JUST SAY NO: A WRITERS’ MANIFESTO

 

Long ago in a galaxy far away, I was a literary agent. One day, a writer who was not yet a client came to me for advice. “I wrote a novel,” she said. “Mr. Blank, of Blankety Press read it and liked it, and he wants to publish.”

The actual publisher she mentioned was a well-known, respected house with a track record that included bestsellers. “Congratulations,” I said. “What’s the offer?”

“They’ll publish the book entirely at their own expense.”

“Of course,” I said. “But what advance and royalties are they offering?”

“None for the first edition,” the writer said. “But if they reprint, they’d pay a royalty on those sales.”

“Say no,” I said.

discontented writer“But they’re such good publishers! And Mr. Blank explained to me that their expenses are so high on the first edition that they would lose money if they had to pay a royalty.”

“Does he get paid? How about the typesetters and the printers and the paper suppliers? Do they donate their services?”

“Of course not.”

“The distributor and the bookstores will take their cut?”

“I assume so.”

“And yet your story is what’s going to sell the book, not the paper or the typesetting. So why on earth should you be the only one to go uncompensated?”

“I know, but it is my first novel. Mr. Blank says it’s a way to get my name out there and start building a readership.”

I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Mr. Blank knows you can do that without giving your work away for free. He controls the price of his books, and he can take your royalties into account, just as he does for every other writer on his list.”

“But what if he won’t pay? I could lose my chance to publish.”

“It’s possible. But if the book is good enough that he wants to publish, there’s a reasonable chance others will as well. You can’t negotiate if you’re not willing to walk away.”

“I know you’re right,” she said worriedly. “But…”

I understood that “but.” I was a writer myself, as well as an agent. I knew what it felt like. Writers need to publish; why else would they write? Writing is an act of communication, a transaction that is incomplete until the work is read. For first-time writer especially, the need to publish can feel as pressing as the need of a woman nine and a half months pregnant to give birth. You’ve carried that story as long and as far as you possibly can; now it’s time for it to go out into the world.

And guess what? Publishers know this, and they use it. They are, after all, in business to make money; so if they can persuade writers to donate their work for free, that’s one less major expense.

That, by the way, is one of many reasons that writers need agents. Having professional representation means that negotiations will be conducted on a more businesslike, less lopsided basis.

arm-wrestling

And that is what happened with that writer from long ago. Rather than tackle Mr. Blank herself, she hired me to do it. He wasn’t thrilled to have me inserted into the mix, but we did a lot of business together, so he didn’t kick too hard. We negotiated a reasonable advance and royalty for my client. The agency’s fee cost her 10% (Yes, Virginia, agents used to work for 10%), but since the novel never earned out, the 90% that the writer got to keep was money she would never have seen otherwise.

I was reminded of this incident recently when a friend — let’s call him Chester, because why not? — called to say he’d received an offer from a magazine that wanted to reprint one of his short stories. It was a fine little magazine, and my friend was delighted; but their effusive note had strangely failed to mention remuneration.

“Ask,” I suggested.

“And if they say there is none?”

hard labor“The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

Chester agreed. He wrote to ask what the magazine proposed to pay for the story, expressing the hope that their response would not include the word “exposure.”

Silence ensued. Weeks of it, then months. Chester put the matter out of his mind, inured, like most writers, to disappointment. It’s not unusual that magazines, both print and e-zines, failed to pay contributors. So many aspiring writers are willing to work for “exposure” alone that they can fill their pages many times over while paying nothing at all for content.

Then, out of the blue, the magazine editor called Chester. They’d hadn’t ignored his question; rather, they’d been thinking hard about whether it was time to start paying contributors. In principle the unanimous answer was yes; in practice, given the magazine’s finances, the payment would need to be modest.

“How modest?” Chester asked.

The editor named a sum.

woman in burqa“You call that modest? I call it full burqa!”

“It’s the best I can do,” the editor said.

“Better than a kick in the teeth,” Chester said philosophically, and the deal was sealed, leaving my friend, as one wit said, well on his way to becoming hundredaire.

And now a third and final anecdote on the same theme. A former student of mine, let’s call her Violet, had struggled long and hard to find a publisher for her first novel. She had no interest in self-publishing; she wanted a traditional publisher, preferably one of the big five. After trying more than 80 literary agents, she’d given up on that route and started submitting to small royalty-paying publishers who were willing to consider work from unagented writers. Finally she struck gold. A small publisher offered to publish her novel in both print and electronic form. They offered no advance, but paid standard royalties on all copies sold.

man reading contractViolet asked if I would eyeball the contract just to see if anything jumped out. After the usual disclaimers (I’m not a lawyer and I’m no longer an agent) I agreed. And something did jump out: an option clause that gave the publisher right of first refusal not only on the next book, but on every book the author wrote thereafter.

“It’s the publishing version of indentured servitude,” I told Violet. “There’s no possible reason to agree to this clause. It would mean handing over control of your entire career to this company. Ask them to limit the option to your next book or cut it altogether.”

“But what if they won’t?” she fretted. “If it’s part of their standard contract… After all this time, I don’t want to lose a bird in hand for a pair in the bushes.”

“This stuff matters, unless you plan to be a one-book author. Options are inherently unbalanced to begin with, because they oblige one party but not the other. But writers and agents generally agree to a limited option on the next book, to incentivize the publisher to do its best for the first book. But this clause, this is just greedy, and it’s got ‘future headache’ written all over it.”

Violet took the advice she’d asked for and went back to her publisher, who promptly agreed to change the clause. Back in the Paleolithic era when I was an agent, publishers had different contracts for agented and unagented writers. They knew what the prospect of publication meant to aspiring writers, knew they’d sign away their firstborn child for the chance, let alone options on future unborn books.

Hence the overreaching. If by chance the writer objects, they amend the clause. Most don’t.

Now, as you’ve no doubt realized, the moral of these three stories is the same. There are times when writers must say no. (For a truly profane and heartfelt rant on the subject, I refer you to this video by Harlan Ellison.)

And so I call upon my fellow writers to take the pledge. Respect yourself and your work, for if you don’t, who will?

Say no to working for free.

Say no to rights grabs.

