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The publishing revolution already happened.

Slush Pile Snark

I came across another one of those lists that tell you about common errors that lead editors and publishers to reject manuscripts. But this post isn’t about those lists. This post

manuscript

manuscript (Photo credit: El Chupacabrito)

isn’t about manuscript tips. It’s about snark. Have you noticed these lists about what you shouldn’t do are sometimes devoid of gentle correction, kind suggestions and sweet-natured guidance? Sometimes some editors and agents strike a certain tone that suggests that somebody needs a vacation from reading the slush pile.

No wonder agents and publishers have such a hard time finding good manuscripts if they’re too eager to put manuscripts down. When I worked at Harlequin evaluating manuscripts, I had to read the whole book, write a summary and a full report. I wasn’t allowed to reject manuscripts with any of the caprice I was tempted to wield. But I was never snarky about it. Being impolite to the group that supplies the crux of the cash flow would have been considered unprofessional. As agents become ever more irrelevant, are some (I emphasize some!) agents becoming more cynical and even more rude? As Shrek said to Donkey, “You’re goin’ the right way for a smart bottom!”

Sometimes unsolicited submissions were irritating, but I never whipped myself into a froth and climbed up into active dislike of writers. Read some agent blogs and you’ll find a few who have become cynical, hate their jobs and seem to hate you. Reading manuscripts takes time and some agents have decided to blame you because bad manuscripts are a part of their job that sucks. As if we all don’t have something about our jobs we like least. For instance, it’s tax season and any day now my accountant will ask if I have readied a pile of paperwork I haven’t even begun to think about and I will threaten to claw out my eyes if she doesn’t leave me alone until I call her instead of the other way around.

Of course, times have changed in publishing. No editor is interested in developing your manuscript (as happened with Stephen King to some extent and to Harper Lee to a huge extent.) Don’t get me wrong. I’ve met nice people in publishing. Nice is the norm. Smart is the norm. It’s just that the nasty ones are so much louder and more memorable.

Filed under: agents, DIY, Editors, manuscript evaluation, publishing, self-publishing, Writers, writing tips, , ,

The Writer Rejection Scam

Stephen King signature.

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Sometimes I hear writers take pride in the number of rejections in their file cabinets. The idea is that they compete with writer friends to pile up the rejection slips. The person with the most number of rejections by a certain date…er…”wins.” Riiiight. I don’t know how this myth got started but it’s a popular one.

It’s not that this is a totally useless strategy (and I’ll review the advantages in a moment) but first, let’s burst the rejection scam bubble:

If you are writing fast without second drafts or third or umpteenth drafts in order to pump up your submission rate, you’re losing. More rejection slips? That’s no measure of how close you are to publication. If that were true, the worst writers in the world submitting the most illiterate crap across the planet are all just on the cusp of bestsellerdom.

If you get a lot of rejection slips that don’t actually include personal notes on how the writing didn’t work for the reviewer, you’re losing.

It’s also very hard to get any personal notes on your work, by the way. Many agents and editors don’t believe in detailing the reasons for rejection. There are so many variables to evaluate writing that are idiosyncratic and peculiar to the editor, it doesn’t profit you to hear they rejected you for subjective reasons.

Neither does it profit them to take the time to give you a heads up that you were a near miss. Many editors have so many submissions on their desk that they really don’t want to encourage more people to resubmit. The mailbox will be full tomorrow regardless and your persistence is expected without free coaching and hand holding. (And just because you submitted a manuscript, no editor owes you free manuscript evaluations, feedback or reasons for rejection.)

If you’re clearing an alley of bad guys, use the twelve gauge with the .00 load. With manuscript submission, however, scatter shot is less effective than picking and aiming at your targets.

Submit everywhere without careful thought on how to target your market? Then you’re losing. It’s time you’re losing primarily, though the loss of confidence and self-esteem can’t be glossed over. It takes a lot of ego to put yourself out there, so choose carefully how you put yourself out there. Artists need all the narcissistic hope and unreasonable aspirations of a lottery player.

If you’re submitting everywhere in the slim hope that an agent or editor will take the time to take you under their wing, build you a nest and show you where you went wrong with your flightless novel, you’re losing. When dealing with mass submissions, editors and agents get impatient with bad writing, or even writing that isn’t bad but doesn’t suit them. I’ve seen it personally. Behind closed doors there’s even a lot of laughter at published writers’ work that’s bound for publication. (Oh, yeah, that’s right! I said it! I’ve seen it and endured it!)

