Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Important Steps Before Submitting To Editors and Agents

I don't want to spend the time today talking about query letters. I don't want to spend the time talking about synopsis writing. I also don't want to spend the time talking about the first three chapters of your manuscript. We have covered that over and over again (not just me but you have a multitude of other people who have given that advice). Instead I want to talk about what you should be doing BEFORE you bother to submit.

Let's start at the beginning.

Do you remember a concept taught to you in school known as the Writing Process? This is the same concept that is taught in numerous writing craft books as well. Regardless of what version you look at, the first phase of the writing process is known as PRE-WRITING. I am stressing this because this same concept should be used during the submission process.

It is during that pre-writing phase that you do your planning, you think about purpose, you do your research, and you do your outlining. You don't start writing until you have taken the time to truly conceptualize the project. This is not something that just writers do. Screenwriters and movie makers do the same thing with things such as concept boards and so forth.

When it comes to submitting projects, you should darn well be doing the same thing. The submission process is not a matter of firing up your email and copying and pasting your generic cover letter and attaching the generic synopsis and full manuscript to hundreds of emails. You know the list? You just copied and pasted that list from those external sources such as Query Tracker or Author Query. You are not throwing darts.

Before you even think of sending out a manuscript, you need to do your research and you need to do some thinking about what you want for your book and your career. You are out looking for the right match for your story and for you. This means doing things such as:

  • Reading books from the publisher you want to be at and see if your voice fits.
  • Reading books the agent you are thinking about and see if their style matches yours
  • Research the approaches the agent thinks is the best for a project.
  • Find the one editor who shares the same voice of your story. 
  • Examine what that editor or agent really likes to see in a story and/or submission.
  • Etc.
Yes, this is going to take time. And no, you cannot say the information is not out there. I do admit that some publishers and agencies have less information out there on their single website, but this is research people! You will have to look around. You will have to talk to people. You will have to get off your butt and maybe go to a conference these people are at. No, that does not mean you pitch to them there. This is research.

I just scanned my email box and I will be answering a lot of submissions over the Thanksgiving weekend (it's nice not to go anywhere). I bring this up because as I scanned that list, over 80% of that list are for projects where the author clearly did not do the research and pay attention to details. For example, I have a ton of authors who seem to believe that the email they used is not the one I have listed for submissions only. Guess what? These authors just gave me a reason for rejecting them. Apparently following directions is not something these authors wish to do.

So, instead of using this Thanksgiving break as a chance to "dump" manuscripts on unsuspecting editors and agents, take the time to start that research. No, it will not be finished by Monday, but start it. You might discover things that you had not seen before.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Suspense is Like a Whiskey: It Needs To Be Sipped and Savored

I was in need of a book to read last weekend so I grabbed one at one of those "community book shelves" at my local gym. You know the ones? Leave a book and take a book. In any case, I grabbed one by an author I know and started into it. No, I am not going to bring up the name of the author here, that is not the point.

In this case, it was a historical romantic suspense. I love historical romance and a good suspense is always fun.

As I read it, I started turning on the dissection portion of my brain. What was it about this novel that was drawing me into it. The characters were just OK. The plot was not that, how should I say it, that original. Sure, this author had some great lines, but these didn't go for pages and pages. I can also say those lines did not hook me so I wanted to keep reading to find one more of those gems. Even the first three chapters were not that over-the-top amazing. Good but...

So what was it?

It was the pacing.

This author knew how, in this story, to let tidbits of information out every now and then to make me think about a new piece of the puzzle. Every now and then, she would say one little thing to make me stop and think how that would turn out. Even with the romance she did that. These characters were not hot and heavy in bed every chapter. Instead, she was able to, again, every now and then, drop a subtle glance, a tentative thought, a moment of potential hotness that was going on between them.

Romantic suspense is one of those genres that I turn away a lot. I am overly picky about these darn things and much of it has to do with these small little twists. Look, I read romance so I know about predictability, but that does not mean that I have figured out who the bad guy is by the end of chapter 1. I know the hero and heroine are going to get together, but I don't want to see them ready to move to the alter at the end of chapter 1. Pace it out.

When I think about suspense and pacing, I am reminded of a comment Hitchcock made about building suspense. He described the difference between terror and suspense with a sample scene.

Version A - He could show people sitting around a desk talking for a block of time. They can be talking about any subject and then, at the end of the time, he can blow up the table. That is terror.

Version B - He can show that exact same scene, but right before they start talking, he can show the audience the bomb under the table and the time. Now the suspense builds because we see it and we know what is going to happen.

