Wednesday, March 31, 2010

After the Call, Part II

Continuing with our discussion of things that happen after you get the call....


You'll probably never interact directly with the typesetters or designers any more than you would with the distributors' reps. There may be occasions when your presence or input would be requested -- for example, some years ago following an in-house, behind-the-scenes discussion over the design of our chapter headings, I posted a question about it to our business loop. As I expected, most of the authors didn't have strong preferences on the issue, but those who cared were given the opportunity to weigh in. And their input helped us make the decision.

The process is different for digital and print books. Font selection is more important with print books, for example, because we don't have to worry about the font limitations of e-book readers. And digital books basically require taking the same file and converting it over and over into a list of formats, each of which presents the possibility for surprises and glitches. I won't go into much more detail than this because, to be honest, you'd probably all be bored silly. Typesetters and book designers speak their own language riddled with terms of art, and they're incredibly detail-oriented. We love them for it. But we don't need to know much about the particulars.

At some point, you'll receive a proof copy -- loose or bound galleys, maybe a pdf, depending on house procedures -- and you'll get the first glimpse of how your actual book will look. This is a heady moment. One author commented to me that this was the moment when it stopped feeling like a manuscript and started feeling like a book. You will probably be asked to look over the galleys and check for things like bad indents, funky margins, typos, and other little mistakes that can show up at this stage or might have been missed along the way. Yes, things do get missed despite all the many pairs of eyes that examine the manuscript.

Sales, Marketing, and PR

Author involvement in these areas varies from house to house and from book to book. You might be contacted by salespeople or publicists, and you might not. Some of the decisions (like ad buys and coop, if any) will probably be made without your involvement. It's really hard to get into more detail on this topic because it's so case-specific. But generally, they'll contact you if they need anything specific.

Reviews usually fall under the PR/Marketing umbrella. Authors are always very interested in reviews, right? Some of you are even required to send out your own review copies. At our house, we handle all that. We have a list of reviewers we manage closely, and if our authors want to add or subtract particular reviewers, all they have to do is speak up. Each reviewer has its own set of submission guidelines, and even though there is a lot of commonality in their requirements, it can sometimes be a tricky terrain to navigate.

Authors are taking on more and more responsibility for promoting their work. In a way this is good because you will always be the best spokesperson for the book. Always. Getting out there and actually being the spokesperson is good for everyone -- you, the publishing house, and the readers. That said, my personal opinion is that some combination of in-house and author-driven publicity is needed. The exact measure for that combination is fluid. But there are things we can do more effectively (ad buys, distributing ARCs, etc.), and things you can do more effectively (web-based promotions such as social networking).

As far as sales goes, a few things will happen. Once the release schedule is set, the sales reps will make the books available to all the house accounts. House accounts will be composed of distributors (like Baker & Taylor and Ingram's for print, or Lightning Source and Overdrive for e-books) and direct accounts (retailers like Amazon and some other independent bookstores). For some, this process is as simple as logging or loading the book into a directory. For others, a more traditional sales approach is needed. Again, it's hard to go into specifics because so much of this depends on the parties involved.

Then there's warehousing and shipping and returns, and all the accounting associated with those procedures. One of the advantages of working with the distributors is that they handle much of the counting and accounting between the retailer and the publisher. That's great in theory, but in practice, the publishers and retailers still keep their own sets of accounts, and reconciling all these various numbers can be a headache. There are a million complicating factors, none of which I'll bore you with because they're all mathy and mind-numbing.

I think this wraps up JT's questions. I know some of you have been posting questions in the comments, and we'll get to those next. Ask 'em if you've got 'em!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

After the Call, Part I

We've been answering some questions from JT regarding the business end of things. She asked for some insight into what happens after you sell your manuscript to a publisher. Exact procedures vary somewhat from house to house, but in general, there are several departments or stages involved.


At some point, you or your agent will receive contract documents from the publisher. The contract will specify the rights being transferred, the payment for transfer (advance/royalty), options on future books, and other terms. Many of these terms, such as warranty and conflict resolution clauses, are pretty standard stuff and won't interest you much. Read them anyway, and make sure you understand them.

Depending on the publisher and the specific rights involved, your contract might be anywhere from a single page to 30 or more pages in length. Don't assume that the relative length indicates how good or bad the contract is. I've seen single-page contracts that stripped all rights and remedies from the author and two-pagers that were concise, fair, and clear. Most print contracts run longer than most e-book contracts, but there are plenty of exceptions. I just recently saw a 2-page contract for a print work, for example, from a reputable small press.

You may want to negotiate some of the specific terms. Don't be shy about that. It's expected you'll try, and it's expected you'll end up with a personally tailored contract that's somewhat different from the boilerplate we send to get started.


