Wednesday, April 28, 2010

To Thomas: Well, as luck has it... LUCK has it!

Thomas points to some not-so-well-written bestsellers and says (not sure if he's saying we're steering everyone wrong by talking about how to write good sentences and good scenes ):
So, should I concentrate on passive structure, ignore POV pad my work with uninteresting facts and narrate the whole story, while disregarding my characters, or should I try sky-diving without the parachute?

Thomas, first, I'm not one who thinks a good book will always get a good sale. (I can't think that, or I have to face some terrible facts about my own unsold novel. ) Bad things happen. Van Gogh didn't sell a painting till he died, etc. (Okay, yeah, he sold one painting.) I'm not suggesting that writers die (actually, agents and editors are kind of reluctant to go with work by a dead person, I found out when making queries for a friend who ended up literary executor for a dead writer), but I am suggesting that the market is fickle, publishers don't always fully value quality, etc.

While we'd be happy if everyone who read this blog wrote to us happy news ("I did what you suggested and took out that inaccurate use of the word 'ironically', and that was the trick! The next time I submitted, I got a million dollar offer! And I'm so grateful, I'm going to send you guys 10%, and also I'm going to dedicate the book to you!!!! And tell you what! I'm also flying all those helpful commenters to Fiji for a writer's retreat!"), I hope that's not actually why anyone reads this blog (to learn selling tricks). We just write about what interests us, which might or might not help someone while writing a book that eventually sells. I do think that we try to help writers write better and get more conscious about how to create good sentences. And if you get out of our blog posts even one little suggestion that you apply and it makes your book better (if not more sellable), I'm happy, and you should be too. :)

But yes, I know all too well that gnawing frustration at reading a bestseller and knowing that it fails that "good book" test, and yet it's a bestseller! I know. I know. Sigh. What can I say. Life isn't fair. Publishing particularly isn't fair.

Truth is, though, anyone who tells you that he/she can insure a bestseller is:
A) already a bestseller with a great contract,
B) scamming you,
C) has great blackmail material on someone at Random House.

So what can we do? Get drunk. That might help. :)

Okay, okay. Practically speaking. Well, first, I'd say, instead of focusing on what bestselling authors do not-so-good, focus on what they do well. They're doing something well enough to attract an agent who can make a big sale, right? They're doing something right enough that some editor has put his/her reputation on the line at the publisher to push it,right?

So what is that? What is so good about this book that it overcomes the passive voice, the headhopping, the whatever?

You tell me. Don't tell me "nothing," because I don't believe it.

Now consider whatever "that" is, and it's probably either "a great premise," or "a fast pace," or "great storytelling," and think about how that's accomplished.

Then try to achieve "that" in your own book, ALONG with active voice, deep characterization, effective POV, and the rest.

Does this insure you a bestseller? Nah. I forgot. There's another ingredient, called "luck," and that, alas, you can't control. But if you concentrate on writing the best book you can, then if/when the luck lightning strikes, you'll be positioned to take advantage of it.

You have control of this much:
Your story
Your expression of it
Your scenes
Your pacing
Your willingness to do the work of finishing the book (this is my downfall!)
Your learning when and where to submit the book
Your pleasant interactions with people who can make decisions in the industry
Your persistence

You don't have a whole lot of control over your innate talent, though you can of course maximize that.

And you have virtually no control over:
The market
The economy
The publisher's immediate situation

And you have no control at all over:

Do your best at what you can control. You will, of course, do better at some things that others, so really highlight those, especially in your submission package (that is, if you have a great premise, work very hard on your pitch/query, and go after agents who have sold other "great-premise" books). Work on improving what you're not so good at. You never know what will most impress a particular agent or editor, so why take a chance on having that less than great?

Many bestsellers are bestsellers partly because of the author's persistence, btw, and often the "huh?" ones are the ones who have been publishing steadily for years, gathering new readers with each, and eventually get enough sales for the publisher to start pushing them, and sometimes that's not with the best book they've produced, just the one that they turn in (on deadline!) when the publisher finally takes note of them and decides to give them a lead slot and a publicity budget.

Can you improve your luck? Well, I don't think so, and in my experience, there's all this karmic activity going on that ensures if you TRY to be lucky, it'll ricochet and your great agent will be fired in some terribly scandalous and very public way just after taking you on, and anyone associated with said agent will immediately become tainted forever. (Sorry. I just think it's dangerous to fool with luck! And I once did have a minor stroke of good luck, getting taken on by a young agent at a very hot agency, and I thought my future was assured, and then she got fired in what sounded like a fairly ugly situation, and I think every single one of her authors was cast out of the agency as into the desert. I am not saying that my having good luck once caused that much misery, but you have to wonder. :)

Can you improve the market? Well, JK Rowling did. She saved print publishing, or at least postponed its demise for a decade, but I don't think that's likely to happen again.