If it’s feedback you’re after, alpha readers, beta readers, hired editors, writing and critique groups will get you more feedback than can be fit on a tiny rejection slip. Plus, you’ll be getting much more careful evaluation.

People going through a slush pile aren’t there to help the writer. They are there to evaluate whether your manuscript is a good bet for a business deal that suits their purposes and interests.

Much is made of Stephen King‘s pile of rejection slips. I think too much has been made of the rejection slips impaled on that spike in King’s attic. It’s not that some magic kicks in once you hit a special number of slips. It is, instead, what the rejection slips symbolize: sweat equity and time invested in improving craft. I’m not suggesting you submit fewer manuscripts per se. I’m saying, offer your work wisely.

A higher number of rejection slips is not an achievement to be celebrated any more than failing to complete every race you enter makes you a better runner. It might make you a noble aspirant. Or maybe you’re too bull-headed to train properly and learn. Either possibility has validity.

It was all the writing and reading King did while the slips piled up that mattered

It was the feedback he got from a newspaper editor that mattered

That editor sat down with King and went over a story about a high school basketball game. He showed King how to tighten his writing. A little mark up, some rearranging and red pen work et voilà!: The magic of editing improved the writer’s craft. (If you haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing yet…well, just go do that and thank me later.) 

What are the advantages of piling up rejection slips? If you need to compete with a friend to get you to write, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Everybody needs some gentle  motivation (or a kick in the bum) sometimes. (Okay, maybe you don’t ever need a writing crutch, but that makes you an inhuman freak, Trollope!)

If you get personal feedback and encouragement from editors and agents, that’s a good sign you’re on the right track. If you just get a note or two though, that doesn’t constitute a trend you should necessarily heed. Editors and agents have their own agendas that may reflect very little on your writing and you’ll never know what’s in their minds.

Don’t rush to produce writing at the expense of quality. As Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, “That’s not writing. That’s typing!”  (Granted, Capote could be a bitch and lots of people like On the Road.)

Still, getting a big pile of rejection slips is not the end game. Writing extensively (and well), reading broadly (and well) and getting righteous feedback will get you where you want to go.

Yes, I know: Rejection is part of the process. But neither should rejection be fetishized and assumed useful. Some lucky few writers are a hit right out of the gate. Are they still bad writers because they haven’t “paid their dues” and “jumped through hoops”?

That thick skin some say you’re supposed to develop through rejection would be used more effectively if you  got a manuscript evaluation or joined a critique group. (And thick skin is another thing that’s overrated and fetishized. Thick skin helps you take writing advice, yes. But when the reviews come in and someone writes something nasty in a comment about your book —your baby!—on Amazon, veteran author or newbie, you’ll be just as pissed.

Now, how do you target your submissions to likely editors and agents? 

Well, that’s a post for another day. Another day that will come soon.

Stay tuned. 

Filed under: Books, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing Exercise: Idea Generation

 

 

 

Last Saturday I attended a great workshop on Editing and Revising with editor extraordinaire Brian Henry.

I’m deep into doing revisions on my own work and that of others, so a refreshing blast of continuing education was a nice change of pace. Brian is on the road every weekend to teach a workshop. He’s a genuinely nice guy and a skilled editor with tons of experience.

(Click here to find out more about his teaching or to receive his newsletter.)

The odd thing is, I did some freelance work for Brian when I worked at Harlequin in 1988/89. I was working in production, proofreading romance and after romance with a few military books mixed in so I wouldn’t grow breasts. (I proofread a lot of the Mack Bolan series back then.)

To pick up a little more cash, I waded into the slush pile for Brian, who was an editorial assistant at the time, to evaluate spec manuscripts. After taking several of his workshops over the last few years, he finally remembers who I am when I see him now. (I think.)

I’ve written a short story in two of his workshops now. I’m not usually a great fan of writing prompts from other people. I’ve got lots of ideas on my own. However, at Brian’s workshops I’ve leaped into the breach and come up with a couple of short pieces, written on the spot, with which I am quite pleased.

On Saturday, here’s what got the ball rolling; Brian called it his Chinese Fortune Cookie Exercise: We wrote a short fortune, say six words. Each participant came up with two fortunes to share. The fortunes preferably had a verb, included two people (implied was fine, not named) and there had to be an element of “tension or strangeness.”