You may have done some editing before receiving your offer, but regardless of when it takes place, you can expect your manuscript to get put through the editing paces. This will include:
  1. Revisions, things like improving story logic, conflict, characterizations, and so on,
  2. Line editing, which is sort of like copy editing on steroids, with a spicy dash of low-level revision to keep us all awake,
  3. Copy editing for grammar, style, usage, and so on,
  4. Proofreading for typos, formatting issues, and similar "clean-up" issues after the book has been typeset.
Sometimes the four levels of editing are combined. Line editors might also copy edit as they go, for example. Copy editors might be charged with some formatting duties. A revision letter might also include instructions for line editing certain kinds of common issues. But the thing to remember through this process is that many hands will touch your manuscript, and they'll all share a common goal of improving the text. It can be disconcerting, but it's never adversarial. And it's certainly never personal.

We've talked before about how new authors are sometimes shocked by the editing process. There are other common mindsets, too, that we don't discuss as openly. But we observe that frequently the most talented and reliable authors are the ones who have crises of faith. They're the least certain of their own potential and ability. This doesn't mean that diva-esque sob stories are going to convince your editor that you're actually one of the greats in training. The great ones are also very reluctant to discuss their worries, as if airing them will expose their inadequacies. They feel lucky rather than good. They worry that their luck will abandon them, that their success so far has been a fluke, and that they'll never be able to repeat their victories, let alone continue to climb the ladder.

Then there are what I call the Adaptation trio. If you've seen the movie adaptation, you know the film is populated by several creative personalities. Susan is the creative intellectual whose success feels hollow. The twins -- no accident that they're twins, imo -- are the overeager newbie and the blocked and jaded midcareer writer. The orchid thief himself is a creative personality with commitment issues, first over-committing and then abandoning his passion in an endless quest for that one perfect creative outlet.

Believe me, we see them all. But regardless of your personality, in the end, what we all care most about is the book. It's all about the book. The pleasure of forming working relationships and getting to understand your unique place in the personality spectrum is just a bonus.

Cover Art

This is fun stuff. In most cases, you'll fill out a questionnaire for the artists. The questionnaire will ask for much more than eye color and hair color. For example, ours asks if the author prefers to show (or not to show) a bare male torso, the characters' faces, and so on. You might need to include a plot summary and any jacket blurbs.

So you'll fill out that form and probably forget about it until one day your editor shows you a draft copy of your cover. Generally, before it gets to you, it will already have been handled by an artist, an art director, an editor, sales and marketing reps, the publisher, and maybe some of the book buyers for the chains. Where you fall on this list can vary from house to house.

Depending on in-house procedures, you might be able to get changes made to the cover, and those changes might be big or small. In our house, changes to cover art are pretty rare, though, because the artists usually do a great job of honoring the questionnaire material and house style. Plus, the artists are just incredibly talented. When the covers are gorgeous to begin with, we don't see too many change requests. But they do happen sometimes.

An example of a big change: The heroine has the wrong hair color. Not just off by a shade or two, but way, way off. When this happened to a cover of ours recently, we returned it to the art director and asked for new graphics.

An example of a small change: At the request of a bookstore rep, we added some shading to one part of a cover. The art director said that wasn't difficult to do, and the result was a cover with more visual impact.

I don't know much more about the cover art process than that. I don't go to cover shoots. I don't interact with the artists. In fact, I rarely know which artist made which cover, because my contact is the art director, not the artists. She, likewise, doesn't contact the editors or authors directly, but comes to me. Yes, it adds to my email, but in a very fun way. I get to see all the squealing, happy emails when the authors first see a great cover. That's always a happy moment for me. And for everyone else, too!

Tomorrow we'll take a look at typesetting and marketing. This is a super-busy week for me, so please be patient if I'm slow to respond to questions in the comments. I see them. I am not ignoring you. We might just do a round-up post later this week and address them all at once.


Monday, March 29, 2010

More on Business Details

Continuing with JT's questions regarding business matters, today we'll talk about some other things you might want in your author's toolkit. She specifically asked about letterhead, credit cards, and websites.


Why do you need it? Very little business is done via snail mail these days. If you suspect you might need letterhead, you might simply invest in a box of good cotton or linen bond. You already have a good quality printer, right? It's easy enough to print your own letterhead onto good paper if your printer is capable of handling the job. Word processing software gives you lots of options for designing on the page. You can change font and type size. You can lay the text on the page in a particular place. You can incorporate a logo, lines, and other design features, all without anything fancier than what comes in your program.

If you have a good color laser printer or a photo-quality inkjet printer, you might even use the graphics from your website as part of your letterhead. Check the dimensions of your artwork files to make sure they'll fit on the page. You can easily re-size artwork using the standard MSPaint program that comes on most PCs. Just open the artwork in the program, click the Image tab, and select Resize/Skew. Under this same tab, you can choose Attributes to learn the dimensions of the file. Or, if you prefer, you can ask your artist to re-size them for you. If you're trying to enlarge, this might be the better option because MSPaint gives a better result with shrinking and cropping than with enlarging. That's been my experience, anyway.

Credit Cards

Do you need a credit card in your pen name? Probably not. Eventually, you may get to the point where your writing income is high enough to justify incorporation. At that point, you can use your pen name as your corporate name and set up all kinds of bank and credit accounts, get an FEIN, etc.

