable. If you don’t tell us and give nothing but filler stuff, then we’ll scratch our melons. And hit the Reject Button. Avoid the Reject Button. Isolate what’s at stake for your character and barf it out.

 


Humor in a Query

January 28, 2015

laughing beagle

I’m the first person who loves a good laugh, and I’ve been known to snort for air when my funny bone has been properly massaged. But humor is a tricky thing, so writer beware.

Firstly, a query is a job application. Would you use humor when filling out an application to a job you really want/need? Is it appropriate? There are times when humor helps make a query stand out, but it’s also because the subject matter leans toward the lighter side of life, and the author uses it to enhance their pitch.

“I’ve often wondered how much force it would take to invert my belly button, or the impact of 100 escapee gazelles would have on a small midwestern town. I realize this isn’t something that will promote world peace or solve the current financial crisis, but random thoughts such as these do make my bride suspect my sanity. They are also what keeps my protagonist, Barry Wahler, from losing his mind as a day trader on Wall Street in my novel THE GORILLAS ARE LOOSE ON WALL STREET…”

As you can see, it’s wholly unnecessary, but it’s a nice transition to the actual pitch. I love these kinds of queries because it shows me the strength of the author’s wit and writing. This is a huge difference between simply sticking something “funny” into your query that is unrelated to your subject matter.

For example, I often wrote about my first secretary, The Beagle, who has since retired and is now soaking up the life in San Clemente with her real daddy – my son. Since then, I’ve hired on The Rescue Beagles, who are equally deficient in their phone manners and filing duties, but do, however, embrace their love of shredding queries that miss the mark. So as an example of the “unrelated funny,” I see many queries imploring me not to feed their queries to these two undependable employees. No worries. All queries are electronic, and The Rescues know full well that eating my laptop would put a damper on our relationship.

Trust me (holding hand over where heart should be); the Rescues reference has been done to ad nauseam…heavy emphasis on nauseam. It’s gotten to the point of being my own personal cliché.

Another attempt of breaky-the-ice-y humor is the salutation “Dear Kindly and Benevolent Editor.” I’ve used this with example query letters over the years, so when it’s parroted back to me, I also kinda groan. You read some of my blog posts or went to a writer’s conference seminar where I spoke. I get it. But it’s not professional.

It isn’t necessary to break the ice, since we have no relationship to begin with. You have a project to pitch, I’m open for queries. It’s a supply-side marriage that needs to introduction or hand-holding.

Now, will stuff like this earn an instant sudden death rejection? Of course not. It’ll simply make me roll my eyes. And no one wants to start out a query with rolly eyes. Be careful with humor. It’s subjective and should only be used where appropriate.


More About Book Proposals

January 19, 2015

Sigh. One more time. If you’re gonna say you have a “book proposal,” it doesn’t mean a general overview of a page and three chapters.  That’s a query.

A book proposal hasta have all this stuff in it. And yesssss, we needs it because it’s our preciousssss…and our saleses teams hateses us when we don’t have them.

  • COVER SHEET (title and subtitle of book; genre, word count, author’s name, address, phone, fax, email)
  • CONCEPT STATEMENT (optional—briefly state the target audience, why they need this book, why your book is unique or timely, why you are an authority on the topic, and what your book offers that other books don’t).
  •  OVERVIEW (how you came to write the book—weave in attention-getting facts; this must be the most compelling part of your proposal!)
  •    PURPOSE OF THE BOOK (what will your book do? what need will it fill? how will it benefit readers?)
  •    THE MARKET/AUDIENCE (who will buy your book? why do they want or need it? give statistics)
  •    COMPETITIVE BOOKS (what else exists? where is it shelved? how is your book new and better? how does your book differ from all other books on this topic?)
  •    MARKETING OF THE BOOK (bookstores, book clubs, Internet, clubs, associations; if applicable—these are sales outside of a bookstore environment such as retail store chains, specialty stores, catalogs)
  •    PROMOTION & PUBLICITY (list newspapers, magazines, TV & radio stations that the publisher should contact)
  •    AUTHOR’S PROMOTIONAL CONTRIBUTION (list everything you’ll do to make the book successful; be sure to include all of your ideas for author appearances and events)
  •    COMPLETION OF THE BOOK (state that “x” months from date of contract you will deliver the manuscript—usually a 9-12 month period is allowed)
  •    SEQUELS (optional—list 1-3 other projects that interest you and that have a large audience)
  •    ABOUT THE AUTHOR (your background and experience; why you are the best person to write the book)
  •    THREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS ( I prefer your first three chapters because I want to see how you lead into your story)

Having a Case of Self Pub Remorse?

