Is your book a Fence-Sitter? Consider finishing your book!

March 27, 2012

I haz a sad. No, I haz a frustration. I read a proposal (unagented) that sounded right up my alley. The writing of the sample chaps was solid, and I stayed fully engaged right up to the end of chapter 3. Of course, I immediately wrote the author asking to read the full. And here’s where my blackened, soulless, little heart fell.

It isn’t written.

Now before you cry, “No fair, Pricey!” I’ll allow that many books are bought based on a few chapters, but it’s mostly in cases where the author’s agent is shopping ideas because the author has a track record, the story is known, or the author’s platform is so huge that someone would be insane not to buy the book. For the rest of us mortals, we are an unknown quantity with no discernible track record to hang our hats on.

For instance, I’m far more likely to nab something written by Lev Raphael than Jane Swanthbabble because Lev has a billion publishing credits to his name, and he’s a very respected writer. And he’s so nice, he can melt buttah.

Jane, on the other hand is a big question mark – a blank slate. She has no publishing credits, but she has a pretty good platform for her story. However, her story is personal, so I don’t really know if the ending will be a kapow and satisfactory, I have no idea how well the story will be organized, I have no clue whether she even has a story.

The Fence-Sitter Book

Not all books make us jump for joy or spritz them down with bug spray. There is a lot of gray area where we ask, “Do we like this? Is there a story?” Without having more to make that judgement call, that book sits on the fence – meaning it doesn’t have enough going for it to push it to one side (a publishing deal) or the other (rejection).

If we only have are a few chapters, it’s far easier to walk away rather than take a chance because publishing is expensive. I’ve bought a few projects based on a few chapters and ended up cancelling them because the final product fell far short of our expectations. Cancelling a project is expensive and a huge time-suck. If I feel a book is a fence-sitter, I have to go down my checklist to see if I can teeter it to one direction or another.

  1. Does it have a huge, universal appeal? If I know the topic is hot and vast, and not much is in the marketplace, I may consider taking a chance.
  2. What is the author’s platform? If the author’s platform is huge, then I’m willing to take the chance because I know the author will be a major advocate for the book.
  3. Do I love the book? If points 1 and 2 are a go, then it comes down to how much I love the book. And this is the hardest point to decide because I’m hindered with the lack of content.

It’s easier to walk away than it is to take the chance when confronted with a fence-sitter. Problem is, how do you know whether your book is a fence-sitter? You don’t. And that’s why I always recommend finishing your book.

Is this logical?

I understand people are extremely busy and have a million things vying for their attention, but I will never understand the logic in saying, “I’m waiting to sell the book before I finished it.”

My comeback is, “Are you committed to this book, or not?”

If this subject is near and dear to your heart, then why aren’t you writing it? What are you losing by not writing it? With a partial submission, I have few cues in which to formulate an opinion, so I have to draw conclusions that may not be valid; like questioning the level of commitment to your book.

That may be completely unrelated, but when we’re pouring thousands into publishing a title, we have to feel confident it and the author can go the distance for the life of that book.

I have bought many books from debut authors because the books were complete, but I’ve rejected far more because they sat on the fence and were incomplete.

I would think writers want to make themselves as attractive a target as possible, and you can only help that cause if you finish your book because it truly is the difference between “no thanks,” and “may I offer you a contract?”


Hey, nonfiction-ers, do you write in a crowded category?

December 21, 2011

This morning’s queries brought forth a story about cancer. I know the story is vitally important to the author, and I honor her for that, but I have no choice but to reject it because cancer has been done over and over and over. I’m not sure if the author realizes this or not because with memoir, many people have an experience and go no further than their laptop to bang out their story. They don’t know anything about trolling their competition.

Because this happens so often, I thought I’d share how editors look at stories written in crowded categories such as cancer, mid-life crisis, addiction, divorce, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s.

Since there are a gajillion books already written on these subjects, there is very little “new” under the sun. Authors should realize this because they need to tailor their query letter to win us over, to convince us their stories are unique.

When I say unique, I don’t mean, “Well of course my story is unique because the circumstances are different and the characters are different.” What I mean by unique is that the storyline/plot is unique from what’s currently on the shelves.

Do Da Research

Anyone writing a book should know their competition. You should choose at least three titles and be able to speak about how your book compares and contrasts to the competition. Not only do we use this information for promotion purposes, but we use it during our submission committee meetings. I heart authors who include this info in their queries. A lot.