In the meantime, check your state's rules on DBAs. DBA (which stands for "Doing Business As") standing might be enough to allow you to apply for credit cards in your pen name. This varies a lot from state to state, though, so I can't really offer more insight than to point out that it might be an option. Your local banker should be able to give you more information on this.

For most writers, a garden variety checking account will be a perfectly workable solution. Set up a dedicated account for your writing income. It can be in your own name. Record-keeping is very important for freelance income earners, so you can use your check register to record every penny earned and expended. Many banks provide debit cards or credit cards to account holders, and these cards will frequently suffice for most of your needs.

When will you know it's time to incorporate? Your agent or accountant will probably let you know, but a good rule of thumb is that if you need an employee, you need to incorporate. But even without employees, when your income gets large, you might want to incorporate to take advantage of tax and other benefits. Again, this is something that will vary a lot from state to state. Check with your accountant for more specific information.


You need a website if you want an easy way for people to find more information about you. If you want to be a mysterious recluse, you get to skip it. But then you also get to worry about whether you're hurting your sales, alienating your readers, and setting yourself up to need a second job when you're 70.

It's easy enough to build a web presence even without a formal website. Take this blog, for example. I asked my good friend Red to design us a banner and avatar. We signed up for a free account, and we did most of the link-building and design work (such as it is) ourselves. If you want something spiffier than a blogspot blog, you can use wordpress, which is a bit harder to learn but gives you many more layout and format options. You can set up your blog to look like a standard website by only allowing the newest post to appear on the front page, and then using the post links to act like links to new releases, backlist, and so forth.

If you want to spring for a domain and standard site -- and when you start to rack up releases, you might want to do exactly that -- you'll need a couple of things like a domain name, a basic working knowledge of html, maybe a wysiwig editor like Frontpage or Dreamweaver, some graphics, and so on. You might want to hire a web designer to create your website, or you might want to do it yourself. Websites run from a few hundred to many thousands, and reputable web designers will quote prices for you. Remember to keep records of all these expenses for your taxes and accounting.

Consider other free options, too, like your publisher's website and blog, facebook profiles and fan pages (which can be made fully find-able by search engines), twitter, myspace, and so on. See if you can get added into the rotation on an existing group blog, which will be less work overall but will still help you reach readers.

For more ideas on branding and web design, take a look at some of our past posts on PR. And I'm sure our commenters can offer more ideas on this topic. Most people start out baffled by business and PR requirements, but it's easy enough to learn. Time, dedication, a good network, and maybe a little cash are all you need.

Friday, March 26, 2010

And you thought I get happy with the red pen. Heh. Not to get political -- seriously, this is not the forum to debate the content of this photo -- but this is a page of one of Obama's speeches about the new health insurance law. Look at the editing. Love it! I aspire to be this meticulous.

Tip of the hat to my friend Linda, who sent me this picture and the headline photo from last week. I don't know where she's finding this stuff, but it sure is fun blog fodder.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Business Cards and Other Trappings

JT sent us an email with a whole slew of business-related questions. We're going to take her questions in stages, starting with one about business cards. (Don't forget -- you can email us at edittorrent@ gmail dot com with questions, or just post them in the comments.)

So, let's start with the basic proposition that writers don't use business cards the same way that, for example, an attorney or salesman would use them. In those professions, business cards are used to try to connect with new clients. Basic contact information is included, maybe a logo, and that's it. The professional hands out hundreds of cards over the course of a year. Every new encounter is a chance for a new business connection.

Authors can use business cards in the same way to promote new releases or backlist. Wherever you go, you meet potential new fans, and passing out a little reminder in the form of a business card is probably a cheap and easy way to promote your books. Bookmarks might be a bit more friendly, but it won't hurt to have business cards with your pen name and releases listed, your website url, your twitter or facebook profiles, and that sort of thing. You can select graphics that build your brand, and you can use the front and back side of the card to include more graphics or blurbs.

But you wouldn't want to hand out your phone number to strangers in the checkout line, would you? So in that case, you might leave off some of your contact information, just for privacy's sake.

And in that case, the card won't do you much good at an industry conference. When you're at a conference and you hand your card to an agent or editor, we want it to have contact information. In fact, it's the main thing we want, plus something that will help us remember you when we're thinking back over the hundreds of people we met. I frequently jot notes on the backs of business cards indicating where I met the author, who introduced us, hair color, details of the conversation, anything that might trigger my memory when I pick up the card later.

Notice that I do actually make use of these cards. I know some folks will toss them after the conference, but I tend to keep them. Not always, though. The ones I toss are the ones from casual encounters (not pitches or other formal meetings) where there was no place for me to write my notes. The card may be beautiful, with glossy roses and swirly text and stars and rainbows and all good things. But if it doesn't help me remember my particular encounter with the author, it's not serving my purpose.

A very smart author once came into a pitch and handed me a very ordinary business card together with a fancy bookmark with all her book covers on it. That impressed me right out of the starting gate. It told me she understood the difference between promoting herself to readers and interacting with other professionals. I was able to use the card to make my notes, and you better believe that one of my notes was about her pretty bookmark.

