- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
*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).
Is it time let your novel die?
That’s a question every writer faces at least once in his or her writing life. The decision to pull life support is difficult at best, debilitatingly impossible at worst. You’ve worked on this novel for, what, months? years? How many hours have you invested? Even a poorly-written novel takes a long time to write.
Then there’s the emotional cost. Whether you love your characters or hate them, they’ve most likely become real to you. (I’m 99 percent certain I’ve seen some of mine hanging out at the local Starbucks.) Giving up on their story can feel like signing a bundle of death warrants. And who wants to do that?
There are a number of good reasons to let a novel die – a plot that goes nowhere, characters that just lie there on the page, un-patchable holes in story logic, an unbelievable premise, and (though this might be the hardest one for the writer to identify herself), shoddy writing. Thankfully, most of these things will rear their ugly heads long before you’ve finished your work, saving you the agony of having to decide the fate of a Fully Operational Death Star… I mean, completed novel.
But let’s assume for a moment that your plot is sound, your characters interesting, and (according to someone other than your mother), the writing is actually decent. And you’ve finished the book. And you’ve been shopping it to agents (or, if you have an agent, he or she has been shopping it to publishing houses) for months. And months. And months.
And nobody wants it.
You’ve heard a dozen variations on “It’s not for us” or “The writing is good, but I’m just not blown away by it” or the real soul-killer, “I wanted to love it…”
Do you give up on your novel after ten rejections? Twenty? Fifty?
How many times can you go back to the story and “improve” it before you actually start to make it worse? Five times? Ten?
I’ll offer you the inspirational message first. Don’t give up! If you need a break from constant rejection, just set aside the novel for a time and work on something else. [Insert any of a hundred stories of authors whose novels languished for years before becoming an “overnight success” story.] When the time is right and the market is right and the stars align and God decides He likes you, all your hard work will pay off in a contract offer and the subsequent joy of walking into Barnes & Noble to see your lovely book on the front table next to Dan Brown’s next bestseller.
If inspiration is what you need, you should stop reading now.
For the rest of you? Well, killing your unsalable book might just be the best thing you ever did. It’s quite possible your stillborn story is holding you back from creating something better. If every time you sit down to write a new work, you look longingly at your last project and wonder “why oh why don’t they love you like I do?” you might be dooming your current work to the same fate.
Letting go of a novel can free you up to try new things with the next one.
Now, I’m not actually suggesting you should delete all files and throw away all hard copies of a go-nowhere book. That would be silly. You should keep past work in some sort of archive. That archive is a great testament to all you’ve accomplished, and (hopefully), a scrapbook that shows how far you’ve come.
But what I am suggesting is that you effectively let the book die. Stop thinking about it. Put all your time into the current project. Apply everything you’ve learned from the last one and make this story shine. You can’t hurt your previous novel’s feelings. A novel understands its role, even if the writer doesn’t. A shelved novel has already served a very important purpose. It has taught you.
Now about this new work? You really should pay attention to it. Because, as you know, this is the one that will get you published.
Yes, this one. It’s a living, breathing thing.
And I think it’s hungry.
Okay, let’s do the math. (Approximate word counts noted.)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling – 257,000 words.
The Stand, Stephen King – 464,000 words.
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy – 560,000 words.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway – 68,000 words.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury – 46,000 words.
The Color Purple, Alice Walker – 67,000 words.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte – 108,000 words.
Your Novel, Your Name – ???
If you’ve finished a novel, you know how much ink, sweat and tears goes into the process of putting all those words to paper. So just how many words do you have in that book, anyway? If you’re like a lot of unpublished authors, you may have more words than you ought. (Or in rare cases, too few.)
Now, before I go one step further, I need to tell you my philosophy on word count. I believe a novel ought to include exactly as many words as necessary to tell the tale well.
No more. No less.
