I just realized that I’ve gone nearly to the end of the semester with nary an entry from the MFA pit. Shame on me, as I’ve certainly disseminated some classic advice, but I’ve been so busy with my own revisions, that I’ve completely forgotten. In any event, I’m sure you’ve been hankering for my next gem of wisdom, so here’s one on the fine art of revising. In case you’re foggy on what that is, it’s after the first draft is finished, when the real writing occurs. It’s when you correct, edit, fill plot holes, omit needless words, flesh out characters, add tension, fix continuity, hone the conflict, and otherwise tweak the hell out of your ms. until it’s pink and screaming. But beware: one revision often begets another. Because the only time you’re truly finished revising is when you received the printed copy in the mail or the ecopy in your inbox. And sometimes not even then, sigh. So, without further ado, my comments on one of my grad student’s frustration with the whole process. Will it ever end? they mused. Well…
Stephen King has been known to say it should take no more than three months to write the first draft of a novel. “A season,” he calls it, and that from a man who is said to write ten pages a day. If you do the math, and if 10 pages X 250 words per page (the average word count), that’s 225,000 words in three months. Seeing the average novel is about 300 pages, or roughly 80,000 words (it’s not an exact science), that’s two novels plus a three quarters of a third. Not being Stephen King, I’m not the recipient of a million plus advance and able to write full time. But we all know the size of the novels that King usually produces one novel (maybe two) a year. But neither am I Nora Roberts, the prolific romance novelist, who reportedly writes an average of twenty-five (that’s 25) novels a year. Do I want to do either? I don’t think so.
I have finished a first draft of my next novel. Now, I could spend a week or two editing for continuity, plot holes, grammar, and needless words, or I can take a month or two and turn it into something that will have a longer shelf life than the average three months of a paperback. Helen Hooven Santmyer, author of …And the Ladies of the Club spent over twenty years writing the novel, finally submitting to Ohio University Press eleven boxes containing bookkeeping ledgers, her manuscript of Ladies written in longhand. It took awhile, but her book became a literary sensation, the paperback selling over 2 million copies between June and September 1985. By this time Ms. Santmyer was feeble and elderly and living in a nursing home, but she was featured on the cover of The New York Times book review. The example is a bit extreme, but good things do come to those who persevere.
Do I want to toil that long? Well, no, but neither do I want to pump out product, either. The answer for me I suppose lies somewhere in between. I guess I just want to write something that will last, and that the readers will ask for more. That’s what I want to do. What do you?
Jacqueline Cutler: Jacqueline Cutler’s work in journalism began as a police reporter in Manhattan. Over the years, she has covered politics and government (local and a state capitol), education, worked on rewrite desks and investigated corruption. About 25 years ago, she switched from news to features and has covered television, theater and books for many print and online sites. She began as a book critic when her oldest daughter was 2 and had been warned she would never read a full book again. She prefers reading to just about anything else and has been known to read at baseball games, while walking, in planes, trains and cars and her proudest achievement as a mom is raising two serious readers. Married for decades to a film critic, she takes in rescue dogs, has an affinity for dead languages, the Yankees and will sing along to Ethel Merman if anyone asks. No one ever does.
Sonali Dev: Award winning author, Sonali Dev, writes Bollywood-style love stories that let her explore issues faced by women around the world while still indulging her faith in a happily ever after. Her books have been on Library Journal, NPR, Washington Post, and Kirkus Best Books of the year lists. Shelf Awareness calls her “Not only one of the best but also one of the bravest romance novelists working today.” Sonali lives in Chicago with her very patient and often amused husband and two teens who demand both patience and humor, and the world’s most perfect dog. Find more at sonalidev.com.
Deb Werksman: Deb Werksman has been at Sourcebooks for the past twenty years, before which she had her own publishing company. She is the editorial director of romance fiction and acquires single title romance in all subgenres. Sourcebooks publishes 6-8 romance titles per month, in print and ebook formats simultaneously. We are the country’s largest woman-owned independent publishing house. We’re known for our sales and marketing, as well as our focus on building authors’ careers.
For More Info on LSFW Conference and Workshops go to libertystatesfictionwriters.com/conference/
It’s not easy being a fiction writer. You walk around all day with the story in your head, imagining scenarios and the wittiest dialogue, crafting perfect snippets of prose and the most dramatic of plot twists, only to have them poof like steam from a boiling pot the second you drop the lid–or open your laptop. I must admit I’ve been struggling with an edit, rewriting scenes to perfection, only to discover that now I’ve totally screwed everything that comes after. When that happens I fall into a funk, as Ihave to rework or trash all what I thought used to work so well. Damn, damn, damn!