So, what the heck. You can do one thing: Improve your book, make it great.
And send it out, and write another great book, and send that out, and work on meeting agents and editors, and work on the query letters, and cross your fingers and toes.

Beyond that, I don't have any advice about selling a book. Our thoughts are mostly on writing a book. :)

Luck. Really. If you got that, you got it all. Then again, it might be easier just to buy a lottery ticket!


Conference Report, Day One

I arrived in Columbus yesterday shortly before noon, and the first person I saw upon entering the hotel was Rachael Herron. Squeal, hug, etc. :) Rachael and I had already planned a yarn crawl for Tuesday afternoon -- it's our little conference tradition, much cherished, but this is the first time we've gone just the two of us. What a treat to spend time with her. Lovely, lovely woman, and you should all buy her book, How to Knit a Love Song, now available at all bookstores and Target. (I linked that to Borders for your shopping convenience.) It's charming and bright and funny, just like Rachael.

So we cabbed out to a yarn shop recommended by some of the Columbus knitting locals, and dude, we were NOT disappointed. The place has AISLES. We walked in the door, and the clerk instantly recognized Rachael and went into mild but genuine fangirl raptures. (Rachael is a bit of a celebrity in the knitting world. Check out her blog Yarn-a-Go-Go and you'll see why. See note about charming, bright, and funny above.) So we had a good giggle about how the knitters were all like, "OMG, Theresa, you're going yarn crawling with Rachael Herron?" And the writers were all like, "OMG, Rachael, you're going yarn crawling with Theresa Stevens?" Because that's how it happens when you're a slightly bloated fish in a very tiny pond.

Anyway. You probably don't want to hear about the yarn or the knitting anymore.

But could I interest you in some ice cream? Jeni's ice cream, featured on the Food Network, has probably the best ice cream I have ever eaten in my entire life. And the flavors are beyond anything. They have this deal where you can get three mini-scoops, which amounts to about a regular scoop and a half, so that was what we did. I had the -- get this -- roasted cherry and goat cheese (imagine frozen cherry cheesecake, but better), the brown butter (OMG YOU MUST TRY IT), and the dark chocolate, which was a bit like eating an ultra-gourmet frozen fudge. Rachael had the chili spice, the salty caramel, and I forget her third flavor. We were both in ice cream heaven. Jeni's is located in the North Market, just north and a noodge west of the convention center. Really, you can't miss it. The market also has a fruit stand, wine shop, and lots of little sandwich and takeout stands, all very reasonably priced. I may go there for lunch today and for more ice cream. I have a hankering for some of the mango lassi and meyer lemon this time.

I had hoped to connect with one of my authors last night, but here's how the rest of the day went. I returned to my room to drop off my yarn, and my phone was ringing as soon as I walked in. My friends Alexis Fleming and Lyn Cash were looking for me, and I learned that Lyn had to leave early Wednesday morning. So I headed out to meet them, and one thing led to another. Or to put it more precisely, we decided to get dinner in the hotel restaurant. OVER TWO HOURS LATER we were still sitting at the table praying for food to arrive. At one point, one of our companions got up, marched into the kitchen, and demanded of the cooks, "Who do I have to fuck to get a waiter at our table?" (Best. Conference. Moment. EVER.) That got their attention. But it didn't get our food prepared any faster. Avoid the in-house restaurant, and head to the short north or arena areas, all within an easy two-block walk, unless you want to send people to your hotel room for a snack while you're waiting for your salads. (Seriously. Crackers from the room while we waited and waited.)

In any event, thank God the company was good, because we had a nice chat and mingled with some of the other famished and neglected restaurant patrons. A few brief laps through the bar to look for people and say hello were also included in my Tuesday, but by the time we finished with our never-ending dinner, I really wanted to find my bed.

I have heard some inside gossip, but nothing earth-shattering and nothing I can post here. More like business as usual. Lots of discussion about advances at various houses as authors are still adapting to the reality of lower advances. A lot of garden-variety grumbling about the usual things -- this one was slow to respond to a submission, that one dropped the ball on scheduling something, another has lower-than-hoped-for sales, etc. You know the drill. Everyone loves the writing and hates the business. Those of you who've been around publishing for a while know that these are perennial grumbles that have more to do with the way the industry operates than with anything else.