Say no to onerous option clauses.

Unity

Writers of the world, unite!

 

The Dreaded Silence: How I Nearly Gave Up Writing

I’m delighted to welcome Jenny Elliott to In Cold Ink. Jenny is the author of SAVE ME, a delightful blend of paranormal and romance. She’s also a lovely person and, I’m proud to say, a former student of mine. Jenny’s first book sold to Macmillan and came out last month to terrific reviews: a very happy ending to a long journey that almost didn’t happen. But I’ll let Jenny tell the story, and I’m guessing quite a few readers of this blog will relate.

Jenny ElliotOn January 6th, 2015, Macmillan published my debut paranormal romance novel, SAVE ME, under its Swoon Reads imprint. Swoon Reads is a crowd-sourced publishing model, so I landed that contract without an agent. And Macmillan also has an option on my next novel. Needless to say, I’m glad I picked up writing fiction again, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus.

I’m not proud of myself for giving up my fiction-writing passion for so long, especially one that ultimately rewarded me with a Big 5 publishing deal. But I hope that my story will prevent others from quitting like I did. I’m confident that it can, because I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s sensitive about her writing. It’s a scary thing to send our creative “babies” into the world, even if only to trusted readers, for feedback.

From the beginning, fear of feedback wasn’t my biggest concern, though. I welcomed constructive criticism. What I got instead, unfortunately, was what I deemed, “the dreaded silence.”

At age eighteen, I’d written 200 rough pages of a novel. I shared an excerpt with family and friends, then waited for feedback. No one said a word. I heard a message all the same, though: “Your writing is so bad that we don’t want to hurt you by saying so.” Sadly, I felt plenty hurt by their lack of response.

I didn’t write another word of fiction again until I was twenty-three, when I decided to edit the novel I’d begun when I was eighteen. Again, I gave an excerpt to a few trusted friends. Again, I suffered the dreaded silence. This time, I turned to studying non-fiction, which I also appreciate, but don’t enjoy as much as fiction.

One marriage, two property purchases, three children, and a full kitchen and flooring remodel later, I was losing my mind. I credit my impending insanity at the time for my escape into fictional worlds. I became an avid fiction reader, and one particular story idea brimmed in my mind and coalesced into a full outline that demanded to be put to the page in novel format.

I was incredibly pleased to have completed my first rough draft of a full novel. Now that I was in my thirties, I figured my age, at least, would garner respect, and therefore feedback, from readers. I sent my entire manuscript to a handful of family members and friends. To my dismay, the dreaded silence once again loomed.

In defense of my solicited readers, 250 pp. is a huge reading commitment. I should have shared an excerpt. All the same, I sank into the biggest funk yet over my writing. I desperately wanted honest, and preferably helpful, feedback.

I turned to Google and found Barbara, who would become my mentor. At the time, she was offering a special for a critique of a writer’s first 10 to 20 pages of a work of fiction. Finally, I received thorough, thoughtful, honest, and professional feedback. I had a lot to learn, but Barbara saw potential in my writing. I was elated.

writing classThe first of Barbara’s Next Level  courses I took was One Good Scene, in which I began to learn to hone my craft. Next, Barbara invited me to her Revising Fiction course, where I worked to shape and sharpen my novel. Then I queried agents.

Actually, like many beginning writers, I started querying way too early, with what was essentially a spruced up first draft. Not surprisingly, there were no takers. After Barbara’s Revising Fiction course, however, I received four full requests. Each agent took months to review my story and ultimately passed. Nearly a year had gone by.

In addition to the critique partners I became involved with in Barbara’s courses, I also joined CritiqueCircle.com. One of my critique partners from that site encouraged me to submit my novel to SwoonReads.com. Needless to say, I’m glad I did so. Readers and writers, as well as several editors on the Swoon Reads staff, including the sales director, were impressed with my novel. Ultimately, I landed a Big 5 publishing contract through Macmillan, who also has an option on my second novel. Because of that, I’m looking for an agent to work with me on future projects. At the end of the day, I can’t do much else but be grateful for such blessings. My story is a happy one to share.

Save MeOf course, my story could have been a lot less happy on the writing front if I hadn’t come back to the fiction-writing craft. And if I hadn’t found a mentor like Barbara. Or if I hadn’t developed critiquing relationships with other writers. Those things have hugely contributed to my success. I hope my example will also contribute to yours.

 

Thanks, Jenny, and congratulations!

To my writer friends: I’m going to be offering classes again very soon, starting with ONE GOOD SCENE, and as always the first notice will go out to folks on my emailing list. I keep these classes very small in order to provide lots of personal feedback, and I don’t offer many of them; so they tend to fill up fast. If you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list to be notified when the course opens for registration.

 

An Overnight Success In Four Years

 

 It’s been a while since my last post, due to a combination of issues. I had a “quick, easy” medical procedure that turned out to be quick and easy for the doctor, while carving a month out of my life.

sick person

Since recovering, I’ve been immersed in the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION, which exerts a strong gravitational pull.

But I’m back now, with one of my favorite sort of posts. As some of you may know, I offer this evaluation service to writers who want thorough, stringent feedback on the openings to their novels. The cost is minimal, and I don’t advertise the service for fear of being swamped, but word gets around; I probably evaluate 18 to 20 novel openings each year. When Janie Chodosh’s pages came in, I sat up and took notice, big time. The writing was polished and accomplished, and the pages did just about everything one wants in the opening to a novel, including making me care about the protagonist and want to read more.

Janie and I ended up working together on an edit of the full book, a YA thriller called DEATH SPIRAL. It’s the first in a series about Faith Flores, a Philadelphia teenager who, when the story opens, is reeling from the recent death of her heroin-addicted mother. By the time we finished, I knew she had a very strong prospect in hand; so it was no surprise, but a very great pleasure, when Janie informed me that her book had sold. The offer came from The Poisoned Pencil, a new YA imprint created by the venerable Poison Pen Press, and it will be out on April 1—no fooling! I recommend the book whole-heartedly, and PW gave it a splendid review as well.

