Posted on 22-02-2011
Posted on 18-03-2010
Posted on 08-10-2013

During a writing workshop of mine, I was asked by one of the participants the very question that is the title of this article. At the time I was discussing the merits of Proust, and I guess this is what triggered the thunderous applause that followed. I quickly cited a few examples of florid writing from SWANN’S WAY that I felt were incontrovertible and moved on. Later, it dawned on me that anyone writing in earnest and hoping to be published deserves an honest answer to the question, “Why are so may novels on the bestseller lists lousy?”

How Well-Known Is the Fiction Author?

Is this ever a huge issue. Publishers want books that can sell. A well-known author will have a guaranteed sale of “x” number of books, regardless of the quality of the work. This is why we can pick up a book written by a heretofore quality author that reads as though it had never come across a line-editor’s desk. And, if the truth be known, the novel might not have.

Do All Prolific Authors Write Their Own Work All the Time?

No. Is it realistic to think that a person can write an 80,000-word novel each and every month?  Yet a hugely successful Romance writer puts out work at this very pace. And I’ve been told by a writer friend of hers that she is a workaholic who writes every line. I respect the author who told me this as believing it to be true, but I don’t. Famous writers have admitted to employing a dozen or more full-time people, not to provide ideas–but to write the material we see in airport gift shops and bookstores. That I do believe, and James Patterson is example number-one, and he now lists his “co-authors” on his novels.

Bestseller Lists Can Be Skewed, Very Skewed

I recently attended a popular fiction writer’s presentation of his latest offering. He told the group his agent had informed him earlier in the day that the novel was going to open at number 12 on the New York Times Bestseller List. How is this possible when the first copy has not been sold?  If a publisher arranges enough presale commitments from bookstores, libraries, etc., a lofty position on a bestseller list is not a difficult chore. Especially if one keeps in mind that 20,000 copies sold will land a book on the NYT list.

What Is the Answer?

If books are not always written by the person who is listed as the author, material is not edited, and presales cannot be representative of actual sales, what is a the public to do? My best answer is to be certain that the store a person purchases from will accept a return. It is the only prudent course of action I can recommend. Publishers are in the most demanding positions of their collective corporate lives. They want to go with what brung ‘um. If an author of theirs has sold well, he or she will be provided with the opportunity to sell well again, unfortunately many times to the detriment of the consumer. This is why so many novels on the bestseller lists are lousy, and it’s as simple as that.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 13-08-2013
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

What Really Made FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, HARRY POTTER, and THE DA VINCI CODE Mega Blockbusters

I’ve read many books, articles, and reports by writers, agents, publishers, and lay readers as to what made a book a big hit. Along with my reading, I’ve attended workshops and symposiums and listened to other writers explain their rationale for success.

Some Say a Book Needs a Healthy Dose of Sex

GREY certainly proved that to be true. But HARRY couldn’t suggest even the slightest carnality. And DA VINCI’s one scene with the elderly folks my age was more laughably spooky than sensual.

Al Zuckerman Had the Answer

Mr. Zuckerman, who founded and then ran the top-caliber literary agency Writer’s House for more than 35 years, in my opinion, had it right. In his book, WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL, he said it was “family” more than any other factor. But how did “family” play into what have become the largest-selling book franchises of all time?

“Family” Means More Than the Word Implies

Yes, a little word tap dancing is being done, as I took “family” to mean something globally, even though Mr. Zuckerman often cites THE GODFATHER in his book as the model for his thesis. And it’s hard to argue that the Corleone troupe’s close bonds didn’t sell the story, but I view “family” from a broader sense, and this is why I believe this perspective applies equally to each of the other narratives I cited that have captured the minds and hearts of such a large segment of the reading public.

First, There’s GREY

While sitting at a bar in an upscale restaurant, I listened to three separate sets of women discussing the E.L. James book. As the titillating issues wore themselves out, the conversation settled on what would happen to Ana. One woman said she hated the story but would buy the next book in the series to see what happened to this protagonist. Another lady said the writing was abysmal but she couldn’t put down the book because of Ana and the way she played into the story. The remainder of the lengthy dialogue followed Ana, as these women in one way or another identified with her character, hence my definition of “family.”