Another author handed me a somewhat fancier card with her log line pitch pre-printed on the back. This was during a pitch, and that approach made a lot of sense. But outside of a pitching environment, it might not be as effective. And the logistics are a bit confounding. How many pitch cards do you have printed? Do you still get regular cards, too, or just go with bookmarks? I don't know the answers to those questions, but perhaps Team Comments will have better insights.

Another author once handed me a postcard with her book cover and jacket copy on it, and as we were talking, she peeled a sticker off a label sheet and affixed it to the card. The label had her contact information. I thought that was clever, and I'm surprised more people don't do something like that. It let her get around the problem of whether to get different kinds of business cards printed, or whether to spend her money on promotional items or cards or both.

That said, I appreciate business cards more than bookmarks or postcards, mainly because they're easier for me to index and store. I have a plastic case for them. They're alphabetized for search purposes, though I run into problems sometimes with the whole pen name/real name thing. I'm bad with names to begin with, and it's a new fresh hell to have to remember two names for everyone. Please consider putting all your various names on your cards. This won't help me with my indexing system, but it will help me connect your names and brands to the person I met in the bar.

Another helpful thing -- put something like Author or Freelance Writer or something on your card. I keep my author cards in a separate place from all the cards for typesetters, e-book designers, web designers, freelance editors, cover artists, SEO specialists, publicists, booksellers, distributor reps, printers, and all the other non-author business types I encounter. I don't care what job title you assign yourself, though my weird personal quirk is that I tend to read "Author" as someone already published and "Writer" as someone at the beginning of their career. I don't know if this is universal, but I doubt it. And I have no idea where I absorbed that particular distinction.

So that's my take on author business cards. If you have particular questions or tips, please do post them in the comments.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Feedback Wanted

Some time ago, we started getting hammered in the comments by Asian porn spammers, meat salesmen, and other reprobates. Because we noticed they tended to post a day or more after a post went live, we implemented a feature that would let us screen all comments that appeared a day or more after the post went live.

Since then, we've noticed a real drop-off in comments. I think one of two things is happening. Either the moderation feature is a disincentive to commenters, or comments are getting lost. Either way, this is not a good thing.

So here's my question. If we go back to unmoderated comments and add a rule against all advertisements, will that work better? Got any other ideas? Our comment zone is too important to us to see it harmed by bad policies. We want to encourage lively debate here.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Few Thoughts on First Person

Last week in the comments to my post about the slush pile, several of you questioned our policy about first person manuscripts. This has come up before, and I thought maybe it would be worth front-page attention for two reasons. First, it touches on the way publishing houses operate. And second, we can talk about some of the pitfalls of first person.

In-House Debates

Editors are not all-powerful goddesses, even though we look the part. ;) We have bosses, just like any other person working a job. I'm the managing editor, and my boss is the publisher, and part of my job is enforcing the publisher's rules across the entire acquisitions and editing process.

Sometimes I get to make some rules, and sometimes I get to influence some rules, and sometimes I do what I'm told without having any influence on that mandated rule. Part of being an effective employee is knowing when to hold and when to fold. The first time, the very first time, I asked my boss about her rule banning first person narratives, the tone in her voice made it clear that this was not a hand I wanted to play. She has strong feelings on the subject, and I trust her editorial sense. If she says these don't fit our house style and mission, then they don't, and that's that.

I might ante up on other topics, and at different times, I've played my cards on a wide variety of subjects. Don't ask for details, though, because another part of my job is to be a good public representative of the company. This means that, win or lose, I don't air our debates in public. We present a unified front because we are, in fact, unified in our mission of making this company strong and positive and supportive and successful.

Some battles have been hard fought and hard won, but never in the sense that my boss and I are adversaries. We play on the same team. She's my leader, and I am her enforcer. We might disagree in the course of making decisions, but in the end, once the decision is made, I implement it without further debate. And to the best of my ability. Because that's my role, and it's one I embrace willingly.

So. We don't publish first-person narratives because our publisher said not to, and she means it. I've never tried to change her mind on this topic because I know how to pick my battles, and because, even though I enjoy reading first person stories, the slush pile has convinced me that the publisher is probably right about this.

First Person Pitfalls

It surprises me to say that because I enjoy first person narratives. I read plenty of them -- in fact, right now, I'm working my way with great pleasure through the Tasha Alexander books, which are first-person historical mysteries. Before I came to work at Red Sage, I handled plenty of first-person narratives as a freelance editor, writing instructor, agent, and so on. I have no bias against this form of pov.

But our books are erotic romances, which means there's a higher than average (and more explicit than average) amount of sexual content in them. Human sexual behavior tends to be highly personal (with some commonalities, of course), and pov might influence the way we read a sex scene more so than it influences the way we read other kinds of scenes. That is, it's one thing to read about someone else doing something that we might not do. It's entirely another to read about "I" doing it. And all it takes is one little detail, one thing that the reader might not personally relate to, and the reader bond is weakened. Maybe even broken.


