…somewhere, an author, sweating blood, decided to sit down and pour their creative guts out on cyber paper to bring you fabulous books.
I love a good note. I write them to myself all the time. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t remember to buy chicken tenders and toothpaste. I even leave myself little notes in my writing. When penning Donovan’s Paradigm, I left myself love notes that were almost as long as the manuscript itself…”Insert heart attack scene here.” or “Ask about drugs used for patient allergic to morphine.” or “Insert screaming match here.”
I totally get love notes – you’re either creating a chapter foundation and don’t want to interrupt the flow, or needed to go back and research a bit more. But it might be a better idea to insert these love notes in the margin so it stands out. It’s too easy to miss a love note that’s in the manuscript. Even if it’s another color. I know because I see them in submissions. [Insert chess scene here], or [Change names of everyone in this scene]. This is like seeing a manuscript’s lacy Victoria Secrets. I don’t wanna see this. I want a finished manuscript.
Same thing goes for the Track Changes feature. Authors forget to Accept or Reject Changes and turn the Track Changes feature off. So I’ll see all the little love notes between the author and their beta readers or indie editor. “This part is really rough, you need to beef this up.” “An editor will skewer you if you leave this in.” Ouch. Talk about seeing lacy Vickie Secrets.
Don’t be in such a hurry to bang a manuscript out to an editor’s desk if she asks to read your full. Do yourself a favor and insert all your editorial notes in the margin…which is hideously easy. In Word, there is a Track Changes feature, which allows you to do all sorts of things, and inserting a comment is one of them. In later versions, you’ll find this feature in the Review tab.
Love notes and Track Changes are great, but they’re meant to be private. Oh, and that reminds me that I’m almost out of designer doggeh chewies…
Have you ever read a book and thought a chapter or three went on for too long? Or not long enough? Or worse, they seemed to be a confusing mish mash of information all piled on much like the old college prank of stuffing a VW bug? This aberration comes from a lack of proper organization. Sounds simple, no?
The answer? Re-organize, and you have great chapters. Okay, if it were that easy, we wouldn’t have this problem of wonky chapters, right? Here are some of the things I look for when I edit.
I look for chapters that are clear about what they’re saying. I want them to have a clear direction. It’s like the time when we first moved to Pittsburgh. We were trying to find a particular furniture store, and Zelda (what I’ve named my phone’s navigation app) took us on the wildest goose chase that I’m still shocked we didn’t end up in Ohio. Bitch. If she had just gotten rid of all the ups and downs, turns and twists, we would have gotten to the store in fifteen minutes, instead of forty-five.
It’s the same with chapters. If a chapter introduces a character, then zaps over to backstory, then teleports over to the history of the setting, I’m going to request the author’s bloodletting, because there’s no sense of direction.
A lot of us just sit down at the computer and barf out our chapters. It isn’t until subsequent drafts that we begin to refine and define. This is why an outline can be helpful at some point in the revision process. It forces you to stay on task and prevents you from wandering off the railroad tracks…or from going on and on and on and on…
A chapter should have a beginning, middle, and an end…which leads me to…
The Middle Stuff
If you’re clear on your chapter intent – example: “This chapter explains why I have Rescue Beagles in my employ, and why I won’t allow them to answer the phone anymore” – then the middle stuff needs to support that intent. If you keep it clear, then it makes it easier to know how and where to end your chapters.
There have been times when I’ve reached the end of the chapter and turned the page looking for the rest, because I didn’t realize I’d reached the end. Instead, the chapter left me hanging and had zero impact. I call that Endus Abruptus. To me, abrupt is only effective when the Rescue Beagles of Questionable Breeding breeze into my airspace to polish off my margarita. The only solution is to shout out an abrupt, “Get your own damn drink!”
Endus Abruptus shouldn’t be confused with a cliffhanger, which is equally abrupt. Oh nay nay. These offending chapter endings leave a scene unfinished. It’s like a punchline that makes no sense, and you need further explanation in order to get its meaning.
Conversely, I’ve read plenty chapters that actually ended two pages ago, and the authors seemed unaware of that fact. Instead, they rambled on and on until the ending sort of faded away – in much the same fashion as my imbibing one too many Fireballs.
