Ransom notes

July 7, 2010

Like many others in the publishing industry, I had a good laugh/sphincter pucker when I read the Galleycat article about Tin-House-gate – whereby Tin House has instituted a three month open submission policy, but it comes with a special condition; authors must include a receipt from a bookstore with their query.

It’s all pretty tongue-in-cheek, and the prevailing thought is that authors need to help support the business in which they hope to become a part, and Tin House is holding that ideal for ransom. Buy a book or don’t submit to us.

I laughed because I understand what they’re saying. Sure, many writers buy a ton of books, so you’d think this is insulting. And sure, it is. However, the perspective changes when you’re sitting in the editorial chair reviewing hundreds of queries. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that many writers don’t read. And because they don’t read, their literary worlds are often shallow, limited, and unremarkable.

An example I’ve used in the past is the author who queried me years ago with his lawyer fiction. I commented to him that his story was eerily reminiscent of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. Now I don’t if he was yanking my chain, but he wrote back: “John who?”

Gah.

If I hadn’t seen this time and time again, I’d think he was having a bit of fun with me. But the truth is that many writers don’t appear to be in touch with their own competition and they submit works that have been done a thousand times over. So from that perspective, I can see Tin House’s point, which is, “for the sake of all that’s holy, buy a damn book!”

But being the capitalist pig that I am, I bristle at the notion of having self-serving stipulations put on me. So given that, I’d avoid this company like the beagle avoids gin because they strike me as arbitrary and illogical. Given the idiocy that often embraces this industry, I’m not looking to expand or support the advance of illogical ideas.

Agent Kristin Nelson rhetorically asks if agents had this policy whether it would reduce the queries they receive. It’s all said in jest, but it does foster a nagging question that plagues agents and editors [who allow unagented queries], and that is the irritant that many writers can be – shall we say – a bit tight with their book purchases.

You can’t be an island

Over the years, I’ve noticed there are a couple subgroups of writers – those who get out and know their competition and are well read, and those who are islands.

We see a lot of islanders. They make up a huge percentage of our rejections. These are the folks who thought of an idea for a book, sat down, and wrote it. They’re not well read and have little clue as to their competition. Maybe they read a cool book back in their senior year in high school, but very little beyond that. This means they are out of touch with plot development, character development, pacing, flow, etc.

Literary tastes change as the years roll by. The big hits of yesteryear might not see the light of day in our current literary world. The islander doesn’t know this. And what happens with the literary islander is the same as with physical islanders  – nothing gets on or off that island. Hello, Mr. Rejection Letter.

So while I appreciate the finger-in-the-eye approach Tin House is  making with their ransom note, I think a deviation into social engineering is pure folly.

If anything, I think it would be lovely if more writers woke up and concluded that this writing bug they seemed to have caught needs to be nurtured – and the best way to do that is to fraking READ!!! There is simply no better teacher than the books sitting on those shelves. Where else can you get a feel for dialog, character development, plot, endings, syntax, voice? Learn from those who came right before you.

So, laugh at Tin House if you like, but consider the message and do yourself and your writing the biggest favor of all…go out and buy a damn book. Heck, buy three.

[shameless plug time] I can think of any number of great books sitting right on our website


“But I’m a perfect fit!”

October 16, 2009

No, no, this didn’t come from that adorable outfit that costs way too much money. It came from an author – after receiving a form rejection letter.The author read our submission guidelines and was excited that her work was a perfect fit for our company. She was confused as to why I rejected her and asked me to clarify.

To be blunt; no, I’m sorry, I won’t clarify. If I didn’t write a personalized rejection it was because I lacked the time or the inclination to explain further. Yes, there are times when I give reasons and offer some guidance, and I also risk receiving the “go forth and multiply with a diseased yak” for my trouble.

The long and short of it is that it’s a tacky, noob thing to write an editor or agent asking them to explain their rejection to you. I realize you want to learn from your mistakes, but it’s not my job to train you. Presumably you’ve done this. A no is a no. If you don’t get a reason, then you need to pick up your quill and move on.

There are many reasons for a “no.” In our case, we may have rejected because the story, while socially relevant, wasn’t enough of a personal journey. Maybe I didn’t feel it was socially relevant, or not relevant enough. Perhaps it was socially relevant and a personal journey, but I didn’t feel it was a marketable story. Maybe it was cliche. Or it was a heavily impacted category, like cancer or midlife crises. Maybe the query was so poorly written that I didn’t have faith the writing would be any better. The list goes on and on.

I don’t enjoy sending out rejection letters, but the facts are that not everything flips up my Victoria Secrets. So even though you believe your story is a designer-perfect fit for someone’s submission guidelines, maybe it isn’t, and that’s something you have to prepare for and understand.