However, if you’re seeking publishing through traditional methods, you will soon discover that there is a generally-accepted word count for the book you just finished. Yup. That women’s lit masterpiece you just did a word-count check on? If it doesn’t fall within the 80,000-100,000 range, you may soon be experiencing that familiar writer-pang called rejection. I say may be because there’s a slim chance your 150,000-word novel is the perfect length. But unless it’s excellent, and I mean The Time Traveler’s Wife excellent, edigents (see yesterday’s post for definition of that word) will likely pass simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable range. The same is true for your 50K word novel (which most publishers would qualify as a novella).*
I hear you. I really do. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you based on word count alone that your novel isn’t worth publishing. The list above includes a few rather spectacular novels – and every one of them falls outside the “sweet spot” publishers have informally adopted (for a variety of reasons, including market acceptance, printing cost, and even a little thing called “postage”). But if you want to avoid the “easy pass” from edigents, your best bet is to submit a novel that falls somewhere in that sweet spot.
So, what do you do with that 150,000-word novel you love so dearly? Well, you have two choices: cut 50,000 words, or set it aside. Cutting that many words from a novel isn’t easy. But it can be done.
I am working with two contracted novelists right now. One is writing his first full-length novel (his first published book was a novella – he was allowed outside of the sweet spot because his story had a compelling premise and offered a fresh take on the genre – so right there is living proof that there are exceptions). His first delivered draft for this new novel was over 140,000 words. I’m working away on his second draft and it’s already down to about 104,000 words. In my line edit, I probably will cut another 5,000 words or so. And here’s the best news: the novel is much stronger at 100,000 words than it was at 140,000.
Another previously-published author recently turned in his after-my-editorial-notes second draft. His task was a bit more daunting. The first version came in at a whopping 200,000 words. This is not that unusual for the genre he’s writing (fantasy), but his contract asked for a 100,000-word book, so he had work to do. Could we have convinced the publisher to increase the size of the book? Maybe. (And we did get approval to land closer to 120,000 words.) But to do that would require an increase in the cover price for the book (paper ain’t cheap). And that means (potentially) fewer sales. It’s all a balancing act, to be sure, but guess what? The author trimmed 80,000 words! Yes, you read that right. I’m reading and doing the line edit on the novel now. And as I am, I’m discovering it is…wait for it…better than it was (and it was already quite good). It’s dense – as fantasy novels often are – but in a good way. Like a fine wine reduction. (What? You’re surprised I know about wine reductions? Hey, I cook sometimes. Actual meals that don’t utilize the microwave.)
So my point is – it is possible to cut words from your hefty tome without killing it. I have two vivid examples right here in front of me. And out west there are two happy authors who like the result of their (admittedly painful and difficult) trimming work.
As I said above, though, you don’t have to trim your word count if you don’t want to. Set that novel aside. Or self-publish it. But if you want to improve your chances of getting published? Write a novel in the 80,000-100,000 word range and submit that. Then someday when you’re uber-successful, you can send your extra-long novel in for consideration. Just be prepared… even then, your editor might suggest trimming a few thousand words.
It’s what we do best.
Have a nice day.
*The word count range for Young Adult novels tends to be lower, in the 50,000-80,000 word range. Fantasies can sometimes tip the scales at 120,000 words. And historical fiction (not historical romance so much) may even go higher, upwards of 140,000 words. These are all estimates and please keep in mind there are always exceptions to the rule. The problem is…everyone thinks their book is the exception. This is not the case, otherwise it would be the rule, not the exception. Got it?
Tired of having to jump through all those silly hoops agents and editors keep placing between you and your dream of becoming a published author? After literally minutes of research, I have uncovered 10 secrets that practically guarantee success. Sure, I could keep them to myself, but I’m feeling generous today so I thought I’d share them with you.
Study these secrets. Use them wisely. Become hugely successful.
Then buy multiple copies of my soon-to-be-released fiction bestseller, The Last Days of the Literary Agent*. It makes a great Festivus gift.
- Legally change your name to Stephen King. Then write under a pseudonym like Harold Johnson. Once you get your book into the marketplace (self-publish if necessary), leak to the press that Harold Johnson is really Stephen King. Watch your Amazon rank soar.