Today is a little knit-in, our Red Sage spotlight, and some time with authors. There's a party tonight, though I can't recall which one and probably will go to the bar instead. If you're at the hotel, look for me there and say hello. I'll be wearing a grey tweed pantsuit with a black shirt. This funereal ensemble will make people thing I belong at the coffin-makers convention also going on in the hotel this week. Everyone, go peek inside their show floor and help me figure out whether the blue lighthouse thingie is a coffin. I really, really want it to be.


Sunday, April 25, 2010


You know that moment when you realize that something in your plot is entirely dependent on coincidence? And you think that the reader might scoff because it's so unlikely? And the event is too important to the plot to drop or change radically?

Well. You know, acknowledging this problem is the first step to fixing it. The next step is to explore how it COULD happen if it can't happen coincidentally.

Whenever you find yourself saying, "Just happened to-- So Pete just happened to stop by the restaurant for dinner..." assume that you're trying to do an end run around plausibility. Stop. Think through.

Let's start with an example. Coincidence is pretty common in mysteries, especially classical mysteries (like Poirot), because you need suspects. That is, in this location, you need a whole group of people who had motive to murder the victim.

Here's one I just encountered.
Heroine and heroine are at a country inn in England (this is in the 19th Century). A decade ago, the heroine left her home in Russia. Now at the inn, she encounters a Russian man who worked for her parents. That night, he's murdered. Oh, and I need some suspects, besides her, right? So here's the Foreign Office official who was posted to Russia back a decade ago, and the mysterious Frenchman, a former soldier who was on Napoleon's ill-fated march to Moscow, and....

But the biggest coincidence is simply that someone in England runs into this Russian guy and cares enough to murder him.

So first step is accepting there's a problem, that this is too big a coincidence. As soon as I realized that, I admitted also that I did need for things to transpire pretty much this way-- the Russian has to accost her at the inn, the other suspects knew him and were also at the inn. So I spent a bit of time thinking how could that be so?

Well, because everyone planned it. I think the Russian was trying to blackmail the couple, and so he sought them out in London. The Frenchman is hanging out with a bunch of emigres in London (he's just a red herring, so he doesn't actually have to know the Russian at any point, as he didn't actually kill him or seek him out. He's just foreign, which is suspicious.) The Russian was following her (to give her something of her father's), and Foreign Office couple (suspecting he knew something about their nefarious activities in Russia, and no, I don't know yet what they are :) followed him to the inn, and so did the Frenchman. So there's only a bit of coincidence at the beginning, but after that, everything's planned. But of course the murderer wants it all to seem like coincidence ("I just happened to be passing by...") so there would seem to be no motive. I will doubtlessly refine as I write, now that I accept that there's too much coincidence. And I'll emphasize things like... oh, London is a big city, so it's not as unlikely that foreigners would be there as in a remote country inn. And I'd imply that these were not invisible people (they were rich and well-connected) so they'd be easy for the Russian to find if he wants to track them down.

Anyway, it's hard to acknowledge that too much of our plot relies on coincidence. But acknowledging that is really the first step to remedying it. And all you have to do is think, "If this same thing happened because someone made it happen, how would it happen?"

I do have to point out one problem that comes up, however! I had a book where I had a seeming coincidence in the opening. It wasn't a coincidence, actually-- that was just a clue that the man knew the main character in the distant past. But when I sent the first three chapters to an agent, she rejected it, saying that the plot relied too much on coincidence. But it didn't, I wanted to protest. It just seems like coincidence, but all makes sense later! But it was too late. (And that might only have been the ostensible reason for rejection anyway.) So I'm not sure how to hint that it's only LOOKS like coincidence. Thoughts here? What about in the query letter? What about in the scene of seeming coincidence itself?


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Time and sentences

Here's an interesting article about steampunk--

One of the little things we edit for is time sequence in sentences. Usually (not always, but remember that we want to establish the convention so the unconventional can stand out and be important), you want the sentence and the action to proceed in the same direction, so the reader doesn't have to puzzle out what happened first. The order of the sentence should make that clear.

Again, there are times where you want to dislocate the reader and make her stop and puzzle out what you mean. However, you don't want that when you don't want that. Don't puzzle the reader when you really just want the reader to read on and accumulate what's happening and make sense of it without stopping.