Think of it this way; you tell your best friend you’re looking for a book – a romantic comedy that centers on two high-powered main characters who fall in love despite their busy careers. So she goes out and buys you a romantic comedy that meets those parameters. But maybe you didn’t like the main character, or the way he talked to his girlfriend. Maybe you didn’t like the the type of business they were in, or the ending was terrible. Maybe you didn’t like the writing.

So you tell your friend, “wassup? I told you I wanted a romantic comedy.” In reality, she gave you what you asked for. The fact that you didn’t like the book doesn’t mean that other readers won’t love it. It just means that you read that book through the prism of your personal filter.

So what may appear to be a perfect fit, my filter may still say no.  Even if I made my guidelines specific right down to hair color, personality traits, and a specific plot, there would still be a percentage of queries that wouldn’t be right for me. Again, it comes down to the filtering process.

My recommendation is to not stress over why I or anyone else said no. It’s your job to find the warts in your pitch, so get with a good crit group, study, research, and learn how to present your story in the strongest possible manner. Just keep in mind that, after all that, someone will still say no. And unless authors can now perform the Vulcan Mind Meld, that element of what floats my boat will always be a relative unknown. Even to me. Frustrating as it is, the best I can say is I’ll know it when I see it.


Reading a full manuscript; falling in love

August 12, 2009

I – I think I’m in love. Every spare moment I have, I think of my new love and reach out – tenderly, with tentative fingers – hoping that my heart won’t be crushed as it has so many times before.

No, no, I haven’t ditched The Hubby. God forbid. My mother would kill me. I’m talking about a manuscript that I’m currently reading. As writers, we all know what it’s like to fall in love with our writing, our stories. But what about the impact your works make on those who reside on the other side of the desk. Our lives aren’t all about herding wayward beagles and press releases. It’s about the fire that ignites when reading a fabulous manuscript.

I look at this step like a new boyfriend. Vic Hamilton – my sophomore year in high school – comes to mind. I wasn’t sure if he was my type or not. I tended to avoid the super popular guys because they tended to be jerks and want what I wasn’t willing to give up. He was the total surfer dude; blond (I prefer dark haired guys), blue eyes, and the cutest dimple in his chin (that looked like a great target for my knuckles at a later date).

I took a chance on the guy because he was friendly and funny. Hey, back in high school, how deep and esoteric does one get? The more time we spent together, the better time I had. He always thought of fun and different things to do; things I wouldn’t have thought of – and weren’t illegal.  Just as I started to really like the guy, it all fell apart, and he dumped me, the bastid. When he started dating that flooze Amy Hartman, I knew that his libido couldn’t outlast me, so it was on to fresher, greener, more pliable pastures.

That’s where I am with this manuscript. The first page sucked me in like revved up Hoover. The second, third, and fourth pages did the same. Before I knew it, I’d moved from my desk to my easy chair (after tossing the beagle off) and nestled in for the next couple hours. Just like Vic, I was smitten.

We’ve dated ourselves into the middle of the manuscript, and I’m afraid at how much I love this. After all, the threat of falling apart lurks around every chapter – like it has so many times before. Is this one different? It’s been six months since I signed an author, and out of the hundreds of queries that slip through my fingers, I’ve only requested fulls on six.  Some of those broke up with me, others I broke up with them.

Dry spells suck stale Twinkie cream. I’m ready to fall in love again, and this manuscript has me singing in the shower. With every chapter I read, the other part of my brain is working on promotion and advertising. Oh, how the reviewers will love this. And the movie possibiliites on this are ripe, ripe, ripe. It’s like I envision us as a couple, married with a couple kids.

I hate projecting into the future, so this part really bugs me. I’ve had too many great possibilities melt like those Alaskan ice roads (totally hooked on that damn show), so I’m trying my best to shove my excitement under my hat. But it’s not easy. My fingers keep reaching for the phone to offer the author a contract right now, and the beagle is performing double duty at keeping my margarita glass full and using my business phone as a chewie toy.

I’ve considered blowing off the rest of the day to finish my new love and see if all the promises it made to me about fidelity, unending worship, and everlasting loyalty carry through to the last page. If it does, I can’t wait to send out announcements of another impending marriage.

Hmm…that would make me a polygamist, wouldn’t it? I’m good with that provided all my other spouses are happy. Ach, here’s to love!


Made to order – how do you like your eggs?