Once you’ve analyzed your competition, you should be able to address your book’s unique qualities, what makes it stand out from all the others.

Confront the 500 pound gorilla

The next thing I suggest is to get it out there in your query letter. You and I know your story is in an overcrowded category, so address it. Kate McLaughlin, author of Mommy I’m Still In Here, did this, and she immediately won me over because she knew what I was thinking. Bipolar disorder is an extremely crowded topic, but Kate blew my doors off by acknowledging this fact and telling me the unique elements of her book.

I was hooked because it was/is a fantastic book, and I could see she understood the publishing industry and appreciated the dilemma of selling a book on this topic. Because we all knew the unique and uplifting message of Mommy I’m Still In Here, this book remains a bible for families and friends of those with bipolar disorder.

Platform – Who knows you, baby?

I know authors hate this word, but it’s the way of the world, so we may as well acknowledge it and appreciate it. Having a platform is the difference between rejection and a contract offer.

For example, I’d been considering a manuscript for a couple months. The writing was fantastic, but the story is written in a crowded category. I shared my concerns about the author’s lack of platform, and she wrote up several promo plans in hopes they would convince me that the story had legs. Alas, I finally had to turn her down. It hurt. If only the author was advocate for her subject matter and involved in foundations that deal with this topic, her book would have flown off the shelves.

As it stood, I knew our sales and marketing guys would have tossed a loaded brick at me if I’d come to them with this book because the first thing buyers are asking is, “What’s the author’s platform? What are they doing to promote the book?” The author has no affiliation with her subject matter other than her personal experience, so she had zero name recognition. That’s a death knell for a publisher – regardless of who that publisher is. I have colleagues with the Big Boys who have suffered from authors’ lack of platform.

Just because an author is with a Big Boy publisher doesn’t mean anything other than they may get more copies more widely distributed, but it doesn’t guarantee sales. If you write in a crowded category, then you need to work on your platform so you have name recognition. So many authors are dependent on social media, and I’m still wary about this dependence because social media is as crowded as the bookstores. It’s hard to swim to the top.

Consider your readership and become involved in foundations or groups where your book’s subject matter takes place. The more people know you, the bigger target you become – and we all lurve big targets.

In short, the world of literature is crowded, and there are certain topics that enjoy a huge number of titles. If your book is in one of those categories, then take some vital steps to ensure your success. Being an author these days puts you in a much more visible position by the merits of promotion. Take an unbiased look at your book and ask yourself what makes your book a gotta-have-it, and what those unique qualities are.


Here’s the thing about nonfiction…

March 15, 2011

I happened to read Janet Reid’s post on nonfiction queries, and she hit the nail squarely on the head – as usual. I won’t bother trying to reinvent the wheel since Janet has done it so aptly. Go read it pronto – I’ll wait.

Hey, did you hear the joke about the beagle who tried to smoke a stalk of broccoli? Well, there’s this beagle….oh, you’re back? Ok, great. Let’s continue on the theme that Janet started.

Like I said; there’s no sense in repeating Janet’s post. But I do want to expand on her suggestion regarding the setup of your query letter:

you need to pitch the SOLUTION right up front with the problem.  Your book is about the solution first and foremost, not the problem.

This was such an ah ha moment for me that I wanted to smack myself for not thinking of it first. For years I’ve complained to the beagle about how authors don’t start with the relevance of their story – the solution, the “gotta have it-ability.” When an author states the solution up front, then I know what I”m getting into. It’s a great selling tool to entice me to read further.

As in: “Heckfire yes, I want to know how a brilliant detective is putting the hurt on pimps and saving the women, who are their victims,” I scream, scaring the beagle out of her freckled little hide.

This is especially important for those who write in impacted categories, like bipolar issues, divorce, Alzheimer’s, midlife crisis, etc. If I know up front what makes you unique to everyone else’s book, then I have a bigger desire to continue reading. If you just tell me that this is a bipolar book, my eyes begin to glaze over because I’ve been inundated with bipolar journeys since publishing the amazing Mommy I’m Still In Here – an incredibly unique book in this category, I might add.

And believe me, I would have glazed over Kate McClaughlin’s query letter as well had she not pitched the solution at the front. She knew she had tough competition and mere seconds to lasso my attention, so she led with the solution:

“This book conveys the physical realities and battered emotions of a family caught in the swirling storm of a child’s hallucinations and psychosis – and love and faith borne of their occurrence.”