- Earn your pilot’s license. Get a job flying for a major airline. Have a friend release a flock of geese over the Hudson…
- Create a compelling new genre and write the first book in that genre so people will refer to you as “the father (or mother) of [clever genre title here].” Here’s my genre suggestion: querypunk.
- Threaten to release a deadly virus in unspecified major metropolitan areas if you don’t get a seven-figure deal for your memoir-in-progress, When Anti-Depressants Fail.
- Go to writers’ conferences and…skip the sessions. They’re only helpful if you want to take the long, labor-intensive route to success. Instead, track agents to nearby bars and ply them with drinks until they agree to represent you. This could take quite a few drinks, so plan your budget accordingly. And make sure you have an iPhone 3GS. (The earlier generation iPhones won’t be much help.) You’ll need the video function in case of Karaoke.
- Self-publish your first novel as cheaply as possible, then ask your millionaire uncle to buy 100,000 copies so you can include this little detail in the “previous sales” section of your proposal for the next one.
- Flying monkeys. Any book about flying monkeys is a guaranteed bestseller.
- Pen a quasi-sequel to a seminal novel like To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye. Then…um…never mind.
- Find Osama bin Laden. Write about it. (Michael Bay wants to direct the movie adaptation.)
- Spend all your reading time between the covers of great novels, all your studying time scouring intelligent publishing-related books and blogs, and all your vacationing time at writers’ conferences soaking up the wisdom of agents and editors and published writers. Then use what you learn to write a book that is smart, entertaining and defined by a compelling voice that is yours and yours alone.
Had you going there, didn’t I? Just kidding on that last one.
*I’m not really writing that novel. Because I love and respect literary agents. I really do. But it is a compelling title, don’t you think? Maybe you should write it.
This is the first in a series of “what do you mean by…” posts. I want to tailor this series according to your interests. So…queue up your questions and then send ’em along so I can make this as helpful as possible.
I thought it would be appropriate to start with “editing,” since that’s kind of an important topic on this blog. So what do I mean by editing?
Let’s start with a little quiz.
When you tell a friend that you’re “editing” your novel, which of the following best describes what you’re doing:
- I’m going through the novel and making sure there are no misspellings or missing words.
- I’m reviewing the entire manuscript and considering whether or not I should give up my dream of being a published writer.
- I’m looking at plot and characters and overall writing quality and attempting to improve all of these things.
- I’m re-arranging commas and adding lots of semi-colons.
- I’m copying-and-pasting sections of The Time Traveler’s Wife into my novel so I can have a better chance of getting a seven-figure advance. (Which I’ll need in order to pay legal bills for that little “plagiarism” thing).
Depending on who you talk to, or what stage of the writing process you’re in, the word can mean all kinds of different things. Here’s a quick rundown of the basics. Keep in mind, this is based on my experience with editing. There is no universal standard to define these roles, so you may hear a different definition from someone else. If you’ve decided to work with an editor, be sure to ask what he or she means by “editing” so you know what you’re getting … especially if you’re paying for it.
Developmental (or macro or substantive) editing is the first sort you’d run into if you’ve just signed a contract to publish your novel. The editor assigned to your book (whether an in-house editor or a freelancer assigned by the acquiring editor) will read your book cover to cover and suggest all kinds of changes and improvements – from structure to plot points to character development to writing style. Remember the lighthearted editorial note post I wrote a couple weeks ago? Editorial notes are the practical result of substantive editing. A dev editor is tasked with making your novel better in as many ways as possible, but is primarily focused on the “big picture.” Dotting i’s is secondary to getting the story, the characters and the tone or voice just right.
A line edit (or micro edit) comes after the writer and dev editor have ironed out all of the bigger issues and the writer has re-submitted an acceptable manuscript. Sometimes the line editor and the dev editor are one and the same (I typically work with authors on both rounds of edits), and sometimes it’s another editor altogether. Some publishers choose the former approach to streamline the process, maintain the integrity of the relationship between editor and writer, and…to save money. The advantage of the latter is the opportunity for another set of eyes to (potentially) catch things the dev editor and author missed. Line editors get into the nitty-gritty of the writing – fixing grammar and cleaning up the writing wherever necessary. Line editors are responsible for making sure the dev editor’s requests were met and that the book is in great shape for publishing.