Janie was kind enough to share her publishing adventure with readers of this blog, many of whom are also aspiring writers. I’ll let you read it for yourselves, and I hope you’ll notice one salient aspect of her journey. She didn’t dash the book off in a month or two, then rush to put it out on Kindle. Instead, she worked it, revised it, workshopped it, submitted it to a stringent editorial review (that would be me), and revised some more. That, ladies and gents, is how it’s done if you’re serious about getting published.

And now, without further ado, here’s Janie’s account:

 

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             April 2013 and I’m in a hotel room in Hawaii, four flights up, overlooking the Pacific—a brief siesta after a day of snorkeling and exploring with my family. My daughter and stepson are happily checked out in front of cable, (a novel experience, not having TV at home), and neither one is whining about seconds on ice cream or who gets to pick the show. My husband and I are relaxed. All is quiet, and I do the unthinkable: check my email.

I am not normally a compulsive email checker, but three days before we left for Hawaii the main water line at the top of our driveway burst and flooded our home (another story entirely). So being in touch with the mainland was somewhat of a necessity: Had the driveway been grated? Had all the furniture been put in storage? Had the remediation crew gotten in…

I scroll through various spam, junk, non-important, and not interesting emails, causally pressing delete as I go. Not a word from the contractor about drywall or mold. I’m about to turn off my phone when something catches my attention. The words ‘Poisoned Pencil Press’ (the young adult imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press, one of the largest independent publishers of mysteries in the world) are in my inbox. My finger lingers over the trashcan icon. Two months ago I’d submitted the manuscript for my YA mystery to the Poisoned Pencil. I am in no mood to ruin the day with a rejection.

Again, something catches my eye. The usual rejection, shown in the first line of the email goes something like this: ‘thank you, but…’  This email starts with thank you, however, there is no ‘but.’ In fact, after ‘thank you’ I see the word ‘loved.’ Loved? This does not sound like a rejection.

I open the email to find something akin to the following: Dear Janie. I loved your manuscript and would be thrilled to publish it.

I scream. I jump up and down. I shout my husband’s name. He wakes from his nap, notes my enthusiasm, and groggily says, “What, the house didn’t really flood?” (I picture time-lapse animation in reverse, the water going back up the hill.)

“No. Better! The editor at The Poisoned Pencil Press loves my book and wants to publish it!”

index The acceptance of my manuscript did not happen overnight. I started writing my young adult novel, Death Spiral, A Faith Flores Science Mystery, four years before landing a publisher.  I must’ve written three thousand pages of notes, revisions, edits, scribbles, thoughts, and scratches. I diligently listened to the generous feedback offered to me by my writing group peers. I asked anyone who’d ever read a book if they’d be willing read my manuscript and comment. I worked with Barbara Rogan and absorbed her every suggestion. (Her feedback was some of the best I received, and I don’t just say this because I am writing on her blog!)

Eventually I got to the place where I trusted my story and I became more protective of my work. At this stage if I asked for feedback, I was specific on what I was looking for. I learned to trust my work, to stand behind a scene or a passage even when someone else had a critique. Then I started to submit. After a handful of rejections, I got the contract with The Poisoned Pencil, and despite four years of hard work, my editing was far from done.

I started working with Ellen Larson, the editor of the press. We talked about the characters in the story as if they were real people. She “got” and loved what I was doing. She showed me where in the story I could expand, where I could go deeper, what I could cut, and what I could develop. We went through three rounds of edits together. Even when, on the last round of edits, she said something along the lines of, “You’re going to hate me” (referring to all her markups) my reaction was just opposite. What Ellen gave me was the most valuable thing a writer could ask for: someone who believes in what you’re doing and wants to push you to make it better.

I am now working on the second book in the series, though I am taking a different approach to getting the task done. I want book two on the shelves before readers have totally forgotten about Faith Flores, the protagonist. In order to accomplish this goal, I cannot take four years and three thousand more pages of musings, notes, and scribbles. These days I go for mileage. I try to tap into the part of my brain that doesn’t edit every word and just get the plot on the page. Once I’m confident the plot works, the clues are in place, Faith has encountered sufficient obstacles and overcome them in her own particular way, then I will obsess, edit, ask for feedback, and turn my baby over to the gifted eyes of my editor.

 

Thanks, Janie, and congratulations! For lots more publishing stories, writing tips, and interviews with industry figures, subscribe to this blog via the link on the right.

 

What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You?

In my last post, I wrote about the results of a large though unscientific survey of authors, which revealed a high level of dissatisfaction around the areas of marketing, sales and income. This struck me as profoundly unsurprising, almost a tautology.  Dissatisfaction goes with the territory. During the 15 years I spent as an agent and editor, I never met a writer who was completely satisfied with his or her publisher’s efforts, whether they were great or small. It’s like inspecting a house after a cleaning crew has come and gone. No matter how good a job they’ve done, you always notice what they missed.

So that aspect of the survey was not at all surprising. What struck me as I read is the fact that writers today have so many more choices than they had in the past. More writers are making a living than ever before, particularly “hybrid writers” whose books are both published and self-published. Mid-list writers dropped by their publishers are no longer silenced forever. Backlist books don’t recede into memory; they can live forever in e-book form. Short stories and novellas are no longer unsellable. Writers with an entrepreneurial bent can now publish their own work, undertaking the risks but also standing to reap much greater reward if the books do well.

overcoming barriersBut having choices can be confusing, and aspiring writers need to think carefully about which choice is most likely to get them where they want to go. If you read that last post and wondered what to do with that information, I’m going to suggest some guidelines here. They will vary according to writers’ goals and the genre in which they write.

The simplest case is the writer who aspires to write literary fiction, to be reviewed and discussed in mainstream media, and to be considered for the major literary awards. That writer needs the validation and support of a mainstream publisher who can get his book reviewed and sold into bookstores and libraries, because serious review attention is necessary to make those books discoverable. Literary fiction published independently has not been shown to sell well at all, and those writers may end up losing money after paying for editing, cover design and other necessary services.

