Category Archives: looking for literary editors and publishers

Tips to to publish and improve your writing

The 9 Most Common Mistakes I See on Opening Pages

Here’s a great new discovery: Annie Bomke. This post lays out almost every first-page show-stopper I’ve heard agents mention at conferences. “Over-narrating” is a trait I constantly have to work on. See if something here resonates with you!

Annie Bomke Literary Agency

A while ago when I solicited advice on what topics to cover in my blogs, someone asked me to cover common mistakes I see authors making in their first pages, so here is my rough list.

One quick note before I start the list, just to give you an idea of my mindset going into a manuscript. When I read a submission, I don’t ask myself: “Is this a good book?” or “Is this person a good writer?” I ask: “Am I interested in reading more?” There’s no such thing as an objectively good book, because reading is a subjective experience, so I don’t attempt to judge what’s “good.” All I’m looking for is a desire to read more. If I don’t feel compelled to read more, I stop reading.

So without further ado, here are the most common reasons I stop reading:

No Sense of POV
There’s a description…

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Filed under Editing your novel, Finding literary agents for writers, Learning to write, looking for literary editors and publishers, self editing for fiction writers, writing novels

The Complete Guide to Query Letters – by Jane Friedman…

Here’s an example of why Jane Friedman ranks as an incredible resource!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

The query letter has one purpose, and one purpose only: to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work. The query letter is so much of a sales piece that it’s quite possible to write one without having written a word of the manuscript. All it requires is a firm grasp of your story premise.

For some writers, the query will represent a completely different way of thinking about their book—because it means thinking about one’s work as a product to be sold. It helps to have some distance from your work to see its salable qualities.

This post focuses on query letters for novels, although the same advice applies to memoirists, because both novelists and memoirists are selling a story.

Continue reading HERE

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How to Query–and More

My last writers’ group meeting included a long discussion about the book market triggered by an article from Vox that one of my colleagues had brought in. The discussion branched off into familiar territory for aspiring authors: how to get published.

Books leading to a door in a brick wall

I often feel like a Grinch when I respond to these discussions and questions by saying, “Go online. Google ‘How to.’ There are many wonderful people out there providing solid advice and authoritative, expert guidelines.” Yes, there are also scammers, but if you follow the admonition not to pay anyone anything until you have investigated a wide range of options—and to take the same basic precautions you’d take buying any product—you won’t fall into any serious traps.

My point is often that a thirty-minute conversation can’t cover nearly enough ground to do more than point a new author in the right direction. In these groups, I recommend specific sources for follow up, such as Jane Friedman or Victoria Strauss or, for formatting issues as well as other self-publishing help, The Book Designer. For those convinced that formatting their own e-book is an overwhelming challenge, I recommend Smashwords and Mark Coker’s free e-book formating guide, as well as his list of formatters and cover designers.

book with butterflies taking flight from its pages

Sites like these include links to dozens of helpful articles. Obviously, there are many others; these are just the ones that pop into my head on short notice, because they’re stellar.

Today, my feed included a post from yet another site just brimming with the kind of information the people in my group were craving: Anne R. Allen’s Blog . . . with Ruth Harris. So I’m linking here with advice to anyone starting out on this journey: Once you’ve read Anne R. Allen’s clear, direct instructions on how to write a professional query, browse the site. Click on the links. Subscribe.

I found sources like these the way I suspect anyone builds a personal knowledge base, by clicking on intriguing articles and subscribing to bloggers whose advice seemed relevant to my goals. Compilers like Chris the Story Reading Ape have also given me lots of trails to follow.

Comment and turn all of us on to your favorites. To whom do you go for expert advice on the many aspects of publishing, both traditional and indie? I am always up for learning more!

question mark adorned with flowers

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Filed under business of writing, ebooks publishing and selling, Finding literary agents for writers, indie publishing, looking for literary editors and publishers, Marketing books, Publishing, Self-publishing, Smashwords, writing novels

Help with Those Darned “Comps”

Maybe most of us know exactly what genre we’re writing for. Wish I was one of “us.”

mountains nature arrow guide

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

This piece from Penny Sansevieri via Anne R. Allen (the wonderful @annerallen) via Chris the Story Reading Ape (inimitable @Storyreadingape) lays out a path for one of the most onerous tasks for me as I query my WsIP: finding “recent” “best-selling” books that are “similar to my book” yet, of course, slightly inferior.

I. e., “comps” or “comparable titles.”

I’ve read comments by agents on their blogs that if I can’t come up with perfect matches for these descriptors, I just haven’t done my homework.

After wallowing in self-pity for a while, I’ve discovered some of the “homework” assignments Sansevieri suggests, with some decent results. I’ve had the experience of finding that books that come up when I type in my keywords aren’t at all like my books. She offers some ideas for solving that problem I haven’t tried yet.

Tomorrow!