So notice that when you have:
Before he caught Rover, he put on his running shoes after taking off his loafers. Then he chased the dog down the street.'re likely to get a "huh?" from the reader, and a momentary rejiggering of events:
"Oh. Okay. First he took off his loafers. Then he put on his running shoes. Then he chased the dog down the street. THEN he caught Rover. Got it."
Now notice, all those events really happened, and they happened in a sequence (just not the one in the sentence :).

I'm thinking that you might want to have a breach in sequence when the connection is causal:
Before he stepped into the street, he looked both ways.
That is, presumably the first event is that he realizes he's about to step into the street, SO he looks both ways. So we might want to have the cause (the imminence of stepping) before the effect (looking both ways).

Also, all intent is not to be fulfilled. "Before" implies a potentiality, and that means something might not happen. And in that case, the "before" which never happens will work at the beginning:
Before she could stop him, he'd run into the street.

But, again, the subtleties of sentence are preserved when you reserve them for when you actually want that meaning. So I try not to mess with sequence unless I mean it.

Here's a sentence similar one I recently edited. (Don't count on the editor to catch and fix these. Make your sentences mean what you want to mean.)
She went into the kitchen and started cooking but only after he first stopped her to tell her about all his many food allergies.
Unless there's a reason not to, assemble the sentence elements chronologically.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Irony, juxtaposition, coincidence

Sorry I've been on hiatus for so long, and thanks to Theresa for posting so much. My mother died after a long illness, and I went to England for a couple weeks (getting back right before the volcano cloud would have trapped me... but being trapped in England is sort of my hope for the afterlife :).

Anyway, I'm back to the usual much work and travail. But I decided to get back into the posting mode by talking about "irony". That's because I was reading a book about the big economic crisis we mostly avoided, and about the bankers involved, and there's a line about how pre-crisis-- I'll paraphrase here, because I don't recall the details-- "(name of bank) CEO (name of CEO) bought a $25 million apartment on the Upper East Side, ironically, the same apartment once owned by (another bank) CEO (name of CEO)."

Well, of course, I have to grouse about this. Coincidence does not an irony make. Just because two rich guys in the same line of work at some point own the same apartment in the same banker-friendly area of Manhattan doesn't make it even that much of a coincidence-- I mean, who but bank-bonus-babies can afford $25M apartments? It's sort of like saying that by a huge coincidence, both I and my neighbor happen to go out to dinner at a nearby restaurant Friday night. Well, no, it's not that big a coincidence, since it's Friday night and the restaurant is nearby.

Anyway, this got me thinking about what REALLY makes for irony. What would make Banker A and Banker B both owning the same apartment (at different times) ironic, do you think?

Well, let's define dramatic irony. I was taught it's a disparity between what the audience understands and the character understands, but I don't like that, because it seems to me that it's not just perception that makes an event ironic. (That is, wouldn't an ironic event be ironic even if no one notices?) Most of the dictionary definitions hit this distinction between the audience and character, but... but that supposes 1) the audience makes the irony by noticing it, thereby requiring an audience, and 2) the character doesn't notice the irony and certainly doesn't create it deliberately.

Oedipus understands the irony of his situation, I think, that in trying to figure out who the murderer is, he outs himself.

Iago certainly MEANS to be ironic when he praises Othello (trying to make Othello trust him). (But it's more than just a ploy... Iago wants to trick Othello, in order to prove himself superior... hmm... the audience realizes that. Does Iago?)

Stephen Colbert means to be ironic when he pretends to want to be the Bush White House press secretary and tells reporters, ""But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!"

So while a disconnect between the character and the audience can be ironic (it was certainly ironic that the White House correspondents refused to get the joke :), I wouldn't say it's necessary. (Maybe the "character" is Othello? The WH correspondents?)

What's necessary? Well, juxtaposition, I think. That is, two events or people or somethings have to be juxtaposed, whether it's Colbert's view of White House reporters and their own self-images ("the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage....") or Iago's desire to destroy Othello and Othello's belief in his loyalty.

But "juxtaposition" is more than opposition and more than coincidence, right? To juxtapose means that something is overlaid on something else (that is, they're connected, as both are about, say, Iago's feelings for Othello), but slanted or cock-eyed somehow. They aren't identical or parallel (as, ahem, when two rich bankers in the same wealth class and professional circle buy the same apartment), but related and distinct.

Also I think the irony has to mean something, has to show us something in a different light. Coincidence doesn't do that. ("Gee! I never knew that rich people bought expensive apartments!" Uh, no.) With Oedipus, there are several messages that come out of the juxtaposition, the "be careful what you wish for" one, for example, and "truth might set you free, but it's lies that make you happy". "That which makes you great (curiosity, a desire for truth) will bring you down" is quite ironic, I think.

