I’m talking about conflict in your stories. I could go on and on about it, but I’m lazy. Why reinvent the wheel when Nicola “Shoes” Morgan already did it? Go. Read her post on Conflict. She speaketh da truth.
Ok, I’ll admit there are a lot of things that give me the heebeejeebies…no Twinkies in the house, insufficient quantities of limeade for the beagle’s margaritas, loss of cabin pressure when I’m flying…you know, the normal things. But there are certain things that can set my hair on fire when I’m wearing my editor bonnet:
I’m the first to screech from the bowels of my batcave that above all else, I demand honesty. Lie to me and you’re beagle banhammer. HOWEVER, one needs to exhibit some restraint, as can be seen with this query letter I received:
I know this needs a solid edit, so I’m looking for a great agent or publisher to make this really shine.
Le ouch. Every cell in my body is experiencing a collective wince. It’s assumed that no manuscript comes directly from the hand of the Great Cosmic Muffin and editing will be required, but to admit that one’s work is still in the rough demands psychiatric intervention. Query letters are meant to SELL, to ENTICE, to MAKE US SLOBBER ALL OVER OURSELVES.
I must excuse myself for a quick hit of Pepto.
And speaking of editing…
I’ve been professionally edited by Great and Holy Freelance Editor, who was once an editor with Dell/Random House/Simon and Schuster/any other big house of your choosing who tore my work apart and rebuilt it from the ground up so that it’s polished. She says my dialog is my strong suit.
Erm. I see this A LOT in query letters, and writers need to stop and consider what this means to the poor slob (me) who’s reading the query:
- You’re insinuating that any critiques I may have make me a slobbering idiot who shouldn’t be let out of the house without a keeper. While the latter may be true, you’re putting me in a tough spot when critiquing your work because I’m wondering if you’ll come unglued and invite me to make merry with the barnyard animal of my choice. Been there more times than I care to remember. Just because someone else rebuilt your story doesn’t mean that it’s the story that will rock my house. And for the record…her dialog was horrendous.
- I’m wondering what kind of input the freelance editor had. I’ve seen cases where the freelancer practically rewrote the thing to make it submission ready. How do I know this? Because the author was a complete disaster during the editing phase. The quality of rewrites was like day and night.
- Tastes vary. A work that has an editor name imprinted on it means zilch to me because it’s a paying gig. Yes, the good editors are choosy about the works they accept, but it’s still a paycheck, and their job is to make a gourmet meal out of mush. There is just so far they can go with a work. Just because you paid $1600 to a freelancer doesn’t mean your work is publishable. I’ve seen plenty of these types of works that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot cattle prod.
Point of View in Query Letter
I read a query letter yesterday where the story unfolded from one character’s point of view (a woman). However, the first three chapters were told in another character’s POV (her husband). It was unsettling because I couldn’t figure out the disparity between the author’s chapters and the query letter. This truly felt like the husband’s story, so I was left scratching my melon.
Of course books open with POVs other than the main character – I totally get that. But do be mindful about your first chapters and how they relate to your pitch. It should be an easy transition.
Remember, we know zilcho about you or your story, so we have to draw conclusions based on what you give us. If we feel confused, what do you think our ultimate reaction will be?
Gah. I know many people who give seminars and write books based solely on dialog. Why? Because dialog is the lifeblood of a story. Readers can’t subsist on narrative alone – even really good narrative. At some point, we starve for dialog because it’s a natural break. It’s the action. It’s what puts us in touch with the character, where we get a taste for their personality.
Because dialog is so vital, it’s gotta be good. It’s gotta be realistic. Read my lips…IT’S GOTTA BE REALISTIC.
How many of us speak without using contractions? Unless you’re Data from Star Trek, you don’t say, “I do not think I will have meatloaf tonight for dinner.” Yet time and time again, I see stilted dialog like this and it makes me want to scream.
We don’t talk like this in real life, so why on earth would you create dialog that makes your characters sound like Mennonites or robots?
Furthermore, most of what we say is dull, dull, dull. Stop and pay attention to the things you say. It’s filled with, “Hi, how ya doin’?” “Fine, thanks.” “Have a seat.” “So how’s life treating you?”
Blah. Who cares? You can take care of that nonsense in one swoop by writing, They greeted each other and got down to business.
Unless it’s your intent to bore your readers to a slow, miserable death, use only the dialog that will actually engage the reader. It’s not small talk – it’s the interesting stuff. If you don’t know the difference, then you need to read more books and analyze effective dialog from your favorite authors. Or take a writing class.
So that’s it. Heebeejeebie time over. Go. Write. Be brilliant.
