C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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Writers: Craft your pitch carefully.


Image by Nitin Parmar via Flickr

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: On sending your stuff

J. K. Rowling, after receiving an honorary deg...

Image via Wikipedia


To the right is a picture of JK Rowling. Notice that she is not me. As with Highlander, “There can be only one!” I’m sorry this has become necessary to point out.

One of the posts here is a neat spreadsheet that shows how JK Rowling plotted out Harry Potter. Recently I got an email with several errors addressing me as JK Rowling that asked me to email the writer so I could read some of her work. Billionaire authors don’t do that much. In fact, as presented, I wouldn’t do it, either.

I’d feel bad about pointing out this error so publicly, but it’s apparent the writer is not someone who reads this blog. Please read the blog (and also www.chazzwrites.vpweb.ca). When someone jumps from my bio page to ask about my bio, it just feels like spam and carelessness. Writers are detail-oriented and email, no matter how casual you want to appear, should reflect that. (In fact, I’ve sometimes gone through several drafts on queries to make them appear breezy and casual.) Whether you’re sending a manuscript, a query or a short email, you must pay attention to the details.

I know what you’re thinking. You already know this. Okay, but obviously many people still don’t. One writer told me she had already written several books. That’s a good sign. However, in one short paragraph, she made seven errors. That went into my evaluation of how much I could help her right away. I decided editing her book would be time and cost-prohibitive for me and for her.

When I take on a project, I have to take into account how much time I will have to invest in the book. From that short paragraph, I had to conclude that, were I to take her on, the job would be rewriting, not editing and proofing. When it starts out that bad, it doesn’t make me confident about larger issues like attention to detail, story arcs, characterizations and narrative logic and consistency. I have ghosted a couple texts. Writing and rewriting are not out of the question, but I have to know the scale of what the job requires going in (or I may as well be working behind a counter wearing a paper hat and slinging fries.)

Does your project have to be perfect for me to work on it? Of course not. If it were perfect you wouldn’t need anyone (and you’d be god.) I’m not being nitpicky or cranky. It’s just that when I get a query, I’m looking for signs the author is serious. If you’re asking me to take your work more seriously than you do, that’s a bad sign.

Queries and sample chapters give you an idea of how I work and they tell me how much time your book will take up. That’s one of the main variables in determining my rate, so please, don’t shoot off an email—to me or any other editor—before reading what you wrote at least once.

I’m trying to end on a positive note, so I’ll add that I just took on an editing project that excites me. The author’s serious, nice and I can’t wait to dig into her book and take it from great to fantastic. In fact, the antidote to amateurish folks is waiting on my desk. I’m off to work on the manuscript.

Filed under: authors, blogs & blogging, Editing, Editors, getting it done, links, Rant, Rejection, What about Chazz?, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , ,

Issues in Titling & Marketing a Manuscript

Romeo + Juliet (soundtrack)

Image via Wikipedia


I’m editing Romeo, Juliet & Jerome, my novel about a ADD-addled young man who dreams of becoming a movie star. He needs an acting credit and figures Romeo will be his ticket. When the dude who plays Mercutio overdoses and dies, the school shuts down the play and so, our hero’s dreams. He has to battle the school and stage the play himself, but now someone blames him for the drug death and wants to kill him with a hammer. Complications ensue. Also, Juliet’s a hottie so there’s young love. Will Romeo escape from New York to Hollywood‘s bright lights?  

It’s a hip coming of age story with dark humor, a gay subplot and lots of drugs and indie rock that tops out at about 80,000 words. It’s written. I’m just tinkering with the edit. 

Here’s the thing: Lots of books have incorporated Romeo and Juliet into their plots (and even more have used Shakespeare of all kinds. If you missed it, find Ten Things I Hate about You for a really funny modern take on Taming of the Shrew.) Today, while cruising Twitter I found that someone has written a book called Romeo and Juliet and Vampires. (There are similar videos, too. I had no idea.) Several books published in the last couple of years have joined classic tales and horror elements. I haven’t read them, but I think that horror subgenre has  taken off; the cover art is hilarious. Abraham Lincoln with a bloody axe. Queen Anne, also with an axe. Lots of zombie-axing action. 

The question is: will that book affect my book? 

The answer is: No, but for marketing purposes, it could change my title. I’m sure the premises are totally different so in terms of story, it’s a non-issue. However, when I pitch it to publishers, Shakespeare is familiar enough. I will not want them to think I’m trying to capitalize on someone else’s idea (who isn’t the long dead father of the English theater, anyway.) I’m not trying to catch up with a trend that will probably be dead by the time of actual publication. Story titles can sound familiar, but not too similar to something that has been published in the last couple years (unless it’s part of a series by the same author, of course. The Dexter book titles run together in my mind now, so even that may not be desirable.) 

I’ve said it before: Ideas are cheap. Your execution of an idea and mine will be very different. No matter how many people you stuff in a room, from a single idea, their plots will spin out in all directions. Don’t sweat that your idea sounds something like another idea. It’s all been done. There are no new stories, but there are infinite permutations and combinations. The trick is to make the familiar taste new and fresh again for jaded palates. 

Filed under: agents, My fiction, publishing, What about Chazz?, writing tips, , , , , ,

Writing Critique: What’s Reasonable?

The other day I recommended Nathan Bransford’s blog (especially the publishing wrap-up on Fridays.) On Mondays he provides an excellent service in showing how he thinks as he evaluates a manuscript. I often agree with his opinion, but this Monday’s critique post struck me as hypercritical. Check it out and see what you think for yourself.

On this one, I didn’t understand most of his problems with the writing sample. When Mr. Bransford professed that he wasn’t understanding the story, I was thinking, “Why? I get it. Wouldn’t everybody get this? Sounds interesting. Tell me more.” (Dean Koontz wrote a book and there were a couple of TV shows with a similar premise.) As I read I thought, if they don’t get it, they’re probably not readers, anyway.

Larger point? It’s a subjective business. Keep submitting. Writers can’t hear that message often enough. Somebody will get it.

Filed under: agents, manuscript evaluation, queries, , ,

Slush Pile Hell

Here’s the key to the door to a long winding staircase down to the hot iron gates of Slush Pile Hell. All ye who enter here, send better queries.

Filed under: agents, manuscript evaluation, , ,

From YouTube through Literary Rejections on Display

Filed under: Rant, Rejection, ,

The Death of Lit Journals (and query advice)

Okay, it’s time. Let’s rip it up and challenge some assumptions and piss off a few defenders of the faith…

Literary journals have traditionally been considered a proving ground. You get some stories published, establish a track record and develop a following. Agents and editors want you to have a platform as much as possible to push the sell-through. The wisdom was that lit journals gave you cred when as you developed your skills for longer works. Lit journals were where you paid your dues before you could hope to write the great American, Canadian, Jamaican or Serbian novel.

Well, goodbye to all that! Here’s why:

1. You can get pretty beat up in a long process where they take forever to get back to you, or never get back to you.  No simultaneous or e-mail submissions and you take a year to say no with a snotty note? And all this for a journal with a tiny readership that pays in contributor’s copies? There are far less frustrating ways to find something to line the bottom of your birdcage. Lit journals, your time is up!  

2. Some journals may have some weight with agents and editors. Many won’t. Many are still really zines that nobody’s ever heard of. You could make up a title and it would have as much credibility as many of these rags.

3. It’s arguable that short story writing and novel writing are different skill sets. (I’ll make that argument another time, but as a for instance, even now I prefer Hemingway’s short stories to his novels.) One thing won’t necessarily translate to the other thing. Everyone starts with short stories, but if you intend to be a novelist, start writing long soon. (Also, your sensitive little meditation/poem/short story on the return of the whippoorwills to Dead Grampa’s lake probably won’t help you sell your Masons-plot-to-destroy-universal-health-care conspiracy thriller.)

4. Who needs literary journals when you can build your brand on your own website? Write short stories and build your platform through instant self-publishing. Give out samples and teasers of your work. Keep people coming back and/or offering suggestions, praise, money, fame. Serialize. Monetize.

5. Lit journals publish a few stories here and there, mostly solicited (read: not you.) They don’t take their slush pile applicants near as seriously as they take themselves. (I also notice a trend in the journals where they’ll do a theme issue, or several. That puts slush entries even farther out of the loop, like amongst Saturn’s rings.)


If you were an agent, editor, sales rep or publicist, which author’s bio would you consider more helpful to your goals?

A: I was published in Northeastern Prairie Review* in 2005. Circulation 1200 people (most of whom are frustrated writers themselves who subscribe in the hope that it will help them get published. In fact, they hate most of what they read, they don’t read much of it anyway, hate the published, and the editor only publishes his four best friends and the rich cousin who funds their tiny enterprise.


B: I’ve built 40,000 regular readers of my blog and x number of unique hits on my author website. Look at my fan base! They loved the first chapters…blah, blah de blah I’m twelve kinds of sexy awesome etc.,…

If you answered B, congratulations. You’re sane.

You heard it here first, I say this internet thing?

It’s going to be big.


 However…if you plan to start a lit journal and become a bitchy arbiter of good taste, aha! Now I think you may still have something in a dying industry. Publishing yourself and dressing it up in respectable clothes connotes more respect than being the schlub sending out your stories to an indifferent world. When you submit your novel, you’re an editor.

Save paper. Publish on-line. Be cool, and you too, could finally have enough cred to get your work actually read by an uncaring know-nothing no-everything MFA refugee summer intern.


The rule with lit journals is, the stranger the name (Three Monkeys and a Paperclip, Fish Stink of the Golden Future)  the smaller the readership. In a world where even the “big” lit journals are really small, that’s rather snobby and irrelevant, however. (For some sense of scale, every couple of months 75,000+ people read my column and my features in a trade magazine you’ve never read.)

Filed under: publishing, writing tips, , ,

Don’t dream about the look of the story too long

I’ve met with a couple writers lately. They had designed elaborate worlds. One guy had invented new physics and had some interesting ideas about gravity.  He made notes, but he was much farther from publication than he thought he was.

The problem was that neither of these writers had a story in mind at all. There was no rising plot boiling characters whose needs cross swords. Complications did not ensue. There were no people/aliens/sulphur-based plants doing anything. When these writers do some further inventing, they might have interesting environments for their protagonists.

When you’re thinking about your book, ask yourself, “What’s the story?” These folks had a where but no what. Where is less important.

Filed under: publishing, queries, , ,

What works, works.

If it plays, it plays.

Recently I read yet another agent banging on about how offensive writers were when they made the wrong word choices. Eh, well…her black and white thinking struck me as too narrow.

Often what brings writing alive is an unexpected word choice that may challenge its general use. For instance, today I wrote about a “tangent of sopranos taking off from the wider chorus.”It sounds like she’d reject my work based on my choice to use “tangent.” It’s not the right word. I know it’s not the right word. But I think it’s the perfect word.

Fitzgerald often threw in clichés. Then he would slip in a phrase like “deprecating palms” (the trees bending, not hands bending.) It worked.

Filed under: agents, rules of writing, , ,

Research before you query an agent

I ran across an agent’s site proclaiming what they wanted and what they didn’t. They emphatically did not want any more novels about middle-aged white man angst.* Really? Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like all those declarations that the world can’t possibly stand one more book on vampires (declared variously in 1975, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009)?

No more male midlife crisis novels, huh? Goodbye to the next Updike! Hey, Roth! Apparently, you SUCK!


I know. The response would be that it’s not Updike or Roth writing this flood of manuscripts that they want to damn and dam up.

My answer? Updike and Roth weren’t always Updike and Roth. Once upon a time, they languished in slush piles, too.

At least when you do your research you can figure out which agents have silly prejudices and avoid them.

*No, you guessed wrong. My novel is about a sixteen-year-old (with angst.)

Filed under: agents, publishing, Rant, , ,


Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

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