Ocular Enema: Is the Excellence of Writing an Endangered Species?

August 1, 2015

/rant on

Under the new direction of Common Core architect David Coleman, the College Board has dumbed down the SAT by making it easier for students of the Common Core system to score higher. For example, they will abolish the writing section and the hard vocabulary words.

As a publisher, I question whether public education is a viable alternative any longer, if this is their idea quality higher learning. I’ve seen test results where misspelled words were marked correct because “they were close enough.” I’ve seen teachers who marked words as being spelled incorrectly, or questioned word usage – and they were in the wrong (never try to outwit an editor, teachers) – because their standards of education were sub-par.

I have tough words for those who believe in lowering the bar to include the less capable; the real world of publishing doesn’t believe in “close enough.” We believe in excellence and will accept nothing less.

On more than one occasion, I’ve rejected queries based solely on the abysmal spelling attempts. And yes, I do comment on this being the reason for the rejection. And on those occasions, I’ve had authors write back to inform me that I’m a dinosaur (this is probably true, since I’m staring down the gun barrel of 60) and that excellence isn’t about the ability to spell, but the content.

This devastates me on a personal and professional basis because effective writing is all about effective communication – and anyone answering the call to the literary world should already have this stamped on their forehead. If I have to train my eye to recognize that the spelling of “enough” has made the magical transformation to “enuf,” then my visual cortex will quickly reach for the smelling salts. If some Einstein decides the spelling should be “enuph,” then where does my brain go for an ocular enema?

My editorial self is unsettled because we’re in the process of breeding a generation of “gud enuf.” Instead of demanding distinction, the educational system, for some incoherent reason, is tossing up its hands and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Naturally, the logic of this escapes me. But more importantly, how is lowering standards good for future writers? Shouldn’t everyone be taught to transcend the mediocre? I hold Behler authors to an extremely high model of fabulosity, which is why I adore each and every one of them. Not only have their lives encompassed experiences that humble me, but they can write like the wind. I’d like to think readers appreciate this.

As I continue to scratch my head in search of sanity, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Just so you know, I don’t see this as a political football, but a quality issue that affects the future of our writing community, so please don’t post anything about politics here. I will let The Rescue Beagles eat those.

/rant off


Writing Awards – Somethin’ You Oughta Know…

June 9, 2015

winner

Many of the queries that drop into my inbox talk about the lovely awards they’ve won. It feels awesome to have your work sporting a gold medal. Sometimes there’s an added bonus of having an agent or editor take a look at the winner with the idea of representation or publication. Woot!! You stand out as being a talented writer, and that should give you confidence in your talents. But you’ve only just begun the journey. The biggest hurdle is whether your story is marketable.

I’ve been on many judging panels over the years, and I’ve never seen anything in any of the judging guidelines about marketability…which is the cornerstone of the publishing industry. I’ve put my little gold stamp of approval on many entrees, knowing full well they would be very tough to sell. Which sucks stale Twinkie cream.

Many of these stories (since I’m Memoir/Biography) focus on overcoming/dealing with devastating diseases/addiction/life changes…the list goes on forever. The problem is that these stories have been done to death, and there’s often nothing unique in these stories to set them apart from what’s already on store shelves. So unless the author has a huge platform that can gather national attention, that award winner could gather dust.

Many look at writing awards as helping to establish a platform, and this is worrisome. See, readers, on average, don’t follow writing awards. They look for content and a great plot…and maybe a really cool cover. With the gajillions of books on the marketplace, a writing competition win isn’t enough to help a book swim upstream because readers have a huge amount of reading options. A publisher can advertise, screech from bartops, hire airplanes to lug banners, and thrust free copies into hands of anyone with a heartbeat…and they still may not sell. It’s a crapshoot, which is why publishers are very choosy about the projects they accept for publication. Which takes us right back to, “Can I market this book?”

I still think writing competitions are cool, and I think it does a lot of good for a writer’s self-esteem to win one. But don’t rest on your laurels. Ask yourself if your book is marketable. And the only way to know that is to be keenly aware of your competition.

Happy writing!


Mainlining Drano

March 31, 2015

There are a number of things that make me want to drink/mainline Drano. I’ve talked about them over the years…and wouldn’t you know, but I have a new batch of goodies.

  • Font color: Write your query letter in light gray, so that my weary eyes strain to the point of crossing.
  • Begin your query by admitting your work probably doesn’t fit our guidelines: (actually, this is a benefit of sorts, because I can delete that much faster without having to read the entire query). For crying out loud. If your work doesn’t fit a publisher’s guidelines, then why in the name of all that’s holy are you querying them? Editors are busy folks, and they’ll simply delete without replying – so you’ve wasted not only your time, but the editor’s as well. Not a smart idea.
  • Word Count: Make sure your manuscript is miles under the minimum word count. For example, the sweet spot for most mainstream publishers is between 50k – 100k words. They will usually specify that they publish shorts. But if you’ve written something that clocks in at about 30,000 words, it becomes more of a pamphlet than a book. This is especially irritating with nonfiction because, really? A nonfiction pamphlet on how to survive getting laid off/leaving a cult/dealing with falling in love with your best friend’s boyfriend…How much depth can you attain with 30,000 words? Puhleeze.
  • Request Help: Ask me for help in directing you to a publisher who does publish your kind of work. Um. Yah. Nothing would excite me more than to do your work for you.
  • Query Length: Just today I had a query that went on for six pages. SIX. Deleted without reply.

After thirteen years in this business, I still remain gobsmacked at the ability of authors to shoot themselves in their own feet and guarantee instant, sudden death rejection…especially since it takes so little research to understand how this crazy business works and the most beneficial ways to approach an editor or agent in a professional manner.

Okay, pass me the Drano…

 


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.


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