This first sentence of her query – the solution – told me that Kate’s book wasn’t the normal diet of coping with bipolar disorder, but of transcending beyond it – to something greater and positive. How could I not be intrigued with an uplifting, inspirational message from someone who has lived a very extreme life, and discover that people can punch out on the other side of anything?

Remember, your query letter is the face to you and your book. Far too often, I have to guess what the solution is because the author fails to include it. They tell me what they’re book is about, but they draw no conclusions. This forces me to draw inferences. If I’m interested enough, I’ll ask. If not, I’ll send a form rejection letter.

And sure, I’ve wondered if there wasn’t more to the story than what they sent me. But I don’t have the time to ferret it out. I’ve had a couple recent exchanges with authors who, upon receiving a rejection letter, wrote back to expand on their query letter. One went so far as to suggest that her query letter didn’t do her nonfiction justice. And how exactly, is this my problem?

You’re writers…hopefully wonderful writers…and what you do is communicate what’s burning in your soul to the outside world. Effectively. Those who get published communicate in a manner that attracts a readership. Since your job is communication, it’s vital to learn how to explain your book in a manner that will enhance your goals. Think about your nonfiction’s raison d’etre.

And if you haven’t read Janet’s post, go do it now. Think about the solution. Then smile and go conquer the world.


Pitch for Fiction/Nonfiction – is it ambidextrous?

February 16, 2010

In a word: yes. I had a question from an author in one of the seminars I was giving over the weekend – “I’ve Written ‘The End’ – Pass Me the Maalox.” I was talking about query letters and the question came up whether the pitch in a query letter was the same for nonfiction as it is for fiction.

You bet your ever-lovin’ quill it is. All the elements are the same. As I talk about in my seminars – and in Tackle Box – your pitch consists of three elements:

The ABCs of pitchdom:

A) Intro the characters – most importantly what makes us empathize with him/her/them?

B) Intro dilemma – what does protagonist stand to lose (close to protag’s heart)

C) Present teasers or resolutions

Now of course it depends on the type of nonfiction you’ve written, but you still have “characters,” you still have a “dilemma” [which would be the driving force for why your nonfiction story is marketable], and you still have “teasers for resolution.”

Example:

If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be the Amazon is a 75,000 word journey about how author, editor Lynn Price spent seventeen bug-filled days in the Peruvian Amazon with a medical team – all in the name of research for her next novel. After taking an “Amazon shower,” which consisted of spraying Deet from head to toe, and finding a giant spider in her Wellingtons, the confirmed city girl wrote this in her diary: Writing schmiting…what the hell was I thinking?

Despite the heat and humidity that made her lungs feel like a swimming pool, Lynn punched her way through the fear of being the main course at a piranha banquet, nonstop mosquitoes the size of small imports, and air conditioning that consisted of a non-existent breeze, to look deeply into the eyes of the villagers she’d come to help. It was their soft hola’s and grateful gracias that touched her heart as the medical team set up their clinics to give aid to a forgotten people. She may have come in search of a story, but she left with an experience of a lifetime.

I introduced the “character,” I introduced the “conflict,” and presented some “teasers to the resolution.” If those elements are missing from your nonfiction query, then it’s pretty hard for me to determine whether your literary boat will float. And Cosmic Muffin knows that thar be piranhas waiting at the bottom of the river if your boat sinks, so take care.

And yes, Mom, this story will wait until after I complete the book that took me to the damned Amazon in the first place.


“Yipee! I got a contract, and my work isn’t even finished!”

January 20, 2010

This is the dream contract, right? You’ve only written the first three chapters and your agent (or you) were able to get a solid publishing contract based on those chapters. This is mainly for nonfiction. Fiction almost always requires a completed project. So now you think you’re on Easy Street.

You’re not.

The publisher believes you can deliver the goods based on your platform, your subject matter, and the strength of your first three chaps. But it’s a gamble because we have learned that most books fall apart on chapter 4. Why? Because authors realize we usually ask for the first three chapters. They are the foundation and setup of the book, so they are always the strongest chapters. The trick is to make every chapter as strong as those first three. And you are now on the hook to deliver the rest of your manuscript.

There’s pressure that accompanies this type of book deal.

Time constraint: You’ve been given a time limit based on your discussions with the editor, and you jolly well better meet it. If you foresee snags, tell your editor immediately. It’s better to ask for forgiveness early on in the game rather than waiting until you’ve missed your deadline. Long delays – especially with a debut author – can result in said author being shown the door. Delays make us wonder how committed you are to your book. That’s why communication is vital.

