As I look at the state of the world, as we huddle in our houses and take to the streets, you wonder whether all this upheaval will just make the world give up and explode. How much stress can it take? How much turmoil can it endure? Apparently a lot, because amid all this trouble and strife, a good part of the Earth is thriving. Pollution levels in the air have dropped, and the sky has never been bluer as flights have dropped. Animals are coming out of the woods and into formally populated areas, as people stay inside and stay out of their way. Water is running clear, such as in Venice, Italy where they now can see fish in their canals. For the present, our quarantine has made it a bit easier for nature. For humans–not so much.
Animals kill for food. People kill out of rage or hate or jealousy or indifference. Our capacity for cruelty seems to know no limits. But people can and will only take so much. There are some who seem to forget this country was seeded by revolution. Change is in our DNA. We are a country of the people, by the people, for the people, and these people want change, and are willing to wade into a pandemic to achieve it, to march toward a more perfect Union.
Change is one scary motherfucker. But it is inevitable.
There’s kind of a bogus controversy out there now whether on not one should wear a face mask, that you’re making a “politically correct” statement by doing so. Huh? So wanting to keep yourself and those in your orbit free from contracting a potentially deadly illness is now a partisan statement? Okay…so what does NOT doing it mean? That you’re fine with sucking off a ventilator? That coughing up a lung should be a group experience? I think not. Call me a snowflake, but I’m just fine with those pesky dents in my face from my N95. My husband up there goes one further. He’s not taking any chances. That’s him back in March, on our still winterized deck. Go and call him a wimp. You’ll still be scraping the burnt flesh off your face long beyond when we’re back packing the bars and sucking down enough likker to forget this whole lovely experience.
Another in our continuing series of “if it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying again.” Okay, so you’ve proofread that manuscript and spiffed it up. Now it’s time to finally pitch it. But to who? And AS what? Sometimes a submission can fit into multiple genres. Sometimes it shouldn’t. Especially if you’re not sure just what it is, because you’re not writing the best book you can–you’re writing to market. And that’s something you shouldn’t EVER do…
The number one thing an emerging writer needs to do is finish the book before they could even think about putting it out for sale. And when I mean finish, I mean the book needs to be the best it can be. Definitely NOT first draft, but all the plot holes worked out, characters real, breathing and transformed at the end, conflict apparent and resolved, and a satisfying conclusion. After that, the book needs to be edited and proofread (edited means all those items I just mentioned worked out, whereas proofread means no grammatical, spelling, or formatting errors). Then and only than can you think about submitting it to an agent or an editor for publication. Sounds logical, right? But there are some authors out there that take that concept and think in the inverse. And that, my dears, is never going to get you what you want.
There are some new writers that troll such sites as Manuscript Wish List or MSWL to see what agents or editors are looking for. Or toss an idea out there to Twitter pitch parties like #PitMad without even having started the manuscript. Often when writers do this they’re testing the waters, looking to see what agents and/or editors are looking for, then writing a book to those specifications. Bad idea! Because then you’re not writing in a genre or sub-genre you’re adept at and interested in –you’re writing to the market. And when you’re good at writing gritty adult detective fiction and write dystopian middle-grade instead well…you just may come out with the literary equivalent of finger painting–a hopelessly amateur attempt.
Now, I’m not saying a writer can’t change genres. Some authors write in several. But writing a different genre to branch out and expand your skills and scope is quite different than simply writing to what you hope will sell. You’re not looking at writing as a craft to be honed and polished. You’re looking at the book you produce as product. Reminds me of an author talk I was at once where they referred to their novels as units. Writing like that is only going to make you one thing — mediocre.
Look, we all want to sell, be a New York Times bestseller reaping accolades and royalties we need a Brinks truck to drive home from the bank. But writing to market is not the way to do it. You do it by writing the best book you can. If you do, the accolades–and the royalty checks–will have to run to catch up with you.
Why am I “revisiting” all these old posts lately? Retreading a glory day gone by? Brain gone to mush? Don’t have an original thought in my head? Right on all three! That and the fact that I’m trying to get a new ms. edited and off to the powers that be. So enjoy this rerun from a few years back, still chock-full of writing wisdom and sage advice!