POTTER Contained the Same Sort of Empathy

While it might have seemed so peripheral to the story that it could have been omitted, Harry’s abuse by his hateful relatives was brilliant in that it planted a seed in the reader’s (or viewer’s) mind that could never be removed. Kids identify with cruelty, whether it be from a relative or a bully at school. We’ve all had to deal with some aspect of this–and we didn’t like it. Hence, we wanted to see Harry succeed. And we were part of his “family.”

DA VINCI Takes Family to Another Level 

What has greater gravitas than the combination of family and religion? Relating DA VINCI to family in the context of this paper might seem like a stretch to many, and on its mere face value my own copyeditor didn’t accept my contention. But family, from a global perspective, was the premise behind the story, as Robert Langdon quest “proved” that Sophie was a descendent of Jesus. I believe, deep within many people’s psyches, a vicarious relationship with Sophie existed. In the story, she was a direct descendent of Jesus–and therefore of Christ. Each person reading this article can decide if this is or is not a “fair” family issue.

Argue the Point, Not the Reality

I find a relationship to these family-related implications to be indisputable. People care about Ana, Harry, and Sophie. Their trials and tribulations rival the readers’ concerns about like circumstances in their personal family settings, whether directly related or peripheral. It’s my opinion that GREY, HARRY, and DA VINCI’s relationship to some aspect of family are what a mass of humanity identifies with and what motivates people to maintain not just an interest but a rabid enthusiasm for the subject matter. And this is why I chose this form of syllogism, however argumentable it might be.

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A Time When Size Really Does Matter

“When is this chapter ever going to end?” This is a common rebuke heard by many a weary soul. The quality of the story may not have diminished, but the chapter is not consistent in length with the rest of those in the book. And the reader is uncomfortable. No time was allowed for the person to relax with the words.

Consistency with Chapter Length Is Important

Harry Crews, an ex-professor whose writing is far-removed from the mainstream, dissected Graham Greene novels related to how many chapters they contained and the length of each. Crews had a number of reasons for doing this, and it can be suggested that a writer should look at his/her own work as Crews parsed Greene’s to create visual continuity that can affect pacing and even tone.

Genre As an Influence

However, when reviewing chapter length, a number of issues must be considered, not the least of which is genre. A writer of literature, such as Pat Conroy, will have different chapter parameters from a mystery author like James Patterson, with the separate and distinctive narrative nature of their disparate story styles influencing chapter length.

Clever Techniques That Provide the Perception of a Shorter Chapter

If a writer finds a chapter, for whatever reason, too long, there are techniques that can be used to shorten the perception of its length and provide the reader with some breathing room. One effective method, if there are multiple scenes in a long chapter, is to break up the chapter internally by adding an extra line space to indicate a shift in the scene, though evident, is not so great that a new chapter is desirable. The other device is to use a series of dots or other symbols such as * * * or # # # between an extra line space to indicate a shift in the direction of the scene that is substantial but still not enough that a new chapter is deemed appropriate.

Prudent Reasons for Section Breaks

It must be kept in mind that section breaks must have a distinct function–such as denoting a passage of time, a change of setting, or a point-of-view shift–to indicate a transition point that would otherwise confuse the reader by its absence. But just as section breaks enable the reader to take a deep breath, too many of these breaks, or if they are ill-placed, can bring into question why the change of direction was necessary. The story will appear choppy and therefore a poor read.

The Ultimate Test for a New Chapter

If you believe a chapter might be too long or bloated, apply a simple concept: If you were getting tired of reading the chapter, wouldn’t the reader likely be feeling the same way?

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One of the main principles behind sound plot development is the change a major character must experience for the storyline to be effective. And make no mistake about it, this character must be different at the end of the story from what the writer presents at the outset. Yet the ability to show the changes in believable ways is just as important as the modifications themselves.