Copyediting comes next. Copyeditors are responsible for making sure the writing is clear and correct (according to the style determined both by a publisher’s in-house style sheet and any specific style notes for the individual book). Copyeditors also check facts and work with the typographers to assure consistency in presentation. Good copyeditors also serve as a sort of “first reader” for the edited work and sometimes save the day for publishers by identifying potentially risky legal issues or – in cases where the previous editors all wore the same blinders – catching big-picture problems with the story’s continuity – or even (gasp) quality.
Proofreaders go through a typeset manuscript and identify any remaining errors (or new ones introduced by any of the changes made throughout the process). They are the very last line of defense before a book goes to press. While I’m pretty good at noticing typos in menus, this is a job that would quickly send me to the padded room. It takes a special kind of person to be a proofreader. And by special I mean someone with X-ray vision who grunts in frustration upon discovering an em dash where a hyphen should be. I salute you, proofreaders.
Think of the roles this way: the writer is the woodcarver. The dev editor helps shape the wood into a more beautiful thing. Line editors smooth the edges with files and rough sandpaper. Copyeditors use the fine-grain sandpaper. And proofreaders point out the imperfections everyone else missed.
Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but the oven timer just went off and I think I need to eat some food today so I’m just going to call this post “done.”
If you find a typo in the above and it makes you physically sick…you might just make a good proofreader.
Tomorrow I will divulge the long-hidden secrets to publishing success. Am I being serious or will this just be a silly post? Does it really matter?
Last week, literary agent and dispenser of great publishing wisdom Nathan Bransford invited his savvy blog readers to answer the question, “How Do You Know When Your Novel is Really Finished?” (If you haven’t already studied the many and diverse responses, click here to see what writers had to say.)
As I consider my own novel-in-progress (I prefer the abbrev. n.i.p. over w.i.p., is that so wrong?), I can imagine I’ll still be editing and re-writing when the Hilton Lunar Resort and Golf Course opens on the moon. (I won’t be able to afford an Earth-view room, but since I’ll be spending most of my time in the Moonbucks coffee shop staring at my MacBook Virtual Netbook Mini-Z it’s not like I’ll be missing anything.)
But this isn’t a post about my writing life, it’s about my role as editor.
Some authors are natural self-editors. With every iteration of the manuscript, their book improves. Theoretically, they could re-write forever, improving incrementally until they’ve created a near-perfect novel. For them, a deadline is a gift – a forced ending place for brilliance that just won’t stop.
But for many authors, there comes a point when rewrites fail to improve a novel in any measurable way, and, in some cases, actually start to make it worse. This may be due to writing fatigue or overfamiliarity with the plot or characters, but whatever the reason, it’s a clear indicator that the novel is “really finished.” (Or at least ready to hand off to someone else for critical review.)
How do you know if you’re about to invoke this law of diminishing returns? Here are a few signs to watch for:
- Reverting to an earlier version of a scene that you never liked before and still don’t like now
- Adding tons of new details to an already detail-rich description
- Skimming through a thesaurus to replace words that work fine, but suddenly don’t seem “fresh” enough
- Adding dialogue or description that, upon further review, is almost exactly like something you’d written for an earlier scene
- Ordering a venti white mocha and pouring it onto your laptop keyboard
- Yelling at your significant other because she’s not as well-written today as she was last week despite all the time you’ve spent with her
If you find yourself in this place, it’s time to let go. If you’re already working with an editor, this is when they earn their paycheck. But prepare yourself. Those recent changes you made in a well-meaning attempt to improve your novel? The editor might just decide to reject them. This is perfectly okay and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer.
It may just mean that you’re done.
Remember that contest? You know, the one I’m hosting where you can win a $40 gift card and (potentially) a collectible Santa Yoda? Well, I just wanted to remind you there’s still time to enter. I’m enjoying the 200-word scenes some of you have already sent – which run the gamut from heavy relational drama to science fiction silliness. Don’t you want to join the writing party? Click here and get to it.