July 15, 2009

I like mine scrambled with cheese, onion, and tomatoes. The beagle likes hers any way she can get it. Or steal it. The editor down the way likes hers over easy. The editor across the street likes his poached. What this means for the cook is that he has a dozen eggs and must cook them to order. Makes perfect sense, right? I hate poached eggs, so why would I patronize a restaurant where I can’t get what I want?

So it goes for query letters.

The Template
We all get a lot of template queries. They’re easy to spot. Invariably the font is different on the first paragraph and switches over to TRN 12 pt. for the rest. These Drop ‘n Drag queries save the author from writing a fresh query fifty times over, and much of the information is redundant.

Or is it?

See, if you Drop ‘n Drag , you’re not speaking to any particular crowd. And believe me; we can see that. Generic is only good when you’re getting medicine. Just like the short order cook, a clever author would write different query letters by focusing on specific aspects that an editor is looking for.

So let’s say you have a political thriller but it has a very human element that plays an equally important and pivotal role. How do you write your pitch? From the personal journey aspect or the thriller aspect? It doesn’t matter, you say? Ahh, go stand in the corner so the beagle can taunt you with bad poetry. The correct answer is, it depends on who is on the receiving end. Are they ordering a short stack of thrillers with extra onions, or do they only eat personal journeys with salsa?

Here’s an example of tailoring a pitch for the same book. I made this up, so no fair giving me any crap, ok?

Pitch to thriller editor:

Sam Burkett has a face that fits in with any crowd, so when it came time to infiltrate the Al Nubit terrorist cell, CIA director Tom Morgan chooses the nimble Sam as the most likely choice because ice water runs through his veins, making him impervious to the charismatic leader Abdul bin Salim. When Sam’s control agent turns up dead in a darkened Saudi Arabian alley, all indications are that Sam is the assassin. Tom grows more concerned when a satellite photo shows Sam killing a Bedouin in the desert. All contact with Sam has been cut off at the same time the CIA picks up internet and cell phone chatter that something big is on the horizon, and Los Angeles is the intended target. Tom is desperate to contact Sam to find out the exact location, how they can prepare to fight it, and how to beat the terrorists at their own game. But Tom’s main concern is whether his best field agent has been turned and has now revealed all the CIA’s inner secrets.

Pitch to socially relevant personal journey:

Sam Burkett has a face that fits in with any crowd and the linguistic skills to mirror any nationality, so when it came time to infiltrate the infamous Al Nubit terrorist cell, Sam was the perfect choice. His life as the CIA’s strongest undercover agent trained him to bury his feelings deep below the surface, so no one could know that before leaving for Saudi Arabia, he said his final goodbyes to his father who is lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. There was never enough time to spend with his father, the man whose gentle, loving hand would raise one of America’s top government killers, and Sam must bury his pain deep within his soul one last time. When Sam gains access to the inner circle of the Al Nubit cell, he finds an unlikely father figure in its charismatic leader, Abdul bin Salim, who is suffering over the loss of his son. The unlikely relationship has Sam and Abdul uncharacteristically vulnerable, and Sam’s journey of loyalty leaves them and the U.S. teetering on nuclear destruction.

See how I highlighted the human aspects in one and the thriller aspects in the other? Yet it’s the same book. This is how one tailors a query to highlight the aspects that the editor is looking for. Had the author sent me the thriller pitch, I would have ditched it. But the human element pitch would have me interested because I can sell that.

These are what I call cross-elements;  storylines that scratch a couple itches. Keep in mind these cross-elements have to be pretty darned transparent and interrelated. Otherwise you have two separate stories going on in one book. It can get a bit crowded.

I’ve seen plenty of queries that insisted they were socially relevant, but I sure as fire couldn’t find it. Don’t try to make a square peg fit in a round hole. If a socially relevant theme is missing from your work, then we’re not the right ones for you. Simple as that. The idea is to find the RIGHT people for your work, not seeing how many folks you can query.

The thing to remember is that a good short-order cook will collect bigger tips because he knows how to cater to his customers. And don’t worry about the beagle. She’s on a diet.


Chapter 4 Burnout

June 19, 2009

Authors are nothing if not brilliantly clever, and nowhere is this more evident than when I ask for the requisite first three chapters. Oh, those first three are sooo loverly, and I can almost hear Audrey Hepburn singing. The writing is tight, the characters fully developed. It’s smooth and keeps me eagerly turning the pages. By the time I’m done and still vainly clicking the Turn Page button on my Kindle, I know that I must have the full manuscript or the world will stop turning and life as we know it will end .

Send NOW! I type eagerly to the author. I pace, I throw spit wads at the beagle, my Kindle sits plugged into my computer, ready, quivering, and waiting to upload the full manuscript.