Colbert's irony has the meaning that it's really hard to be tough on the president when you have dinner with him and depend on him for news.

Iago's ironic situation has the meaning that the ones we trust the most have the greatest power to betray us.

(Hmm. What's ironic? The event or the lines? That is, is what Colbert said ironic? Or just the event that what most people found wickedly funny left the reporters in stony silence? Or both? Is it just Iago's observations which are ironic, or the position he puts Othello in?) (Is it the juxtaposition that is ironic, or the result?)

So... anyway. Let's go back to the bankers and the expensive apartment. What would make that event of buying the same apartment truly ironic?

The dh suggests that the first banker was being bugged by the FBI, and the second banker gets caught in the net and arrested. I was thinking that would be -really- ironic if Banker 1 was Banker 2's idol, and that 2 bought the apartment because he so admired 1 and wanted to be like him. THEN he finds out the FBI had bugs all over the apartment? Would it be more or less ironic if what he really admired about 1 was his "honesty and ethics"?

What if 2 got the apartment at a huge discount because he'd ruined 1 in some deal, and 1 had to sell to avoid foreclosure, and so 2 feels like he triumphed over 1 and the symbol of this is the apartment... and it's the apartment that eventually leads to his downfall (because the FBI had it bugged)?

What else?

What's the diff between ironical speech and sarcasm? Was Iago just being sarcastic?

How much of this requires an involved and savvy audience? Can the banker's downfall be ironic even if there's no audience to it? (But don't we at least like to imagine #1's glee at reading of #2's arrest?)

Irony is important in fiction and drama, and juxtaposition is REALLY important. Okay, so is juxtaposition always ironic? Is irony always funny?

Here's an example of something I think gets meaning from juxtaposition but maybe isn't ironic (though it requires a savvy audience), Rhonda in Big Love singing "Happiest Girl." If you know the show (which kind of grows on me, though I think it's annoying ), Rhonda is a 15-year-old bride of "The Prophet" (the old man in the first frame of the video). Oh, she's going to be his 9th wife-- and the others are all still alive.

So here she is, singing this "happy song" and she looks (and is) miserable. (She's also a lying manipulator, and that tests our sympathy... but she is a victim.) Also she's singing a song about the love between equals ("You make my lunch and I'll make yours"), and monogamy, and she's the powerless child bride of an aging but still very powerful polygamist.

Is that irony? Or just juxtaposition? Does the juxtaposition create irony or subtext? Is irony subtext, or is subtext irony, or???

And more important than the audience almost is the author-- there's a writer who is forcing these two things into juxtaposition. (I mean, selection is all in irony, isn't it? It wouldn't be ironic if she were singing, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.") So does there have to be a consciousness of the irony before it's even presented to the audience?

Does anyone use irony much? What are your thoughts about this? I think I use "meaningful juxtaposition," but I don't know if it's ironic.

I am wrestling with a character who is deliberately and self-consciously ironic, and I'm finding it hard to make any dramatic irony... I think because he's his own audience, noticing the irony. (Oscar Wilde's characters were like that, come to think of it.)

Alicia (who thinks what befell the bankers wasn't ironic enough :)

Question on Scouts

Phoenix asks,

One topic I don't see discussed much is the role of scouts in publishing. Can you elaborate on how they work, when they work, for whom they work, and if there's anything a writer can do to, um, you know, influence their recommendations? ;o)

If by "scouts" you mean "people who find writers to do particular projects" (that is, that we reach out to you with a project idea rather than you reaching out to us), there are two basic categories of scouting activities.

First is done by book packagers. I don't know much about that corner of the industry, so I'm perhaps not the right person to explain this. With that caveat, I can tell you that packagers generate concepts and find writers to execute those concepts. (Think "Sweet Valley High.") The books tend to be written as work-for-hire, meaning that the authors don't earn royalties. Packagers look for authors who can write to specs -- meaning that if the author is provided a guide sheet and plot/character summaries, they can turn out a book to match those criteria. And they also want professionals known to meet deadlines, execute well, etc. Of course, we all want that. Nothing really special about that. (Note: TO spec is not the same as ON spec. TO spec means you're given a "bible" of specifications to follow and are expected to craft a story that matches the details in the specs. ON spec means you write something independently and submit it on speculation, meaning there's no contract or even a quiet nod of approval from anyone with acquisition authority.)

