Category Archives: The Publishing Process

Writing Advice You Should Definitely Ignore

The title of this post is not some clever reverse psychology trick. You really shouldn’t listen to this advice. It’s bad for you and it goes against everything you’ve ever heard from all those lovely and wise literary agents out there. The Chips and Nathans and Janets and the rest. (I’m not being sarcastic here. All the agents I’m thinking of are completely lovely and incredibly competent and smell like cupcakes.)

So why am I writing this post? Because sometimes advice that’s perfect for The Many is perfectly wrong for The Few. I’m not saying it’s bad to be among The Many. It’s actually a great place to be as a writer because there’s so much helpful information out there for you. When agents and editors speak in generalizations (usually with sentences that begin “Always…” or “Never…” or the more sinister variation, “If you ever want to be published…”), those of you who are among The Many really ought to listen.

If you’re perfectly content with the writing advice you’re getting elsewhere, please stop reading now. I’m only going to screw that up with what I say below. Seriously, I mean it. Go away.

Go. Away.

Yes, I see you. You’re still reading. Right, right, that’s only because you want to see what sort of drivel I’m going to drool onto the page so you can wipe it away. Like actual drool.

I’m cool with that. Mostly because I happen to like the word drivel.

Now let’s get on with it.

Here’s the bad advice I warned you about. Read it. Then feel free to call me names in the comments.

On Branding – I know what you’re thinking. (I’m psychic like that.) This whole “branding” thing is mostly for non-fiction writers. Yes. True. And necessary. (Google it. Study it. Do it.) But it doesn’t take much exploration of agents’ and editors’ and publishers’ blogs before you read about the critical importance of defining who you are as a fiction author. The agent sages will tell you without apology that your chance of getting published in multiple genres is somewhere between slim and Victoria Beckham. And, of course, they’re right. So what do you do about that? Well, if you only write one genre, you’re all set. Lucky you. But what if you write in multiple genres? What then? Well, you could simply choose your favorite genre and work exclusively on that until you’re really good at it, then do your darnedest to get noticed by an agent. That’s a fine idea, too. Do that. Unless you haven’t yet found your favorite. In that case, here’s my bad writing advice: just write the story that’s in your head. Don’t fret about branding. Just write. Because here’s the thing – for The Few, this “branding” thing can become a sentient shadow determined to constrict your creativity in trade for the tenuous promise of a better chance of publication. The shadow of branding can keep you from experimenting and exploring and growing as a writer because you’re afraid you might be coloring outside the lines. Don’t let it. Write whatever the muse tells you to write. Please note: following this approach demands that you loosen the grip on your publishing dreams and your most-likely-ambitious timetable for those dreams. But in the meantime, you’ll be enjoying the writing journey. At some point you’ll still need to decide which novel do you want to be known for (first). Then, yes, if you get a publishing deal for that book you’ll be branded according to its genre. But that’s okay. If you write more of those novels, you can make more money. (If that sort of thing is important to you.) But please don’t stop writing the other books the muse demands. If you’re one of the luckiest few, you’ll be able to place novels on more than one shelf in Barnes & Noble someday.

On Writing the First Draft – Nearly everyone in the biz will tell you, “turn off the self-editor when you write” or some variant of that. Some have even rather boldly said it thusly, “write a bad first draft.” If that works for you, wonderful. Save your editing for the second (and subsequent) drafts. But for The Few…this won’t work. For The Few, there is no other way to write than to wrestle with every word, every sentence, every paragraph. There’s no other way to write than to edit and re-edit page after excruciating page. Sometimes it’s one page forward and two pages back. It’s almost always a painful and laborious process…and it’s the only way The Few can write. So if you’re among this group, don’t you dare write a bad first draft. Write the best damn first draft you can. Then, and only then, go back through the manuscript. I’m sure you’ll still find a few things left to fix.

On Submitting Your First Book – Agents warn, “Don’t send us your first novel” or at the very least, “Don’t tell us you’re submitting your first novel.” They say this for a good reason. A first novel is often a practice round writers didn’t know was practice until it was done. Most first novels are training exercises. And most just aren’t very good. I said most novels. There are exceptions. (And isn’t this whole post really about exceptions? Yeah, it is.) Look, I know writers. The majority of us suffer from extremely low self esteem and believe even our best work is crap. It may be. But then again, it could be brilliant. Don’t assume that because a novel is your first, it absolutely without question isn’t worthy of submission. Do your due diligence – get feedback from crit groups and freelance editors and other experts. Listen to what they say. If what you hear is a quiet complaint of cursing followed by an under-the-breath “some writers just have it…why the hell don’t I?”, this probably means it’s really good.