For example, I have an author who’s handed me three delays – over a year’s time. Obviously the book and author are stellar or I’d never grant that kind of time. However, I’ve recently come to the point where if she misses her September deadline, I’m setting her free because her reasons for the continued delays run contrary to her commitment to this project. This makes me worry about her commitment to promoting the book once it’s out.

Am I Good Enough?: Just because you have that contract sitting in your hands doesn’t mean you’re home free. You still have to deliver the goods. What happens if your efforts don’t make the editor happy? You’re in danger of being cut loose. Since I take mostly nonfiction, I deal with this scenario fairly often.

One case in particular stands out. The author’s first three chappies and proposal were stellar. Loved it to bitsies and piecies. The full came in right on deadline. Yipee. Beagle, pour us a margarita and bring over the beer nuts. Then I read it. All of it. With each new chapter, my heart fell a little bit more until I reached the end, where I required smelling salts and an IV of Jack Daniels.

I literally felt sick to my stomach because I knew we were both in trouble. I had no choice but to be honest. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I was expecting. I know you’re a talented author, but your proposal suggested a completely different tack. Additionally, the writing isn’t up to the same standards as your first three chapters. What happened?”

This is where you reach the intersection of Flexibility and Vision.

Flexibility: This is where things can go from bad to worse because authors should know that the next thing out of any editor’s mouth is going to be, “We need to think about massive rewrites.”

The idea of first being told that your best isn’t good enough and that major reconstruction is in order is a huge blow to the ego. You’re thinking, “Good holy Cosmic Editor in Chief, how can I possibly improve on this let alone change it??”

It’s okay. Have that pitcher of margaritas, don’t brush your teeth for a week. We understand writer shock. But what we won’t understand is inflexibility. There is nothing more attractive than authors who say, “Yah, I can do that.” It tells us they realize it’s not about them, but the work. They remember that we signed them because we believed in their work. They appreciate they possibly got off track with their writing and are eager to roll up their sleeves and make it work.

I want to kiss those kinds of authors full on the lips.

Sadly, there were no kisses for my author. She wasn’t willing to be flexible, and I had no choice but to cancel the project.

Vision: It’s vital that both author and editor convey their vision for the book. A lot of editors don’t always include this step in their communication, so each party goes about their business with their own idea of what the book ought to be. It isn’t until that final draft is sent in that everyone looks down and realizes their Victoria Secrets are showing.

“Oops, this isn’t what I expected,” says Jane Editor.

“Oops, you should have told me,” says Joe Author.

“Oops, you should have explained it better,” counters Jane Editor

And so it goes…

I learned this lesson the hard way. I had an author whose book I thought was fabulous. It was right up my alley and hit all my *zoomba points. But all I had were his first three chapters. When he wrote the rest, I was bereft. My zoombas had gone quiet – most likely snorting antacid. “Wha’ happened?” I asked.

He worked with an idie editor to see if he could get it back on track. It never happened, and I ended up not signing the author. I felt horrible. But the parting of the ways resulted from the fact that his and my vision for his book were totally different. Had we talked about it at the early stages, we could have saved ourselves a lot of heartache.

On the other hand, this story has a happy ending. Since his manuscript was now strong and viable, he placed it with a good publisher who specializes in his particular genre, and I hope he’s enjoying great success.

The long and short of it is this: If your editor sees your book as one that would appeal to dog lovers but you feel it’s better suited to blood-sucking politicians, this will impact how your book will be written. If your editor doesn’t discuss their vision with  you, then you must bring it up. Yah, it’s that important.

I admit that my intestines gurgle a bit when I see something that looks promising but it’s not complete. Will it fall apart? Will the author live up to my expectations? Why didn’t they finish it? Do they not believe in the project enough to finish it? I hate buying anything on spec because I’m unsure of the end result. I wonder how hard it will be to get the book I think I’m getting. Gives me a rash.

While it’s true that most nonfiction doesn’t need to be complete in order to sell, there is no rule that says you can’t complete it anyway. Personally, I recommend it – especially for debut authors. Writers who have several successful books under their belt and a steady readership are a proven quantity. If you’re lucky enough to sell your book based on the first chappies, then good on ya. But please keep your eye on the map. I hear that intersection of Flexibility and Vision is a real bitch to navigate. And that goes for all writers!

*zoomba points: where something is so fabulously written that all my cells scream out in unision – ZOOMBA!


Nonfiction – how much to write?