The author looked at me with venom in her eyes. Sizing her up, I was fairly certain she could take me. Easily. “I have NEVER had anyone talk about my writing and my sentence structure the way you have! I don’t know anything about POV shifts, run-on sentences, or adverbs. Nor do I know what show vs. tell means. Furthermore, I don’t care! I am an artist and ‘rules’ hinder the literary process. So piss off.”
While my jaw hung slack in my lap, she gathered her things. “Um, yes rules can hinder the literary process, ” I said, gathering up my chin. “However, there are some ‘rules’ that exist for a reason, and that’s to make the story easier for the reader to follow – effective communication. With all the POV shifts, it was hard for me to keep up. The severe case of adverbatosis created a ka-thunk cadence that cluttered the writing. And your run-on sentences made the message unclear…”
Her icy glare slid down her long nose and settled on me with a bad case of frostbite. “I think there is nothing wrong with my writing.”
“Yabut, I don’t believe it’s marketable as written.” How lame did I feel by this time?
“I’ll be happy to accept your apology when I get a five book deal,” she sniffed before storming out of the room.
That was a a one-on-one that took place five years ago at at a writer’s con, and I have yet to see her name in lights.
Here’s the long and short of it: You’re a writer, so doesn’t it seem logical that learning how to use the tools of your trade is, like, IMPORTANT? It’s like a surgeon who isn’t concerned about learning how to use a scalpel. “Hey, no problemo, let’s just dig his tonsils out with a spoon.” Gah.
It flies in the face of logic that any writer would be unconcerned about learning any kind of writing rules, yet I see signs of this ignorance every day. Yes, you heard me – IGNORANCE, which means the condition of being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed.
Thankfully, this isn’t a fatal disease. One can go from being ignorant to being informed and aware in no time. The only way this is fatal is E-G-O, which has little place in this business. In fact, every literary tackle box is spring-loaded to launch an author’s ego right out of the zip code. It’s called a rejection letter.
But on the flip side, I’ve seen authors whose hands felt tied behind their backs because they were so concerned about “writing right” that it hogtied them into a literary coma. In this, I enthusiastically prescribe to my shoe-loving across-the-ponder Nicola Morgan, who screams from on high to just sit down, shut up, and write. Brava, Morgan – go buy yourself some wicked lavender colored boots.
It’s a case of balance. Write with abandon, but eventually waggle your eye on whether you’re meeting basic writing needs. Of course it’s all a matter of personal taste. For instance, I’m not a fan of excessive adverbs because I think they create a ka-thunk cadence, they’re lazy, and lean toward telling rather than showing. Someone else may feel quite differently. Balance tends to cast a wider net. But in order to strike that balance, you gotta know da rules.
As for the haughty author? I had the last laugh since the event organizers sent me a check for the one-on-ones, which came out of the fee she paid. So in essence I got paid $60 to hear her blather about her extreme coolness.
I don’t know what it is about summer, but it seems to bring out the same-ness in writers, and everyone’s stories seem to blend into white noise. The beagle thinks it’s the heat and recommends that everyone stop for a margarita break. I’m good with that. But if you’re going to be walking around like the goolies from Night of the Living Dead, then don’t query. Save it for a time when your brain is firmly entrenched in your cranial cavity.
What is this same-ness I’m jabbering about? Standing out. This isn’t the time when you want to blend in by wearing the same bathing suit as everyone else. You want to stand out in that fuchsia and lime green suit that screams, “Lookie at me! I’m HOT, HOT, HOT!”
Instead, I’m seeing bland one-piece bathing suits that are as exciting as the beagle in Birkenstocks. These are the weakest efforts – stories written in heavily impacted categories – bipolar, death, divorce, alcoholism, cancer, blah, blah, blah – books that are fighting each other on the bookshelves already. So why on earth would I want your book? What makes you unique compared to what’s already in the marketplace?
Yes, my heart bleeds to hear that you lost your precious son at the tender age of four due to cancer. When I look at my strapping boys, I can’t imagine that kind of pain and the sheer guts and will required to care about even getting out of bed in the morning. But as sad as it is, there are already a ton of these kinds of books on the bookstore shelves, and the question becomes – how do I sell yours?
For crying out loud, toss me a bone!
What drove you to write the book?
Oftentimes, memoirs spring up because writers feel they have something to say. They experienced something they feel is fantastic/sad/inspirational/educational and decide to write about it. What happens is they look no further than their own experience and never check their competition to see if this is an issue that’s already been written about to ad nauseum. That’s why we have crowded categories such as divorce, cancer, etc. Many of them were unique at the time, but with the flood of samey books, the message is no longer unique. So ask yourself two questions:
Why did I write this book?