January 13, 2015

There’s no shame if you’re raising your hand. Publishing is fecking hard work, and I have twelve years experience and a team of hundreds backing me up. I can imagine how delicously hard it is to be a team of one trying to get a book into the marketplace. Whom do you turn to? How do you promote? Feh.

Over the years, I’ve talked to many authors who have self pub remorse, and their comments are almost universal: “I never expected it to be this hard.”

Yah. It is hard. That isn’t to say sales can’t happen, but it’s time consuming if you expect to sell any books. And while you’ve learned to boatload throughout the self pub process, there’s nothing wrong with deciding to see if publishers would be willing to take over your load. Heck, even Amanda Hocking threw in the towel and signed a four-book deal with St. Martins…so you’re in excellent company.

HOWEVER, chances are you aren’t Amanda Hocking,who knew how to promote ’til the cows came home, so  there are some important things you oughta know about how editors view these queries on self pubbed books.

The Eight Ton Elephant in the Room

The first thought that comes to my mind is WHY? What are the reasons the author decided to stop going it alone. Sure, I can speculate, and I do, because my first thoughts focus on what I can do for the author’s book that the author hasn’t done on their own. It’s important that authors know the specific reasons for chucking in the self pub towel because they’ll then be able to define their expectations of a mainstream publisher.

To say, “Oy, I’m tired!” doesn’t help your cause. Write down the specifics of what made selling your book difficult. The list could look something like this:

  •  Marketing/Promotion – I have no real idea how to do this, and I’ve poured countless hours into the effort with no discernible sales.
  • Distribution – Well, I did it through Amazon, so they’re taking care of “distribution,” but I can’t get my books into the stores.
  • Editing, cover design, page/book layout – I feel overwhelmed and broke.

In other words, you spent hundreds or thousands, and the damn thing didn’t sell. Okay, I grok that. But more importantly, I look at the outside reasons why it didn’t sell.

The Query Letter

An author sent me a query letter the other day about her self pubbed book. I looked at the content, which was meh. It’s something I’ve seen a thousand times already – which could be one of the reasons it isn’t currently selling. So, her first fatal mistake is that the story didn’t sound compelling. It could be the case of it being a truly dull story, or it could be the author didn’t know how to write a mouth-watery synopsis. Strike one.

The letter went on to tell me how well received her book was and the huge sales it enjoyed. Hmm. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to smell a rat. If the book is selling so well, then why is she querying me?

Sales History

First thing I did is check Bookscan. Admittedly, Bookscan is far from reliable, because not every store reports their sales to them. Nor does it include Amazon sales. But it does give me a general indication of the sales. In this case, the Bookscan numbers were a grand total of 2 units sold.

Then I checked Amazon, where I noticed the title was ranked at 8 million and only had a couple reviews. Now I’m trying to reconcile this against her claims of “well received” and “huge sales.” The book had barely been out a year. So there’s an obvious disconnect between what her query letter says and what I’m seeing. I mean, it’s possible there was much gushing, and maybe she sold lots of books at talks and such, but I’m just not seeing it, nor did she make any reference to that possibility. Strike Two.

Platform

But I took one last chance at finding her platform. This could tell me how she promoted her book. A quick google of her name showed diddly squat. Put that together with the low sales and few reviews, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t an active author, and she’s looking to me to take over where she’s been exquisitely challenged.

But here’s the rub; taking on a book that’s already been published is a big responsibility on my part because the book isn’t new. There has to be something that tells me this book will sell well. If the author doesn’t provide it, then what conclusions can I draw from what I see? Strike Three…she was out.

If you’re looking to try to get your book with a mainstream publisher, then help yourself out by thinking like an editor. With all the queries on unpublished works that editors receive, why would an editor choose yours? Being able to defend you and your published work will help bridge the gap and possibly elicit a sale.

However, all that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the chances of a publisher being interested in your already-self-pubbed book is extremely low. Most self-pubbed authors I know start fresh and go to publishers with a brand new book. It may be the publisher will pick up your self-pubbed book, but that book must have something to offer them in terms of marketability.

Your bestest friend is the practice of putting yourself in an editor’s Sorels (I woulda said Manolo Blahniks, but I’m squatting on 7″ of snow). If you can look at your query from an editor’s perspective, it may help you decide whether you’re better off making a clean break by writing a new book, or whether your self pubbed book is really something that would make a mainstream publisher jump on top of her barstool and offer free drinks for everyone.

 


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.

 

 


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