The key is pacing. The key is know when to drop those nuggets of information to draw the reader in.

So, if you are someone writing romantic suspense, which I should add is a really tough one to write, play around with this. You might find that the struggles you have had stem from the pacing.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Why Did You Pick That Time Period For Your Contemporary?

OK., let me just say that I am someone who loved the 80's. Actually, I loved the music of the 80's, and yes, I did have a Members Only Jacket. But, with that said, if I were to write a contemporary romance, I would not set it in the 80's. I would set it in the present.

As an agent, I am always wondering what it is that motivates an author to set their contemporary romance in these more contemporary times, primarily the 60's-90's. If the purpose of the romance is to watch a blooming relationship, and that IS the central focus, then putting in these other time periods do not make much of a sense.

I do try hard to figure out what was going on in the person's head when he or she wrote the story and to this day, I cannot figure it out. The time period ends up having nothing to do with the story line, and, in the end, it all reads like a regular story. Other than a token reference to something in that time period, that is about it.

If you are a fiction writer, you have to remember that moving it to a different time period is the same as putting a new character in your book. The setting does need to be treated just like a dominant secondary character. There has to be a relevant reason for doing this.

I did have one author, during a pitch session, tell me why she set her contemporary romance in the 70's. Her heroine was trying to track down a relative and she wanted to make sure that computers and the Internet were not available. That was it. REALLY? There are a ton of other ways you can craft a story to keep that relative hidden away from the heroine. When she moved it to that time period, she ended up having to create that new FULL layer to the story, which, unfortunately, took the readers away from the real meat of the story.

As you determine that setting, it is important that you treat your "contemporary" story just like the historical authors would. They picked that time period for a reason. There was a conflict going on at that time. There was significance to that time. And more importantly, that time period DOES play a role in the story.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why Authors Need Outside Readers

Editing is not fun. In fact, if you ask any author, they would probably rank editing right up there with root canals or teaching little kids to tie their shoes. It sucks. But what is worse is when you have been working hard on a book, edited the crud out of it, and then you get it back from a friend only to find huge mistakes.

What happened?

The answer is simple. You edited it.

For writers, it is beyond crucial to have someone on the outside read your manuscripts and edit those stories for you. No, I am not just talking about the content here. I am talking about the grammar, the punctuation and the typos. You need to understand that these small errors might be the difference between some editor or agent wanting to see more and that infamous rejection letter.

So, why do we have so much difficulty editing our own work? It comes down to some pretty basic things. You are:

  • Too close to the work - This one is pretty easy to understand. You have been working like crazy on your story. You know that thing inside and out. But when you know it that well, you will often breeze right through a section because you know "you just wrote that section" or "you know you spent a lot of time writing that the first time." Because you know it so well, it will also link into a lot of the other problems below.
  • Too rushed - That darn deadline. Whether or not it is from an editor, a contest deadline, or a self-imposed deadline, you will often work a lot faster if you know you have to get that story turned in. Rushing through it will force you to skip sections. You might also find yourself editing the story on the computer with your finger right on that down arrow. As you edit, you will probably find yourself hitting that key even faster. The end result?? You missed mistakes
  • Too tired - We all have busy lives. I get it. But if you are editing either after a marathon writing session, or editing during a time period when your brain is just not there, you will make mistakes. I know this sounds obvious, but it is true. Editing requires much more focus than you would need when writing that story. It is mindless entertainment and if you are not on your game, you will miss things.
  • Reading miscues - This one is annoying. Reading miscues are simply times when your brain doesn't want to make mistakes so it covers up the errors. These are situations when you might type the same word two times in a row and not catch it. This could be when you write "quiet" when you wanted to write "quite." When your brain sees the mistake, it simply fixes it in your head for you and you don't see it.
  • Reliance on technology - This is when you are hoping that MSWord and your spell checker and grammar checker are going to catch things. You have to remember that your computer cannot read. It is simply looking for patterns in letter combinations. I should also add that the grammar checker, unless you have adjusted it on your own, is not checking for everything. In fact, the new MSWord (2013) isn't even checking for Fragments and Run-ons. Even after you set it to look for GRAMMAR AND STYLE, it will not look for those mistakes. You have to manually check the boxes. For those of you computer illiterate, you might want to talk to someone who can walk you through it.
The point is, having someone else look at your work will be a new set of eyes. No, you don't have to pay someone to do this for you. It is perfectly fine to work with those critique partners. But remember, in the end, we are all human and we will make mistakes. We just have to take a bit more time in the hopes we make less of those than the other writer out there.