One of my biggest problems, as she suggests, is finding time to read widely enough to locate books in the same universe as mine. I’ve used the “Look Inside” feature to get a general sense if I’m remotely in the right category. Even using that metric, of the three I thought most likely to match one of my books and bought just to see, one fell into a completely different universe. I won’t know if the others are good matches until I read more of them.

Any ideas,  in addition to those Sansevieri provides, for speeding up this process? (Not that I don’t like reading. So many books, so few lives.)

What do you do to find comps?

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Sigh. Yes, We Have to Write Those &(%%$# Queries and Synopses.

Sad that InDesign is not working rightI’ve given up fighting. I’m doing it, I’m doing it!

I wonder how many creative writing classes and MFA programs include a course in query-writing. I guess if you’re a superbly outgoing person capable of making such a stunning impression in an elevator that you get an automatic request for your fulls, you don’t have to.

Where can I find a class in how to be that person?

Sigh.

Doing the Things You Don’t Love to Get to Where You Want to Be

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Power Cutting from Someone Who Had To!

Pair of scissors for cutting text.

Bad news.

The very first line of your query has to tell the agent or editor how long your book is.

The execrable fact is that they expect certain genres to fall within certain limits.

When you’re an overwriter, like me, always able to stroke out one more metaphor, one more lilting phrase, one more neat character detail, hitting those word limits can be a challenge.

The problem intensifies when your writing groups and betas want “More! More!” Or when they push you to look at issues in your story that you glossed over before but now can’t leave unresolved.

So I faced querying a psychological-suspense manuscript at 107,000+ words and an accidental-detective mystery at 106,000+. I’m here to report that both books are now under 100,000 words.

Victory lap after cutting 6000+ words from my manuscript!
Victory Lap!

I’ve read enough submissions in writing groups to know that I’m not the only one in need of a repertoire of tricks (okay, strategies) for corralling a manuscript that has bolted for the hills. I needed “Power Cutting” skills.

I know what a lot of us would say: Cut 7,000 words?!? That will destroy my book! My brilliant writing will win over readers no matter how long it is.

Maybe, but you have to get an agent or editor to read your brilliant writing instead of thinking, “That sounds way too long.”

In fact, my efforts taught me strategies, many of them simple fixes, that actually improved my books rather than devastating them.

Not only will these strategies help you catch bad habits, they’ll force you to think hard about your story: What is it about, what belongs and what doesn’t? At least, that’s what Power Cutting did for me.

Here are some of the big-ticket things I learned.

Have a word-count goal. Until you make up your mind that you MUST cut, you won’t. Watching that number at the bottom of the screen sink and sink inspires!

Start, obviously, with familiar “fillers” like “very” and “really.” Read up on advice for recognizing useless words.

Cut hard now, reconsider later. You might cut too hard and scrape off too much voice, but storing your cuts in a separate, renamed file saves your original language, ready to reinstate after you’ve exceeded your goal.

Remember that no one but you knows what you took out. No one else will miss your golden imagery or your delicate dialogue exchange.

Cut via a complete read-through. You’ll spot problems like repetition that would not show up if you dove in at random, and you’ll maintain the continuity of your story.

Throughout, remember that clarity comes first. Always make sure, for example, that it’s clear who’s speaking before you cut a dialogue tag.

Ask first and last, what does this scene/paragraph/line add? Three cuts to look for:

  • Work you’ve already done. Yes, certain themes and events should be kept before your readers, but when you find yourself thinking, “Didn’t he already say this?”, he probably did. If there’s no new twist to a scene or interior monologue, it can go.
  • Dialogue exchanges that don’t further the plot. Banter for banter’s sake, no matter how scintillating, takes up real estate. Dialogue cuts better when it’s sharp.
  • Piled up details/metaphors/images. In literary fiction, you can interweave whole pages of lyrical description with luscious introspection. In commercial fiction, most paragraphs drag after more than one detail or image, no matter how powerful. Pick the one that does the most work in the fewest and/or most evocative words.

I found some more specific strategies as I progressed with my cutting. I’ll share some of those in an upcoming post.

Some colored pencils for cutting!
You’ll need a few of these.

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Filed under Editing your novel, Finding literary agents for writers, indie publishing, looking for literary editors and publishers, Plot Development for writers, writing novels

A Small Riff on “Infinite Revision” (I’m an Expert!)

cresock deserted peer sea

I’ve been deep in revisions of two major Works-in-Progress, with a resultant and perhaps regrettable absence from the blogosphere. The process has led me to think about the pros and cons of “infinite revision”—the impulse to come back to a supposedly polished manuscript again and again and again (and again. . . . ad infinitum).

The impetus for these revisions is twofold: first, responses from my valuable beta readers; and second, experiences at two recent “pitch” events, both of which I recommend: the one-day WritingDayWorkshop held in Louisville in April and the Midwest Writers Workshop “Agent Fest,” a Friday-Saturday affair in May at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

The fact is, every time I attend a conference to pitch or get feedback from agents and editors (REAL agents and editors, mind you), I come home thinking that before I can respond to invitations to send materials, I really need to revise the darn book again!

