Wednesday, October 22, 2014

History Repeats Itself So Don't Panic

So now what do you do? You have just spent 3-4 months working on your latest project and you attend a conference only to hear the panel of editors and agents say that your genre is simply not selling. They openly say they are not even considering signing anyone who writes in that genre. You sit there in the ballroom listening to this panel go on and on about other genres and all you can think about is, "Great, and I was going to pitch to these people later today!"

Let me tell you there is no reason to panic. There is hope. In fact, I am betting that in the time it takes you to write another novel, the tide will have shifted and this same panel will be begging for your project.

The deal is that publishing does go in waves. This is a market driven business and even the editors and agents have no idea what will work or not work.

One publisher I work with told me one month they were simply not acquiring a specific genre. Their group of authors were selling like crazy, and they simply didn't need anyone else. But get this, about 5-6 months later, I get an email from the same editor asking me if I had anyone writing in that genre. It had shifted that fast.

I was listening yesterday to a segment on NPR talking about the newest line up for TV programing this season. As the specialist who was being interviewed noted, if they are lucky 50% of the shows will survive the first couple of episodes. What those shows will be is a complete guessing game. In fact, the reporter was noting that some of the shows with the best reviews were tanking it, while those with reviews that were less than favorable seemed to be doing well. Why? They could only guess it was when the show was on and what it followed or preceded, but even then that was mere speculation.

We see this all of the time. The market simply shifts and when we thought there was no hope for a genre, it suddenly spikes.

I will admit that part of it has to do with what the editors and agents have sitting on their shelves at this time. Let me use Greyhaus as an example. Right now, the historical line-up is REALLY full. I have a full house when it comes to historicals so unless you are bringing something truly unique, I will likely not be acquiring. Let me stress that it doesn't mean I am not looking, it simply means that I am pretty full up on historical authors who are doing well. In other genres, I have holes, so those are the ones I am looking for.

Agents will also start looking depending on what we see the market doing. Right now, I have had a lot of editors talking to me wanting more book club women's fiction, so I look for that.

How long with this last? It goes until the market shifts again.

So what about your story?

I would simply argue to go ahead and start working on your next project. Keep looking around and see if someone has a hole on their shelf for your project. There may be a space. Just because there isn't one at publisher X there might be one at publisher Y. Also remember that since this market is always shifting, the odds are things will open up.

The moral of the story? DON'T PANIC! You will be fine.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Alpha Males Don't Have To Be Abusive

In the last three books I have read, I have seen a disturbing trend in the way the heroes in the book have been depicted. In all three, these men have been described as "alpha males". These are men who know what they want and know what it takes to get it. While this might seem like a trait we want to see in our heroes for romance novels, I am wondering if we have somehow blurred the edges a bit
and taken it too far to the extreme.

I turned to the Urban Dictionary today for a definition of alpha males:

The term 'Alpha Male' can be defined in both a classical and modern sense. The classical definition derives from the animal kingdom and represents a physical form of dominance over other males. The alpha male lion, for example, claims sexual rights to all females, fights off other male lions to enforce it, eats first after every hunt and dominates a vast territory of land for hunting rights.

In a modern/human sense, younger males (teens, early 20s) will subscribe to the classical form. Like a lion, they will often be the strongest, most intimidating, hit on all of the women beta makes want, are usually the first to have new sexual experiences and often dominate a set territory in their 'hunt' for new women, such as local nightclub scenes. 
Older alpha males, however, will evolve the classical traits of strength, intimidation and dominance beyond the physical by gaining power over men through their very means of living and professional reputation. A powerful business executive, for example, will hire, promote, demote and fire others according to how well they serve his own interests. Rock stars, famous actors and other individuals of 'power' hold very similar capabilities over others in their respective professions.
Younger alpha males who cannot mature into the modern form will usually cling to the classical form of alpha-maleness for as long as possible.

While there is something to be said with this definition, that these men know what they want and will get what they want, I fear that this depiction could be sending the wrong message to the readers, especially in the romance and women's fiction genres (I am including here YA romance and more importantly New Adult). Look at the last part of this definition...