I kissed my way down his broad, strong back, admiring the planes of his muscles as I lingered here or there. When I reached his ass, I pulled apart the round globes of his cheeks and then I licked his asshole. (Reader: OMG, I would never do that.)

She kissed her way down his broad, strong back, admiring the planes of his muscles as she lingered here or there. When she reached his ass, she pulled apart the round globes of his cheeks and then she licked his asshole. (Reader: Euw, but okay, if you think it's fun, go for it and I'll watch and wait until you start doing things I like better.)

Yes, there is the third option, the one in which a reader thinks, Yay! Yummy! and eagerly reads for more asshole licking, regardless of the pov of the narrative. As a house, we can choose to cater to this reader, perhaps by including notes on the product page about particular fetishes. Or we can choose, as we have chosen, a more mainstream approach which focuses on character, premise, plot, conflict, etc., and references the sexual content as it relates to those elements. This better fits our house style and mission.

There are other common pitfalls to first person which are unrelated to sexual content. Just listing them off the top of my head --

  1. Uneven voice. It frequently happens that the author can sustain the first-person narrator's voice during exposition ("telling") or interior monologue, but completely loses it during action and dialogue.
  2. Too much exposition. An inexperienced author sometimes tries to compensate for this uneven voice by relying more on exposition than on scenes. This makes for a boring narrative, no matter how lively the character voice.
  3. Drowning in I. Too many I pronouns can make for a claustrophobic and repetitive narrative.
  4. Failure to leverage. This is one of my pet peeves. The main reason to choose first person pov is to provide a consistent filter through which the reader perceives the action. First person narrators are often unreliable because their perspectives color their interpretations of the narratives. It's that filter in action. Bridget Jones was wrong about Daniel Cleaver and wrong about Mark Darcy, but we initially saw these characters through her eyes, so we wandered down the wrong path with her. Would that story have been as entertaining if Bridget was always right?
In my early days with Red Sage, when I ran across a first person narrative I really liked (and that would work better in third person*), I would ask the author to revise it. I got some really great stories this way, but for every great story, I got ten or twenty authors who wanted to argue their way into getting the story published in first person. They can't win that argument with me any more than I can win it with my publisher. I don't mind that they tried, but I minded very much the few who continued to argue after I explained that their choice was to revise it or to pull it because of house style rules.

*I don't ask for changes that would weaken the story. Duh, right? There have been extremely rare instances (Alicia will remember one) when we've had first person narratives that were exactly right as first person narratives. The action was vivid and strong, the voice was consistent and interesting, the amount of exposition was appropriate, the narrative frame was relevant to the story, and the sexual content was both hot enough and mainstream enough to work within the context of erotic romance as we publish them. But these are extremely rare manuscripts, and we handle them with caution. More likely, as we ask for revisions to a first-person narrative, we're also discussing other changes we want to make, like a shift in narrative focus away from telling and into actual scenes.

This is in danger of turning into a ramble now. Instead of continuing to get deeper into detail, I'll turn it back over to the commenters who prompted this post. Does this answer your questions? Does it raise more questions?


Monday, March 22, 2010

Squinting Modifiers

A couple of weeks ago, in the course of another post, I used the term squinting modifier. This drew several comments, and I thought it made sense to explore this concept a little more thoroughly.

To begin (as we always begin posts about modifiers and sentence structure), let's review the Golden Rule of Modifiers. Say it with me now after the chorus of angels sings its fanfare.

*chorus of angels sings fanfare*

The Golden Rule of Modifiers
Modifiers go next to the words they modify.

Over the years, we've talked pretty extensively about dangling modifiers, which are words or phrases that modify no word in the sentence, such as my perennial favorite:

Relaxing on the patio, the pizza tasted great.

Pizzas might taste great, but they don't relax on patios. Who is relaxing? Presumably the person or people eating the pizza, but there's no noun in that sentence that relates to the pizza eaters.

We've also talked pretty extensively about misplaced modifiers, primarily in the context of the dreaded PPP.

The inmate tried to escape when he saw the doctor, slipping into the nurse's station.

Who slipped into the nurse's station? The doctor or the inmate? Placement suggests it's the doctor, but logic suggests it might have been part of the inmate's escape attempt. Changing the placement clarifies the meaning:

When he saw the doctor, the inmate tried to escape, slipping into the nurse's station.

Still not a great sentence, but now it's clear which character is doing what. All we had to do was move the adverb clause, which contained a noun (doctor) that intruded between the modifier (slipping etc.) and the noun it modified (inmate).

When you're checking your sentences for clarity, try this trick. Isolate the modifying phrase, and then pick the word you mean for it to modify. We used to use the umbrella trick in grammar school. We would circle the modifier and the word it modified, and draw an umbrella arc connecting them, like so:

If another noun is under the umbrella (hello, doctor!), then you've got the potential for confusion. Try moving the phrase or clause with that under-the-umbrella noun out from under the umbrella, and the sentence is instantly clearer.