That’s enough for now. I’ll save more bad advice for another post. Okay, are you ready for the M. Night Shyamalan twist?

Ignore everything I just wrote. You’re not among The Few. Nope. Sorry. You’re not the exception. You’re just like everyone else…

…probably.

Good Agent, Bad Agent

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a really brilliant un-agented, unpublished writer and you’ve recently finished final edits on a truly brilliant novel. Yesterday you queried a bunch of agents and today you got five “The Call” calls. Don’t laugh. We’re playing “let’s pretend,” remember?

How do you decide which agent will share 15 percent of your inevitable Very Nice Deal?

By gleaning great wisdom from this handy-dandy agent guide, that’s how.*

A Good Agent…will have some difficulty managing her excitement about representing you, occasionally letting slip words like “amazing” or “lyrical” or “compelling” in the course of her comments about your novel. She will talk about your novel’s main character, Gabrielle, so eloquently you’ll forget for a moment that you made her up.

A Bad Agent…will talk mostly about all the money the two of you will make and will refer to your novel in generic terms until she’s skimmed enough of the manuscript on the card table in front of her to declare your post-apocalyptic novel of spiritual re-birth “better than Dickens and Nicholas Sparks combined!”

A Good Agent…will tell you the truth about how hard it is to make it as a new author, then describe in detail how she tackles that challenge with as-yet-unpublished authors she chooses to represent.

A Bad Agent…will either a) tell you your book is perfect as is and pooh-pooh the idea of spending any more time on it, or b) tell you you’re “almost there” except for a bit of editing that she’d be happy to help you with for $2000.

A Good Agent…will invite your questions and answer every one unless he doesn’t know the answer. In that case, he’ll say “I don’t know,” research the answer, and then call you back.

A Bad Agent…will answer every question that makes him uncomfortable with the nauseatingly hyperbolic details of his most recent spectacular author deal (which he doesn’t reveal actually happened back in the ’80s).

A Good Agent…will return all of your calls within a day or two, or will shoot you an email letting you know when she can get back to you if she’s currently focused on meeting a critical deadline. But she also won’t hesitate to tell you if you’re calling too often. She’ll say it nicely.

A Bad Agent…will use the following excuses to explain why she didn’t return your last six calls: my cell phone died; my grandmother died; I was busy negotiating a huge deal for you and it was taking forever and I didn’t want to jinx it…but it fell through anyway; my cell phone died again; my other grandmother died.

A Good Agent…will graciously accept gifts of chocolate or Starbucks gift cards from current clients only.

A Bad Agent…will require gifts of chocolate or Starbucks gift cards before deciding to offer representation.

A Good Agent…will custom-select publishers for each book proposal, matching the books and authors to the publishers’ needs and interests.

A Bad Agent…will load proposals into a shotgun and fire it in the general direction of a zillion publishers, regardless of “fit,” just so she can say “hey, I sent it off to 25 publishers” when you ask for a status update.

A Good Agent…will not give up on an author he believes in just because the first round of submissions doesn’t net any offers.

A Bad Agent…will tell you no one is interested in your book after getting just one rejection.

A Good Agent…will be a cheerleader, a coach, an advocate, a negotiator, and a shoulder to cry on, sometimes all in the same day.

A Bad Agent…will do as little as possible to earn his 15 percent.

A Good Agent…will share a bottle of fine wine with you when celebrating the signing of your contract.

A Bad Agent…will share a bottle of fine wine with you when celebrating the signing of your contract…then deduct the cost of that wine from your first royalty check.

A Good Agent…will know when to make the difficult decision of tabling a current project due to publisher disinterest. Then she’ll help you turn your attention to the next one.

A Bad Agent…will keep re-submitting the current un-sold project until editors around the globe start to refer to you as “that annoying author.”

And finally:

A Good Agent…will still make mistakes. You can count on it.

*I’m not an agent and I don’t play one on TV. But over the years I’ve gotten to know a few of the good ones in my little publishing niche and some of them seem to like me.

When Editors Go Bad

book cover fakeIf you’ve been reading my little blog for any length of time, you already know that editors aren’t prefect. [Yes, I just wrote “prefect.” Squirming yet?]