Even so, I know I’ll go back tomorrow. I know I’ll get up at the crack of dawn and find my way somehow to the keyboard. For what? I should ask myself. Why do this over and over and over, only perfecting the definition of futile? I guess the answer is what else can I do? I’m a writer–I didn’t choose this profession. The profession chose me. And with practice comes perfection, and too bad I have so much of one and so little of another.
Ah well, back to work. There’s darlings to be sacrificed.
So you’ve written this incredibly wonderful novel and you’re desperate to get it before and agent or editor. You’ve tried to query, you’re tried to do the face-to-face thing at writers’ conferences, you’ve tried EVERYTHING! But alas, nothing’s worked so far. So howabout a new avenue of angst for you? It’s called #pitmad, and it’s a Twitter hashtag sponsored by the website Pitch Wars, a writer mentoring program that vows to “get into the publishing trenches with you.” But here’s a bit more on #pitmad, directly from their site:
#PitMad is a pitch party on Twitter where writers tweet a 280-character pitch for their completed, polished, unpublished manuscripts. Agents and editors make requests by liking/favoriting the tweeted pitch.
Every unagented writer is welcome to pitch. All genres/categories are welcomed.
#PitMad occurs quarterly. Upcoming dates are:
- March 7, 2019 (8AM – 8PM EDT)
- June 6, 2019 (8AM – 8PM EDT)
- September 5, 2019 (8AM – 8PM EDT)
- December 5, 2019 (8AM – 8PM EST)
Don’t favorite friends’ tweets. The agents will be requesting by favoriting tweets, and more favorites can make it hard for those with requests to see all of their faves/likes. RT or Quote-RT to show your support. Do NOT use the hashtag when quote RTing – Keep the hashtag clean so agents can navigate it easily.
Be respectful and courteous to each other, and especially to the industry professionals. If you do see abuse, please report it to Twitter or notify one of the hosts of the event.
For more info, go to #pitmad, and happy pitching!
One thing that you should know if you’re just starting out in this business is that no one will ever tell you how much they got for a publishing advance. This was one thing that startled me, because I thought I wouldn’t have to ask. That it would just be out there listed as an expected range, like looking up salaries on Glass Door. (Of course, you can’t really go by them either. I went to Glass Door and looked the average base pay for Adjunct Professor and got $42,451 and almost fell off my chair laughing.) Like Penguin/RH paid the best, followed by HarperCollins, etc., but that was ridiculous because no one ever advertised this stuff. The closest I got to real figures was a survey author Brenda Hiatt used to compile called “Show Me the Money,” but I don’t think she’s updated it in a long time. So where do you go to find if this writing life is even worth it?
Er…in case you haven’t found it out yet, it’s like that old saying: if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. In other words, if you’re looking to make a mint out of writing fiction, well here’s a piece of advice–don’t quit you’re day job. On the other hand, if you’re willing to occasionally starve, absorb a lot of criticism, and spend hour after hour behind a keyboard, you may have a future in the literary life. If you do that, you may eventually sell, and when you do, you’re likely to get an advance with your book contract. (If you don’t, that means you’re may be getting on a higher percentage royalty-only contract, but that’s a whole other post.) And when you do sell, your agent will post the sale on Publisher’s Marketplace, using only these vague descriptors to outline compensation:
“Nice” – $1.00 – 49.00
“Very Nice” – $50.00 – 99k
“Good” – $100k – 250k
“Significant” – $251k – 499k
“Major” – $500k and up
So there you go, publishers’ advances decoded! Don’t you feel much better now?
Read a quick but great article in the New York Times by Tina Jordan yesterday, “Some Dos and Don’ts From Famous Writers.” There were tips by Delia Owens and J. K. Rowling, from John Grisham and William Faulkner, the latter who spouted the line that really got to me: “You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader.” This should come as no surprise to anyone that thinks of themselves as a writer, because truly, where would you get the inspiration to write without the very prose (or poetry or play or lyric) that drove you to it? I’ve always had a lust for reading, starting from that very day in first grade when the nun easeled an oversized, laminated book in front of the class. (Yes, I am the product of a Catholic elementary school education. Don’t start with me.) LOOK — was the only dialogue on the page, but when I sounded out the L-O-O-K with my rudimentary phonics knowledge and my agile young brain connected the synapses to form look–well, it was a discovery so profound, I jumped out of my desk to cry I CAN READ THAT! And I’ve been doing it ever since.
