Every time I think that the worst is over, some new situation arises to pull me off course. Chicago was hit with two hurricanes over the weekend. Chicago. Hurricanes. Granted, they were mainly hurricane remnants by the time they reached us, but they were still enough to flood several counties and kill almost as many people as Ike killed in Texas. We still have about a hundred miles of interstate closed in the area to the east of us, but the waters in my neighborhood began receding yesterday. So NOW (tempting fate) I believe I can begin again to reclaim a normal schedule. I can put the fishing waders away and stop worrying about the fact that all of our boats and paddles are at the cottage where they belong, instead of at the house in the suburbs where I shouldn't ever need them. And with any luck, the power will stay on.
We all go through periods like this, I suppose. The last month has been wickedly chaotic chez Theresa. Manuscripts are piling up all around me -- someone in the comments last week asked what I'm reading at the moment, and the answer is nothing. Not even submissions, except for a random read here or there, plus one small batch over this past weekend when flood waters made me a prisoner in my home.
About those submissions, I have only a few general comments to share.
Don't sign your query emails with political slogans for any candidate for office. I can't imagine why anyone would think that's a good idea. Even if we support the same candidate -- and in the current climate, odds are at 50-50 on that one -- you risk pulling my focus off your work and onto unrelated matters. Why distract me?
In fact, watch your auto-signatures in general. I don't need to be reminded in a query letter to do a breast self-exam, to back up my hard drive, or to inflate my car tires. Leave off the cartoons and smilies. Delete the funny and/or inspirational quotes from dead celebrities and/or the Bible.
While we're on the topic -- and I can't believe I need to mention this -- don't put me in your address book if you are in the habit of forwarding mass emails to your entire address book. I'm pretty tolerant of inadvertent sends, but even I will block your email address after I've received a few joke-of-the-day messages. Or disease-of-the-day. Or virus-warning-of-the-day.
I'm seeing one or two trends in the slush that lead to rejections. Unheroic heroes -- we publish romance fiction. Erotic romance, yes, but still romance. The heroes can have flaws, but not generally the kind of flaws that would lead a sensible woman to reject him. He can't be married to someone else, for example. He can't be an ex-con with a record of violent crimes against women or children. If the first time our heroine sees him, he is in the midst of an ugly public breakup, he will be unattractive to her. No sensible woman sees a man push another woman and call her a c---, and thinks, "That's the man for me." What she thinks is, "Run, sister. Run fast and far. Save yourself." Or some variation on that idea.
Don't open with set-up or backstory. Open with scene, with plot, with action and dialogue. The action you open with should be strong enough to give us an understanding of what kind of people we're reading about. Waking up and taking a shower isn't strong action -- most people do this most every day, right? One hopes. Start with an action more unique and telling. This is a general principle we see ignored over and over again, and while an occasional book can win with exposition on the first page (like Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas), most of these types of openings fail to grab the attention.
Did you all read the NYMag article about the death of publishing? Why is it that every industry change is interpreted as death? Why can't change simply be change?
There was some food for thought in the article, and a few real headscratchers. The quote that amused me the most was this bon mot about editors:
They didn’t flock to publishing because they want to publish Danielle Steel.
Oddly enough, it was a book by Danielle Steele (Palomino, which I reveal in full knowledge that it will date me) which led me to what felt like a revolutionary shift in understanding for me. I was an undergraduate in creative writing, wrapping up semester finals, and I stopped at the local library for a palate-cleanser. I'd been steeped in Tudor lit and the lost generation all semester. I wanted something fast and light and please-god-not-about-fishing-or-war, something Wodehouse, maybe. But the librarian recommended Palomino, and I read it, and it moved me.
In fact, it made me appreciate commercial fiction in a whole new way. I won't say that it made me flock to publishing so I could publish Danielle Steele, but it certainly made me see the value in commercial fiction. I absorbed a lot of scorn from my classmates over that newfound understanding, but frankly, I didn't care. Good books can be found in every section of the bookstore. I believe that. And I'm lucky enough to work in a place that cares passionately about things like writing quality and voice and putting very good books on a shelf in a section that some might scorn.
Forgive me the multi-topic ramble. Maybe clarity will return as the flood recedes.
ps. I still think it's probably a dog.