Second is done by editors, but it's not quite the same type of scouting done by packagers. We build networks over time. We know who's good, who's reliable, who's fast. If we find ourselves with a sudden hole in the calendar, we can reach for our rolodex and start making calls.

Sometimes those calls go out to authors we've already worked with, as with an invitation we recently issued to an author to submit something we particularly need right now. I told her editor to ask her for something. We asked her specifically because she's very upbeat, a good worker, reliable, a strong writer -- all the qualities that would lead to her completing a solid draft fairly quickly. (And she did complete it quickly, and we evaluated it quickly, and now she's got revisions to work on. We started with a high opinion of this author, and she proved us right, and I love her for it.)

Sometimes those calls go out to new-to-us authors. This happened recently when an author dropped out of a project, but we wanted to continue with the project itself. We called someone, a journalist used to working on tight deadlines and with heavy editorial involvement. She's never written for us before, but I know her from way back. She's part of my network. I know I'm handing her a challenge, but I also know I can trust her to nail it. This isn't all that unusual, by the way. Ghostwriters and book doctors are often hired the same way, straight out of an editor's rolodex.

So, that's kind of the nutshell version of how scouting, such as it is, works in publishing. The truth is that we don't do much scouting because we don't have to. Good new writers tend to self-identify by actively submitting, attending conferences, etc. Agents act as gatekeepers, personal referrals turn up new candidates, and as always, the two key ingredients are writing well and putting yourself out there in a positive way.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Visit Me at RU! :)

I know it's been a quiet week around here, which you can bet means a crazy week for me away from the blog.

But I do have a substantive post on verb tenses up over at Romance University today. We're talking about the ways fiction uses verb tenses, and how that might be different from what you were taught in school.


Friday, April 9, 2010


Up too early this morning, just one of those mornings when there's no reason for insomnia but it strikes anyway. So I finally gave up the attempt and crawled to my desk for a good old slush dive.

In an hour, I banged through about two dozen subs. That works out to roughly 2.5 minutes per sub, except that averaging them out in this way doesn't give a good representation of how the hour was actually spent. I opened the submission and scanned right away for three things:

  1. Is it romance?
  2. Is there erotic content?
  3. What is the word count?
Today I was able to eliminate about half of the opened submissions within 30 seconds because they didn't pass that 1-2-3 test. So that means I spent maybe 6 minutes on a dozen subs, and nearly an hour on the remaining dozen.

That still works out to about 4.5 minutes per sub, and though that's almost double our earlier average, it probably still seems like I'm skimming or not giving enough attention to each manuscript.

But again, averages don't show the whole picture. Of that dozen subs that passed the 1-2-3 test, probably 10 were rejected quickly for problems in the technical aspects of the writing. In general, if the first page contains multiple verb tense errors, dangling modifiers, bad dialogue tags, punctuation errors, and so on, we know the rest of the manuscript will be in much the same shape. Those can be rejected in probably two minutes each, three if I get distracted and start editing in my head.

So let's estimate 6 minutes on the subs that are completely wrong for us, and another 20 minutes on the ones that are fast rejections for bad writing. This leaves us with two manuscripts and about half an hour left in the hour or so. If the writer followed our guidelines, this means we're looking at two one-page synopses and two ten-page partials.

For the first the writing is very good. Lots of energy in the prose. Clear characterizations. Good stuff. But from reading the synopsis, it's clear that there's a structural problem in the plot. I make a few notes to be included in the rejection letter -- this is a good writer, and the problems are fixable, so it's worth a few minutes to jot some notes of encouragement and explanation for her. Still, this one doesn't take more than ten minutes of my time, including my notes.

That means that the one good submission, the one that is appropriate for our house, well-written, and (based on the synopsis) well plotted, gets roughly 20 minutes of my time. This is ample to read enough of the submission to know that we want to see the full manuscript. I don't need to perform a detailed analysis at this point, after all.

Perhaps worth noting is that the two best submissions also had the best cover letters. One opened with a log line clearly encapsulating the characters and conflict. Then followed a paragraph with a conflict-focused plot summary and a paragraph with credentials and similar data. Based on the submission, I can tell that this story is very character-driven with lots of emotion and a prominent conflict. The query letter plays to these strengths.

The other opened with some discussion of her theme and premise, both of which are unusual enough to be eye-catching. She only gave a quick sketch of the plot, just enough to fill in some blanks left by the discussion of the premise. This works, though, for this particular book, and again, it plays to the submission's particular strengths.

In other words, both of these cover letters demonstrate a clear-eyed understanding of what makes these books stand out from the pack. Neither used "hooks" but they managed to hook me, just the same.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Continuing with Questions.