Also, it’s okay if the fortune sucks. It’s just a prompt, not a plan. We exchanged fortunes with people at our table so everyone had something fresh. Then we started writing furiously.

The fortune I focused on was this:

“A relative will vex you.”

What I came up with was short and surprisingly soulful with a murderous sucker punch. My fellow participants were enthused. It is very affirming for any writer to come up with something quick on the spot that works so nicely. Now I have yet another short piece to add to my short story collection (available through Smashwords this summer!)

If you write, go read Quick Brown Fox, too. 

Filed under: ebooks, links, manuscript evaluation, publishing, self-publishing, short stories, Writing Conferences, writing tips, , , , , ,

Edit Point: One another versus each other

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“The pair looked at one another.”

No, they didn’t.

Editing is often intuitive. I could tell you, for instance, which usage is correct, but I couldn’t tell you why. It came up with a project and I got curious. Then I went to the Chicago Manual of Style. Here’s why for this one:

When two people are involved, the best way to write it is, “They looked at each other.” When it’s more than two people (or things, for that matter) use “one another.”

The distinction becomes clearer with things: “His eyesight was so poor that when he looked to the bowling pins standing at the end of the lane, they were just a soft white mass. Dave  couldn’t distinguish one  from another.” (That’s right.)

“Each other” in a group hits the reader’s eyes and ears wrong and they may not know why. (This is one reason reading aloud as you edit can be such a powerful trick of the trade.)

It’s not a big deal unless you’re a word nerd or getting paid to edit something. However, usually, if you write a passage that hits the reader wrong or makes them go back, there’s something quirky there that needs another look.

Filed under: Books, Editing, Editors, manuscript evaluation, publishing, rules of writing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , ,

Writers: Use a spill file as you edit

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As you revise your writing, it can be difficult to let some passages go. Maybe a scene or chapter is just too long. Maybe one part of the narrative jigsaw puzzle sounds good but just isn’t working with everything else that works.

Editing yourself (before you hire an editor or send it on to beta readers) is difficult. You don’t want to lose gems, even when they aren’t working.

A spill file makes editing decisions easier. Open a blank document. As you go through your work, cut and paste passages that aren’t working into your spill file. It’s not just deleted and gone. It’s still there if you decide you want it back. Chances are that when you’re done, you won’t want it back.

The spill file is the writer’s wedding album: you make a big deal out of it and then hardly, if ever, look at it again.

But you’ll feel better, be more efficient and, if there is something to treasure in the spill file, you can easily bring it back into your story or start a new story from that nugget.

Filed under: authors, Books, Editing, Editors, getting it done, manuscript evaluation, publishing, writing tips, , , ,

Writers: Take a penny, leave a penny

New York City Serenade

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The agent talked about her latest sales: This fabulous author and that little debut. She called them her authors, her books. It sounded like such a glamorous world. The writer hadn’t seen any of it for herself, but she had a writer’s mind so she could imagine every tantalizing detail.

“Good for you,” the writer said.

“Well, it’s not all cocktail parties, you know. In fact, it’s not nearly enough cocktails. Sometimes I hate it. You should see our slush pile. Long nights. No down time. I’d love to read the latest good books, but I have so much to read, I end up reading more bad stuff than good. You know how it is.”

The writer nodded and smiled, but she didn’t know how it was. She only read the good stuff. She aspired to be one of those writers who get a book launch and get to gripe about not getting paid enough as they examine royalty statements.

She glanced down at her own manuscript in the middle of the desk between them. She had changed the title five times over the course of as many drafts. Now she thought the words on the cover sheet should read: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.

The writer thought of the bills that had been piling up as she wrote and rewrote multiple drafts of her book. She wanted to ask, “What do you think we can get for it? Any chance of an auction?” The writer didn’t have dollar signs blinding her vision. Her family had been supporting her efforts to get published for a long time. She wanted to finally have some money to show for it. She thought of all those nights she said, “Mommy’s working.” Everyone else she knew who worked got a paycheck.

But the writer knew those questions would sound impertinent. Unprofessional. Instead, she acted cool and casual and nodded at her manuscript. “Is it any good?”

Is it benign? is what she meant.

Sure, it’s good,” the agent replied. Then, a deep breath and a furrowed brow. “A lot of people might even think it’s great.”