Recently a friend sent me a manuscript she was reworking after having received a so-called “good rejection” from an editor. In case you’re not familiar with such rejections, that’s when the editor thinks the submission is good enough to warrant another look after some changes are made. Sometimes the changes are suggested, sometimes not, but most editors do include some illuminating commentary, and if you have to receive a rejection, they’re decidedly the best kind. This particular editor didn’t offer anything specific other than she’d like to see some more insight in the beginning, and perhaps something a bit incendiary a little farther along. Well, not only did my friend comply–she did so in spades, injecting enough plot complications this no-longer sagging saga’s got more twists and turns than a whole bag of Twizzlers, and boy-oh-boy does it snap. But this reworking also leaves her with another wholly unintended consequence: she’s created a Genre Cocktail. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So what am I talking about? Okay, let me use her story as an example. She started out writing Romance, and the story has all the components: meet cute, solid conflict, steamy couplings, de rigueur happy conclusion. Though to keep it interesting, she tossed in a bit of suspense–a medical mystery, an employee theft, a woman on the run. But when the editor found it lacking, she heightened the stakes, adding a red herring, jaw-dropping duplicity, corporate espionage, and a breathless chase that leaves you guessing until the end. Three-quarters of the way through, when I got smacked by yet another twisty-turn, I was nearly certain I was no longer reading a Romance. Or was it a Romantic Suspense? No, it was more like a Thriller. Or howabout a Romantic/Suspense/Thriller? Not quite sure, I told myself as I kept flipping pages. What did it matter anyway? Whatever it was, it was good.
Should it matter? Or should whatever you write be able to be found under a keyword or a specific genre header? Usually it does–when you’re writing in a specific genre: Romance, Mystery, Thriller, SciFi, Fantasy. But these days you have Romantic Suspense, Historical Mystery, SciFi Thrillers and many more cocktails that are less easily identifiable. So how do you categorize them? Which search keyword do you use, under which header sign do you look? Do we create subgenres of subgenres? And moreover, how do we present such a work to the acquiring editor? By lumping together genres, do we confuse the issue–or do we clarify it? Especially if it’s so out there, we fear we may never be able to grab an editor’s eye and get an in.
The first time I had a salt caramel I was in a candy shop in Philadelphia that makes their own confections. The candy itself was a standard cube of buttery caramel dipped in dark chocolate, but centered on top was a delicate pinch of sea salt. In theory, such a combination shouldn’t work–separately, maybe–but together? And then I took a bit and ohhh…what exquisite fusion! the sweet playing off the salt, and visa versa. It shouldn’t work, but it did, as one taste flowed into the other, a mutual appreciation of each other’s attributes that ultimately produced magic. It can be the same with crossing genres, as within the story I read over the weekend, the twists and turns that heightened the stakes ultimately complicated the conflict, and that made surmounting the insurmountable so much more satisfying in the end. The trick, and this is where the execution can be dicey, is when you add Historical and Mystery elements to a Thriller, or Romance and Horror aspects to a SciFi and so on in any direction. Like salt to a caramel, they need to fuse all the elements together and advance the plot, or they’ll just seem gratuitous. And above all, don’t forget your core audience. If you’re mainly writing a Mystery, you’ll still need to have the case solved, or with a Romance, you’ll still need the happily-ever-after. The upside is if you integrate these other elements well, you’ll have the bonus effect of expanding into another genre, which of course, makes for more readers–and buyers–of your book.
In the end, with whatever genre, and however it’s achieved, it all comes down to writing a good story. And there isn’t an editor in the world who’d argue with–or reject–that.
While learning from home is all the rage, I’d like to direct your toward a free online writing workshop from mystery writer and educator Jane Cleland on Saturday May 16 at 1:00 PM EDT. I’ve attended her live workshops and they’re always fabulous. Here’s the skinny from Jane…
If you were able to attend the first workshop, you know we came together as a writing community and covered the nuts and bolts of harnessing isolation and overcoming writer’s block. It was great! So great. I’m doing it again. Let’s come together again—I love hanging out with writers. Want to join me?
Here are the details about this FREE one-hour workshop “Writing With a Through-line Plot (or Storyline)” on May 16th at 1 p.m. Eastern time. We’ll talk about through-line plotting (crucial) and how it relates to creating an opening that kills it (also crucial). If you’re interested, sign up here, and I’ll send you what you need to access the workshop.
You can also view a flyer for the event here. If you have a friend you think might be interesting, I’d love if you could share it with them using social media or email.
For more info about Jane, her books, and her workshops, visit her website. Be safe and well, and happy writing!
Writers Conferences–HA! Remember those? Workshops, panels, sitting across from editors and agents, breathing the same air… Oh, the good old days! I’m sure somewhere down the road we’ll be in the same room together again, scarfing cheese and grapes from the appy trays and crowding around the bar. But until then, here’s some sage advice from a couple years back, whether you’re pitching in person or online. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a Zoom pitch in our future… Have I mentioned I’ve been having nightmare about Zoom? Anyhow…
So you’re getting ready to pitch your book at your first writers conference because you think you’ve finished the ms. But have you? Here’s something few new writers realize: you haven’t. Then how do you know when you have finished? When you send back the publisher’s galleys. Galleys? What are galleys?
Oh boy, do you have some work to do.
So between now and then you need to go over your manuscript with a magnifying glass, looking for plot holes, continuity slips, characters inconsistencies, etc. This is also a good time to use a beta reader, a critique partner (highly recommended), or someone you trust to give it an honest, critical read, and not someone who’ll just say “It was great!” because they don’t want to damage your fledgling writer ego. (Look, I may as well hit you with it now–the World of Writing is a World of Hurt. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can dab your cryin’ eyes and get back to work.) But here’s a caveat to all that critiquing–DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY! If your betas are worth it they’re not criticizing you, they’re critiquing the work. And it’s better hearing it from them first than having it rejected by an editor or agent because of some very fixable flaw. So do the work now and get it over with because you’re going to do it eventually anyway. Your work will need to be as perfect as possible, and that’s the whole work, right to THE END.
One thing that is ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE is that you MUST have a FINISHED MANUSCRIPT before you start pitching it. Why? Let me tell you something about agents and editors: they are being bombarded by submissions. My agent alone gets up to 200 queries a week. If you get a submission request and you don’t send your manuscript within a month, trust me, she’ll forget all about you. Strike while the iron is steaming and before you move out of her memory. But again, only after you’ve polished that manuscript until it’s pink and screaming.
The Basics—Genre and Word Count.
You know what your manuscript is about, but how would you categorize it? And what is your word count? A typical fiction novel is 75,000 to 100,000 words, though most check in around 80-85k. Round this number to the nearest thousand. The editor doesn’t have to know it’s 82,437 words. You also need to know your genre. This is key as this is how you’ll not only narrow your search for an agent, but once you’ve found one, it’s how she’ll target it to editors. Common Fiction genres are:
literary commercial mystery romance
women’s fiction humor/satire historical new adult
young adult middle grade children’s picture book
espionage thriller/suspense LBGTQ military
horror fantasy sci-fi graphic novel
Or any combination of. Some of the popular genres, such as mystery and romance, also have sub-genres, ie, “cozy” mysteries, like Agatha Christie, or historical romance, or spec-sci-fi.
Common Non-Fiction genres are:
history sports biography science
memoirs narrative pop culture cultural/social sci
travel political humor gift books
health/fitness gardening photography self-help
true crime art adventure business
how-to journalism religion cookbooks
celebrity current affairs
You need to be very familiar with your genre and word count, as you’ll need it for your presentation or query. It’ll be one of the first things the editor or agent will want to know. Know that many, if not all non-fiction genres take submission on a proposal, which can be the first three chapters and an outline. But as a fiction writer, they’re out of my purview, so do your research for current submission requirements.
Finding your Perfect Editor/Agent
The majority of publishers no longer accept unagented submissions. Though some do, such as genre pubs, but if you target one of the major houses without an agent, really the only way you’re going to get to them is through pitch sessions at writers conferences or the direct recommendation of one of their clients. Unless you’re lucky enough to know the latter, you’re going to have to do some legwork for the former. Because there’s nothing worse than meeting with an editor or agent face-to-face and having them say, “Sorry, I don’t represent that genre.” From which the luminescent glow of your crimson face will no doubt show the world what a minor league player you are. So do your homework.
- Read other authors in the genre of what you write, and target those editors or agents. Look in the acknowledgement page and see who the author thanks. Look through the books you’ve already bought, go haunt your local bookstore, or flip the preview pages on Amazon. Then when you’re querying the agent, or sitting down for a face-to-face, you can say your book is a cross between “this writer and that writer with a touch of another writer thrown in.”
- Literary Marketplace (LMP). If you don’t know what it is, time to find out. Available in hard copy and database at most local libraries.
- Manuscript Wish List , the websiteMSWL or the hashtag, #MSWL. Find editors and agents, and see what they’re looking for.
- Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity. Love love love this blog. Too much publishing info to put down on this entry, so go there and see for yourself.
- Go directly to the agent’s website, and see what authors they represent, and what books they’ve sold. This is even more important for an editor. Go directly to the publisher’s website. An editor or agent may say they LIKE something but if they’ve never SOLD it, they may not be a good fit. A SALE is always a more reliable indicator.
Targeting your Editor or Agent
Now that you know your genre, and how to research an agent, or an editor, you need to target which one will fit your style. Compare the list of visiting editors and agents to what you write and see if there’s a fit. If an editor only publishes literary fiction and you write sci-fi, chances are, no matter how well you write, they will not accept your submission. Same goes with agents. If an agent’s specialty is romance, and you write essays, you’re going to strike out. Too many times writers will submit to agents that don’t represent their type of writing, and then can’t understand why they get rejected. I can’t stress this enough: It’s better NOT to submit than to submit to the wrong editor and/or agent. Don’t think they’re just going to fall in love with your western and grab it anyway, when all they’ve previously sold is cookbooks. That happens VERY rarely in the real world. Save yourself a lot of needless rejection angst and just do your homework.
Now hop to it!
Okay, last week we revisited an earlier post about the Dread Query, and this week we’re recycling another golden oldie about what happens after that query obtains its objective–which means you have to actually send it in! For that you have to make it the best it’s ever been. Here’s how…
Remember when you were in college (or even high school for that matter) and you took a class called Composition? We all had to follow some kind of standard formatting for our essays, whether it be standards set by the MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association). It’s no different in the world of publishing. There’s a “somewhat” standardized type of formatting writers follow when submitting work to be published. I say somewhat because all manuscripts, at least in their final form, are subject to a house style which is tailored to a publishing house’s individual preferences. But you can’t know that unless you’ve been sold, so to up those chances, you’ll want to make your manuscript as clean and professionally-presented as possible. You may not think formatting has a place in this, as your story, your ideas, your own unique voice will supersede anything as inconsequential as paragraphing or indents or the proper use of voice tags. But first you have to get that editor or agent to read your work. And if you’re making it too difficult for them to decipher what you’re trying to say, you may never get them to read past the first few lines.
So make it easy for them, beginning with a few basics that are a part of ANY manuscript submission—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or otherwise.
- Make sure your manuscript is the best it can be. Close all plot holes, make sure it has a catchy beginning and a satisfying ending, that your characters are compelling and human. That’s for another workshop, but you do want to make sure you’re happy with your manuscript before you send it off.
- PROOFREAD! Correct ALL spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This goes without saying.
- Be familiar with where you’re submitting. Check the publisher’s/magazine’s/journal’s submission guidelines for style and formatting. If you’re sending to a particular editor, check to see if they have an individual preference. I worked with a publisher once who did NOT like semicolons. I had to eliminate all from my manuscript. Most times you won’t know this in advance, but if the info’s out there, it’s up to you to find it. Plus it gives you an advantage, the more your know.
- Check to see if the publisher/magazine/journal is accepting electronic or paper submissions. They may have different formatting guidelines for each. Most now use electronic submission, but there are still several out there that only take paper, and there are differences.
Okay, so you have your manuscript all spiffed up, and you’re now going to prepare it for submission. What would a properly formatted manuscript look like? I want to caution you that agents and editors as well as publishers, etc. may have different formatting guidelines, but most of what I am showing you is the general consensus of what an ms. should look like, and this is what has worked for me when I submitted.
The publishing industry standard is MS Word, 12 point font (usually Times New Roman). The entire body of the manuscript should be double-spaced.
- TOP LEFT – Your name and all contact info, including address, phone number and email in single space.
- CENTER, MIDDLE OF PAGE – Title of work in bold and all caps
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Genre of work with approx. word count
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – the word “by” (in small letters)
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Your Name
- BOTTOM RIGHT – the word “Contact:” followed by agent’s name and all contact info in single space (skip if no agent)
FIRST PAGE OF MANUSCRIPT
- TOP LEFT IN HEADER COMMAND – LAST NAME/Title of Work (written like that.) If the title is long, just use the first few words. You need to insert Header in “Header” so this info appears on each page.
- TOP RIGHT – Start page numbering, starting with pg. 2, using “Insert Page Number” command so pages automatically advance. Leave the title page blank by using the command in Word.
- CENTER, SKIP FOUR OR FIVE LINES – TITLE OF WORK – in bold and in all caps,
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – the word “by” (in small letters)
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Your Name
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Again, Genre and word count
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Chapter One
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Title of Chapter (in italics, if you’re using one) The chapter number and title of chapter are open to style.
BODY OF MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING
- Indent each new paragraph. For ease of use, I use on tab
- Indent one tab for each new speaker or when speaker changes
- Italics for internal dialogue
- Capitalize the first letter of each word for Names
- Capitalize the first letter of towns, cites, states, countries, streets, etc., proper nouns and copyrighted names and terms
- Capitalize the letter I when you’re using first person (you’d be amazed how many times I see it isn’t)
- Encase dialogue “In quotes”
- Follow this formatting for voice tags: “I’m not going,” she said. “You’re not going?” he asked. (Comma after last word, followed by the end quotation mark, followed by the voice tag (she said, he asked) followed by a period, or additional info. The voice tag is part of the sentence. Do NOT add an extra space after the quotation mark, or Word will automatically capitalize the following word.