The question becomes more complicated when it comes to genre fiction writers. Most writers, I believe, are still best served by trying first for mainstream commercial publishing house via a literary agent. It’s not an easy road. The search for an agent can take many, many submissions and often a number of rewrites; and finding an agent is only the start of an even longer process. Some writers are drawn to self-publishing out of fear of rejection, but that’s a fear that really should be overcome. Most published writers have gone through multiple rejections and lived to tell the tale; sometimes those rejections have worked to their benefit, as I discuss in this post. But the advantages of being commercially published are many. Most books will be published in multiple formats, not just e-books, and sold into brick and mortar stores. The more outlets one’s book has, the more chance it will be discovered and read. Being published by a major house is a learning experience and an opportunity to create a loyal readership that will carry over to self-published work should you decide to go the hybrid route. There are other advantages to mainstream publishing as well, too many to reprise here; if you’d like to see them, check out this post and this one.

Things are changing rapidly in publishing, and I don’t claim to be ahead of the game. But here is my current best advice for aspiring writers of romance, science fiction, cozy mysteries, Westerns and the many subgenres within those categories.

  1. Write the absolute best book you can, and then follow the steps outlined here to improve it.
  2. While writing the book, begin researching literary agents and put together a list of at least 50 to 60 agents who would be suitable for your book.
  3. Write a killer query letter and start submitting. (See also Agent Query and Janet Reid’s blog.)  Don’t submit to all the agents on your list at once. Submit to 5 to 10 agents at a time, to allow for tweaks to the query letter if your first try isn’t getting a good response.
  4. While your book is on submission, work on the next book.The_philosopher
  5. If self-publishing is a path you would consider, start educating yourself. There is a tremendous amount to learn if you end up going that route, and many writers have been generous in sharing their process and results. The Absolute Write forum is a good place to start. What you learn may help you decide whether self-publishing is right for you.
  6. Put together a list of smaller commercial publishers who accept submissions directly from writers.  By commercial publishers I mean those who publish your work at their own expense, whether or not they pay advances. In some cases, those books will come out in e-book form only, some with a POD option as well. But be careful! There are now many so-called publishers who require that writers cover the expense of publishing. They like to claim that they have come up with a new model of cooperative publishing, but in fact they are all variations on vanity publishers who have been around forever. Seek out publishers who consistently have books on Kindle’s bestseller list.
  7. If you have submitted to 50 or 60 agents and found no takers, it’s time to make a choice. There are three basic ways to go.fork in roadA.  If you’re determined to be published by a major house or to build a career as a hybrid writer, you should withdraw the book, hire a good editor, do some rewriting and resume submitting to agents. Or chalk that first book up to experience and go on to write the next, which will be better.

    B. You can submit directly to that list of smaller commercial publishers, aka indies. This is a good option for writers who feel their forte is writing, not publishing. Small publishers can usually do more effective promotion and marketing for your book then you can on your own, and they usually pay a larger royalty on e-books than the big five houses: 50% versus 25% currently. But self-publishers keep about 70% (the distributor, Amazon or other, takes the rest), so you should be clear on what exactly those small publishers will be doing for your book to earn their share. A similar possibility is to enter a contest that offers the winner a publishing contract with a reputable publisher. If you win, the contract you are offered may be less than optimal; but it is a foot in the door. In addition, some major paperback imprints like Tor have “open submission“ windows during which unagented writers can submit directly.man reading contract

    Writers who choose option B need to be wary of sharks in the water. A lot of vanity publishers present themselves as “publishing partners” or the like, and many contests exist only for the sake of the entry fee. Writers Beware and Absolute Write have good websites to do that research.

    C.  You can dive straight into the pool of self-publishers. By the time you make this decision, you should have spent months researching the field, so that you know how to proceed, what to watch out for, and how to give your work the best possible chance.  Generally speaking, self-publishing is a good option for entrepreneurial souls who are willing to learn or contract for all the services that a publisher would normally provide, including editing, proofreading, design, promotion and marketing. It works best for writers of genre fiction series who can write very quickly and put out multiple books per year. If you choose option C, and you are writing a series, I would strongly recommend that you don’t start publishing until you have three books finished and ready to go. A singleton, tossed into the vast sea of self-published titles, doesn’t have much of a chance; but you can build readership by publishing books in series released just a month or two apart. You can also discount one title to promote all the others.

    When  I first started out, the only option open to writers was the traditional route of literary agents and commercial publishers. I still think that for most writers, it is the best way to go if they have that opportunity. But it’s no longer the only good option; and the existence of other possibilities and paths open to writers will ultimately tilt the balance of power between publishers and writers just a little bit toward the writers’ side; and that’s a good thing.

     

    Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Better yet, read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.

Rejection: Good for the Writer’s Soul?

 

There’s a schism in the writing world. Messianic advocates of self-publishing tout its benefits; skeptical opponents counter with the lack of all the services provided by preacherpublishers. As a novelist, blogger, and former literary agent, I’ve read countless iterations of both positions, which keep changing as self-publishing evolves. Just a few years ago, publishing and self-publishing were separate worlds; now they’re developing a symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the other. Success in self-publishing can lead to multi-book contracts with major publishers; while many published authors, formerly sidelined as “midlist” authors, are reviving their careers and making good money through self-publishing. A new species is emerging: hybrid writers with a foot in each camp.

As the tools available to self-publishers continue to develop, they may overcome many of the industry’s current deficits. But the greatest drawback to self-publishing is one that can never be overcome, because it is intrinsic to the enterprise: the lack of rejection.

Before the advent of simple, do-it-yourself e-publishing, when publishers ruled the planet, rejection was an inescapable part of the writer’s existence. Most published novelists were turned down many times, often on multiple books, before breaking into print. Most “first” novels passed through a gauntlet of rejection by agents and publishers before finding a home.  No one got through unscathed.

Rejection isn’t some sort of japish frat hazing we can all laugh about later. It hurts badly and over time has a cumulative effect on the writer’s psyche. Many give up. Depression is common. John Kennedy O’Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, due in part to repeated rejections of his novel, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, which was published years later and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Some writers go a little crazy, or a lot. I wrote about one such writer in A DANGEROUS FICTION, but it happens in real life, too. Last year, a West Coast literary agent was stalked and attacked by a disgruntled writer.