As I look around my office I see four tall bookcases, a basket of magazines containing academic and trade periodicals, a couple of New Yorkers on my desk with another journal underneath, and atop the table next to my favorite reading chair, Becoming, by Michelle Obama, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (this month’s Book Discussion pick), a book on back pain (from sitting on my ass at this desk too much), and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. At the top of my TBR pile is Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, and just below it, Something Wonderful, by Todd S. Purdum. If you know anything about these books, you can tell what an eclectic reader I am. Does that say anything about my writing? Maybe it does.
One thing’s for certain. If I don’t read, it definitely affects my writing. It plods along, my characters lose their edge, the dialogue becomes stilted. There are certain schools of thought that say you shouldn’t read and write at the same time, because if you do, you’ll unconsciously steal the style of whomever you’re reading. I don’t happen to buy into that. For me, reading breaks loose my inner competitor, and I find myself wanting to outdo them. If anything, I get inspired–if they can do it, I can do it better, and the more I read, the more I want to write. I remember a time when I was deep into deadlines, that I didn’t even come near a screen outside my laptop for a month. But every day I found the time to read, over breakfast, over lunch, after a writing session, before bed. Now, I must admit I do a fair amount of reading from my laptop and my phone. But there’s still nothing like the visceral touch of the printed page, the pure joy of row upon row of embedded ink slowly unfolding a story. And no such thrill as when that story’s your own.
But enough about reading. Writers got to write, too. Best get back to work. Unless, of course, you’ll be reading.
I gave a workshop this past weekend on pitching your work, and there was some interest in writing a synopsis. Here’s a post from a couple of years back on that very same thing I thought I’d rerun, because, you know, why have a new original thought…
It’s a sad, sad fact of the writing life that every book needs a synopsis if you want to sell it. I’m sorry, but synopses to me are like carbuncles on top of boils, about as compatible to my literary mojo as coconuts are to refrigerators. When I know I have to write one, it’s like I have creative mono I’m so not able to start. Fact is I hate hate hate the little bastards, as after all these years, my brain still fights writing one. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, then welcome to Writer Hell, sweetheart. Your angsty little life is about to get so much worse.
A synopsis is your book boiled down almost to its skivvies. At the most it’s about five pages, but lately the going length seems to be around two. With such a tight page count, you might think it makes the writing easier, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Actually, it makes it so much harder. How hard? Let me search for a difficult enough analogy. Have you ever tried to gather a bunch of peeled grapes with one hand? That’s kind of what it’s like. (Actually, the literal version of that would be easier, but don’t let me disillusion you). You need to encapsulate all those slippery plot points from start to finish, naming your major characters, their conflicts and motivations, holding nothing back. Don’t want to divulge everything? Then just include something like, Intrigued? Then request the full manuscript to find out what happens next! and you’ll win the race to the ‘delete’ button. (Please, just–no.) Do include a hook at the beginning and a satisfying ending, and no being cagey or overly creative, either. It’s just the facts, ma’am, and do remember to keep it in the present tense, and state your word count and genre under the title at the top. Also, it should go without saying to make sure it’s proofread, spell-checked, grammar-checked and formatted until it’s pink and screaming.
A synopsis, above all, is a selling tool. You need one to get an agent as after you do, she’ll need it to sell your fabulousness to an editor. A synopsis not only spells out your book, it tells an editor you’re capable of finishing one, as very rarely will she have your whole manuscript in front of her at the first pass. Because of their brevity, synopses, at least when they’re written well, can be succinct little works of art. With a well-written synopsis, you’re straddling the fence between novelist and journalist, as it’s a sign of polish and skill to write eye-catching florid-free prose when you’re concentrating strictly on the main points. When it’s done effectively and efficiently, it can make all the difference between rejection and acceptance.
Oh, and if you’re looking for some actual people to send that fabulous synopsis, to, try…
- Literary Market Place (LMP) – Online or in print. Subscription. In Libraries.
- Publishers Marketplace – Subscription, limited “Publishers Lunch” is free.
- Agent Query – Large database, sorted by genre, free.
- Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents – Book and Website.
- Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents – Book.
- Publishing…and Other Forms of Insanity – Website, free.
- Manuscript Wish List – Website, free.
Now go get ’em, tiger. I hate suffering alone.