The day arrives…the author attaches the full to their email. I’m giddy as I do the funky chicken dance around the office. I eagerly go to the beginning of chapter 4. My heart sinks a little. I keep reading. It sinks even further, and further still, until I’m at that fateful moment when I realize the story fell apart. How I wish this was a rare thing. But it’s not.

Authors spend an inordinate amount of time on the first three chaps because it’s where the characters are introduced and developed and story is set up. It’s natural for those to rock the house.

However, what explodes also implodes, and that’s what I normally see when I hit chapters 4 and beyond. The story implodes because all the elements that held the first three chapters together – character intro and story set up – have been dealt with. Ch. 4 etc, pertains to telling that story. Less attention appears to be paid here, and I’ve gotten so that I wait to get excited about anything until after I’ve reached the middle of a full manuscript. I can almost feel the author floundering as to where to go next, which path to take. It’s like they poured all their focus into the first chapters – because we classically ask for the first three chaps – and are left without enough wind in their sails to get out of the harbor.

Read my lips: it’s vital to concentrate just as much on the remaining chapters as you did with the first three. We don’t buy a book, read to chapter 3 and stick it on our bookshelf. We read the whole enchilada. You must have focus and direction on every page and in every chapter.

Chapter 4 and beyond tends to ease back and fall into fluff and backstory, and I think it’s because authors feel that they’ve gotten the preliminary stuff out of the way, so it’s time to relax a bit. Problem is, authors can never let up. It’s like taking off in a jet. The engines are at peak thrust and we’re roaring down a runway with our hair on fire. Yah! we’re screaming as we feel the force of gravity smack us to the back of our seat. We claw our way into the sky at max thrust. That is the equivilent of the first three chapters. Once we’ve reached altitude, we can feel and hear the engines throttle back as the plane evens out. This, invariably, is chapter 4. Hello, fluff. Hello, backstory.

Bits of fluff is fine. Bits of backstory is ok. But the author needs to keep his eye on the altimeter and engine speed because unlike a real plane, your literary plane needs to continue going upward and onward. Those engines can’t wind down, and this is what backstory does. I see it so often that it almost feels formulaic. I call it the Chapter 4 Burnout.

Chapter 4 Burnout leaves the author wondering which way to go. The tough stuff is taken care of, so which flight pattern do I want to file? Backstory tends to be what the flight attendant is serving. Authors feel the need to delve into what makes their MC tick, and this can involve experiences that have zip to do with the story. Authors need to maintain maximum speed to keep readers turning the pages, and backstory is a sure way to auger into the ground.

That’s why many editors suggest that there must be tension on every page. I don’t necessarily proscribe to that, but I understand what they mean. Tension and conflict are what keep readers engaged in a book. It doesn’t have to be major tension or conflict. It can be as innocuous as having a really crappy day and discovering the beagle stole your last drop of tequila. It has nothing to do with the plot, but it goes to keeping the reader engaged in your character and your story.

Avoiding Chapter 4 Burnout takes organization. Hah, I say this – what a joke. Personally, I don’t use an outline, nor do I write in order. I’m about as whacked out as they get when it comes to writing my books. I tend to concentrate on a chapter where I’m feeling the most passion at that moment. Somehow it works for me. But the one thing I do on a consistent basis is ask myself why any particular chapter exists. It has to serve the purpose of furthering the plot amd keeping my literary plane in the air. If it doesn’t – no matter how brilliantly it was written – it gets the axe. All chapters have to remain as tight as the first three. Avoid Chapter 4 Burnout; keep your plane in one direction; forward and at max speed.


What I look for in a submission

May 15, 2009

When I dig into pages, I have a little list next to me that gets filled in as I read.  I’d like to share it so writers can hopefully analyze their writing with an editor’s perspective in mind.

The Hook – did the story pull me in right away and wrestle me to the floor like a rabid dog?

The Conflict – did I feel that the “what is at stake in the story” aspects produce proper amounts of tension, and the authors use that tension?

The Characters – did I align myself with the characters? Were they compelling and three dimensional? Did I care about them and what happened to them? Do they react logically to the unfolding story and conflict?

Setting and Mood – did the author suck me in and make me feel like I was really in the story, living it?

Pace and Style – how well does the author move the story along, and how effective is their writing style – their voice?

Resolution – does the story have a satisfying ending, or do I walk away feeling cheated or unfulfilled?

Grammar and Spelling – eeeek! Do I really need to go there?