Which of course means that my pages are sitting here, going nowhere, instead of in an agent’s inbox.

It seems worth asking whether the gains from the process of re-re-revising in response to these conference experiences are worth the inevitable delay. Surely there should come a point when I hit “save” for the last time and say “Enough!”

Well . . . yes. But. . . .

Two major eye-openers from this pitch-conference process have driven my compulsive rewriting, leading me to propose that maybe, just maybe, I’m not wasting my time.

“First-Page Reads”

First, both conferences included a “first-page read,” a feature that seems to be gaining popularity. In the “first-page read,” if you haven’t experienced one, conference attendees turn in, anonymously of course, the first page of their book. During the session, a moderator reads randomly selected submissions aloud.

At WDW, agents had copies to read along, a modification of the original format that I think made it easier for them to hone their responses in a rapid-fire, somewhat artificial setting. Agents raised hands or voices when they “would quit reading.” As one agent at MWW pointed out, ordinarily agents would have already glanced at the query, so they might be more tolerant of less than perfect submissions than when hearing a page cold (especially late in the evening after a long day). Even with those caveats, seeing how a panel of agents responded to my first page has, each time, been one of the most valuable conference experiences I can report.

“The Three-Minute Pitch”

Second, there is nothing like having to explain your book fast to a potentially skeptical listener to make you home in on that perennially vital question: what is this book about?

Think you know the main conflict, what’s at stake, how the main character changes, and why readers should care? Give yourself the three-minute test.

To meet the format requirements at MWW, I honed my pitches to ninety seconds. By the time I applied advice from my writing groups, they took barely a minute. And they both worked.

Things I Learned from Writing Conferences (This Time)

From the first-page read, I’ve distilled a “rule” much more important, it seems, than common prohibitions like “Avoid adverbs” or “Use strong verbs.”

Most obvious to everyone but slow-witted overachievers like me: BE CLEAR. Those agents wanted to be able to locate themselves in space and time in the company of a recognizable character. They wanted to be able to figure out, duh, what’s going on. And all this, of course, with only the tiniest touch of backstory. A hard lesson for those with unquenchable literary aspirations. Turns out all that energy devoted to haunting and mysterious hooks and complex, original metaphors would have been better spent on who, what, why, and where.

From the three-minute-pitch process, I’ve learned something else I sort of already knew but kept resisting: even the most complex plots, with the most tortured and nuanced characters, must have a throughline.

This rule is not in the least simple. It points to a tenet of structure as old as storytelling but one easy to overlook. Even if you are creating convoluted characters who wander all over their own emotions and tangle with fifty secondary characters and subplots, the book has to be about somebody who wants something and will pay in spades if he or she doesn’t get it.

That’s the throughline. Finding it is like that old story about chipping away parts of the marble that aren’t the statue. At some point, what your character wants, why she can’t get it, and what will happen if she doesn’t has to emerge from all the stuff that only supports your story, however important all that other stuff will ultimately turn out to be. The extras won’t work if they have nothing to hook onto.

Bottom Line: Sorry, You’re Not Stephen King or Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood or Any of Those Wonderful Folks

It’s tempting to think that our writing is so special, our creativity so rich, that any agent or editor who opens our file will be so entranced that clarity and throughlines are simply beside the point.

I fully acknowledge that there are literary geniuses for whom this is true. But two hard facts I’ve come to accept more and more: we first have to get our files into that agent’s inbox, and a clearly stated throughline is our best chance of slipping them in there. That throughline, which a three-minute pitch forced me to write, is also one of the best ways I’ve found to figure out where my book goes off track and w

Second, you are almost certainly not the genius who can transcend clarity once your first page is up for scrutiny by people who might actually pay you for the rest. Your genius—okay, my genius—will remain undiscovered if an agent or editor chooses “Move to Trash” before finishing that first page.

Quick Caveat before You Infinitely Revise

Choose your conferences carefully. It’s fun and often inspiring to attend lectures on how to do this or that in your story (“Make Your Characters Dynamic!” “Build Conflict!”). And it’s nice to chat with a “real author” who has agreed to critique your work

But conferences aren’t cheap. You can get “how-to” in spades online. And authors, bless us, don’t come to the chat thinking, “Would a publisher be willing to PAY FOR this book?”

With infinite revisions already behind me, I’ve found that someone who comes to my work with that question looming—who has made me do the work to answer it—is the only one who can definitively tell me whether I should revise again.

Okay, so when do you decide, “I’m never revising again”?

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Filed under Finding literary agents for writers, Learning to write, literary fiction, looking for literary editors and publishers, Myths and Truths for writers, Plot Development for writers, Publishing, Writers' conferences, writing novels