Older alpha males, however, will evolve the classical traits of strength, intimidation and dominance beyond the physical by gaining power over men through their very means of living and professional reputation. A powerful business executive, for example, will hire, promote, demote and fire others according to how well they serve his own interests. 
In simple terms, the classic traits of strength have turned into something worse.
As I said, the last three books have been a bit disturbing. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that stories have to be prudish in nature, but these last books have pushed the barrier a bit too far, in my humble opinion. In each of these books, the men would tell the women what they wanted. They would demand the women act and behave in a specific way. What was worse, is that the authors depicted the women in the story as accepting it, and in some cases, asking for the abuse.

Sure, the authors were trying to use this to increase the "sexual experience" and giving the readers a chance to experience BDSM scenes in, what I am sure the authors would consider a "safe environment" since it is "only in a story", but again, the question has to be asked, what message is this really sending?
Consider these numbers:
In an article by Roni Caryn Rabin in the New York Times in December of 2011, "Nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner. One in six women have been stalked, according to the report." She goes on to note, "By that definition, 1 percent of women surveyed reported being raped in the previous year, a figure that suggests that 1.3 million American women annually may be victims of rape or attempted rape.... That figure is significantly higher than previous estimates. The Department of Justice estimated that 188,380 Americans were victims of sexual violence last year. Only 84,767 assaults defined as forcible rapes were reported in 2010, according to national statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

These are significant numbers that cannot be ignored. I do understand that throwing the word of "rape" into the mix might seem a bit harsh, but for many of these women, what started as simply a "dominant male" turned into something more sinister.

But this goes beyond simply the sexual displays we are seeing in these books. The "alpha males" in these books, who, again, "know what they want and know how to get it" are potentially moving into the realm of emotional abuse. "In the 2012 ABS Personal Safety Survey (PSS) and this article, emotional abuse is defined as abuse that occurs when a person is subjected to behaviors or actions (often repeatedly) aimed at preventing or controlling their behavior, with the intent to cause them emotional harm or fear through manipulation, isolation or intimidation."

While these authors might write these stories with the intent of showing a man who is strong and confident, we have to be careful to not push that trait to the extreme. This is especially important when we look at the plots and the themes we are seeing in many of the New Adult novels today. We are seeing authors who have their young heroines meeting up and connecting with these "older alpha males" and building a supposed relationship. In the query letters I read, these women (or maybe we should say young girls" are first "fascinated and intrigued" by this powerful man, and then "magnetically drawn into his world." These descriptions certainly do have a powerful feel to them, and yet, maybe it is indeed sending a false message. 
In an Australian study done earlier this year, "Of those who had experienced emotional abuse by their current partner, over a third (37%) of women ...had also experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15."

Please understand that I am not saying tone things down. As I said in the beginning, I am not wanting to sound like a prude here, but maybe authors need to stop and consider what they are writing. I do think this is especially important for our female authors (and yes editors and agents) who I am sure would be some of the strongest advocates for female rights and protecting this population. When the publishing world promotes books such as this, we have to question if this is just a way to say physical, emotional and sexual abuse of women is justifiable for a "good sale"? I personally don't think that is the case.

At Greyhaus, I will continue to reject stories that promote this type of behavior. Strong heroes are fine. Powerful men are fine. But when authors write stories that push it too far, then expect that rejection letter from me.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Persistence Means You Should Be Learning

One of the things I enjoy about this business is getting to see the growth of writers who are really working hard on improving their craft. They will submit a project to me that isn't quite right so I pass
on it. Several months later, I see a new project and hopefully we are seeing some improvement in the work they did. I have been able to sign these authors on their second or third project from the growth they were able to demonstrate.

This is persistence.

Unfortunately, I do believe that many authors believe that persistence is to just keep sending things out to those editors or agents in the hopes that something will stick. For some, they even send out the same project to the same person hoping that maybe, at this particular time, the project is right, even though it wasn't working in the prior submission. There were no improvements to the project. They just sent the same dang thing out again.