Connoisseurs of rejection, aka writers, know that not all rejections are the same. They fall into three basic categories:

crazyHomicidal. One publisher called Nabokov’s  Lolita “overwhelmingly nauseating” and recommended that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years. Another predicted that Mailer’s The Deer Park would “set publishing back 25 years.” When Hunter Thompson was responsible for evaluating submissions to Rolling Stone magazine, he wrote one rejection letter that started with “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill here again. If I had the time, I’d come out there and drive a fucking wooden stake into your forehead,” and went downhill from there.

Unhelpful.  These include form letters (“We regret that your work does not quite suit our list…”) and, cruelest of all, silence.

 “Close but no cigar.” These “good rejections” come with useful notes from the agent or editor and sometimes an invitation to revise and resubmit. They’re a sign that the work is almost but not quite where it needs to be.

Rejection hurts. The more you’ve put into a book, the more it hurts. And yet I suspect that rejection is the cod liver oil of the writer’s diet. It tastes vile but can have salutary effects.

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First, insomuch as it acts as a spur to revision, rejection is a functional part of the artistic process.  Good writers are always just a hair’s breadth away from becoming better writers, and the necessity to go back time and again at a piece of writing can be precisely the impetus that’s needed.  I had the rare opportunity, early in my career, of sitting down with an editor who had rejected my second novel, CAFÉ NEVO, and learning exactly why. It was the first real editorial feedback I’d ever had, and though the meeting didn’t last long—half an hour or so–the conversation opened my eyes. I rewrote the novel. It  sold it to another publisher and received wonderful reviews and praise from writers like Alan Sillitoe, Madeleine L’Engle and Alice Hoffman–none of which would have happened without the input  of the editor who’d rejected it.

The lure of self-publishing can abort this process, to the detriment of both writers and readers. When J.K. Rowling started writing the Harry Potter novels, self-publishing was not an option. She spent five years planning the series and writing the first book. A literary agent made editorial suggestions, which she implemented. The revised book was rejected by a dozen publishers until Bloomsbury bought it for £1500, at which point it underwent further editing. The book so many millions of readers came to love, which launched a series and an empire, was a much improved version of the draft Rowling had finished years earlier. What would have happened, how much would have been lost, if she’d self-published her first draft straight to Kindle?

tigerSecond, the gatekeepers so despised by self-publishing advocates serve an essential role in the publishing ecology. Acting as super-predators, literary agents and editors thin the herd of writers, eliminating those who lack ability and/or stamina— both are needed—and toughening the hides of the survivors.  “Talent is helpful in writing,” Jessamyn West wrote, “but guts are absolutely essential.”

The_philosopherThird, not all novels need to be published. Writing’s like any craft: it takes talent, time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and there’s usually a period of apprenticeship. Most published writers have an early unpublished manuscript or two tucked away in a drawer, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. The brilliant writer Edward Whittemore completed seven novels before selling one: not an apprenticeship one would wish on any writer, but it demonstrates the devotion bordering on obsession that characterizes the breed.

One might argue that self-published writers have had their share of rejection; that’s why they self–publish. That’s not entirely true, since some writers are self-publishing by choice. Most first-time novelists, though, have indeed tried and failed to find publishers. If rejection is an unpleasant but salutary part of the writer’s journey, why hasn’t it worked its magic on them?

The answer is that there are limits to what rejection and revision can do. A fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach, but you’ve got to have the pumpkin. A person can pour heart and soul into a novel and still end up with something only a mother could pumpkinread. As anyone who has ever sloshed through an agent’s slush pile will tell you, most first novels can’t be salvaged. If it pleases those authors to self-publish electronically, at least no trees will be killed in the process, and no one will stand between their books and potential readers.

The fundamental problem with self-publishing is not that bad books are published, but that good ones are published prematurely: books that could have been better, even great, if the writer had worked harder on them, for years if necessary, until they were good enough to sell, and then worked on them some more with the help of a first-class editorial team.  Self-publishing offers instant gratification. You write a book, and a month or two later it’s in your hands or on your screen. The process of selling to a mainstream publisher takes much longer, risks rejection, and often requires multiple revisions, but the result is a better book. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

Well, that and sales, too. As the holidays roar down on us, I will join in the chorus of heavenly pitches and mention that books make the very best presents; and I happen to have a few out there for the readers on your list. I’d also like to thank the San Francisco Book Review for their early present: a wonderful 5-star review of A DANGEROUS FICTION that called it “a terrific mystery novel, told with warmth and snarky wit.”

What To Do Once You’ve “Finished” Your Novel

Jo BourneEvery once in a while, I come across a blog post so informative that I just need to share it. Jo Bourne, for those of you who don’t already know her, is a critically acclaimed writer of historical fiction, including THE BLACK HAWK and THE SPYMASTER’S LADY.  She’s also one of the smartest people about the craft of writing I’ve ever met. We are old friends from the Compuserve Book and Author forum, where we both serve as section leaders, and over the years I’ve found myself savoring (and quoting) much of her writing advice. This time, with her kind permission, I am reprinting an entire blog post. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and check out her blog for yourself. If you’re a writer, you’ll thank me.

Here, with no further ado, is Jo:

 

“Congratulations on finishing your manuscript.
Woot woot.
Go celebrate.

We’ll wait.

 

 

…  All through with dancing and whooping it up?
Now there are a few necessary steps to take to get from here to publication.

 I. Get Crits

What:  Turn some chapters of your manuscript over to harsh, knowledgeable critters.  Listen to what they say.  You need critters who haven’t been with you every step of the way as you wrote.  Critters who are not your family or friends.

This is not putting a saucer of milk out for the tabby.  This is wrapping yourself in raw meat and stepping into the lion’s cage.

How:  There’s a Writer’s Workshop in the Books and Writer’s Forum.   Here.  Absolute Write, here has a ‘Share Your Work’ section.  Writer’s Forum here has a Writers’ Workshop.
If you are writing genre, there are probably specialized sites for writers of your genre.

Why:  Intelligent criticism of your work will help you write better and will prepare you to edit your manuscript.

II.  Let the manuscript rest

What:  Put the work away for as long as you can.  Six weeks.  Three months.  Six months.
(You spend this time working on the next ms and critting other folks’ manuscripts, which is an excellent way to improve your own writing skills.)

