This column reminded me how I’m constantly surprised by some of the questions aspiring writers ask on self-help Facebook sites. Yesterday, is grammar important? Today, should an author get a web site? This column offers some advice I think everyone hoping to publish needs.
Me included. Realizing that writing is a business—never a comfortable home territory for me—but also that it really has to be something you just can’t help doing: These are the reminders I need.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
I’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?
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.
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!
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.