As evidence of this, I present to you some of the most common mistakes editors make. By “editors” I mean me. And by “mistakes” I mean errors in judgment prompted by sleep deprivation, excessive drinking, lack of confidence in the job, or plain ol’ incompetence. I’ve given each of the editorial screw-ups a title, but these are only my made-up titles and are not the terms officially sanctioned by the National Governing Board of Freelance Editors (NGBFE), which I don’t think exists, but if it did I would already be reaching for my wallet to pay a fine for my contextually inappropriate abbreviation of “old” in the previous sentence.

Never Say Never – It’s so easy to do and it seems so right, we don’t think twice. We just do it. And the thing is, it’s quite often the right thing to do. But…not always. I’m talking about trimming adverbs. You see, we’ve read all the books, too – the ones that say adverbs are badverbs. Or something like that. So we cut ‘em out of habit. Even when we shouldn’t. We make similar mistakes when applying other Rules of Good Writing, like getting rid of all semi-colons or universally suggesting all “tell” copy needs to “show.” Thankfully, this sort of mistake only happens when we’ve been editing for 24 hours straight. Which we aren’t supposed to do, according to the NGBFE.

Exterminate! Exterminate!Despite the fact that the title is a reference to Dr. Who’s Daleks, this editorial no-no has nothing to do with science fiction and instead is a subset of what I lovingly call The Goldilocks Compendium. (Actually, I’ve never called it that until just now. And because of that little lie, I can expect another fine from the NGBFE.) Exterminate! Exterminate! is all about being “too hard” on a manuscript. It’s about cutting. (Not the kind that people do when they’re emotionally unstable, though it must be acknowledged that all editors are emotionally unstable and probably would resort to this sort of cutting if not for coffee, wine, and chocolate.) This is the arena where I am most roguish. If I had a sweatshirt with my editorial mantra on it, it would say “Less is more.” I think it would be dark gray, with a half-zip collar and white lettering. I celebrate the economy of words, perhaps to a fault (except in blogposts, where I overwrite to my heart’s content). Maybe this is why Twitter is fun for me. Anyway, when I come across a big paragraph, my eyes get bigger still and out comes the X-acto knife of death. Cut, cut, snip, snip. And now it’s just a single sentence. There’s nothing wrong with cutting extra words (most people use too many), but I run the risk of cutting away the pretty colors in a manuscript if I’m not careful.

Intimidate! Intimidate! – Part two of The Goldilocks Compendium is a corollary to the above: going too soft on a manuscript. I’ll admit I can be intimidated by good authors. I’ll read an amazing manuscript and think, “damn, that’s good,” and question my editorial skills and my sanity and my salvation and wonder if I have the right to touch any words at all. Usually, on a second pass, I discover areas for improvement and make those edits and recommendations. But sometimes I’m not tough enough on what’s there. It works, so why change it? Well, here’s a good reason: to bump it from good to great, or great to excellent. This is why I’m (eventually, though never soon enough) paid the (not really) big bucks. And this where an editor’s art and uncertainty walk hand in hand like young lovers. (No, I don’t have a clue what that means.) Hopefully, more often than not, I make the right call. But I am always thankful, if a little sheepish, when an author says, “Hey, you missed something. I think we could actually cut this (or add this, or change this)” after I’d already let it slide.

My Word Is Better Than Your Word – I think this is self-explanatory. But I’ll explain it anyway. Sometimes an editor replaces a perfectly good word just for the hell of it. [Note to NGBFE: I”m kidding. Officially.] Okay, that’s not usually why. They replace the word because they like it better. I have my word preferences and you have yours. Most of the time, yours work just fine. But sometimes, I’ll read yours and think, “Really? ‘Crepuscular?’ Why?” And then I’ll change yours to mine because I’m the editor and I’m supposed to know what’s best for you. Normally, I’ll realize my selfish ways before I finish editing and you’ll never see my words because I’ll change them back to what you had. Unless there’s defensible benefit to changing your word, I don’t need to touch it.

Whose Voice Is It Anyway? – Some authors have clearly defined voices. When I read their manuscripts, I hear exactly what they sound like and can attenuate my editing to match that voice. However, when I work on a manuscript where the voice isn’t so distinct, I sometimes make this editorial blunder: I apply my writer’s voice (or one of them, anyway, considering I suffer from Multiple Author Voice Syndrome). That’s not the right thing to do. In these cases, it’s the editor’s responsibility (according to NGBFE statute 27.1, subsection R.) to help the author find and then maintain his or her voice throughout the manuscript. This is easier said than done, by the way.