How:  Print it out and put it in a locked drawer in the bottom of your desk.  Put all the work in a folder named “Open in January.

Why:  This lets you look at your own work with a critical editorial eye.  It gives you distance.

III.  Learn how publishing works

What:  Spend a solid 40 hours studying the publishing industry.

How:  Start out by Googling everything you can find on the subject.  Then drop into places full of knowledgeable folks and ask questions.

Why:  If you were going to (a) take a job in Thailand for a year or (b) go to State Aggie to study animal husbandry or (c) work for Avis Rent-a-car, you’d do that much research about (a) the country, (b) the university or (c) the business.
Why would you go into writing with less preparation?

III. Learn about agents

What:  Start making a spread sheet of agents who work in your field.  See who they represent.  See who they sell to.  See what kind of deals they’re making.  Find out what folks say about them.
If they have an on-line presence, get a feel for who they are.

How:  Google.  Look at the acks in the front of books similar to your own writing.  Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace.

Why:  That’s the list you will query, when you query, if you decide you want an agent.  And after all, you have some time while your manuscript is resting.

IV.  Revise

What:  When the manuscript has aged like, y’know, fine wine … take it out of hiding and read it over.
Now you will revise.  Now you see what’s wrong.

How: Read and correct as if someone else had written it.

Why:  Because, unless you have indeed done this, the manuscript is not as good as you can make it.

V.  Find Beta Readers

What:  Beta readers take an entire manuscript that is ready for submission and crit it.  Beta readers, if possible, have never seen the manuscript before.

How:  Find them by doing beta reads for others.  Find them by making friends in writers forums.  Pay them in chocolate.

Why:  Because they will tell you if the whole thing works.  They’ll point out illogical story lines.  They’ll improve the manuscript.

 
VI.  Re-revise in light of the Beta read

’nuff said.

VII.  Get an agent … or not

Three months have passed since you declared your manuscript finished.

You will have read 10,000 words arguing Indie/Big Press/Small Press.
You’ll have the best manuscript you can write in one hand and a significant bit of WIP in the other.

Now you make this decision.

 

Many thanks to Jo for permission to reprint this post. If you appreciate her thoughts, you know the best way to thank a writer, don’t you?

Speaking of which, I’ve just learned that my new book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, has just made one of Amazon’s top 100 bestseller lists recently, the one for thrillers with female sleuths. So woot woot!, as Jo says!  Recently there was a wonderful review by Joan Baum in Dan’s Papers and a couple of fun interviews, one by My Bookish Ways and one by writer Sara Bowers, and there’s more to come.

The past few weeks since launch have been quite a whirl.  In fact, A DANGEROUS FICTION, worn out from the rigors of self-promotion, was recently spotted taking a bit of well-earned R&R.

20130821_130753_1

 

 

Interview with Marysue Rucci of S&S

I was rummaging through some old files the other day and came across an interview I conducted with Marysue Rucci, now editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster. Marysue was kind enough to answer my questions back in 2002, when she was my editor at S&S, in aid of a keynote speech I was giving at a writers’ conference. Bear in mind that her answers represent her thinking at that time, which may have changed in the interim. Nevertheless I think it’s an extraordinarily  useful piece in showing an editor’s insights and  priorities, as well as what writers can do to help themselves and their books.  I hope you’ll find it as helpful as I did.

Q:  What can writers do to help their editors publish their books successfully?

A: Join writers’ groups, make friends with their local booksellers, create a website (and develop mailing lists), and publish “off the page” pieces, ideally just before or when their book is publishing – in magazines, newspapers, etc.

Q: How important is the personal relationship between editor and writer?

A: Respect is extremely important, in both directions.  The book will always have the author’s name on it, and is the author’s baby, and I acknowledge that.  It’s a waste of time, though, if the author doesn’t respect the editor’s ideas (or they simply don’t see eye to eye), for both author and editor.

Q: Describe  the ideal writer, from the editor’s POV.

A: Timely, original, open to guidance but with a firm knowledge of the five W’s of his/her book (W’s being, who, what, where, when, why).  And always generating ancillary article ideas/publishing stories to keep his/her name in the public eye.

Q: Describe the writer from hell, from the editor’s POV.

slush A: Personally affronted by edits; argumentative, evasive and lazy when it comes to deadlines.  The author who drags his/her feet makes an editor’s life hell, because the editor is the conduit to all other areas of the publishing house.  The production, marketing, publicity, teams are hammering on your editor’s door.

Q:  What are the questions you most dislike getting from writers?

A: How many cities will I be touring?  Will you run ads?

Q:  How does an editor balance the sometimes conflicting interests of writer and publisher?

A: Delicately.  Your editor is your advocate in-house, which is another reason a good working relationship is important. The editor is supposed to gracefully navigate the publishing process and agitate for the author and the author’s interest while still understanding financial and/or other publishing limitations.

Q:  What fallacies do writers harbor  about editors?

A: That editors want to receive your manuscript before the editor goes on vacation; or before holidays; or at home.  Also, that we speed-read.  A normal manuscript should take at least a week to read; far longer to edit (well).

Q:  To what extent are your decisions based on publishing trends and to what extent on personal taste?

A: Personal taste rules the day.  It’s pointless to buy a book you don’t love.

Q: What do you see as the editor’s primary mission (apart from making money, which goes without saying.)?

A: Understanding an author’s vision and helping the author best realize that vision.  Delivering a great manuscript to the in-house people so they can sell it well.  Attempting to get quotes, and buzz.

Q: Are there agents you won’t work with? Why? What are their names? (Just kidding about that one.)

A: There are agents I’ve vowed not to work with, but I’ve gone back on my vow. Either because the agent is impossible to converse with in a realistic manner or because he/she did something underhanded (like shop an offer that shouldn’t have been shopped).  When you’ve been burned by an agent, it takes an extraordinarily special project to make you come back to her/him.

Q:  What makes editors stick to the job despite the ridiculous hours and notoriously low pay?child reading

A: Love of reading, of course.  The thrill of discovery, or potential thereof.

Thanks once again, Marysue!