Overall enjoyment – after I finish a story, I let it marinate and try not to formulate any strong opinions. Am I still thinking about the story three days later, or did I forget it the minute I put it down? This is an important litmus test for me because I can love a story the minute I finish it, but how do I feel three days later? This tells me whether it’s a story I really believe in and will fight to the death to sell. An example of this is when I read a story and loved it. I wanted it, but my submissions committee had some concerns. A week or so passed, and I couldn’t get the story out of my head. I called the agent – who was ready to tear me a new orifice – and told her I wanted the book after all. That book is going to be a big hit; I just feel it in my bones. It all started because I thoroughly enjoyed it.

If all systems are go, I order up a pitcher of the beagle’s margaritas and contact the agent. Negotiations; that’s another post altogether and requires more tequilla than we currently have in stock.


Submissions guidelines, the editor, and the priest

January 26, 2009

confessional

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “I’m sorry, Father, it’s been exactly one hour since my last confession.”

Patient Catholic Priest: “My child, why do you insist on plaguing me so much? Don’t you realize there are other people in line who have real problems?”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “Hey, I resent that. These are problems that make me think ugly, vile thoughts. Thoughts of spilling blood and turning people into hood ornaments.”

Patient Catholic Priest:“Have you thought about getting a new job?”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “No, Father, not once. You see, I adore my job…”

Patient Catholic Priest: “Yes, but you complain so much.”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “Bear with me, Father? Just this one last time?”

Patient Catholic Priest: “One last time, my child.”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I wrote a pissy – ah, sorry, Father – terse email to an author today. I shouldn’t have, but it all got the better of me.”

Patient Catholic Priest: “What got the better of you?”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “See, I get about 200 queries a month, and that’s a lot of reading and processing. Because I have such a load that comes into my inbox every day, I created this thing called ‘Submissions Guidelines.’ I did it to streamline the query process – to make my job easier. It tells authors exactly what we’re looking for, what we won’t accept, and the information that must be included in the query letter. Yet day in and day out, I get queries that make it obvious they never read my guidelines.”

Patient Catholic Priest: “Like what?”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “Fantasy, young adult, mysteries, romance. Today, I just lost it and finally snapped. I told this author that had she grown a pair of eyeballs and looked at our guidelines, she would have spared us from wasting each others’ time. But since her brain was rectally inverted, she hadn’t bothered to check anything more than to determine if we have a heartbeat. Oh, it didn’t stop there, Father. I yammered on about how I was now forced to take time out of my day to send her a rejection letter because WE DON’T PUBLISH WHAT SHE WRITES. It, um, sort of took a downward spiral from there.”

Patient Catholic Priest: “Dearie me. What happened?” (whispering from the confessional booth) “Sister Mary Margaret, fire up some popcorn. This is getting good.”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “Well, the author wrote back and told me to, um, uh, go forth and multiply with a rabid mongoose. I wrote her back and told her to make merry with the rotting corpse of a yak. Look, Father, I realize I was beyond naughty, but I don’t understand why authors don’t read the submissions guidelines. They aren’t there to amuse the tourists, but to help us from wasting each others’ time. Instead, I eat up time and resources answering people who don’t even write what we produce. Or they don’t give us what we ask for.

“For instance, I took out a hit contract on an author who didn’t give me the genre and word count in her query letter, even though I specifically state that in the guidelines. And the week before that, I sent a letter bomb to an author who queried me to ask me if it was ok to query me. What the fuc…heck is that about? Last month it was a query about a cookbook. COOKBOOKS!

“What makes my blood turn to liquid magma is that smart authors investigate publishers. They read the submissions guidelines and take a close look at the books we’ve published. They may even order one or two to get an idea of the quality of our editing and marketability of our books. I have piles and piles of query letters that I use as bird cage lining for my cockatoo, Screeching Mantis. It’s sort of taken its toll on me. I’m bad. I know this.”

Patient Catholic Priest: “Yes, I can see where one could be driven to commit heinous acts. I suffer from the same problems – with errant editors who complain a lot, for instance. Here’s your penance; do fifteen stations of the cross at the Mission Viejo Library, call your mother more often, eat all your vegetables, and refuse to answer anyone who hasn’t read your guidelines. The cookbook writers? Forget them. Same goes for the YA, mystery, and romance writers. Toss ‘em all. Writers are professionals, and if they can’t be bothered to follow common courtesy, then they don’t deserve your attention. Oh, and cancel the hit contract on that author.”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “Yes, Father, I will, immediately. And thank you. You have no idea how much better I feel; like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”

Patient Catholic Priest: “And no more naughty letters or letter bombs. You are to correspond in a professional manner.”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “Yes, Father.”

Patient Catholic Priest:“And, my child?”

Overworked Underpaid Editor: “Yes, Father?”

Patient Catholic Priest: “Try a shrink next time. You’re not even Catholic.”


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