In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be.
~ Hubert H. Humphrey (1911 - 1978)

Amanda Borenstadt said,
Then again, here I am, building up my little blog following, using my real name, like I've heard I should, only to publish under a brand new unknown name? Do I quick, use the new name now and publish all future short stories under it?

That depends on the blog. Are we talking a million hits a month? A thousand? Is your blog aimed at general readership or at a niche? Edittorrent is a niche blog with great penetration to a very limited target audience. Despite many writers and authors knowing about us and regularly visiting here, a shocking number of plumbers and bus drivers and accountants have never even heard of us. Hard to imagine! So if we were to publish a line of study guides for the CPA exam, we probably wouldn't worry about leveraging the edittorrent name. You see? It's all in the audience.

You can use your existing blog to cross-market, too. I would be more concerned about finding ways to draw new readers to your existing blog. You want to make them loyal fans. Once you've got them, you can market and cross-market to them. You've just got to hook them first.

Leona said,
I find it an interesting prejudice that we associate the type of book with the name. Wonder if it's left over from the days of thinking that women shouldn't write anything, and women shouldn't write anything serious that's not for other women?

I don't know how to answer this. I have heard anecdotally of female authors being advised to assume male pen names because men don't read books by women. But then I watch my dad, a he-man if ever there was one, lap up Maeve Binchy books in the most unironic fashion. I think there's little doubt that gender bias still exists, but the exact contours of that might be hard to delineate.

Here's an example of the line of logic we run into--
* Women want to read romances penned by women, therefore male romance writers should adopt pen names.
* But Nicholas Sparks is a major bestseller.
* But his books aren't genre romances.
* But the reading masses -- the casual readers who propel a book into bestsellerdom -- think of it as a romance.
* Ergo...?

::shrug:: I'd recommend thinking about it from a branding standpoint. Try to reach your target readers first, and the non-target readers (like my dad, the Maeve Binchy fan) will find you if you fit into one of their reading exceptions. (For the record, he usually reads military thrillers and spy novels, but Binchy taps into his love of Ireland.)

Murphy said,
I forgot the most important part of choosing a name. Thinking from a business perspective - shouldn’t a writer be concerned about shelf placement?

There are two schools of thoughts on this. One says that you'll get more browsers to accidentally scan your title if you're shelved near a big name author. The other says that people will look right past your titles because they only want the other guy's books.

My personal feeling is that I'd rather be the BNA than the author shelved next to the BNA. Write a book that people seek rather than one they stumble upon. Ditto for other shelf-placement gimmicks, such as picking a name that starts with A or a name that starts with a little-used letter like Q.

Murphy also said,
I’m scarred! Ugh! Thanks for pointing this out, Theresa.

My pleasure. Heh.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Answers to Questions: A Rose By Any Other Name....

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday. It would have been perfect if that halfcourt lob at the buzzer had gone through the hoop last night. But we're still proud of Butler for doing a helluva job showing the world why we've always loved the school. (For those of you who don't know of this blog's connection to tiny Butler, Alicia has a degree from Butler and taught there. I lived close enough to the campus to walk my dog on their beautiful grounds and attend plenty of games in the fieldhouse. Great place.)

So let's take a look at some of the questions from last week.

L Violet said,
I've read that a pen name becomes the property of the publisher. You alluded to that when you said "The primary advantage of using your own name is that nobody can keep you from using it again. Or ever."

It sounds as if you're agreeing that a pen name belongs to the publisher, not the author. Therefore the pen-named author would not be allowed to use her popularity to sell books the name-owning publisher doesn't want to buy. Is this true?

No, that's not what I meant. Sorry for the confusion. What I mean is that if your name is always your name and you always have a legal right to use it. Pen names are assumed names and you might not get to use the one you prefer. A publisher can reject your chosen pen name. But your legal name? It's yours.

This is not to say that they won't try to talk you into a pen name. They might, if your legal name is not a good brand for this type of book.

It used to be that publishers would try to own the rights to an author's pen name, but that particular contract clause is pretty rare now.

Ian said,
Do publishers ever REQUIRE an author to use a pen name?

It's been known to happen. Usually it's in the author's best interest, and obviously so. A good example would be an author who had poor sales. The brand name is tarnished, but that doesn't necessarily mean the publisher will abandon the writer. It might make more sense to abandon the brand name. This gives the sales team more flexibility with the house accounts, many of which place orders for new titles based on past sales.