There's a third strain of this placement issue in which there are two possible modified words bracketing the modifier. In that case, the phrase can lean on either noun and create two totally different meanings:

Mary said at the prom Greg embarrassed her.

What happened at the prom? Did Mary say this, or did Greg embarrass her?

In this example, at the prom is the modifier. If it leans on the preceding clause, then we have two units of thought as so--
Mary said at the prom
Greg embarrassed her.

But if it leans on the following clause, our units of thought are--
Mary said
at the prom Greg embarrassed her.

This placement issue is known as a two-way modifier or a squinting modifier. Fixing it is easy. Figure out which way the phrase leans, and then move it in that direction. So if it leans toward Mary said, move it to the other side of that clause --

At the prom, Mary said Greg embarrassed her.

And if it leans toward Greg embarrassed her, move it to the other side of that clause--

Mary said Greg embarrassed her at the prom.

This is very easy to see when you only have three units in the sentence, as here, where we have two clauses and one modifying phrase. It gets trickier with more elaborate sentences, but only because you have to be more careful about identifying the actual direction and length of the lean. Make sure you isolate the phrases and clauses so that you move the squinter to the right place, and you'll be fine.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I came across this in a favorite song, A Good Year for the Roses:

And the sound of our one baby's crying goes unheard.

Now I usually listen to the Counting Crows' version, and that above is how the singer renders it. our one baby's crying.

But this is a popular song to cover, and other singers say what probably I'd say:
And the sound of our one baby crying goes unheard.

Do you see the difference? The first has "baby" as the possessive noun and "crying" as a gerund (an -ing word used as a noun).

The second has "baby" as a noun, and "crying" as a participle modifying that noun.

Let's try it structurally--
The sound of our one baby('s) crying (subject phrase)
goes unheard (verb phrase)

Then let's break down the subject phrase:
The sound (noun, actual subject)
of (preposition)
our one baby (noun, object of preposition)crying (adjectival participle, modifying the noun)
our one baby's crying (object of preposition-- possessive noun and gerund noun)

That is, in both cases, the "of" phrase is modifying "the sound"-- telling us what the sound is, and the verb phrase ("goes unheard") explains what the sound DOES.

So... are both "our one baby's crying goes unheard" and "our one baby crying goes unheard" correct?

I think so. It's actually a similar issue to:
I spoke to him about his/him speeding.

That is, is the noun there going to be possessive or not? Is the participle there a gerund (noun) or an adjective?

Minor point, I know-- both are perfectly correct. But I wonder why we'd choose one over the other.

(Yes, this is the place you come when you really want to contemplate the sound of one hand clapping. Or one's hand clapping. :)


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tales from the Slush Pile

Recently found in the slush (identifying details obscured to protect the writers)--

  1. An author who spends an entire paragraph explaining, in carefully worded but deceptively vague terms, why her submission fits our guidelines. In fact, it doesn't even come close, and even a cursory glance at our website should have proved that. It's a canned letter, which is fine, but these "spaghetti on the wall" submissions sometimes irritate me. This one sure does. Why make such a grand point about fitting our guidelines if you're just going to ignore them anyway?
  2. Several manuscripts in first person pov. We don't publish these. It could be brilliant, and the publisher will still hold to her rule against this style. I used to sometimes ask for revisions on these, but not so much anymore. I just don't have time for that. I am tempted to start a drinking game, though. First person? Drink! Who drinks? "I" do! Alas, that would slow my response time even further. Better stick to coffee and tea.
  3. A clutch of stories with wives cheating on their husbands. This is a trend now? Cheating spouses almost always going to come across as unheroic, unsympathetic characters. There are exceptions, which typically involve some sort of heroic self-sacrifice or permission from the non-cheating spouse. That is, the "he pissed me off, so I'm gonna get him back by doing his brother" motivation probably won't work. Plus, we say "no marital infidelity" in the guidelines.
  4. Double bonus: A cheating wife story told in first person. Everyone drinks twice!
  5. A half-dozen or so stories with jailbait characters. There's no way we'll publish stories like this. Not gonna happen. I'm not going to jail for anyone's youth fetish. With several of the particular stories under consideration, it would be so easy to age the characters by a year or two and avoid the problem. So why even go there in the first place?
  6. Several very good stories in the 70-100k range. Word must be getting around that we're looking for these. Here's a submission tip -- anything over 55k is an editorial priority right now. There are reasons for that, but we're not ready to make any announcements yet. Details will follow when there are share-able details.
  7. Two -- yes, two! yay! -- that were referred by in-house authors. Real referrals, too, not just the "I met your author once and am trying to make it sound like a referral" referral. I love the real ones. It's a sign that our authors are happy enough to recommend us. I route these submissions to editors with somewhat lighter loads right now, with notes pointing out the connections, and with high hopes that a fast response will be given.
  8. Verb tenses matter. I can forgive an occasional error with the past perfect tense or the subjunctive mood (which can trip up anyone, really). But random uses of present, present progressive, etc., in place of the narrative simple past are probably going to undermine your credibility as an author. We're also seeing a rash of improperly conjugated conditional verbs. Verbs are too important to be treated so poorly.
  9. Know what else matters? Two things-- EROTIC CONTENT and ROMANCE. (Sorry to get all shouty and capital, but sheesh.)