Missing the Point Completely – Sometimes Editors Miss the Point Completely. An author may have constructed a perfectly reasonable plot or created a perfectly believable character, but the editor Just Doesn’t Get It. And in their attempt to fix The Thing They Just Don’t Get, the editor makes things worse. I don’t have a Really Good Excuse for why this happens. Let’s just go with, Editors Are Human and follow that up with Humans Are Imperfect and leave it at that. Here’s the good news, though – Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Then someone invented the Internet. Now editors and authors can Talk About Stuff and Clarify Things They Just Don’t Understand. [Another note to NGBFE: I’ve already calculated the fees for excessive capitalization. You’ll be receiving payment in approximately six to twelve-hundred weeks, depending on when my accounting department can get to it.]

Other Stuff – We add typos. We miss continuity errors. We break a plot when trying to fix it somewhere else. We change the color of your protagonist’s hair. We get fingerprints on the printed manuscript. We remove all references to Al Gore. We add references to Al Gore. We write whole sections for you instead of simply noting in a comment what we think is missing. We can be lazy and careless.

But mostly we try really hard to do everything we can to make your book the best book you’ve ever written.

That’s all for today. I need to go screw up edit a manuscript now. Thanks for coming. Please deposit your 3-D glasses in the bin at the end of the hallway on your way out.

10 Reasons You Don’t Have an Agent

  1. Your writing is unremarkable. You may have worked hard to craft a good story, followed all the rules – trimming unnecessary prepositional phrases, chopping adverbs, replacing passive verbs with active verbs – but the result is indistinguishable from any of a hundred other novels the agent has reviewed in the past month. Solution: Find your writer’s voice and pray it’s a good one. A writer’s voice is that unique stamp that sets his or her words apart from others. There’s no simple (or universal) definition for “writer’s voice,” but typically it will be revealed in such things as an author’s word choice, writing rhythm, and that intangible thing called “tone” or “color.” Best way to find your voice? Write. A lot. If you have a unique voice hidden in there somewhere, it will eventually appear. And if not? You might be one of the lucky ones who gets an agent anyway and maybe even ends up selling a ton of books. But just in case, be prepared for rejection. Sorry. But that’s just how it goes.
  2. Your story is unoriginal. What’s that? There is no original story? In a broad sense, you’re right. But there are infinite variations to the basic plots that give structure to stories. How you handle the familiar is what will set you apart from the rest of the wannabes. Here’s a tip: Create characters with depth and dimension. Flawed, richly-textured characters provide you with all kinds of plot opportunities.
  3. Your story has no conflict. Guess what? If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story. If there are no obstacles to overcome, no one cares what happens to your protagonist, least of all your protagonist himself. Throw challenges at your characters from page one to the very last page. If your protagonist isn’t moving toward something, agents (and, therefore, readers in general) will grow impatient with the story and give up on it.
  4. You can’t spell “query.” Will this really prompt a Pass letter? Well, it depends on the agent. And whether or not she’s had her coffee. And how many bad queries she’s seen before yours appears in the queue. And whether or not your opening line is brilliant enough to make her forget your spelling error. Point is – if you want to increase your chances of being considered, don’t make this stupid mistake. And by “this stupid mistake” I mean, do a spell check on everything you submit to an agent. And by “spell check” I mean review what you’ve written multiple times by reading it aloud – don’t count on Microsoft Word to know you meant “guilt” when you accidentally typed “quilt.”
  5. You think you’re the next Stephen King. Persistence and confidence are good things, but when they cross the line into arrogance, you are at risk of becoming the punch line for a #queryfail joke. Seriously, if you’re really the best thing since Hemingway, your writing will do the shouting for you.
  6. Your novel isn’t finished. Yeah. I know. This seems like a no-brainer. But some of you are trying to apply the non-fiction rules (which allow writers to submit a proposal for an as-yet-unfinished work) to fiction. Don’t do that. Just finish your novel. By the way, your novel isn’t finished when you first type “The end.” It’s then that you must put on the editor’s hat, revising, re-shaping, and improving the story until it’s really the best work you can do. If you send a first draft you’re just asking for a Pass letter.
  7. You haven’t done your research. If you’re pitching a novel about a sex-crazed wizard who takes over the world one kinky tryst at a time to an agent who only reps Amish Christian fiction, you’re an idiot. Okay, that was harsh. But please, friends, take the time to review what the agents represent – and also, what they’re currently looking for (the latter is typically a smaller subset of the former). In most cases, everything you need to know about an agent’s interests and current needs can be found at their website. Don’t be the guy who shows up at the formal dinner party wearing a toga because you didn’t look at the invitation carefully enough.
  8. You’ve sent out too many poor queries. Don’t send a single query until you understand what a good one looks like. (There are a ton of websites out there with examples of good queries. Guess where you’ll find some of the best info on how to write a query? Yup. At literary agents’ websites.) I know you’re anxious, but there is no benefit to “getting there first” if what you’re submitting is less than great. You can actually blow your chance at a second (or third) chance by flooding agents with bad queries. I know that seems unfair, but keep in mind there are hundreds of other authors vying for the same limited “eye time” agents can give to queries. Learn from others’ query mistakes as much as possible before you have to learn from your own.
  9. You can’t handle rejection. If this is you, well, you probably should look for a new dream. Because if you pursue a dream of being published, you’re going to experience rejection. If not by an agent, then by a publisher. If not by a publisher, then by a reader. Someone, somewhere down the line will think your writing sucks. It’s okay. Really. Every writer experiences this. Every. One. Submit. Feel the sting of rejection. Wipe your tears. Glean what you can from the experience. Then get back to the task at hand.
  10. You’re simply not meant to have one. Yeah, this is a bit of a downer. But it’s just reality. You may never get an agent. You may never publish a book. Does that mean you should stop trying? Maybe someday. But probably not today. However, if your only goal is “to be published,” you might be going about this all wrong. Oh, it’s perfectly fine to hang that goal in front of you (just as it’s fine to self-publish if that’s your dream) – but don’t miss the writing journey along the way, okay? It’s a good journey.