What am I saying that’s different from what’s already out there?
I’m not a fan of unnecessarily adding to the crowd unless that book has something new to say.
And speaking of something new, you have to tell me the unique qualities of YOUR book. This means you need to well read in the category in which you write. Know your competition because someone is going to ask you about it at some point in your career. I’ve had a few writers who, when they went back and actually checked out their competition, realized they didn’t have a unique product after all. Le ouch.
Why would someone want to read your book over the other books that cover the same topic? This is a question I ask all the time, and I’m amazed at how this stumps authors. Writers need to be analytical and objective about their writing if they are going to convince an editor to ask for pages.
Something that still stands out in my mind is when Kate McLaughlin queried me about her fabulous book Mommy, I’m Still In Here. It was if she knew I was going to roll my eyes at the beagle and say, “Bipolar? Yikes, been done and done and done,” so she tossed me all the best nuclear arsenal – she convinced me why her book was different from all the other bipolar books out there. And she was dead right because I researched it like a frog on crack.
Because she convinced me, I snapped it up. Because she knew her competition and her book’s uniqueness, it remains a solid seller.
So change your bathing suit style, kiddies. Get something that expresses your unique qualities and marketability. And don’t forget to tell me what they are. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to take the beagle’s advice and have a margarita break.
My buddy Lauren over at BiblioBuffet sent me a link to a fabulous blog post [thanks, toots!], and I could kiss her square on the lips. I said I could, I didn’t say I would.
This blog post will never be mistaken for zen.calm. It’s a kick in the pants reality check that discusses the realities of writing, which is…
No one wants to read your shit.
Now I didn’t say that, author Steven Pressfield said it. And you know what? He’s right. But he isn’t saying it the way you think. What Steven is saying is that just because you love your story doesn’t mean everyone wants to drop everything, put their lives on hold just so they can read your brilliant collections of verbs and nouns.
I encounter this a lot. I read pages and wonder if the authors ever considered that just because they love their writing others will as well. Steven calls it Client’s Disease, and he hits the nail on the head. The marketplace, in general, doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about the new thang on the block.
It’s not because the marketplace is filled with creeps who live to crush authors’ hearts. Heck, that’s our job. The marketplace has a bajillion choices placed before them, and there is no reason why they should care about you. It’s your job to make them care.
When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.
This means that it’s the author’s job to constantly ask:
“Am I boring my reader?”
Steven, most importantly, demands that the writer jump outside of his own ego because it’s the readers who make the author successful. Not the other way around.
Go. Read. Learn.
That is all.
“Rules, rules, rules! Why should I care so much about POV switches and using too many adjectives and adverbs? The average reader will never notice! You’re simply too picky.”
That was an author’s reply to a critique I’d included with a rejection. She’s right – I am indeed picky. And she’s also half-right about the fact that readers may not notice. But here is why she’s mostly wrong.
Who Is Gonna Read Your Book?
The problem with this author’s comment is her lack of vision. She assumes her readers are all pleasure readers and, therefore, don’t care about syntax and structure. Hmm. You know what they say about “ass-u-me,” right?
In truth, readers’ educational background and knowledge of the English language vary a great deal. Does this mean we write to the lowest common denominator, or do we write to a higher standard? It may be that many won’t care about the overuse of adverbs – Lucy totally, absolutely loved her fabulously yellow car [yeech] – but there are a large populace who whose eyes would glaze over at a book filled with this kind of writing. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?
What if that reader is a reviewer? They’ll pull out their razor-sharp scalpel and cut you a new orifice. What if that reader happens to be an editor who bought your book while on their way to Hawaii? They’ll throw your book to the sand crabs and go buy a copy of National Geographic just to get the bad taste out of their mouth.
What if the reader is simply Joe or Jane Reader who is put off by blocks of character description that interrupts the flow of the story? Or they care that you overuse em dashes and ellipses? Or that you use more tell vs. show in your writing? The end result with all these scenarios is that the overall opinion of your book won’t be positive.
Let’s Be Perfectly Clear
The reason you should care about the rules is for the sake of clarity. You want your readers to understand what you’ve written.
POV Switches: POV switches within the same scene, or even in the same paragraph [god forbid] can be horrendously confusing because the reader looses sight of who’s head they’re supposed to be in. Head-hopping is a newbie problem that can only be done in the hands of an fabulous writer. Author Janice Eidus [The War of the Rosens] is just such an author, and I believe it was Kirkus who paid special notice of how deftly she used her POV switches. Janice is a brilliant writer, and readers are crazy not to rush out and buy her tender, heart-warming book.
Comma usage: Improper comma usage is another small thing that can bring clarity or confusion to a sentence, forcing the reader to re-read the sentence. In my mind, that’s a sin against the Reading Gods. If you don’t know how to use them, then how are you going to effectively tell your story?
Adverbs: Yes, I lean on our friend, the adverb, quite a bit and it’s because they are so seductive. I consider them the Antonio Banderas of writing. They’re sexy, handsome, and soooo easy on the eye and, before you know it, your writing is filled with adverbs that crowd, clutter, and irritate your readers. Not that Antonio ever could…
A manuscript filled with adverbs is overkill and there are plenty of readers who get to the point where they shout, “Yes! I get it, the car is wonderful and the character loves it. No need to stick fifteen adverbs in there to say so.”
The Evil Gatekeepers
The last reason authors should give a rat’s patootie about rules is those evil gatekeepers – agents and editors. See, you can rail against the unfairness of it all and be righteously indignant, but it’s not going to amount to a hill of lima beans if you can’t get past us.
We are your first readers. If you can’t get past us, you can’t reach those “unconcerned” readers. You may be happy in your belief that readers don’t care about our nitpicky concerns, and there are many vanity publishers who are thrilled to support you in that endeavor. But the main deal is this; ya gotta get past us. We care because it’s our $$ on the line. Agents care because they need to sell manuscripts to make $$.
So while we may be too picky for your tastes, we have a host of reasons as to why we’re that way. It’s what keeps our books on store shelves and in readers’ hands. And it’s what keeps readers saying nice things about our books.
Lastly, since when is “good enough” an excuse? If you receive a critique that points out weaknesses in your writing, your reaction shouldn’t be, “you’re too picky!” It should be a giant “thank you for pointing out some problems I wasn’t aware existed.”
In my meanderings around writers boards and the feedback I hear at writer’s conferences, I see a pattern among a sub-species of fish I call Less Than Zero who, sadly, swim in our publishing pond. LTZs are the agents and editors whose ulterior motives aren’t to the author’s benefit. They may only agree to “represent” an author if they can find an interested editor. Or maybe they make a habit of selling their clients’ books to PODs. Perhaps they’ll tell you that, “oh yes, we edit your manuscript,” and that really means they run it through Spell Check. I call them Less Than Zero because they are the gorp that gets between my toes when I go to the beach. They’re worse than navel lint because they hurt authors.
Now here’s where I channel Sigmund Fraud, so lie down on my couch and sip on one of the beagle’s margaritas. The golden thread that weaves its way through these diseased yaks is Evita Peron-ititis: “You must love me,” – meaning that their only way of getting their meathooks into authors is via flattery and kindness.
Think about it; it’s much harder to question someone you like and believe is a good guy. And they’re counting on this. It a very effective way to keep authors submissive. Sadly, I’ve seen authors defend their editors and agents clear to the death of their own books. It’s literary equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. The minute you dare to question their abilities is when you see their true colors. They can become abusive with the flick of the switch. It’s another tool in keeping authors submissive.
While it’s true that we all try our level best to be engaging, supportive, and not scare the pants off prospective authors, we also have a job to do, and that’s to make you as successful as we can. Sometimes we don’t have time for love and kisses – especially during editing.
Less Than Zeros are slick, kiddies, and it’s all about timing. They work very hard to get authors comfortable and in love with them so they can lower the boom over their heads, which equates to, “Um no, you misunderstood. I said your book would be available to bookstores, not in the bookstores,” or “all agents charge processing fees; it goes toward editing your book, mailing and printing costs to send hard copies to publishers. You’ll get your money back when your book sells.”
By the time you hear this, you’re pliable and willing to believe them because you like them. After all, flim flam artists aren’t nice, are they? Oh, you bet your Aunt Gertie’s pumpkin pie they’re nice. It’s all they have.
And what happens when you begin to question their tactics? Out comes the abusive and rude emails. They’ll tell you you’re ungrateful or don’t know anything about the business. They will send you nastygrams about how you’re not promoting enough.
This is all about research, dear authors. If an agent has no verifiable sales to solid houses, take a step back. If a publisher only prints up 25 books and tells you, “Of course we have distribution – through Ingram and Baker and Taylor,” take a step back.
Don’t let your desire to be published color your survival instincts. There is NO WAY you can make lemonade out of lemons – not in this business. If you’re with a scank agent or editor, you will not succeed, no matter how hard you try. Cut bait and move to a new pond where the Less Than Zeros aren’t allowed to swim.