There are all kinds of ways to end a chapter, but they have one thing in common; they make sense. Where and How to end a chapter is as intentional as the plot and character development.They satisfy whatever transpired in that chapter by giving enough information to keep you turning the pages. They have a Mini-Me version of rising action, climax, and falling action.
I’m big on transitions because I can be thick between the ears. You gotta lead me from Point A to Point B in a logical fashion. If one paragraph is about a character’s thoughts on the weather, and the next one goes into firing one of his employees, then you need a transitional sentence that leads into that next paragraph because, without it, there is nothing remotely linking those two paragraphs together.
Think of transitional sentences as couplers between railroad cars. They’re the magic that keeps the entire train together. Take out a coupler, and the train falls apart. Same goes for transitions between paragraphs of differing topics.
Being a native Southern Californian, I had no idea about the dangers of snow and freezing rain when I moved to Pittsburgh. I’m an idiot that way. Most I ever had to worry about was whether to put on short sleeves and bring a sweater, or just wear long sleeves and ditch the sweater. Weather meant looking at the surf report, not ice skating on my driveway in my best shoes. Though today, it looked like ice skating would be the main course of my work banquet, since I finally decided to fire the Rescue Beagles – their antics were taking a toll on my last shred of sanity.
“Rescue Beagles, you’re fired. You can’t type, you refuse to file, and your phone manners are dismal. I give you points on your margarita-making skills, but you can’t continue biting the pizza delivery guy and expect to collect a paycheck.”
The sentence in red is the transitional sentence. Without it, the reader would do the blink blink thing before hurling the book across the room. Avoid the book hurl.
This is where I go all feng shui and call people “Grasshopper.” Balance is a delicate internal gauge that ensures the information in each chapter has the proper weight. For example, if your chapter exposes how your main character discovers pygmy yaks have been eating all her Coach purses while she’s at work, then you need to put the proper amount of literary weight behind which element you feel is most important. Is it the discovery behind who’s eating the purses, or is it how your main character caught them?
It’s easy to throw off an entire book by giving more weight to inconsequential things, while paying less attention to the really important stuff that needs explanation. Recently, I read a manuscript where one chapter talked about meeting her long lost aunt, whom she thought was dead. It was quite pivotal. But instead of talking about that, the author chose to go into backstory, and paid scant attention to actually meeting the aunt. Grasshopper wrote that chapter completely out of balance.
So, dear Grasshopper, chapters are the building blocks of your book. If they’re filled with a clear intent, are well-balanced, have effective transitions, and come to a logical conclusion, then this makes it easier to edit (which makes me deliriously happy) into a bright package of fabulosity. Go forth and rocketh your world.
An acquaintance excitedly told me about the publication of her book and urged me to rush over to her website and look at her cover art which, of course, I did. The little gold seal on the cover caught my eye, and I asked her about it. What’s with this “ABC Publisher Romance Winner”?
“Oh,” she said with no small measure of pride, “I won the contest and was awarded a publishing contract.”
Um. Oh. “Okay, but why is it on your cover?”
“I’m an award-winning author, and this will sell books!”
There were simply no words. It’s ludicrous to think this little gold seal is an amulet whose power will sell books because this is a no-name publisher with no marketing or promotion, no distribution, and no store placement. The only people who will see her book are those who have a book pressed into their hands by…the author.
Stuff like this make my teeth itch because it’s puffery and has zero meaning. Store-front publishers do this stuff to capitalize on the real award winning competitions, like PEN Award, Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book Award, Edgar Awards, and to a smaller degree, Ben Franklin, and IPPYs, thinking having a little gold seal will sell books.
And it may. I mean, readers could see my acquaintance’s gold seal and believe her book is very important and buy several copies – and for her sake, I hope they do. But this will be limited to those who know her and attend the talks she’s planned around town. There is no grander reach to the reading market by the publisher.
Meanwhile, this acquaintance is calling herself an award-winning author, which I imagine makes her feel like a million bucks. But how does this translate to sales if her publisher sits on their hands and forces her to do all the marketing and promotion?
Authors tell me they’re award winners in their queries, and I check them out. First thing I look for is whether the contests are so obscure that they have no meaning. Can I see how many writers competed in each genre? It’s impossible to give credence to these contests. Now, if you won a Pushcart, then I know you have some writing chops.
My feeling is that these “award winners” by unknown publishers are meant to puff up the author’s ego and to attract more
victims writers to their web. Without any marketplace presence, there really isn’t anything to crow about, right? We all love the feeling of being considered exceptional. When I was 10, I was voted “Smelliest Feet” at Y Camp. Now, one would think I’d be embarrassed, but oh nay nay. My distinction awarded me the top bunk, where there was a small rip in the tent at the foot of the bunk. Not only could my feet air out, but it was also the coolest place in the tent during a very hot summer in the mountains. And because it was such a goofy award, I made a lot of friends. Go figure.
But I digress…
My point is that if any of us are going to be awarded for being outstanding, shouldn’t it mean something? Shouldn’t we care about quality and depth, and not just the title? There are great publishers who hold contests from time to time and the winner receives a contract, so I’m not saying writing contests bite the big one. But talk is cheap, so stick with known publishers whose books grace the bookstore shelves.
Which would you rather have? A cover devoid of an Award Winner seal and widely distributed and promoted, or a pretty gold seal on a book that will end up sitting in your garage? …which is what I fear is the fate for this acquaintance of mine.
If you enter a publisher’s writing contest, please make sure that the publisher has the chops to distribute, promote, and market their books. How can you figure that out? Simple. Go to a bookstore. If you see their books on the shelves, then you know they’re walking the walk. Don’t let anyone appeal to your ego, lest you become their victim.
I received an email from an acquaintance who received a contract offer with an alarming clause, and he wanted to know if this was a standard clause.
In a nutshell, the clause forbids the author from submitting subsequent similar stories to other publishers – or self publishing it. All stories that are deemed “similar” fall under the jurisdiction of that publisher and must remain with that publisher.
Now, this is entirely different from a First Right of Refusal clause, which simply states that the author must give their publisher the first right to review subsequent manuscripts, and reject it or offer a contract. I wrote about it here,
This is far more overreaching, so I’ll explain the pitfalls:
Definition of “Similar”
There is no definition of “similar,” in the contract, so how is the author supposed to understand what falls under the current publisher’s purview and what he can submit elsewhere? Are they talking about genre, plot, characters, setting? Further muddying the waters is, how does the publisher possibly enforce that clause with such dubious wording?
Many authors write in the same genre, so if an author writes YA distopia, does this clause grab all of the author’s future YA distopia? Or are we talking the characters? Without having this clearly stated in the contract, the author is walking a tightrope without a safety net. The worst of all is that the publisher has ultimate control over what they deem “similar.”
Authors can’t be held to a moving target. Define by what is meant by “similar,” then maybe there’s something to work with. However, at that, I would never, never, never suggest an author sign such a ridiculous clause in the first place. And, frankly, I would question any publisher who would put that into their contracts.
My friend’s acquiring editor told him this clause is meant to help grow the author’s career by cutting down on cases where the author could find themselves competing against their own work by having similar books at different publishers.
Personally, I think this is a load of camel slop because first and foremost, the publisher is inhibiting the author’s freedom to do what he wants with his writing career. What this really does is help the publisher corner the market on that author’s “similar” works, therefore ensuring maximum sales for the publisher…which, in theory, is good for the author.
And sure, I can imagine the frustration a publisher would have seeing one of their authors give another publisher a similar book. The original publisher worked hard to establish the author’s platform in the marketplace, and now they have competition. And my answer to this is that it’s incumbent upon the publisher to be so freaking fabulous that the author wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. It should be a relationship of fabulosity, not force.
You do not, not, not take away an author’s freedom. It sends a terrible message, and…well…it’s rude. A publisher is either up to the task of doing good things for their authors, or they’re not, and the author should have the ability to move on if they want. Good publishers don’t keep their authors by force.
And this brings me to another point. Publisher suckosity. What if you sign a contract with this clause and you find out down the line that the publisher isn’t doing a good job in promoting, marketing, distributing, and selling your book? The clause makes you their writerly slave.
Signing a contract is a happy happy time, filled with daisies, puppies, and rainbows. Authors never imagine the possibility of a Dark Lord of Suckosity surfacing, bringing slobbery, murky, bloaty gnomes whose sole job is to make you wish you’d never picked up a quill.
So the worst case scenario is that not only have you discovered the Dark Lord of Suckosity, but this lousy clause ties you to them with lightning bolts.
Any clause that gives the editor control over deciding what “similar” means is meant to favor the publisher. Trying to insist that these clauses are meant to protect the author is publishy-speak for, “Gee, I hope they didn’t see through my smoke and mirrors.”
This clause puts you in a Demilitarized Zone – you’re not free to take a step forward or backward because they own your soul and tell you what you can and can’t write.
My advice to my friend was to run. Far and fast. And if you see a clause in a contract, I urge you to join my friend. Stay safe, dear writers!
Anyone who knows me knows that I avoid the kitchen like a participle looking for its dangle. However, I’ve had these two foolproof…and I do mean foolproof…recipes for English Toffee and Mounds Bars. I used to make candy every year for Christmas, but somewhere between editing and book distribution, the candy making went the way of the dinosaur.
Until this past weekend, and I went nuts. Ok, I’ll admit that I couldn’t find my original English Toffee recipe, so I used another one and proceeded to burn two batches. Yes, smoke and fire alarms are the quintessential Pricey. Then I found my old recipe, and voila…perfect toffee.
The Mounds bars were a new addition, and they’re killer. So I’ll share with you, so you can have some fun in the kitchen while that plot twist rummages around in your brain.
Oh, and don’t forget to buy a candy thermometer.
ENGLISH TOFFEE – Makes a buttload
2 cups butter
2 cups white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup finely chopped almonds (I used crushed walnuts)
- Get a large heavy bottomed saucepan. Now I didn’t respect this enough and burned two batches. It’s gotta be a heavy pot in order to avoid burning. Who knew? I used my La Crueset – it’s one heavy mother.
- Melt the butter first, then toss in the sugar and salt.
- Stirring constantly (not vigorously) cook over medium heat so the sugar melts. Allow to come to a boil, and cook until the mixture becomes a dark amber color, and the temperature has reached 285 degrees F (137 degrees C). Stir occasionally. This take awhile, so don’t freak out. And DON’T LEAVE IT. Left on its own, the candy gremlins come along and burp in the pot. Avoid this.
- While the toffee is cooking, cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
- As soon as the toffee reaches the proper temperature, pour it onto the baking sheet.
- Sprinkle the chocolate over the top, and let it set for a minute or two to soften. Spread the chocolate into a thin even layer once it is melted. Sprinkle the nuts over the chocolate, and press in slightly. Putting a plastic bag over your hand will minimize the mess.
- Place the toffee in the refrigerator to chill until set. Break into pieces, and store in an airtight container
Idiot-proof English Toffee. Holy garbanzo beans, it is fabulous. Go cook now.
MOUNDS BARS - also makes a buttload
Another insidiously easy candy to make. It’s so easy, I’m almost ticked off at the fortune the Price family has spent keeping the Head Price Kahuna well-stocked in Mounds Bars – the only candy he’ll eat.
- 2 14 ounce bags of unsweetened coconut (I bought a 1,000 pound bag of sweetened coconut at Costco, and it worked great)
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 3 cups of chocolate chips
- 2 teaspoons of butter
- In a large bowl mix together the coconut, sweetened condensed milk, 1/2 cup butter, and powdered sugar. Mix well.
- How you shape these suckers is up to you. You can spread the slop onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, fridge for a couple hours, then cut it up.
- However, that didn’t float my boat, so I dug my little fingies into the slop and shaped them in little blobs and put it on one of those silicone baking mats. I nearly fainted when I saw how expensive it was, and told the saleslady it better rock my cookery world or I’d come back and filet her. My cookery world was duly rocked, and the saleslady will live to sell another day.
- Chill those little suckers down so it’s easier to roll in melted chocolate. You can refrigerate for 2 hours…or freeze for 15 minutes. I froze. Worked like a charm. In fact, I ran out of chocolate, so I kept the undunked mounds bar filling in the freezer for a couple days. They were quite happy there.
- Melt 3 cups chocolate chips and 2 teaspoon of butter in the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds until melted.
- Cut bars and dunk in melted choccie, and put on your new magic silicone mat, or parchment paper. Stick in the fridge to set up.
So there it is, my dear little scribblers. A fabulous sugary high. And the best part is you figured out how your protagonist was able to knock Mr. Hunkypants off his feet while covered in molasses and feathers.
“Never judge a book by its cover.”
That’s been the standby moms around the world stuffed into our disbelieving ears when they were trying to make a point about looking past the surface to see the good. In my case, Mom was trying to impress upon me that Tommy Johns was probably a really nice kid and that I needed to look past the fact that he spit on us girls at recess and called us pig farts. Right, Mom, I’m sure deep down he was a real prince.
The truth is we abso-freaking-lutely do judge books by their covers, whether they’re on two feet and spitting on girls at recess, or surrounding a bunch of type-written pages.
And it doesn’t just affect us mortals. Years ago our publicity director took a meeting with one of the premiere reviewers in New York. They ooo’d and ahh’d over our books as they passed them around, commenting on the lovely cover art. They sheepishly admitted to being influenced by cover art…just like the rest of us. I’m shocked. Shocked.
I wrote about cover art here, so I won’t rehash those particulars. Instead, I’ll bring up these points:
You Ain’t a Pro
A number of you are self-pubbing your books and happen to be handy with digital artwork, so you feel competent in designing your own cover. My advice? Don’t.
Cover design has unique properties that attract unsuspecting readers. Colors can attract or repel. Fonts can make your eyes squint. Graphics can be muddy hot messes.
I feel pretty confident that I can toss together a fairly decent garage sale sign. But cover art? I’d rather spit on Tommy Johns at recess and call him a pig fart. You need to understand fonts, graphics, colors, and visual appeal. Unless you’re a professional book cover designer, then you ain’t a pro. This is why so many self-pubbed books are overlooked. They look homemade. It’s cute for Christmas decorations, but not for a book.
Heck, I don’t consider myself a pro. Okay, maybe I have a better idea than your average bear, but I leave the heavy lifting to our lovely cover designer. I’ve had great ideas any number of times, and she’ll write me back asking if I’ve been dipping into the cooking sherry again. What I can do is tell her the feel I’m looking to evoke with the artwork, and she produces the magic. Then my sales teams rip me to shreds and ask if I’ve been dipping into the cooking sherry. Tough life I lead.
Ten Foot Test
The lucky thing is that I have a team of many to keep me on the straight and narrow. It’s woefully easy for a self-pubbed author to go wrong. Case in point, an author I knew hired an artist to do the artwork for his fantasy. The graphic was amazing and intricately detailed. However, whenever I closed my eyes, all I saw was a blob of purple. I feared this would be the takeaway perspective readers would have when they entered a bookstore. Clearly, it didn’t meet the Ten-Foot Test – meaning that the cover needed to be memorable and clear from ten feet away.
Think book signings: People come into the bookstore and see you standing in front of a pile of books. If all they see are purple blobs, then there’s nothing to pull them over to your table, unless you’re offering free shots of Fireball.
Consult a BOOK COVER DESIGNER. Only they understand how to make your book cover sing. Stick to what you know; writing.
Something else to consider is that your cover art will be shown in the online stores like Amazon and BN.com, along with review sites. These are thumbnail size. If your cover art is intricate, the shrinky dinky thumbnail jpg of your cover will require readers to don microscopes, and I usually leave mine in my other purse.
This is the same case for your printed bookmarks, business cards, or other promo giveaways. Your cover needs to stand up to being miniaturized a la Fantastic Voyage so you can attract readers.
Publisher Cover Art – Yeech!
Okay, so even reputable publishers can screw the pooch. So what happens if you find yourself in that position? Well, you could spit on your editor and call her a pig fart, but you may as well toss yourself under a garbage truck if you pull that trick. My suggestion is to talk to your editor. I’m not saying she’ll necessarily change her mind, but you should definitely say something.
It’s helpful if you can present solid reasons as to why you don’t like the cover art. Saying, “I don’t like it!” isn’t helpful. Is it the font? The colors? The graphic? Do you feel it doesn’t represent the tone and emotion of your story? Be specific. The more professional you are, the more willing your editor may be to offer a few changes.
Conversely, the editor should be able to defend the cover art as to why it’s a smart, visually appealing walking billboard for your book. If she can’t or won’t, then maybe she is a pig fart.
Do Your Best
The truth is that no one’s perfect with the cover art because art is subjective. What I think is gawd-awful-stick-my-finger-down-my-throat may be squee-worthy to another. The important thing is to do your best by putting your cover in the hands of those who do this for a living. Make them explain to you why their design works. Learn from them. And most of all, put your emotions aside. Publishing is a business, and the cover art is the main packaging.
As for Tommy Johns, I often wonder if he went pro with the spitting thing…