- Use * * * * * for scene changes within chapters, or # for change of POV or impact within chapters.
- End a chapter by INSERT PAGE BREAK command so the next chapter will start on a new page,
So that’s what’s worked for me. A clean manuscript will keep them reading, but a sloppy one is just one keystroke away from the delete button. Keep them as far away from it as possible.
If you fancy yourself a novelist ( as I, on occasion, have been wont to do), and you’d like to see yourself represented, sooner or later you’re going to have to attempt that necessary evil, the Dread Agent Query Letter. Truly, I know people who’d rather stick pencils in their eyes than apply that pencil to the task, but sweeties, it doesn’t have to be that painful if you know the assembly method. So here, in four easy paragraphs, I’ll try to show you how to compose the Perfect Agent Query. Now pay attention…
First, some preliminaries… First and foremost, a query is a business letter. Since most (if not all) agents accept queries only through email, and since that email entails one finger firmly adhered to the delete button, you want your query to be as concise and professional as possible, contained in the body of the email and NOT by attachment. Since attachments can carry viruses, agents are loath to open them unless they know you, so send attachments by invitation only. Most definitely use honorifics (Mr., Ms. etc.) in your Salutation as you should never assume familiarity. If you had previously met with the agent at a conference, workshop, cocktail party, etc, and were invited to query, most definitely write REQUESTED in the subject line as well as the first line of the email. These will get opened first. As a best practice, check the agent’s website or blog for query/submission guidelines. If you don’t have a particular agent in mind, try Jeff Herman’s guide, the library for The Literary Marketplace, or www.agentquery.com, just to name a few resources. Another one is troll the library or bookstore stack of the books of your genre, and see who the author thanks in her acknowledgements. Now, on to the actual construction…
Para One – Howdy! With Benefits – This is your query knock-on-the-door, your literary calling card designed to get the agent’s attention. Introduce yourself, remind her if you’ve previously met and where (we chatted during lunch at the XXXX Writers’ Conference), if you’ve been invited to query/submit, the name of your novel, the genre and word count. You might what to toss in a quick teaser like, A cross between Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen, My Bloody Margarita is a 80,000 word…, to illustrate what your writing is like. But on the whole, keep this para to a five-six line minimum, with just the facts, ma’am, inviting her to the next para to learn more.
Para Two – In which we employ The Hard Sell – this is where you get ONE paragraph to car-crush your entire 80,000 word novel into one easily digestible capsule. Twelve to fifteen lines in all, introduce your main characters, basic plot line, conflict, lessons learned, the conclusion. Remember, although you want the agent to be intrigued, you don’t want to raise her ire. So if you say …but if you want to know how the story turns out, you’ll just have to request the rest of it… you’re just asking for a delete. Be creative, not cagey.
Para Three – It’s all about YOU! – This is where you get your close-up, Mr. DeMille; it’s all about you, you, you. Cite your published works, awards, training, blogs, websites, education (if pertinent), professional associations, jobs or skills that give you credibility for/authority on what you’re writing about. Again, because this is a business letter, remain professional. Don’t take this personally, but no one really cares if you like to raise bunnies and take long walks lakeside, unless, of course, you’re writing about The Killer Hare of Lake Superior. Again, no more than twelve to fifteen lines. A link to your blog or website is also advisable, as most industry people now assume you have a web or social media prescience, and if you don’t, you have to ask yourself why.
Para Four – Wrap it up – This is your shortest paragraph of all. I’ll even toss in examples free of charge: I can send a proposal or the complete novel at your request. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. OR According to your submission guidelines, what follows is the first ten pages (or synopsis or first three chapters, or any combination thereof stated in their guidelines) of <Name Work> Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. THAT SHOULD BE IT. No more, no less, just a salute as you head out the door.
All finished? PROOFREAD AND SPELL-CHECK, then add your email address and your phone number. All in all, a succinct query should never contain more than 400-450 words, and NEVER more than one page. And never query unless you have a completed, fully-polished, proofread and spell-checked novel ready to go. I know of agents who get 200 queries a week, and some substantially more. That’s a heck of a queue, and if you’re not ready to submit at a moment’s notice, rest assured there are hundreds of others who are.
One more thing — good luck!