And may God have mercy on your soul if you make this blunder in your manuscript or query letter.
“…because the publishing companies I’m querying don’t require agents.”
Hear me roar. Loudly.
It doesn’t matter whether the publishers you’re querying are open to anyone or not. If they offer you a contract, you need an agent.
Let me say that again.
YOU NEED AN AGENT.
We allow authors to query us directly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hope and pray that an author I offer a contract to will rush out and get representation. There is nothing worse than trying to negotiate a contract with an inexperienced author. Plain and simple, you simply don’t know what points are negotiable, and what points are hands off.
I’ve seen more deals go south because the inexperienced author screwed the pooch, and the acquiring editor decided drinking poison was preferable to trying to convince an author why she couldn’t have 2,000 free copies.
Don’t make us drink poison. If a publisher offers you a contract, get yourself a good agent…A GOOD AGENT…who can negotiate on your behalf. It is literally the difference between being published, and being told to go forth and multiply with the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
I hate being late. I think it’s a leftover from my childhood when Mom kept insisting I had plenty of time before school. The clocks were wrong, and I was late for school one morning, which nearly made my intestines invert because my first grade teacher was a beast who loved to scream. It didn’t stop there. My brothers were slaggers when it came time for going to church, so I’d always arrive late to Sunday school. There I was, tromping through the door, all eyes scooped up and staried at me as the teacher brought out paper and crayons so I could catch up and draw my own version of Baby Jesus – which always looked more like Elvis riding bareback on a camel.
Every Sunday, as Dad broke all the laws of physics by getting us to church in 5.5 seconds on what in the real world would take 15 minutes, I would sit back in the car plotting my brothers’ painful demise while thinking, “Here we go again, it’s Too-Late Thirty.”
So I’ll readily admit that I have some issues with being late, which means that I recognize it as easily as the Rescue Beagles recognize a fresh margarita at 50 paces.
I see Too-Late Thirty in a lot of query letters and book proposals when they discuss promotion plans, and it sends chills up my spine – and not in a good way. It usually starts like this:
“Once my book is published, I’ll start a blog/Twitter/Facebook page to promote my book.”
No, no, no, no, a gabajillion times no. It’s too late. The prevailing thought is, “If I put up a FB page, Tweet, blog, they will come.” No. They. Won’t. You have to work your Times New Roman off to attract a readership, and it takes a lot of time. The time to be thinking about your online presence as a promotional tool is before your book even sells to a publisher. Preferably while you’re still writing your book. Yah, it takes that long.
And let’s face it, the internet is a huge behemoth that contains gynormous amounts of information, so not only do you need to establish your online presence in plenty of time, but you have to figure out “Who Am I?”
You wrote your book with a particular intent, and your online presence is no different. The most popular blogs have a message/tone/intent. They’re consistent in the kind of content they put out.
Humor: Humor is always a great way to capture an audience. Don’t be afraid to use it. The more you make people chuckle over their morning cuppa, the more they’ll look forward to reading your posts. And when your book does come out, your readers will rush to support you. Cha-ching!
Don’t Clash: When I was 10, Mom told me I couldn’t wear my plaid skirt with a polka dot blouse because they didn’t go together. I thought she was daft. As I’ve grown up (ostensibly), Mom can still run circles around me when it comes to knowing fashion. It’s the same with your blog/FB/Tweets. If your writing style of your book is vastly different to your blog/Tweets/FB page, then you’re creating a disconnect. Of course, I’m talking in generalities.
Boring: An author I met awhile back has a brilliant book – it hits all the emotional highs with a delicious balance of humor and throat-grabby “holy crap” moments. His blog is about the most boring thing I’ve ever seen because all he ever does is talk about statistics and quoting other articles. Predictably, his blog has icicles on its little nose because he’s regurgitating boring stuff. He’s not sharing his own amazing story. I told him if he talked about his personal experiences, he’d have something to work with. Equally predictably, his sales are quite low.