JT said,
And do publishers ever help you select one?

Yes. Some houses go so far as to provide a list of proposed pen names to the author. Other houses ask the author to prepare a list, and then they collaborate on the selection.

We have a very light touch when it comes to this sort of thing. Most of our authors use pen names. If they come to us and ask for input, we provide it. We've even coordinated with other houses that wanted a pen name distinct from the name the author was using for her Red Sage titles. I don't recall ever asking an author to change a pen name or abandon a real name, though.

tibicen said,
An estimate of 90% pen-names really surprised me. I wonder, is that generally the case across all fiction genres, or is that just particularly high for romance?

That's just for my house, for my authors. I can't begin to guess at a romance-wide number. My hunch is that pen names are more common for erotic romance authors, many of whom are schoolteachers, grandmothers, churchgoers -- you get the idea. They want to be able to control their author identities and protect themselves in an age of increasingly shrill rhetoric. (Next time you're in a roomful of erotic romance authors, ask them to share their coming-out stories. My personal favorite involves a woman stopped for speeding. On the seat beside her was a box full of slash videos she was using for research. Awesome.)

Yes, there are more questions, but time is short today as I cope with post-holiday overload. We'll do more tomorrow.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

On Pen Names

In the comments, Taylor Taylor asks,

How do authors go about choosing pen names? What are the pros/cons of having a pen name? What percentage of authors use pen names versus their real names?

Think of your author name -- whether your real name or an assumed name -- as a product brand. You want a brand that suits the product. Just as we wouldn't name a motor oil "Princess Sparkly Rufflepants" or a formal tea house "Jawbreakers," we wouldn't want an unsuitable author name for your books.

What makes a name unsuitable? If it's hard to pronounce or too closely resembles someone else's name, that might be a problem. Too unusual, too ordinary, too long, too sing-songy. If your primary market is a male readership, you probably want a male name, and a female name for a female readership. (Yes, there are exceptions. To all general rules.)

I don't think anyone keeps statistics on the number of authors that use pen names, but I can report that for my house, we're looking at more than 90% pen names. The primary advantage of using your own name is that nobody can keep you from using it again. Or ever. The primary advantage of using a pen name is not anonymity (though that's crucially important for some), but branding.

Let's say you already write a successful cozy mystery series under your own name, but you have a hankering to try your hand at something different. Your "Annie Author" books are already associated with certain qualities -- mystery, an amateur sleuth, a small-town setting, a cookie recipe in every book, or whatever. If you release an ultra-gory horror novel under the name "Annie Author," how do you think that will play to your mystery fans? Eep. Probably depends on the readers, right? So you create a separate brand, "Kassidy Killsalot," and cross-market the two brands. The "Annie Author" fans who like bloodsoaked pages might be more inclined to buy the "Kassidy Killsalot" stories if you reveal your double identity. And the ones who don't like that type of story will be tipped off by the different author name.

There's a rumor going around that the best author names start with the same sounds. Let's take a look at the top ten authors on the current USA Today list and see if there's any evidence to support that theory. For our purposes, I'll just list the author name and not the book or publisher.

1. Nicholas Sparks

2. Jeff Kinney

3. James Patterson

4. Nicholas Sparks

5. Michael Lewis

6. Stephenie Meyer and Young Kim

7. Chelsea Handler

8. Rick Riordan

9. Rick Riordan

10. L.J. Smith

Well, we have two places to the same author with an alliterative name, Rick Riordan. The rest, not so much. In fact, if we want to draw conclusions from this list, those might be: have a man's name (7/10 are clearly male), write MG or YA books (5/10 or more), and try to have a movie made of your book (4/10, but 5/10 if "Vampire Diaries" is a movie -- I think it might be). In any case, alliteration is probably not the way to the bestseller list. But don't let that stop you, if you really prefer an alliterative name.

Beyond that, you know, just think in terms of what might be appropriate for your genre. I know a lot of erotic romance authors reach for names that evoke female-empowered subcultures like the 60s freedom movement (Summer, Rain, River, Raven, Jade, Winter, etc.) and earth religions (basically anything that sounds Celtic or Gaelic or Native American). But you don't need a name like that. It's just that many authors writing this kind of story take on those types of author names.

Why do erotic romance authors choose names evocative of those particular subcultures? Because for many erotic romance readers, the stories and the subcultures share common traits -- open female sexuality, an end to the double standard, love as an empowering force, and so on.

So now I want to throw this back to you. Think about your favorite genre or subgenre. What type of name do you associate with that type of story? Why do you think it works?