Inspiration, Perspiration and Aspiration

Thomas Edison is famously known for coining the oft-quoted phrase, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Some folks hovering in the shadows of the publishing industry have glommed onto this quote as a rallying cry for aspiring authors. “It’s not about talent – it’s about hard work,” they say. Well, they don’t actually say “it’s not about talent,” but the implication of Edison’s statement when recklessly applied to creative genius is that anyone with even a penny’s worth of an idea can work hard enough to someday achieve their publishing goals.

Nope. Not true.

I’ll wait while you take a moment to quote examples of “no-talents” who have worked their way into successful publishing careers.

Done? Yeah, I hear you. We could easily turn a corner here and start talking about what “talent” is, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that even the “worst” published writers have something to offer the reading public. [Oh, and that Edison fellow? He didn’t actually invent the light bulb – he improved on other people’s work. His “inspiration” was about refinement and revision and re-invention. Sound familiar, writers?]

Edison’s quote has been so misused that I sometimes feel sorry for the light bulb. But did you know Edison had more to say about “genius”? Perhaps as clarification for his “1/99″ comment he allegedly said, “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident. They came by work.”

Ah, yes. Now we’ve got something usable for aspiring authors. It’s gonna take work. This is no surprise to any of you who have been studying writing books and agenting blogs and attending conferences in search of publishing wisdom. Keep at it. A lot of hard work can make a good idea into a great one.

But (you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you) all the hard work in the world won’t turn an uninspired novel into an inspired one*. If your story is boring or unoriginal or badly written, if your idea (or your re-invention of someone else’s idea) isn’t the least bit interesting, your chances of being published are slim.

This isn’t the sort of message I like to deliver. I’d much prefer to say “all aspiring writers have an equal chance of getting published someday if they just work hard enough at it.” But that would be a lie.

I simply can’t downplay the importance of inspiration. Of a good idea. Of a great story. Of a compelling voice. Nor should you.

Do you have it? Do you have the inspiration or talent to set you apart from the rest? I don’t know. Maybe. (This is where you can be thankful for the role of subjectivity. One agent’s “I don’t see it” is another agent’s “you’ve got what it takes” when it comes to identifying inspired writing.)

However, let’s remember: Edison was no idiot. He was gifted with a highly capable brain. Likewise, some people have a natural gift for writing. (If you’re one of them, lots of folks secretly despise you. Oh, they don’t wish you harm. They’re just upset that God didn’t spread the inspiration a bit wider and feel it’s particularly unfair that through some processing error in the Brilliance Distribution Department you ended up with their share.) Every idea they exhale dances like Baryshnikov. Of course, if those folks never do a lick of work with that inspiration, they’re as unlikely to be published as those who are all work and no inspiration.

Which leads me to a suggested revision of Edison’s quote, specifically tuned for the writing community. If you’re uncomfortable with seemingly impossible math, you might want to look away. Here goes:

“Finding success as a writer is 100 percent inspiration and 100 percent perspiration.”

Think about that for a moment. Actually, you know what? Think about it until my next post.

Peace.

*Please note, I’m not saying you can’t find new inspiration for a novel in the process of working through it. I’m simply stating that any book that is completely void of inspiration is most likely unpublishable (by traditional means, anyway).