THE ELEMENTS OF SCREENWRITING, by Irwin R. Blacker, Provides a Solid Template to Follow

In my creative writing workshops I often allude to books on screenwriting to help writers structure their novels in a technically correct manner. Irwin R. Blacker’s THE ELEMENTS OF SCREENWRITING offers superb advice with respect to the principle characters’ requiring change, and he explains ways this can be accomplished.

Changes to a Character, While Essential, Cannot Be Sudden

One of the most important issues Blacker points out is that writers often show a character’s shift in persona occurring too abruptly. I will occasionally ask a writer to look at his or her draft and pinpoint the exact location in the story where a major change occurred with one of the primary characters. If the writer can go to a single paragraph in the narrative, this lets the person know that the change wasn’t subtle enough–and too much happened at one time.

Gradual Changes Also Move the Plot Along

The biggest downfall to a sudden change is that it doesn’t give the character and/or plot a chance to adequately develop. And the pacing will often flag, as one seems to have an inverse relationship to the other, especially if too much of a change occurs too rapidly. Small changes that take place as the plot moves along serve two main purposes from a technical perspective, as the reader’s understanding of the character can be advanced at the same time it’s being solidified.

There Is a Point When the Reader Must Know the Change Has Taken Place

Although I just wrote at length about subtlety, at some point in the story the change in a character must be obvious to the reader. The skill in presenting these subtleties so they ultimately develop in dramatic fashion can make or break a story.

When does Gregor Samsa, and therefore the reader, realize there is no possibility of his returning to his normal body? When does Pierre realize his life will never be the same, even if he can reclaim his position with the royal family in Russia? How about the Reverend Dimmesdale’s realization that he can no longer endure Chillingworth’s prodding? Or Raskolnikov’s acceptance of the reality of his crimes during his gut-wrenching confessions? And, in a more contemporary vein, Meggie’s acceptance of her life after the birth of a son she never reveals to the priest who fathered her child?

Find a Pace for Each Character

Studying the sort of outstanding material I just referenced can give writers a feel for the pace of each of their character’s development in their own work. By translating the concept of change to their personal narratives, authors can learn to sense when something should be foreshadowed and to what degree. Handled properly, the ultimate result will be both dramatic and obvious in the mind of the reader, which should be every writer’s goal.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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The Problems with Contrived Writing Cannot be Overstated

Someone recently asked me about the meaning of contrived writing, and when I was coming up with some flagrant examples this brought to mind a wonderful crossword puzzle phrase: deus ex machina. I couldn’t remember how to pronounce it, so I went to dictionary.com and an elegant female voice enunciated it with what I assume to be the perfect inflection. And the correct delivery is critical to express the gravity of this devilishly problematic writing nightmare, which is “any artificial or improbable device resolving the difficulties of a plot.”

The Meaning of Contrived Writing Must be Clearly Understood

Some people assume “contrived” relates to material that is “obvious.” This, too, is certainly a meaning, but in the context of this article contrived writing relates to anything that would not occur without some sort of miraculous intervention. What makes contrived scenes particularly difficult to reconcile is that a great many genuinely superb writers have resorted to fantastic good fortune to preserve their plot lines. Unfortunately, this weak writing seldom saves the story. It’s important for a novelist to consider that a large number of readers will put down a book for good when a character’s actions are deemed to be beyond fortuitous.

We Might Expect Superman to Break Down a Door and Save the Editor of The Daily Planet, But Not to Do So on The Nightly News.

I refer to the writing of impossible scenes as the Marquez Syndrome. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE is a terrific story and in large measure contributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Noble Prize for Literature. But did the story require the mysticism? For me, it detracted from an otherwise perfectly executed saga. But this wasn’t contrived, just a vignette he employed in the tale. Some writers, however, have taken his technique to heart and utilized preternatural events to cover a plot point instead of writing relevance into the scene. Contrivance is much easier than going back in the narrative and creating a setup for the overall plot element, with some authors forgetting that a single nonconforming thread can dog an entire story.