The writer’s shoulders relaxed.

“But it’s not just a question of it being good.”

The writer’s shoulders tensed again. “It’s not?” Uh-oh…

The agent picked up the manuscript, felt its weight a moment and then placed it back on her desk. Then she slowly slid it back toward the writer. “The landscape has changed a bit since we last spoke.”

The writer sat up straight in her chair. She didn’t want to pick up her manuscript. Not yet. If she took it back, it would signify something she didn’t want to see.

“There are a lot fewer bookstores. The economy isn’t recovering as fast as we’d hoped. E-books are really screwing things up, I can tell you. There’s a lot of flux in the industry,” the agent said.

“Flux.”

“Yes.” The agent pushed back from the desk and stood. “I tell you what,” she said. “The market just isn’t ready for this sort of thing right now. I could have sold this a year ago, maybe even a few months ago.”

A few months ago you told me to take another swing at it, the writer thought.

“But it’s just not hot enough with my editors—”

There it was again. My authors, my books, my editors. It was if her agent held the keys to the whole world.

“…and I’m not as enthusiastic as I’d hoped. If I take something to them which isn’t really double-plus ready for prime time, they’ll never let me in the door again. I have to love it to sell it. You understand.”

The writer thought of all those years her father sold Fords. He didn’t love every model, but he had sold a lot of cars. The writer refused to rise from her chair. And she would not touch her manuscript. Promises hadn’t been made, no. But the agent had always sounded so positive. It had taken her two years to find this agent. Everyone said two years was lucky.

“Can I…? What could I do to fix the draft?” She hated the desperate tone that crept into her voice then.

The agent shook her head, but she was smiling in a way the writer guessed was supposed to be reassuring. “I wouldn’t worry,” the agent said. “Eventually, with a stick-to-it attitude, you’ll be published soon enough.”

Soon enough? What did that mean? The writer winced.

The agent put up her hands in a soothing gesture. “Relax and persevere. Your writing shows so much promise.”

The writer had heard this phrase many times. She thought if she heard it again, she might just throw a very embarrassing, very childish tantrum.

“So what should I do?” the writer asked.

“Oh, I think you should start fresh, of course,” the agent said. She was still smiling that infuriating smile.

Fresh? The writer had begun this manuscript (her third unsold manuscript) four years ago! The weight across her shoulders felt like an ox yoke.

“Don’t be discouraged,” the agent added breezily. “This is how this business works.”

“This business doesn’t seem to be working for me,” the writer said. I’m not even sure you’re working for me. She thought it but she didn’t dare say it.

The writer took a breath, held it a moment and then let it escape between her teeth in a slow hiss. “I don’t want to hear about flux. Give me something I can chew,” the writer said. “What’s wrong with it? You were so enthusiastic about the pitch.”

The agent came around the desk and took her elbow, ushering the writer toward the door as she spoke. “It’s a combination of elements. Not loving it enough is the main thing. If you’re looking for something more concrete to work on, I’d say this draft turned into a bit too much of a cross-genre issue. We have to be sure which shelf the book will be on so we can market it effectively. Is it a thriller or is it a sci-fi? I’m not sure. I bet you don’t know. It’s not…” the agent searched for the right word, “definitive.”

No, the writer thought. She’s appearing to search for the right word, but she’s acting. She’d said this many times before. She said it the way human resources people spit out, “…and we thank you for your years of service.”

“Wait. I do know. It’s a thriller, but if they aren’t sure—whoever they are—they can put it on both shelves,” the writer said. “And if bookstores are disappearing and people are buying books online so much, bookshelves aren’t really such an issue anymore are they? Shouldn’t we at least give some editors the chance to say no?”

The agent’s mouth was a line now. “You have to trust me,” she said. “I know this business. I’ve worked in it for almost twenty years.”

The writer said nothing. She was angry, but she wasn’t sure she should be angry with her agent. She wished she knew who to blame. The agent’s answer seemed to be that she should blame market conditions. Or herself. She didn’t know, but she wasn’t so far gone she didn’t wonder if the agent’s twenty years of experience meant she was now twenty-years stale.

The agent’s hand was on the doorknob. “I have a piece of advice for you,” she said. “I have to share it with all my clients at one time or another. Are you listening?”

The writer nodded. She could hold back the big fat baby tears until later, but she cursed herself still. She knew her eyes were wet and shiny. She wasn’t looking like a professional writer just now.

“Pick up the pennies,” the agent said.

“Wha…whut?”

Pick up the pennies! My mentor always told me that and now I’m telling you. When you see a penny or a dime in the street, pick it up. It’s your message to the universe that you’re open to receive your fortune. You’ll get good things eventually if you let the universe know you’re open to whatever it will give. When you pick up a penny, you’re telling the universe, God, Fate, whatever…you’re saying, ‘I’m patient and worthy of your grace. I’ll wait for my time and my turn.'”

With that, the agent grabbed her hand and pumped it firmly twice. “Good luck!” She seemed almost cheerful. “Pitch me again some day when you’re really really ready.”

Outside on a bench the writer searched her purse for tissues that didn’t look too well-used. Somehow she had the manuscript in her hands again. The agent had slipped it into her grasp so smoothly. She looked at the cover again. She felt the weight of it. It had seemed so valuable.

And what would she tell her family? Worse, what would her writing group say? They hadn’t been fans of the story at first but she’d honed it and they had come around. The people she had trusted most had loved the story, but now, obviously, their opinions had been wrong. All wrong. Not even close to right by accident.

This, she thought, had been needlessly humiliating. She should have just waited for an impersonal email instead of making an appointment. What had she been thinking when she picked up the phone? When she had spoken to the agent’s snotty assistant, the writer had said, “I’m in the city and I thought, hey, I can finally meet my agent in person!” As if she ever just happened to find herself in New York. As if she didn’t live three states away.

She’d felt so good about that move. It seemed so bold then. She had pictured the agent taking her to lunch where they could plot strategy over gourmet coffee with cinnamon swizzle sticks. The agent, she knew from her blog, was big on planning her stable’s careers. She felt like such a rube now that she hadn’t even stayed long enough for a stale cup of office coffee with lousy powdered creamer in a paper cup.

The city street bustled on around her. Hundreds walked past and they all ignored the woman snuffling on the bench. How much older would she be before it was her turn to get noticed? How much patience was reasonable? Maybe it was time to quit.

She had always dreamed of being a published author, but it was a dream with no known origin. She didn’t have to do it. It wasn’t beyond the dictates of her own will. Would she always be held hostage to the whim of her eight-year-old self? This was like running a marathon with no known finish line. Why not stop? No one was making her do this. She couldn’t call this a profession after this. Now it was just a hobby.

She could do something else, too. She had talents. She loved to cook. It wasn’t too late for culinary school. Maybe she would write a cookbook one day. She didn’t like the hours and the time it would mean away from the kids, but she could go for that real estate license. If she saved enough, there was still time to go back to university, she supposed. But what, besides english lit, would interest her? And wouldn’t all those books be a terrible, daily reminder of the beautiful dream she’d abandoned?

The writer looked down. At her feet she spotted a penny on the sidewalk. It was so soiled it was almost black. This, she thought, was one of those plot twists that would make an editor with a MFA scoff. She smiled and, without thinking, reached for it. Before her hand touched it, she froze.

What message was she sending the universe? Patience and openness and receptivity? Like her place could only be a gift? Like the universe was deciding whether she was worth a favor?

No.

That’s when she knew what picking up pennies really meant: If she stooped for a penny she was really telling the universe she’d settle for anything.

No.

She would not settle for a grudging gift. She would choose the dignity of earning her place instead. She would go get it herself.

The writer marched down the street with renewed purpose as she shoved the manuscript into her bag. She’d print off a new one as soon as she got home. She held her head high. Her step was fast and her shoulders light. A plan was forming. There was so much to do. She had to research ebooks and POD and formatting. She had to figure out self-distribution. She had to hire an editor and recruit proofreaders. When she got back to the hotel she’d call her husband and announce the great news. She wasn’t just an author anymore. She was a publisher now, too.

She knew she wasn’t supposed to smile at New Yorkers. You were supposed to look straight ahead, avoid everyone’s eyes and blend in. Instead, the writer beamed at everyone she saw. “Bright lights, big deal.”

Filed under: agents, authors, Books, ebooks, getting it done, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Rant, Rejection, Writers, , , , , , , , ,

Writers: Is writing therapy for you?

Reverend Billy from The Church of Life After S...

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Writing can be therapeutic. You can get some etheric vengeance, exorcise your demons and find peaceful transcendence.

But I don’t think your therapy should show. If you stray into telling the reader how to feel, your writing experience intrudes into their reading experience.

Don’t do that, please.

What writing teachers don’t say is, “Not getting preachy is really hard.” For instance, in my WIP, I touch on issues around censorship. In fact, I’ve noticed my penchant for not just touching on the issue, but hammering on it.

How do you know you’re hammering your personal issue too hard? Overexplaining irritates readers. Making two characters argue and leaving the opposing side too weak is another sign. Look for when the action stops and restart it. For instance, when your protagonist slips into a monologue that goes on uninterrupted, he’s at the pulpit and you’re losing readers.

You can still have a point of view, of course. Just lay out facts. Let your readers decide. Slip the facts amongst the action of the story. Don’t lay it all out at once. Instead of pontificating, let arguments percolate through the story.

Orwell’s 1984, for instance, shows the horror of the all-controlling state. Orwell doesn’t tell you it’s awful and list why. He shows cages full of rats. Chuck Palahniuk‘s style is another good example. He doesn’t tell the reader how to feel. Non-judgmental writing yields effective results.

Don’t write from your therapist’s couch. The benefits you get from writing may be every bit as personal and profound as a therapy session from In Treatment, but if you’re writing for an audience, please let your readers find their own therapy.  In Finding Forrester, Sean Connery says, “You write the first draft with your heart and the next with your head.” 

Filed under: Books, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Rant, Rejection, Useful writing links, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Editing: How to take advice

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Mostly people follow the advice that appeals to them. If five people give them the same uncomfortable advice, they’ll keep asking until lucky advisor number 15 tell them what they were hoping to hear. That’s not the way to progress.

Blogging about writing and publishing can be a quixotic adventure. For instance, I went through an entire short story one time and showed the writer precisely how he could improve his writing. These were very straight-forward craft issues that got in the way of readability. The next piece he sent me had the same problems.

Not everyone has to write like I do. However, since he was so enthusiastic about my original suggestions, I wondered if it was a question of the writer needing more time to absorb the information and practice.

In a writing critique group, you can spot the defensive people quickly. They write Stet! beside each suggestion (including that tell-tale exclamation point.) Defensive writers spend a lot of time talking when their critique group colleagues ask questions or are confused. Instead, they should be listening. Any writer is free to disregard suggestions, but not during the explanation of the concern.

Is advice all for naught? Sometimes. But professional writers take advice most of the time. They aren’t so attached to their writing that they expect it will be 100% perfect on the first draft. That’s crazy-talk. Professional writers respect writing too much to make that assumption.

Just remember: an editor’s focus is the text. They’re trying to help you.

However, if you sense an editor is looking at it as a game where they’re tracking points, zeroing in on every error as if it’s a moral victory…well. Delete them.

Also, I have to mention that sometimes the advice is just bad:

At Psychology Today I found a great post called 11 Types of Bad Writing Advice.

Filed under: Editing, Editors, getting it done, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Rejection, rules of writing, Writers, , , , , , ,

Writers: Craft your pitch carefully.

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It’s very difficult to summarize your novel. When we pitch a story, we talk about broad strokes and the rest is about theme. The reason is that when we summarize in depth, the story often sounds dumb.

Let’s try it with a popular movie and you’ll see what I mean:

In the mostly great and totally watchable  A Few Good Men, a Gitmo soldier is killed and two Marines are charged with his killing. So far, so good.

The base commander goes to great lengths (all behind the scenes) to cover up his part in the crime. The rest is about how a young lawyer who has never stepped inside a courtroom goes against the military establishment to get the commanding officer to admit in court that it was he who ordered the Marines to attack the soldier as a training exercise. The commanding officer will admit his guilt proudly and then be surprised he’s under arrest. The two Marines don’t go to prison but do get discharged dishonorably. The young lawyer feels good about himself in the end. And no, he doesn’t get to sleep with Demi Moore.

Were you to pitch it like that (and if you aren’t actually Aaron Sorkin) it’s very hit-and-miss…uh, no, actually it’s all miss. The context and detail is necessarily missing in a summary. The person you’re pitching won’t know about the nuance that the young lawyer will try to live up to his father’s courtroom legend. The clever sarcasm won’t be much on display to sell the idea of the script.

You would pitch about visiting the base and the sinister base commander. However, the subplot about the deputy-commander who can disappear because he’s former Special Ops (and turns suicidal) stretches credibility. It’s a spot where you could easily lose your audience. The pitch won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the interplay among the defense team. Kevin Pollak is the glue, but his role’s power would be difficult to flesh out in a short meeting and could derail you. 

When you pitch a movie, play or book, the odds are stacked against you in a huge way. It is statistically very unlikely someone will invest in your art. Put a lot of time perfecting your query letter (or your pitch) so you cram in your art and style.

The inherent difficulties of the pitch reduce your work so you want to look for ways to show your competence and still stay within the parameters of the pitch (e.g. format, brevity and economy of communication must be balanced by characters whose motivations are compelling and narrative arcs that make people want to hear more.)

If you don’t pitch it well, they won’t get it. If you have no track record, the only evidence that they have that you can articulate and execute an idea is confined within the straitjacket of a pitch meeting or query letter.

That’s why so many unknown writers, directors and artists of all sorts stay unknown.*

*Or, as we’ve frequently discussed, you could reject the premise of The Man’s hierarchical paradigm and find a way to DIY. (See yesterday’s post for further thoughts on that.)

UPDATE: Here’s a great survey on the things that drive agents away from you.

Filed under: authors, DIY, Editors, manuscript evaluation, movies, queries, writing tips, , , , , , , , , ,

Writers: The mire of conflicting advice & unfair criticism

The hierarchical structure of the autobiograph...

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When I got into the business, there was a criticism meant to shut writers down.

“Too autobiographical” was the kiss of death.

That’s ironic for several reasons:

Biographies and autobiographies are moneymaking books. Sarah Palin‘s ghosts have already published more books than you and possibly more books than she’s read. Okay, that was a cheap shot, but somewhat funny and it has the added bonus of being an Irish fact—that is, something that is a lie, but should be true.

I digress.

Back to the issue of unfair criticisms and misguided advice:

 The mind boggles at Augusten Burroughs work. How much childhood trauma can one man recycle into his fiction and non-fiction? He has enough monsters, addictions and insanity in his past that he’s set for several more books at least.

“Too autobiographical” is now a stale criticism when you consider the movement of the market toward tell-alls, whistleblowing and confessionals. There’s a lot of popular fiction that’s thinly veiled life story, too. In fact, if you’ve been a lion tamer-stripper-celebrity-prostitute, you’re a much easier sale than if you’re just another writer working away at your desk making stuff up.

Diablo Cody is a talented writer, but she had a lot more heat going into the fray because of her tattooed image and history as a stripper. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have sold the brilliant Juno script anyway, but really, how many celebrity screenwriters can you name besides her, McKee and William Goldman? If you came up with a few names, it’s probably because they are famous writer-directors, not just writers.

(And notice that irksome phrase “just writers.” I use it advisedly, as a synonym for “merely,” since that’s the stature writers generally have in film, television and publishing.)

“Too autobiographical” was once a stinging barb. It marked a talent that was undeveloped. It suggested teenage angst worthy of a diary, not of publishable quality.

The worm has turned. Now your tortured history as a brawler helps; Chuck Palahniuk brawled a bit and escorted sick people to support groups long before Fight Club. Your time in seedy bars lends authenticity to your writing and manuscript evaluators may well take you more seriously because of the stuff you don’t want your mom to know. A work can still be too autobiographical, but that criticism doesn’t carry the weight it once did.

Evaluators can be off the mark in what they think qualifies as authentic, anyway. One writer, for instance, was told that her dialogue didn’t ring true for how contemporary teenagers speak. She was advised to hang out with some kids to catch the flavor of the real thing. What the manuscript reader didn’t know was the writer was 17 at the time.

We’re a culture that worships celebrity, so “too autobiographical” isn’t a criticism that comes up as much (unless your life story is deadly dull.)

The true irony is that the same editors who would say “too autobiographical” would also routinely tell aspiring writers to “Write what you know.”

That’s bad, even egregious advice. Don’t write what you know. If you only write what you knew, there wouldn’t be much fantasy, science fiction…or much literature at all, come to think of it.

Instead, write what you care about.

 Your research and the knowledge

flows from caring, anyway.

Filed under: authors, book reviews, Books, Editors, links, manuscript evaluation, Rant, scriptwriting, Useful writing links, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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