All told, I knocked out about 80-ish submissions. About a half dozen either were routed to editors for further review or triggered an automatic request for a full. I'm also pleased to note that, due to our new procedures and system, our response time on initial queries is improving. This is a good thing for everyone.


Monday, March 15, 2010

POV Glitch

I had not noticed it when she first arrived: the way she leaned too far toward him as he kissed her hand, the hint of surprised recognition in his eyes.
~ A Fatal Waltz, Tasha Alexander

That's the first line of the third book in the Lady Emily Ashton series. I've already read the first two, so I already know we're dealing with a competent, controlled author. Even the best can run into these small pov snags, though.

What's the problem with this sentence? We're dealing with a first-person narrative. This means the narrative should be confined to what is within the scope of the viewpoint of the narrator. So, if the narrator didn't notice these things, how can she report them? She can't, not without breaking the pov. Or, if she did notice them, why does she say she didn't?

Can anyone see a way to read this sentence so that it doesn't break pov? There is a way, but you would need to spell it out for the reader in the next sentence or sentences, I think. In the alternative, there might be a way to tweak that sentence so that the meaning is slightly different but the pov remains pure. Anyone care to take a stab at this as an exercise?


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Making it plausible

Sometimes even the best writers seem to take the easy way out, presenting something implausible or character-inconsistent to the reader. For example, I was reading an Ellis Peters book (and I esteem Ellis Peters-- I read her books over and over), and there was a scene where Cadfael (the monk-detective) double-crosses a knight (who is amused and will become a friend). The "MacGuffin," as Hitchcock would call it, is some treasure of silver and gold plate that Barringar (the knight) knows Cadfael has. Cadfael wants to give this to a young couple who are fleeing England's civil war. But Cadfael, when caught, sits on a burlap sack full of clanky things as if he's trying to hide the treasure. And Barringar falls for it and seizes the sack.

So far so good-- the implausible part comes after. The young couple get away with their goods (and the treasure, of course), and Cadfael allows the knight to escort him back to Shrewsbury (keeping him occupied so that he doesn't go after the youngsters). The knight talks merrily of how, when he gets back, he'll open the bag and have the treasure to fund his marriage. But... he never opens the bag. And of course, we know and Cadfael knows... the treasure is on the way to France with the young couple.

Why doesn't Barringar open the bag? Because the author needs him to be occupied and not chasing the real fortune and the young lovers. And that's not a good enough reason. It's not plausible that he would ride along with the bag tied to his saddle and not at any moment stop and look. Humans aren't built that way ("look, shiny!"), not to mention he knows Cadfael is a sneaky old bugger.

But Peters just doesn't make that plausible, perhaps because she didn't realize that it would jolt with us as "unlikely." So often we don't notice when something is implausible or inconsistent in our own story, though it would really stick out when we're reading someone else's. And it's often necessary to have this thing happen, for example, Barringar -can't- open the bag too early or he will discover it doesn't contain the treasure-- 1) so that the young lovers can safely escape, which he wouldn't allow if he knew the truth, and 2) he has to show that he has underestimated Cadfael's brilliance, and 3) he has to show that he is capable of laughing at himself later.

But you see, all this can be accomplished AND also be plausible. So if you were writing this, how would you make it plausible that Barringar doesn't open that bag?

I'd have some reason he couldn't open it here, like it's chained closed and he needs equipment to open it, and that's back at the castle. So that bag can't just be burlap (easily cut with a knife), but maybe a couple layers of leather, or chainmail (oh, btw, this is medieval, so no Samsonite :). And of course, it doesn't have to be a bag. Anything that can be tied to a horse (a small trunk?) could work.

So what's a simple, believable reason why Barringar has to bring the bag intact back to the castle before he opens it?


Monday, March 8, 2010

On Hiatus

We're taking a short break from blogging due to personal matters this week. I might have time to sneak in a post later in the week, but don't hold your breath. Regular posting should resume next week.

Sorry, folks. Sometimes the planets align, and sometimes they collide and explode.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Quick Tip for Hyphens and Adjectives

This just came up in correspondence with an author, and I thought I would share it here.

There's a quick and dirty test for knowing whether you need to hyphenate adjectives. Let's say, for example, you're pondering the phrase,

mind blowing images

and debating the hyphen between mind and blowing. In order to decide, just split apart the pieces and see if it still makes sense:

mind images
blowing images

Er, not so much. You really need to link mind and blowing because these two words form one conceptual unit, so you need a hyphen. Contrast this with,

tall cold beer

which can be split into

tall beer
cold beer

and still make sense. In that case, no hyphen is needed.