Self-effacing: Is there anything more attractive than someone who’s not afraid to poke fun at their sillier moments? Let’s face it, we all have them, right? What you’re accomplishing by being self-effacing is that you’re showing your human side and allowing your readers to say, “Oh yeah, totally been there, done that.”
Create a Community Feel
There’s nothing more attractive than blogs that say, “Hey, you’re not alone.” Regardless of the tone/theme – be it writing woes, dependence, health issues, slogging through school, or romance – there are a lot of other people who’ve traveled the same road. Include your readers and ask them to share their experiences. For instance, there’s a great Facebook page called “I Love Beagles,” and it’s wildly popular because beagle lovers (not known for being particularly normal) love sharing their stories about this insane breed.
What elements of your book can create a community feel? The idea is to present material that has your readers itching to leave a comment. This means they’re engaged. Engaged = good.
Branching Out/Capturing Attention
Now that you’ve figured out how you want to project your online presence, you’re wondering how to get readers. Easiest way is to google other blogs that compare to yours. Get active on those blogs by giving thoughtful comments. People will link on your name and see your blog – and will mosey on over to see what you have to say. Now you see why this all takes time.
Also, be sure to use tags and do the rss feed thingy. When people google, your blog may show up.
The long and short of this is, if you’re going to go to the trouble of establishing an online presence (and I think it’s a good idea), then it makes sense to do it right, and do it early. Too-Late Thirty puts you constantly behind, and you’re forever playing catch-up…and your book won’t wait. In short, have fun with your online presence. Be you.
The memory is clear, as if it happened yesterday. My buddy was crying in her chardonnay over having her second book kicked out by her editor. I tried to console her. “Your first book was nothing short of a masterpiece, so you set the bar pretty high in terms of what your editor expects from you.”
And that’s it in a nutshell for any of you who may be experiencing Book Two-itis. Your editor picked you up because your writing is amazing, so your literary rockitude is all she knows. If you turn in anything less than that, she’s going to wonder what happened.Are you a one book wonder, or are you a writer with a career?
It’s devastating to know how hard you’ve worked on your book only to be told your attempt wasn’t good enough. Eeech. So you begin second-guessing yourself. “Do I suck?”…which is exactly what my friend asked.
No, she didn’t suck, and neither do you. And here’s why…
There’s nothing quite like writing your first book. There’s no pressure, no deadlines, so you can take as long as you want. You can rewrite, edit, revise, and massage every sentence until it’s airtight. But now that you have a book deal, your world has changed – be it a 1 book or 2-3 book deal, .
Now it’s all about deadlines. Since your focus has been on writing and selling Book 1, you may not have much more than a working idea or outline for your subsequent books – and now the clock is ticking. You don’t have the gift of time as you did with Book 1, which means the process is entirely different. Now you’re not writing for just you – you’re hoping like hell your editor will embrace Book 2 with screeches of “You’re brilliant!”
A helpful thing to remember is that you’re going to be compared to your first book – which your editor loved. How many of have read someone’s Book 2 and felt it was a huge letdown? Once you’ve burst on the scene with a blazin’ book, it’s hard to recreate that level of fabulosity. Your editor is expecting you to hit it out of the park with every subsequent book. Anything less, and your editor is worrying about sales impact.
With your first book out, you have a track record, and your editor is checking your sales closely to see what kind of traction you have – or are gaining. If your sales are doing well, then your editor has higher expectations of those subsequent books. You’re now a brand.
Knowing is Half the Battle
This is a heady time. You’ve wanted this publishing deal from the time you wrote your opening line. But any multi-published author will tell you that Book 2 is the hardest because you’re trying to duplicate what’s already been done. Some hit, some miss. If your Book 2 is a miss with your editor, I recommend having a good cry, tip back a few if that floats your boat. After that, increase your BIC Index (Butt In Chair) and write. You’re in the big leagues now, and you’ve learned the valuable less that publishing is nothing less than unpredictable.
The good news is that you’re still sitting at the grownup table, so have a discussion with your agent, your editor, and your beta readers to see if there’s anything salvageable. If not, start over because, hey, thar be more than one great book in you. And yes, you’ll survive it. My buddy did. Her experience forced her to dig deep, and her next book apexed her first book.
Are you struggling with Book 2?
The immediate response is DON’T. If you want to watch an editor mainline unleaded gas, tell her that you know nothing about the publishing industry BEFORE digging in to negotiate your own contract. Uh huh…been there, and my eyes bled.
I’m not talking to you multi-pubbed authors who have been knocking around the industry for years. I’m talking about the new authors who just completed their manuscripts and the ink on THE END is still wet. New authors don’t know what elements of a contract are negotiable and what’s inviolate, so your negotiating points may send the acquiring editor screaming for the hills. For example, publishers won’t agree to your keeping e-book rights, allowing you final approval on your cover art and manuscript edits, or allowing you to have thousands of free books that you’ll be allowed to sell.
These are deal killers because the publisher is buying the rights to your manuscript and assuming all the financial responsibilities and risk of production, marketing and promotion, and distribution, and they won’t agree to giving you all the artistic control. What it says is that you don’t trust the publisher. If that’s the case, then why sign with them? Ostensibly, you’re signing with a company who can do for your book that you can’t accomplish on your own. It’s counter-intuitive for a publisher to agree to anything that puts their investment at risk, or puts them in a position of competing against their own author.
If you’re offered a publishing contract, get thee to an agent asap, and let them do the heavy lifting. I know, you’re wondering if you can have your attorney look over the contract, and I say an emphatic NO. Literary contracts are a different beast than other contracts, and I’ve seen lawyers unfamiliar with the literary world agree to rotten contracts. Or they try to argue points that no publisher with a firing synapse would agree to.
Agents, on the other hand, do this for a living. No one understands publishing contracts better than a good literary agent. If you don’t have an agent at the time of a contract offer, you’ll probably find a willing agent if you tell them you have an offer on the table and need representation. I’ve experienced this many times, and I’m always grateful because I know my sobriety and sanity will be granted yet another reprieve.
The end run here is that you’ve taken time to write your story, and you don’t want to lose your book to a predatory contract, or because you insisted on things that are highly irregular to the industry. The contract is the most important bridge between you, your story, and the marketplace, so don’t take this step lightly. Get an agent. Pronto.
I never thought I’d get the hang of making a really good margarita. Some batches were too sweet, others too sour. Some got the entire household looped after mere whiffs of the fumes, others had people demanding to know where I’d hidden the booze. Oh, the drama.
But I realized that creating the perfect margarita was a process of trial and error. And so it is with writing. One does not bangeth out a perfect book in the first draft. It’s a process. So I thought I’d talk a little about characteristics that can help take the writer from first draft to finished brilliance.
Can’t have an amazing book without amazing characters, right? One of the biggest reasons I reject manuscripts is due to lack of fleshed out characters. Yes, I realize I only publish nonfiction, but I see a lot of manuscripts where the characters are as rigid and dry as the last batch of cupcakes I made.
Your characters are the heart and soul of your story. They are what make us care. They are the vehicles that propel the plot. If you don’t pay special attention to them, then you got nuthin’. My bud, Annette Dashofy, suggests writing a journal in the character’s point of view…and I happen to think that’s a fabulous idea. It forces you to be your character. We will learn amazing things about our characters if we take the time to get into their heads.
Whether you outline or storyboard, do anything that helps you flesh out the depths of your story is a good idea. We may think we have a great idea stashed in our cerebral hard drive, but getting it out of our heads and on to paper is the perfect aid to going deeper.
Good buddy, Canadian funnyman, and recent liver transplant, Gordon Kirkland, told me he storyboards. He writes sticky notes and posts them on the wall. This enables him to move the stickies around and make sure he reveals the right plot points at the right time. I like this idea a lot more than outlining because I tend to be a visual writer. If I can see plot points on the wall, then I can see it better in my head.
The important thing is to feel prepared before you actually sit down to bang out your story. I read a lot of manuscripts that are poorly organized. Either authors reveal information that isn’t pertinent until much further into the book, or information is lacking. Conversely, I know a number of writers who are stuck at this point. The ideas take residence in their heads and never make it to cyber paper. Maybe if they storyboarded or outlined, they’d feel like their books were easier to manage because they’re organized. This would give them the confidence to write that very first sentence.
Armed with your juicy characters and organized story, you being to write. The first draft is you telling yourself your story, so respect the first draft. Even though you may have an outline or storyboard, you’ll still be amazed at the things that come out from that first draft. Who of us hasn’t experienced the “Holy crap, I so didn’t see that coming”? That first draft may alter your book’s direction, and you may find you need to storyboard all over again. And that’s fine because you’re telling yourself the story.
Don’t freak out at the exploding word count, missing turns of phrases, or literary smorgasbord. You need to get the story from your head to paper. Think of it as a free writing with a specific intent.
This will be rough. Very rough. Don’t be discouraged. No one barks out a perfect first draft. Not even the Cosmic Muffin…just ask Mrs. Cosmic Muffin. She’d tell he He can’t spell his way out of paper bag.
After you’ve finished that first draft, walk away for a week or two. This is the marination process. You need time away from your manuscript so when you go back to it, you can easily see the warts. Do not skip this step. If you do, it’ll be the equivalent to my attempts at making the perfect margarita. If I kept making new batches, one after the other, my taste buds dulled – along with my brain.
You need a fresh brain to create brilliance.
The Parsing Process
You have your first draft, and you’ve given yourself some space from your writing, so now it’s time to begin the parsing process – what stays, what goes. Since your first draft was you telling yourself your story, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t need to be there.
This is a huge job, so don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. It’s a process, and your first revision is still you telling yourself the story. Your story is still fluid, and it’s changing and tweaking.
Walk away, repeat the parsing process as many times as it takes for you to feel comfortable that you have a solid story.
Review Each Scene
I’ve read manuscripts that nearly drove me to Straight Jacket City because it was obvious the authors hadn’t asked one of the most important questions of all: “Does this belong here? What purpose does it serve?” The result were scenes and chapters that had no relation to the plot.
This is key to helping parse down what stays and what goes…but it isn’t bulletproof because authors are experts at justifying why a scene, or a chapter, should stay. Recently, I wiped out an entire chapter of an author’s manuscript. He was bereft because it was his favorite chapter. This isn’t a compelling justification to keeping it in.
You need to ask whether each line, paragraph, scene, and chapter furthers the plot. This applies to giving too much detail. Does the reader really need to know the intricate process of making the perfect margarita, or is it enough to simply gloss over the fact that a margarita was made, and move on with the main action? It’s a judgement call, and one you need to make consciously.
You also need to divorce yourself from your story. If you’re too close, you can justify everything staying in, and what should be a 82,000 word manuscript remains at a whopping 140,000 words.
If you’re properly organized and working off an outline or storyboard, you’ll stay focused on the main points that each chapter is meant to accomplish. This will make it easier to see the fluff through the meat.
Again, walk away for a week.
The Technical Process
Once you’re at the point where you feel you have a solid revision, you need to pay attention to the technical process. This includes fine tuning the structure, like paragraph/scene transitions, dialog tags, ratio of dialog vs. narrative, pacing, flow. You can’t make a good margarita without tequila, and you can’t have a winning manuscript with poor technical skills.
And speaking of great margaritas, I’ve perfected this recipe that has people begging for more:
1/2 can limeade
jigger or two good quality tequila
jigger or two grand marnier
1/2 can beer
ice to fill the blender
Blast off the blender until margarita is smooth, then pour into glasses. Or mainline directly into artery.
Character Development was the topic of a discussion I was having with a group of writers. I went through a general list of things I run up against when reading manuscripts – things that make my teeth itch. Things like:
- React vs. Proact: Main character spends more time reacting to situations than proacting – being in control. This makes your main character disappear into the wallpaper.
- Cliche: The cop who drinks and smokes too much, his apartment is always messy, and he’s divorced. Really? Why are there no healthy, happy, clean cops in these stories? Cliche characters is sloppy writing.
- Weak supporting cast: Sometimes authors employ a weak supporting cast in order to elevate their main character. The result is a flat story. You need a strong supporting cast in order to have something solid for your main character to play off of.
- Cause and Effect: If your intent is that your main character is viewed in a certain way, then you need to writer her that way. If she’s well respected, then she can’t be a dimwit who finger-curls her hair and says, “yanno” a lot. The dim bulb can’t be the Ivy League magna cum laude. If they are, then it has to be fully explained. Readers won’t go from Point A, to Point B and C unless you logically and artfully take them there.
- Why Him/Her?: Your main character is your main character for a reason, which means they have some kind of trait(s) that are worthy of exploration, and is solely unique to this character. After all, anyone can save the world from that giant Twinkie, so why is Roger Ramjet the lucky one to do the honors? What makes him the only character to solve this problem?
- Lack of a Personality: If you’ve chosen Roger Ramjet, then you need to give him a personality worthy of being up to this particular sequence of events. He’s gotta be real, with a personality we can touch. What kinds of quirks do they have? What are they afraid of?
- Evolution: Characters who don’t evolve aren’t real. You know that saying about how no one gets out of this life alive…well, we don’t get out of this life unchanged, either. Characters who don’t change aren’t characters we can care about. If Margie is as dumb as box of rocks at the beginning and remains so at the end, then lots of readers will toss Margie against a wall and quit reading.
So all these things we talked about boiled down to one thing: How well do you know your characters? Many insisted they knew their characters very well, but then I asked how they felt their characters had evolved, I saw some thoughtful expressions. I asked why they chose THIS particular character to star in their stories, and saw some thoughtful expressions.
One author mentioned how she had killed off one of her characters and that he sat on the couch and told her all the reasons he should remain in the book. Ok, we realize that writers are the only people who can read that and not insist that little men in white coats carry them away, away, away….
After that experience, the author began to journal each character in her books, in each character’s POV.
I heard angels sing and watched a shaft sunlight blast through the clouds. What a brilliant idea. I know it’s not a new one, but it had been years since I’d heard it, and I thought this would be a good reminder to all you wonderful people.
And yeah, this goes for you nonfiction writers as well.
I see too many stories where I don’t feel the writer knows their characters well enough, and the result is lifeless, flat things that I don’t care about. A journal in your characters’ POV forces them to unveil themselves to you. You may realize things about them that you’d never thought of. This may be information you don’t plan on using…but you never know.
For example, I write bios for all my characters, and I ended up using some of the goofier traits here and there to add color and dimension to my characters. I do that to make sure those characters are as real as my fleshy friends.
And let’s face it, if you don’t have wonderful, rich characters, your book will probably fall apart. If the characters are fabulous, then I’ll follow them anywhere – even into the dentist’s office. But you can only attain that fabulosity if you know them really, really well.
I’ve overheard some semblance of a particular comment many times at writer’s conferences, and I never cease to be shocked and awed. It goes something like this:
“I don’t have to worry about spelling, punctuation, and syntax. That’s what my editor is for. I’m merely the writer.”
#1 Reason why that’s wrong, wrong, wrong:
When your manuscript comes back to you for editing and, eventually, the final read – you won’t be able to spot those errors that may have slipped through the cracks.
You are not an asset to yourself or your editor.
Case in point: Someone I know had an editor who, through her own ignorance, actually inserted mistakes into the manuscript. Luckily, the author was far more knowledgeable than the editor and pointed out the mistakes the editor had made. A conversation ensued until the editor had to back down and admit her blunders. Obviously, this isn’t a publisher (and I use that word loosely), who can afford to hire experienced editors.
Case in point: Mainstream publishers edit manuscripts to within an inch of everyone’s lives, however, we’re all human (despite the rumors), and mistakes do sneak through. We’ve all seen books that had a few errors that made it to the final print run. It sucks, but it does happen. The problem is that we’ve all read the manuscript so many times, those beasties sometimes become harder to catch. This is where Team Author is a godsend. We’re watching each others’ backs for the common goal of pubbing a perfect book.
Reason #2 why that’s wrong, wrong, wrong:
You probably won’t get a publishing contract from a solid house because mistake-riddled manuscripts are tossed out with as much zeal as my family does over my attempts at baking.
An author whose manuscripts are rife with spelling errors or punctuation blunders shows a lack of respect for their writing and, in turn, a lack of respect for anyone reading it. It basically says, “I wrote it, you fix it.” Uh. No. Mainstream publishers will boot those puppies out faster than the Rescue Beagles can suck down a pitcher of margaritas.
The only folks who don’t care about excellence of craft are publishers you don’t want anywhere near your writing.
Lastly, here’s Reason #3 why that’s wrong, wrong, wrong:
You’re a writer, so you should respect your craft by being knowledgeable. Absolutely no excuses. Every writer should have a copy of an excellent writing book, like THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE and Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE.
If your manuscript says, The Rescue Beagles staired at the wall, I’m going to change that to stared.
If your manuscript says, The Rescue Beagles’ favorite book is FANCY FEET, I’m going to italicize the title: FANCY FEET because book titles, plays, ships, movies, and a whole (not hole) host of other things are italicized. But if you don’t know that, you won’t catch that your editor forgot to italicize the name of the battleship in your book.
And need I go on about it’s vs. its? Gah. I think it’s one of the easiest mistakes to make when writing because I see it All. The. Time. And it’s also one of the easiest things to miss. Do you know the difference?
If not, you are not an asset to yourself or your publisher.
The point here is that you must be an asset to yourself FIRST because it’s your only protection with respect to your manuscript. Conversely, there is nothing sweeter than being able to depend on a smart, savvy author.
You can’t afford to be undereducated because the sanctity of your book may depend on it. Publishing is a team effort, which means there’s an assumption that both teams know what the heck they’re doing.
This is your book, so doesn’t it go to reason that you would take every step to maintain its integrity? As Ronnie said, “Trust, but verify.” Be an asset to yourself because you will definitely be an asset to your publisher. Pinkie swear.
I adore the show Castle. I have about a billion shows on my DVR, so I have a fallback when regular TV lets me down (which is often). So last night’s program has Castle getting the “what, why for?” from his daughter and mother. They’d told him all kinds of things that he apparently forgot. His comeback: “Was I writing?”
Who of us hasn’t had this happen? Life happens around you, yet you have no memory of it because your nose was buried in your writing (or editing) ? I’ve apparently had complete conversations with my kids that are a total blank. There’s a probability they’re taking advantage of my altered state and making stuff up…which totally wouldn’t surprise me, clever things that they are.
It got so bad that I finally had to declare to anyone within fifty feet of my desk that when I’m either writing or editing, I get a free get out of jail pass. I’m not responsible for anything I may have said while doing either of those jobs…unless it makes complete sense, of course.
Writers, save yourselves. Take control of your independence and save hours of wondering whether you’ve lost your mind. Wait. We’re writers…of course we’ve lost our minds, but I digress. Make your computer a Safety Zone, and anything you say while you’re sitting at your desk creating great tomes of brilliance isn’t your responsibility.
So the next time little Johnny comes in with a bleedy head wound, remarking that he’s feeling a bit woozy, you have the authority to shout, “HEY! I’m writin’ here!! Go talk to the dog.”