The word persistence doesn't mean just doing something over and over again. We need to learn from our mistakes. We need to make changes in what we do so we don't end up with the same results time and time again. This is what we want to see as agents and editors. We want writers who can submit a project and, if it isn't good, find a way to make it better. We want writers who can learn and grow with every project they do.

If all you are doing is sending out your projects time and time again to editors and agents without stopping to assess why that prior person passed on the story, you are making a huge mistake. With every rejection letter, it is a time to re-assess what you are doing to find out what works and what doesn't work.

Now I do know that you might not be fortunate enough to get a rejection letter with a full line edit from that editor or agent, but, if you do get any nugget of information back from that person, it is time to go back and revisit that story. Is this something that is just subjective and might change from one editor/agent to the next, or is it something that really will come back and haunt you? If it is, then it is certainly time to make a change.

I would also add that if you are having several people tell you the same thing (your CP's, contest comments, editors and agents) then I am sorry to say this, but it isn't a subjective thing and your story needs to be fixed. I am always shocked when I pass on a story and get a letter back from the author telling me that "several people have said the same thing already so I guess I better go fix it." Ya think?

Yes we want you to keep trying, but make changes as you go. This is truly the only way you are going to make it in this business.

Friday, October 17, 2014

When Poor Grammar Gets In The Way

I know this might seem like a pretty common sense idea, but if you have poor grammar in your query letter, in your synopsis and in your manuscript, the reader will simply not get your message and will likely give up on you pretty quick. This is certainly not the result you want when you are sending a project to an editor or agent and it is their first glance at what you can do.

There seems to be this thought floating around out there that editors and agents are pretty lenient when it comes to the grammar. I do believe writers think that if the content of the story is good, the editors and agents will then take care of the grammar on their end. While this is partially true for the published authors who do have the benefit of copy and line editors, this is NOT the case for authors sending projects out for the first time. I would also add that if you are a published author sending in stories that are huge grammar messes, do not expect to see another contract very soon. You are just too lazy and making too much work for the people on the other side.

Let's start with a basic concept of communication called semantic noise. While this is often a concept found in speech and communication classes, it can equally be applied to the work we do in writing and publishing.

Semantic noise in communication is a type of disturbance in the transmission of a message that interferes with the interpretation of the message due to ambiguity in words, sentences or symbols used in the transmission of the message.

When we are talking about a disturbance in the transmission of the message, it is simply talking about how we understand what you have written. If a story has huge issues of grammar, spelling or other convention errors, it takes far too much work to get to the real heart of the story. The reader spends so much time dissecting the grammar and trying to figure out your sentence construction, that we end up missing the really good stuff about the plot and the character.

No, I am sorry to say this, but you cannot blame the poor grammar on "creativity." Yes, we understand that in dialogue, the characters may speak in fragments, but in the narration and the part of the story where YOU as the author are talking, we shouldn't see this. Yes, we understand that poor grammar might be a trait of the character you have written (for example Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn) but that is not an excuse for anything outside of that character.

What people fail to realize is that the rules of grammar are simply the rules of the road. Punctuation marks and all of those other conventions are there to tell us how to read the story and not how you write the story.

As an agent, when I receive a query letter, I am already making a judgement call based on how you have written that letter. While I will likely still look at your synopsis and partial, the odds are I have already made a decision that I am going to pass on a story, IF the author has a pathetic sense of grammar and spelling.

Yes, we can over-look a small error, but let me get this straight, we are talking 1 or MAYBE 2 small errors that could be attributed to being a typo. Of course I might be the exception here. Maybe other editors and agents are willing to teach you the basics of grammar and spelling we learned in the 4th though 7th grade, but I for one am not someone who will do this.

If you are going to call yourself a writer then you need to show you can demonstrate the basics of being a writer. If you really don't know these basics, you have a couple of choices: A) learn those skills before moving ahead with this career; B) find someone who is willing to do all of this work for you before you send it out; or C) find another career.