 

News update: Lots of excitement as A DANGEROUS FICTION heads into the final stretch before pub date, July 25. Publishers Weekly gave the book a terrific review, and on May 20 they featured an interview with me. (Here’s the  link, but unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to read the whole piece.) Viking’s wonderful PR department has set up several talks and signings in New York and Long Island venues. If you’re in the area, please put it on your calendars and stop by.  If by chance you plan to buy a copy, you can save 35% on the hardcovers by preordering on Amazon, B&N  or your online bookstore  of choice.  Viking recently gave away 100 galley copies in a sweepstakes.  If you’re one of the winners, congratulations, and I hope you enjoy the book! If you weren’t, keep on eye on this blog. There will be other opportunities.

Query Fails: Why They Happen

 

In my eternal quest for procrastination, I turned this morning to Slushpile Hell, a site to which writers have turned from time immemorial (since 2010) for a hearty laugh and a pleasant glow of superiority. The query letters on this site are so bizarre, clueless and illiterate that I would be tempted to believe the agent who curates them made them up, had I not been an agent myself for many years, during which time I received similar letters.

We passed those around the agency, I will admit. Agents do. It’s gallows humor of the sort ER doctors used to blow off steam. Outsiders, listening in, might have thought us heartless, but outsiders never had to wade through a literary agent’s slush pile, which for people who love literature and language is as much fun as vivisection is for animal lovers.

So I went to the site and read some of the letters and laughed at the snarky replies; but at the same time found myself feeling sorry for the clueless writers of those queries, which seemed to fall into two general categories: the misled and the misbegotten.

detergentThe misled are the writers who believe they have to sell themselves to the agent the same way you’d sell detergent. They praise their own work, which to any professional is a cringe-making gaffe that screams Amateur! “This book is different from all other books; this book will make us both rich; this book will make you laugh and cry; this book is far better than the drivel put out by [insert name of best-selling author].” Real writers don’t talk about their work that way. They let it speak for itself. It’s not impossible that the author of such a letter could have written a good book, but it’s unlikely that any agent will asked to read it.

The misbegotten are those of whom it is said “everyone has a book in him.” Perhaps everyone does, but that doesn’t mean they should let it out. Some query writers seem completely unaware of their ineptitude with the language. Anyone who would send an ungrammatical, misspelled, totally incoherent query letter cannot possibly have written a book worth reading; and there are many examples of these on the website. Other query writers are  delusional people drawn to writing in order to propagate their delusions. Every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has received book proposals from messianic messengers of doom and revelation. These are often but not always religious, but they all have discovered the secret to life. Those letters range from sad to bizarre to scary, depending on the writer’s philosophy.

Speaking of misbegotten messengers, I’d like to give a shout out to my son’s alma mater, Vassar College, which was recently targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, those lovely folk who like to picket the funerals of American servicemen. As a direct response to this group’s action, Vassar students and alumni raised  over $100,000 in a matter of weeks for the Trevor Project, an organization that helps LGBT youth. Way to make lemonade out of lemons, Vassar!

Writers who are currently seeking agents should not be deterred by sites like Slushpile Hell, but rather learn from them. These days there are so many excellent resources for writers available online that there’s no excuse for cluelessness. Before you send that query, run it by the savvy folks on Absolute Write, Agent Query, or CompuServe’s Books and Writers forum. You can also find a lot of advice on writing query letters on this blog—just click on “query letters” in the categories box to the right— with additional resources listed here.

Writing a decent query letter isn’t rocket science. It’s a business letter, not a confessional. From the perspective of top agent Gail Hochman : “A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his manuscript.” If you present yourself as a reasonable, interesting person with a compelling story to tell and enough pride in your writing to compose a letter with flawless grammar and punctuation,  agents will want to read your work.

Or won’t they? Let’s hear about your  experiences with query letters and agents.

10 Things Writers Should Expect From Literary Agents

 

Gone—long gone—are the days when writers finished their manuscripts, wrapped them in brown paper and mailed them to Mr. Doubleday or Mr. Lippincott. These days, major publishers rely on literary agents to prescreen manuscripts, and most won’t accept direct submissions from writers. That means that the first step for writers who seek mainstream publication is to seek an agent. As seasoned query hounds know, this is not as easy as opening the Yellow Pages; in fact, it’s often the hardest part of the publishing process. There are, at any given time, a few hundred agencies with the ability to get books looked at by these publishers. Last year, some 250,000 books were published in the U.S., as well as another 650,000 or so that were self-published, which gives you an idea of the number of aspiring writers out there.

You do the math. With so much demand, it’s no wonder aspiring writers obsess over the best way to catch a literary agent. The internet is full of advice for doing this, including my own articles and blog posts. But there’s precious little said on what to expect once you’ve snared the elusive beast—specifically, what to expect from it.  In the heat of the search, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the agent-writer relationship is a two-sided, mutually dependent relationship. As someone’s who has worked on both sides of the street, I thought it might be useful to assemble a little list of what writers can expect from their agents.

  1. Enthusiasm for your book. If they don’t love it, they won’t have the fortitude to stick with it even if it doesn’t sell immediately. This enthusiasm should be accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the book’s prospects. In general, part of the agent’s job is educating the writer about how the industry works.
  2. A plan. He or she should have some idea of editors who might like your work.
  3. Commitment. If a book doesn’t sell in the first round of submission, the agent should have a back-up plan. If she’s received some “close but no cigar” responses with useful feedback from the editors who declined the book, or if she has some editorial suggestions of her own, the agent and writer might want to consider a revision before making additional submissions. Otherwise, the agent should send the book out to additional publishers. How long to keep going can be a point of friction between writer and agent, as top agent Gail Hochman explains in this frank interview. Writers often want to keep going long past the point of no return, and naturally so; they have a lot more skin in their books. But at the least, those first few rounds of submission should cover a substantial number of publishers. Agents who conclude on the basis of a mere handful of rejections that the book is not worth submitting further do their clients a great disservice.
  4. Execution. I knew an agent once who took on a writer with no clear idea of how to sell her. The ms. sat gathering dust on his shelf for a full year while he deliberated. This is inexcusable. Once an agent accepts your book, and you have a “final” version ready for submission, he needs to send it out.
  5. Communication. Writers have the right to know to whom their work has been submitted; if the agent doesn’t offer this information, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask. Writers also have the right to be kept informed of the results of those submissions, including, if they choose to see them, copies of the rejection notes.
  6. Contract negotiation and vetting. This is one of the most important functions of agents. Publishing contracts are long and complicated, and good agents are experts in them. Their job is to negotiate on your behalf, obtain the best terms possible, and then vet the contracts thoroughly.
  7. Sub Rights. The agent is responsible for submitting the book to whatever subsidiary markets (film, translation, etc.) they’ve reserved on behalf of the writer, and the writer has the right to know what the agent is doing in that regard and to offer input, while bearing in mind the agent’s expertise.
  8. Payments from publishers should be passed through promptly, after agents deduct their commission.
  9. Advocate. The agent should continue to act as the writer’s advocate throughout the publishing process, staying involved in all phases of the process. A great deal of friction between writer and editor can be avoided by funneling questions and concerns through the agent, who can act as a sounding board and let the writer know what’s realistic and what’s not. If there is a real problem, the agent has more clout and in-house contacts than the writer.
  10. Career guidance. Some writers want it, others just want to be left alone to write what they want to write. Either way, the agent should be the first person to whom the writer turns for education and advice about the publishing business. To this end, there needs to be good communication between them. Writers need to respect the agents’ time—the good ones are always harried, and calling them just to chat about the state of publishing or personal matters is not considerate behavior.  But they also need to feel free to address professional concerns with their agents, and to be confident of getting a timely, thoughtful response.

Notice what I did not include on this list: editorial feedback. Some agents give extensive notes, in an effort to get the work into the best possible shape before submitting. Others accept only work that is already polished and salable, and leave the editing to editors. I’ve had agents from both camps. Neither approach is right or wrong; each agent decides according to his or her strengths and time limitations.

Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from agents as well as writers. Do you agree, disagree? What have I omitted?

What To Look For When You’re Looking For an Editor

 

Suppose you’ve written a novel, submitted it to literary agents and publishers, and found no takers, Chances are you’ve had little or no substantive feedback of explanation of where your work fell short. Because they receive such daunting quantities of submissions, agents usually stop reading as soon as they determine that a book is not for them. Not only do they not have time to write critiques of books they’re rejecting, in most cases they haven’t even read the whole book. The result is an enormously frustrating Catch 22 for writers. It’s difficult to get good enough to publish without smart, detailed feedback; but you don’t get that feedback until your work is sold. Writers can end up with enough rejections to paper a room and no idea of why.

At that stage, many writers pack it in. Either they shelve the book or they self-publish it in its current form, just to get it out there. Other writers double down by looking for an editor or workshop to help them hone the book before starting a new round of submissions or self-publishing. My last post, Have Red Pencil, Will Travel?, considers whether and when it makes sense to seek out professional help in the form of an edit, an evaluation, or a writing workshop.

Full disclosure: I’m a writing teacher myself, and I also do fiction evaluations and edits. I’m not drumming up business, though; in fact, I’ve put my workshops and editing work on hiatus while I work on the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION.

When it comes to hiring an editor, it’s buyer, beware. Anyone can call himself an editor. There are no official credentials, so it’s not like calling yourself a lawyer if you haven’t passed the bar, or a doctor if you never went to med school. Before spending money on a hired gun, better make sure he can shoot. Make sure, too, that the work you submit to the editor has already been edited to the absolute best of your ability. That will ensure that you get feedback on things you didn’t see yourself, instead of on stuff you already meant to change.  This post will provide some criteria to use in choosing an editor or writing teacher. The guidelines are similar but not the same, so I’ll present them separately. First up: what to look for in an editor.

1. Substantial, verifiable experience. Ideally, the editor will have worked for a major publishing house, or written for one. Academic credentials help—a professor of English will catch your grammatical mistakes—but the most helpful editors also have a background in publishing. And don’t just take their word for it; google them.

2. Track Record. Your goal is to get published, so you want an editor who’s helped other writers get there. There are no guarantees of success, but why not choose an editor whose students have sold books to commercial publishers? Note the word “sold.” Students who self-publish don’t count as a teaching creds. Many editors have testimonials and lists of published work on their websites. If not, feel free to ask.

3. No Inflated Claims. Any editor who promises or even implies that with his help you will sell your work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. No one can make that promise, and no reputable editor would. All he can reasonably claim is that the book will be better than it was, and you will learn something about writing in the process.

4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Look for an editor who enters into what you’re trying to accomplish, rather than imposing his own style and ideas onto the work. Editors have to be frank to be effective, but they shouldn’t run roughshod over their clients. You should come away from an edit feeling energized and enlightened, not steamrolled. Part of respect, though, is honesty. A serious critique from someone with professional standards can sting, especially at first; but if it’s too soft, you’re not getting value for money.

5. Expertise in your field. There’s no point hiring a brilliant science fiction editor if you write romance. Look for an editor who’s worked in your genre. If you’re not sure, ask.

6. Sample. Most important! Not every editor is right for every writer, and the only way to find out is to ask for a sample edit. Serious editors don’t take on every job that comes alone, so they’ll be happy to do this; they may even require it. The sample can be anything from a couple of pages to the 5000 words I read in my “Special Offer;” the cost should be nominal. Look for an editor who isn’t just making changes or correcting mechanical errors, but also teaching you something you didn’t know about writing. Send the opening pages; the feedback you get on those will be the most valuable. If you get a sample and you’re not sure the editor is right for you, keep looking.

One alternative to hiring an editor is taking a writing workshop, as rigorous as possible. Look for one that allows you to work on and share parts of your novel. In my next post, I’ll list some criteria for choosing a writing teacher. With the explosion of online classes as well as those offered in brick-and-mortar institutions, writers these days have many good options to choose from.

If you find these posts useful, you might want to sign up for the URL feed or subscribe via email. And now I’ll say goodbye for a little while. I’m going on vacation, and will be back posting on the weekend of November 17. But I’ll check in for comments, and would love to hear your thoughts about and experience in working with an editor.