October 9, 2009

Many nonfiction deals are bought on spec, meaning that the work isn’t actually written. The agent or author is selling a concept, not a completed story, and this is done by submitting a detailed book proposal. It’s the detailed way of saying, “Hey, I’m thinking of writing a book about my crazy quadriplegic uncle who couldn’t scratch his own nose, but created one of the largest independent post production shops in Hollywood by selling his father’s music to television and movie studios. Whaddya think?”

Why Unfinished?

So you’re wondering why the nonfictioners luck out and get to sell their stuff on spec, while you, the novelist, must finish the entire book and edit it to within an inch of its life – after a gajillion rewrites. The main reason is that the author uses their advance as income so they could research their subject matter and complete the writing. The idea is to write a few chapters so we can see the quality of the writing. We already have the full proposal in hand, so in a literary sense, two plus two equals four.

Risks: The Unseen Product

But there are risks to the editor who lays out cash for an unfinished project – and therefore, risk to the author. The main risk is, what if I don’t like the finished product? There is nothing worse than feeling underwhelmed. I’ve seen plenty cases where the first three chapters rocked, and the rest made me want to throw myself under a bus. Sure, we’ll futz and putz with it, but there are some works that simply can’t be resurrected without the aid of a ghost writer. And that is why fewer editors are laying out the big cash up front for debut authors. We may love THE IDEA of your project and WE THINK you write well. But in reality, all we have are a few chapters.

The fewer chapters I have, the more I suck in my breath and pray to the Great Cosmic Muffin.

Platform

Since we’re not in the business to “give authors the chance that they deserve,” (sorry, inside joke) our only option is to hedge our bets that we’ve chosen a product that will sell well in the stores. The story must be great, but we also look for the author’s platform. I want to know what you bring to this particular party. What makes you the best person to write this book? Do you have a media presence? Write a very popular blog? Are you a speaker? Most importantly, are you an expert in your field? By platform, I’m talking about the doc who writes about end of life care for cancer patients, or a cop who writes about staying safe in a big city. They are experts in their field, so those first few chapters and a strong proposal is usually enough because we know where this is heading.

Memoir

Memoirs, on the other hand, is an account of the author’s personal experiences. They may be famous – in which case, their proposal could probably be written on an avacado, and it’d sell. But for us mortals, our memoirs are an unknown quantity. There are many everyday people who have had extraordinary experiences. Because they aren’t a household name doesn’t mean their stories aren’t marketable. But it does mean that they should write the complete manuscript – just like fiction because unlike the doc who writes about end of life care for cancer patients, we have no real idea where a memoir is headed.

Of course, there are plenty of memoirs that have sold based on a few chaps and a proposal, but the idea is to increase your chances for success. Personally, if the author doesn’t have a platform, a “name,”  or a very good promotion plan, I usually recommend that they consider finishing the book and get back to me.

Reality Check

The detailed proposal and a couple chappies is a great idea – on the surface. Whee doggies! You got a book deal and the book isn’t even written. Then reality slaps you upside the head. Oh dear god.

The.

Book.

Isn’t.

Written.

Shit.

See, there is stress in knowing that you have to come through with the goods – especially if you got paid up front (and you’re a new writer). The problem I’ve seen with the many proposals is that the new writer really never gets past the concept stage. Sure, they have the chapter outline and all, but it’s still a concept – not reality.

Sitting down and doing something you promised to do, you’re contracted to do, is hard work because the project has moved beyond the conceptual stage to physical form. That requires organization, possibly research, time, and talent. And now you have a real live person that you’re answerable to – your editor. “What if she doesn’t like it?”

Yah, you should be concerned about that. Yes, of course your editor will edit it, but from personal experience, I can attest that it’s very hard to receive one thing when I was expecting something else. Sometimes that something else is so far off my reservation, that I have little choice but to cancel the project. It sucks. For both of us.

In the case of larger publishers, they probably won’t dump the project – especially if they paid you up front. And they’ll edit it. But, like me, their hearts and souls won’t be wrapped up in it, and this translates over to promotion, which will be tepid at best. A book without support is a book that will sink like an anchor.

My suggestion is that if you’re a debut author, strongly consider writing the whole thing. Please don’t flood me with “hey, I’m a debut author whose concept sold.” I know this already. I buy these types of books all the time. I’m talking in generalities, and what it costs you up front is far better than what it can cost you at the back end. The idea is to set yourself up for success. Having a completed project can be the difference between stress and/or cancellation and success and support.

You choose.


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