This isn't an all-purpose rule. There are exceptions, such as

beautifully made gown

because the -ly adverb used in this compound way never requires a hyphen. And then there are borderline cases, such as

ruby red gown

in which ruby modifies red, but can also be said to modify gown. These are sometimes called squinting modifiers -- modifiers which can be read to modify two different pieces -- and are held by purists to be evidence of imprecise writing. If you want to eliminate the squint, hyphenate ruby and red. Alternately, choose either ruby or red to modify gown. But, honestly, this is one of those areas of style and grammar in which reasonable minds can differ. You might choose one method and find that your copy editor changes it on you.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Personal news

You might have seen this in Pub Marketplace:
From Publisher's Marketplace: Alicia Rasley's THE RICHEST GIRLS IN TOWN, in which a woman's life unravels when she discovers her husband's love child, to Debra Dixon and Deborah Smith at Bell Bridge Books, in a nice deal, for publication in February 2011 (World).

This is the dratted Book of My Heart, and I'm glad it found such a good home (and that I get to go with it :).


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Special Guest Post from a Contest Winner

Faithful readers will recall that in December, we hosted a contest on this blog to celebrate our second anniversary. We chose two winners, and each submitted sample pages and a synopsis for a spin through the professional editor's machine. Alicia's winner, Jill Stone, graciously agreed to provide us some feedback on the process.

Critique coping skills from a writer who is learning to love the red.

The critique, a rite of passage for any writer, has always been an uneasy process for me, so when I got word I had won a chapter critique from Alicia and Theresa at Edit Torrent, I looked forward to their insight and commentary with eager...wariness.

I’m strong. I’m tough. I’ve been in an on-line critique group for a year and I have a critique partner who is my biggest fan and worst nightmare critic. So I am used to critical commentary, right? Well, yes and no. I will be the first to admit that I was not entirely prepared for what I got back from Edit Torrent. A scene by scene plot and character analysis, as well as detailed remarks throughout the chapter. Nearly a month later, I still open the critique file and work on edits, carefully considering the editor’s remarks as I make revisions.

Over the past year, I have learned a few critique survival techniques, which I am happy to blog about. For example, the first thing I do is read through all the red, close up the file and take a deep breath. Let the process percolate, especially when contemplating major changes, like the suggestion below I received from the editor. Ready? Here goes:

“First, I think that initial scene could be trimmed or deleted. Unless those characters come in again {and there's no sign in the synopsis that they do), I'm not sure you want to waste the opening on them. The lack of setting and positioning suggested to me that you weren't really committed anyway-- the scene and characters didn't come to life, and you weren't really in any viewpoint, and it was impossible to visualize the scene.”

Excuse me while I let that ricochet off the inside of my skull and through my cerebral cortex. (My version of a deep breath.)

Let’s break it down, shall we? First of all, the editor is at a disadvantage because she doesn’t know the characters in the opening scene do have roles to play throughout the novel and are more than just colorful props. I write an assortment of eccentric minor characters into my romantic suspense tales and they don’t all fit in a four page synopsis.

On to the next comment about lack of setting and positioning. Now that is something I can work on. I like to open my stories in the middle of a scene and allow the reader to get to know the characters through their dialogue as the action unfolds. Will I ever be the kind of storyteller who opens with paragraphs of narrative that stage the scene? Probably not. (Being influenced by Elmore Leonard doesn’t help matters any.) But I can add a descriptive sentence here and there which will enhance the story and slyly reveal information to the reader.

“The characters do not come to life.” Here, I have an honest disagreement with the editor’s opinion. Enough said. “And you don’t really have any viewpoint.” I would say the majority of my rewrite time is spent on deepening my protagonist’s POV, so I shall continue on in that direction. It is obvious I need to develop greater brilliance in scene staging using dialogue, action and a few sentences of narrative. (I like to think of narrative as internal dialogue. I reminds me to tell the story through all the senses of the protagonist).

Also, I do not focus solely on what needs fixing. I learn from the positive remarks I receive, as well. The encouraging comments tell me what I am doing right. They underline my strengths as a writer and give me the confidence I need to take risks and find my own voice. How about these from Edit Torrent:

“I love the way the two detectives talk to each other. They are so cagey, and yet understand each other. Very nice! And their voices sound so right. Thanks for letting me read this! I think you have a great project here, and your voice is sure and your dialogue rings very true to me.”

Here are the truths I have come to accept about the craft of writing: A writer needs both praise and criticism in order to grow, and the critique/edit process is never easy. Let’s face it, how much better am I going to get as a writer if I receive a few grammar marks and a chat room smiley face at the end of the story? Not much.

My heartfelt thanks to both Theresa and Alicia for the time and effort they took with the chapter and synopsis. I will try to remember that red is good for me, and that someday there may be less of it.

G. Jillian Stone

There are fields in time that burn with desire. Meet me there.

Jillian is currently finishing the second manuscript in The Yard Men Series. Set in late Victorian London, Scotland Yard detectives have never been as wickedly sexy or as brilliantly clever. To read more about her latest work in progress, THE SEDUCTION OF PHAETON BLACK, please drop by her website: