Don’t Let the Cat Out of Your Literery Bag Too Soon

August 22, 2013


An agent queried me with a terrific sounding book. Then I read the two chapters she sent me. They were rough. The subject matter was a tug-at-the-heart-and-take-no-prisoners, yet the voice was distant and disconnected, almost like a journalist’s accounting for Dry As Cardboard Weekly.

I wrote back to the agent with my comments about the lack of emotional appeal, and asked if there were more chapters because the subject matter was so compelling. Alas, the book had only those chapters, however the author was in the process of writing more chapters, and would I be interested in seeing them in a couple weeks? Sigh.

The agent let the literary cat out of the bag too soon, and didn’t have anything to back it up. I’ve already seen the chapters and complained about them, so what makes me believe some hastily written chapters will change my mind?

There is nothing worse than having an interested editor and not being able to provide, and here’s why:

First Chapters Danger Zone

I know you’re eager, and it’s not at all unusual to sell a nonfiction work based on a few chapters, but there is so much that can go wrong, and this is what I call the First Chapters Danger Zone.

You’re asking three chapters to do a lot of heavy lifting. Everything hinges on roughly 50 pages, so those pages need to rock.

  • The narrative needs to be lyrical and articulate.
  • The dialog needs to be snappy.
  • The pacing has to strike the perfect balance.
  • The tone and writing style needs to match the subject matter. For instance, if you have a story about beagle rescues, then your tone needs to be emotional and the writing style has to be open and approachable in order draw the reader into the story.
  • Your characters have to be so well developed that the reader instantly engages with them and their story.

Blow any one of these, and it’s a rejection. Simple reason being, you haven’t given me enough to sink my teeth into, so it’s easy to give it a pass. I’m not invested enough to care.

Offer to Quickly Write More Chapters

Let’s say I ask for more chapters – as I did with the example above – and there aren’t any written, but you’re more than willing to write some quickly and get them to me. Depending on the strength of those first chapters, I’ll either say fine, or no thanks – and here’s why:

Lack of Faith: If your first chapters are pretty weak and don’t hit the criteria I mentioned above, then I don’t have faith that subsequent chapters will be any better.

Hurry Hurry Rush Rush: In the eleven years I’ve been doing this, I have yet to see many authors who could quickly crank out subsequent chapters that rocked. Imagine having your agent call you and tell you that an editor wants to see more. You don’t have more. Yikes! Bite your nails down to the quick…then grab your laptop, five gallons of coffee, and some chocolate laced with uppers, and begin writing.

The whole time you’re writing and foregoing sleep, that wicked voice is screeching like a banshee loaded on dexedrine: HURRY THE HELL UP! THAT EDITOR NEEDS THESE CHAPTERS YESTERDAY! SHE’S INTERESTED!!!!! YAHOO!!!!!!!!! CAN’T WAIT TO TELL MOM I SOLD MY BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FINALLY, I’M GOING TO BUY GREECE AND LIVE IN LUXURY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Is your writing at your literary peak under those circumstances? Experienced writers know what they’re capable of under most circumstances. Debut authors haven’t been in this position before, so they have a stronger tendency to send inferior chapters that end up killing the entire deal.

Long story short – nothing good comes from hurry hurry rush rush.

The Incomplete Manuscript Blues

The road of the incomplete manuscript is fraught with trolls and vampires…and snarly editors.

Not Planning Ahead: If you’re trying to sell a work based on a few chapters, you need to consider that an editor may want to see a bit more. Do have “more,” or will you have to barf it out in record time if someone asks?

Who Are You?: If you don’t have some sort of public presence, then I don’t have much to go on in terms of knowing how well readers may accept your book. Are you a debut author who doesn’t have any other books that I can read in order to see your complete writing? The less I know about you, the less willing I am to take a chance on you with a scant three chapters. How do I know the rest of your book will rock? How do I know you have what it takes to organize a book in an entertaining manner? We have no concrete way of knowing how your book will end. A detailed chapter outline only goes so far.

Publishers spend a ton of money, and they need as much of a sure thing as they can realistically get. If they’re on the fence about a three-chapter submission, it’s easier to say no than yes. Are you willing to gamble with your career like that?

Subsequent Problems With Selling a Partial

Tailor Made: An author sent me her first chapters and said she didn’t finish the manuscript on purpose so she could tailor it to my recommendations. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not an editor’s job to tell an author how to write their book. An editor’s job is to read a manuscript and make suggestions to make it better – nor does an editor have that kind of time. This is not a compelling justification for not completing your manuscript.

Underperformance: Over the years I’ve bought books based on a few chapters and a detailed chapter outline, and twice I ended up cancelling the project because the finished product simply didn’t live up to the first chapters. The rest of it fell apart. Since that time, I’m gun shy…and I’m not the only editor out there who is. We’ve all been disappointed at one time or another.

Time:  Authors have oodles of time to spend on those first chapters that are slated to go out for query. They have tweaked and perfected to the point of fabulosity (we hope). If they’re a debut author of memoir, chances are they haven’t written a full-length book before, so no one really knows if they can or not. Now you have a deadline AND figuring out how/if you can write a book.

Writing against a deadline is daunting, and debut authors don’t realize this until they’re knee-deep in the process. It takes buckets of time, and they end up turning in what is basically their first draft because they were in a rush to meet their deadline. May I be honest here? First drafts suck stale Twinkie cream. First drafts are you telling yourself the story, and I would rather eat a rusty razorblade than edit a first draft. In fact, I won’t. A turn-in ready manuscript needs to have many revisions before it’s ready for human consumption…assuming editors are human, that is.

And face it, second and third drafts are pretty rough stuff, too.

Adding to the deadline pressure is that your editor has slated your book to release in a certain season, and all their marketing and promotion is based on that date. Changing that season is akin to melting granite, and I guarantee editors will drink engine grease if you turn in a rough piece of work that requires huge chunks of editing time and huge chunks of rewrites that threaten meeting that release date.

Been there, done that. It’s why my hair color comes out of a bottle and I mainline cheap gin.

In short, if you really want to sell your book, then why not finish it? Not letting the cat out of the bag too soon could be the difference between a yes and a no thanks.

Any of you have reasons for not finishing your book?

Who needs reality shows when you can read

July 8, 2013


Who needs reality shows when you can read Behler books – unbeatable, unforgettable, soul-swelling memoir.

Are you undervaluing your book?

June 27, 2012

I know, I know, you’re looking at me in horror. “Undervalue my BOOK? Are you barking mad?”

Of course, we all believe our books are fabulous things that are worthy of high praise, oodles of money, and undying love from fans all over the world. Not talking about that, though. I’m talking about something deeper, which involves underestimating your book’s potential. This comes from not looking at your book through a marketing prism.

Case in point; I met an author at a writer’s conference who’d written a personal journey about her addiction and how it had impacted her family. The thing that made it noteworthy is that the book included her daughter’s perspective as well. Interesting concept, sez I, it’s a big book.

Blink blink. Big book?

Absolutely. Any editor who signs you is looking down the road as to the book’s impact on the marketplace. This book is unique because, while there are a jillion addiction books, the commonality drops off when you include addiction from the viewpoint of those who had to suffer through it with you. As such, this book would be great for Alateens and Alanon members. You and your daughter could be doing talks about your experience and offer advice, taken from your book, to help others who are still living the nightmare.

The author blinked again. She admitted that she’d never looked at her book in that way. She was simply writing about her and her family’s experiences.

She undervalued her book. And lots of writers do.

Story vs. Potential

Memoirs get their roots from something happening in someone’s life that’s extraordinary, and he/she decides to write about it. Authors suffer from tunnel vision, in that their entire focus is on the story; not the potential.

I’ll let you in on a poorly-kept secret: Potential is why publishers want a book.

Editors don’t just look at the story itself, they look at how far the book can go, how widely they can market it, and how many audiences will find the book interesting. The bigger the target, the more exciting the potential.

Authors who appreciate this have already taken preliminary steps toward approaching that potential target before the book even sells to an editor. For instance, the author with the addiction book already has an established relationship with AA, so she can easily contact the various groups to discuss her book. She and her daughter can develop a few talks that discuss their hard experiences and the factors that got Mom clean and brought their family back together.

She could also be talking to schools in order to reach out to kids whose parents have an addiction problem, or those kids themselves have more than a passing fancy to the drink. They could talk about the damage that path created from a firsthand perspective. And all of these talks lead right back to her book. If she starts giving talks now, then she has an established platform in which to wow an editor, who will do the happy dance.

The other option is to do nothing, which won’t make a potential editor dance quite as wildly because the author has zero platform, and there isn’t much time in which to establish one.


And you novelists aren’t immune to undervaluing your books. It’s true that you don’t need a platform for a novel because, well, your world is fake. However, you’d be hardly kicked out to the curb for having a platform.

I’ve referred to my experiences with the Two Surfer Dudes from time to time because he is such a great example of taking nothing and turning it into something. Long story short, this surfer writer penned a fantasy/SF book whose main characters were surfer dudes – sort of a Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but with some really oddball characters in a funky SF/fantasy setting. In short, a really tough sell.

Predictably, no editor would touch his book. By the time he sat down in my promotion seminar, he was pretty down in the mouth because he’d gone vanity press and realized he’d get zero promotion help or distribution. He ended up making lemonade by capitalizing on his own experiences as a well-known local surfer to launch his book to his potential readership – other surfers.

Because he knew nothing about how books are sold, he’d undervalued his book’s potential by not considering how his personal life could elevate his book’s footprint.

So for your novelists; take a peek at your own lives. Is there something you can pull out from your life that creates a bridge between your story and your target audience? Are you the the cop who writes detective novels? Are you the Reiki Master who writes about a surgeon who incorporates alternative medicine in her practice? Are you a nurse who writes medical romance novels?

If you look inward, it’s possible that you have qualities that will elevate your book from “eh” to “wow!” After all, if a surfer dude can sell a fantasy/SF about two surfer dudes, anything is possible when you take steps to do some serious analysis.


Analysis takes vision. It means that you’re looking beyond just your story, and envisioning key elements that will attract an audience. Your story is more than just your imagination. It’s a culmination of your experiences, your perspective on how you view the world, and what’s burning in your soul. It’s that literary itch that needs scratching. It’s passion.

If you’re not emotionally attached to your story, then how do plan to advocate its reason-to-be? Even a fun little romantic comedy has deep roots that drive your passion, right? It shouldn’t be a stretch to expand your vision in order to appreciate the value of your book and decide how far you can take it.

I’ve met more than a few authors whose faces were painted with panic when I suggested huge plans for their book. They simply hadn’t taken the time to look at their story’s potential and didn’t understand the vision it takes to go where no book has gone before. Ah, thank you, Capt. Picard.

So take another look at your book and analyze whether you’re undervaluing your little friend. If you are, then maybe you could think about changing course, and go get ’em!

A great story isn’t enough

January 17, 2011

Since I specialize in memoir/biography, I get a TON of queries from writers whose lives run the whole spectrum of fascinating to humdrum yawn-ville. The yawn-villes are easy to weed out. But the fascinating ones can drive me to drink when the stories are fabulous, but the writing is abysmal. Quelle frustrating.

A great story isn’t enough. And yet I fear many writers think the exact opposite and believe they can pretty much screw it up and it’ll still sell because…well…it’s a great story. For an editor, it’s like sitting on an electric fence. I have to weigh the benefits of burning my bum against gazing at a fabulous view. The ultimate outcome may be that the view wasn’t worth a burnt bum because the fog rolled in and I ended up not being able to see anything.

The metaphor I’m going for is that the fog is the writing quality. I may sign a new author whose writing skills aren’t up to par in hopes that the story will outshine the negatives. I’ll also pray that the author is able to do the rewrites to my satisfaction.

But who am I kidding? It hardly ever works out that way. If the manuscript is that abysmal in the first place, then what makes me believe it’ll improve during rewrites? The only way that’ll happen is if I have a very heavy hand in those rewrites. And I just don’t have that kind of time or interest to teach someone how to write. At some point, I have to say no.

The Breaking Point

Ok, that said, I am a story whore and there is a point at which I’ll decide that the view is definitely worth a very singed-to-cinders backside. But it has to be so huge that every cell in my body is twitching and pinging. Most don’t come near my breaking point, and it’s relatively easy to walk away.

Aim for success

So what do you do to avoid this? Well, learning how to write is a grand start. Just know there are very few natural writers, so you need to learn the elements to good writing. That means understanding the rules of writing (so you can become adept at breaking them in the future). It means appreciating the nuances of voice, pacing, flow, development, fluff, backstory, how to effectively use a prologue – and deciding if you even need one. And yes, Gertrude, this takes time. Lots of it.

Or consider a ghostwriter. I talk to many folks who are in hurry and don’t care so much about the writing aspects as they are with getting their story out. Why struggle with what you don’t know? There are very good ghostwriters who can do this for you. ‘Course, if you’re in that category, chances are very strong that you’re not reading this blog.

Always keep at the forefront that a great story isn’t enough. After all, if you can’t effectively communicate it, then what’s it worth?

Writing memoirs

May 14, 2009

Ok, enough of the car crash stuff. I may be sporting some broken ribs, so I’m wrapped up with no place to go. I may as well blog ’til the beagle returns from carousing with her poodle friends and mixes up a batch of margaritas. While I’m waiting, let’s talk memoirs.

We all think our lives are hideously fantastic and anyone with a firing synapse would lurve our stories. Hence our love affair with memoirs. The truth is that most of us are pretty damned dull, and our stories would leave most yawning and poking our sides with a sharp stick just to stay awake. Yet many times each week, I receive memoir queries that result in instant death rejection. The reasons vary, but I’d like to bring up the main reasons I pass.

Keep in mind that all these elements are interrelated.

Who Are You? I don’t care that you’re not a household name because there is a huge audience who loves reading memoirs and biographies. What you lack in name recognition you make up for in content. You need to have a strong platform in order to create demand for your particular topic.

If you’re Uncle Fergus and spent your early life on a farm making moonshine, then I’ll expect you to have some sort of platform that will have readers flooding to hear you speak or attend your events. A platform for Uncle Fergus could be that he now works for Jim Beam. What a hoot that would be, eh?

But if you’re someone who had some interesting times back in the day and you now crochet toilet paper doilies for a living, then this isn’t a platform conducive to creating demand.

What Is Your Message? Since I don’t necessarily care if you’re a household name, that leaves one thing in your favor; your message. What’s your story? Whether your theme is inspirational or educational, your life has to say something and deliver some sort of punch that will stay with the reader for years.

It’s about making an impact, and that’s why I love memoirs so much. These are real people who did real things, and I want to grow, be inspired, charmed, or learn something from their adventures.

Going back to Uncle Fergus and his moonshine still on the farm; I had an actual query along these lines, and my first question was, “who cares?” Sure, there are narratives about times gone by, but they must offer some muscle behind their perspective. Uncle Fergus may have been quite a character in his time, but so what? So is the beagle, and god forbid anyone ever write about her.

I get a ton of bi-polar memoirs, which is a huge topic, and I turn every one of them down. So why did I accept Mommy I’m Still In Here? Because Kate McLaughlin offered a perspective unique to everything currently on the shelves. She talked of hope, of success, of faith, of staying together no matter how bad it got. And it got terrifyingly bad. Hers was a book that I knew would bring inspiration to thousands and didn’t have the same oft-repeated message.

“Cancer, divorce, mid-life crisis, I’m learning to stand on my own two feet” are overdone categories that they’re cliche, and that’s why I usually avoid these topics. I’m not a fan of literary Peeping Toms, and many of these memoirs have that feel to them. There isn’t a message, but more of a “hey look what we endured.” To what end?

If you are writing a memoir, define what you have to say and why anyone would care. “Look at what I endured or overcame” stories aren’t appealing to me unless they have a specific purpose. This is my biggest reason for rejecting memoirs.

Who Is Your Audience? Most writers of memoirs are normally too wrapped up in their own stories to understand that they need to appeal to a specific audience. They lack objectivity, so their first inclination is to state that “this book is for everyone!” Well, no it isn’t. Most memoirs have a target audience and can branch out from there provided the subject matter has wide appeal.

If you’ve written about your experiences of overcoming cancer, you know your audience is cancer victims and their families. But you must have the platform and message to attract them. If your memoir has more inspirational elements, then you need to dig a bit deeper to define where that audience can be found – which gets me back to Who Are You?

What Is Your Competition? I call this Been Thar, Done That. If you have a story that centers on any of the usual suspects: cancer, divorce, midlife crisis, bi-polar, death, then you MUST know your competition in order to determine whether your message is unique  to an over-impacted category.Otherwise, how do you know if you really have a story at all?

You must also know exactly how and why your story isn’t a retread of fifty other books that cover the same topic because we’re gonna ask. This is the material we use when pitching your book to the genre buyers and reviewers. Unique = happy editor, sales teams, and genre buyers. Same-same = rejection.

Sadly, the lack of knowing one’s competition makes up the bulk of my memoir rejections.

As you can see, writing is no longer a matter of “If I write it, they will come.” Nope, we gotta let readers know who you are so they’ll run to their bookstores, kicking and screaming the doors down to buy your book.

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