Even the Bard Wasn’t Immune

But Shakespeare had an excuse. Other than CORIOLANUS and a couple of other not so egregious exceptions, he apparently was forced for a number of reasons to stick pretty close to a two-hour time frame for his plays. Yet, in my opinion, he made a mockery of the audience and later the reader with THE TEMPEST, a play that is one of his most acclaimed, and from which I remember several movies being made in just a short stretch (PROSPERO’S PAPERS, for one). With the ship’s being destroyed and the survivors stranded on the island in the opening act, the plot is horribly and irreparably vitiated when at the one-hour-and-fifty-nine minute mark the vessel is found to be intact. At least this story was a fantasy from the outset, although Prospero’s powers as a magician were never the catalyst for the wrecked ship’s sudden “appearance” in relatively sound condition, as the play’s chronology made this happen, not conjuring.

Not Many Can Claim the Skills of Marquez or Shakespeare

Since most of us don’t possess their genius for writing, or dozens of titles under our belts and an international following, we’re probably better served if we write our scenes–and most certainly our story finales–with acceptable possibilities. If anyone should remember the ending in the television series DALLAS, this is a prime example of what constitutes a contrived scene–and how devastating it can be to an entire body of work. Contrived scenes are a certain sign of lazy writing, and as harsh as this sounds, one of the best ways to guarantee never being considered for publication.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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I’m often asked by both clients and those who attend my creative writing workshops about using another author’s copyrighted material, whether this pertains to citing a title or reprinting an entire passage. Citing a title of a work is not a problem, unless it could be construed in a negative way as it relates to the text in which it shows up, but I always give the same advice, and this is to be certain to gain permission if material in a passage is going to be used, no matter how limited.

All Mainstream Publishers Have a Permissions Desk

The desk or department grants rights for quotations, excerpts, photos, illustrations, charts, etc. Each publisher has essentially the same requirements. But there can be variations, so it’s important to understand that no one size fits all. For reasonable guidelines to follow, here are the requirements from the Penguin Group:

  • The title and author of the Penguin Group (USA) book from which you wish to use material.
  • The description of the exact material you wish to use.
  • The title of the story or poem.
  • The page number(s) on which the illustration(s), chart(s), graph(s), etc., appear.
  • The name of the publisher who will be publishing your material.
  • The title and author of the book (or other publication) in which you wish to use the Penguin Group (USA) material.

You will need to provide your publishing details:

  • The publication date.
  • The size of the first printing or circulation.
  • The format (hardcover, paperback, CD, e-book, etc.)
  • The list price.
  • The total number of pages for each edition of the book (or other publication).

If a magazine, the circulation and frequency of the publication in which you wish to use the Penguin Group (USA) material is also required.

Photocopying material has another set of guidelines.

Permission Is Not Necessary Until the Material Is Published

Many times a writer will ask when permission should be sought, and the answer is not what most people think. The Permissions Desk is a very busy place, and the personnel do not want to be involved with being required to perform their due diligence until it’s determined that a manuscript is definitely going to be published. Yes, this means an author should have a “backup” in case the request is refused–or be prepared to delete the reference–but it also behooves a writer not to get hung up on receiving a release until the correct time in the process.

The Overall Chronology Must Also Be Clearly Understood

Permissions departments commonly work with a six to eight-week window related to lead time. But, again, this can vary by house. Also, permission requests are generally placed in a queue in the order in which they are received, so unless a writer is a big-time author or knows a staffer owing a favor, most people can plan on a couple of months before getting a response.

A Final Thought

Writers get excited about wanting to cite known material, feeling this will enhance their credibility. No doubt in some instances this is correct. But, overwhelmingly, the reference to another work, song lyric, etc., has nothing to do with the quality of the narrative. And to one other important point, no release is necessary if work is in the public domain, regardless of who is publishing the material.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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For many years I’ve facilitated creative writing workshops in either public or private settings. These programs attract participants from 9 to 90 years of age who are from a wide variety of economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds. My workshops have always been structured, and by this I mean I follow a syllabus I write. And in all the years I’ve facilitated developmental, intermediate, and advanced creative writing workshops, I have never allowed the reading of individual work unless it was directly related to a group assignment. As this article moves along I’ll explain why. But first some more setup.

At the Early Stages, It’s Definitely Important to Create Confidence

I think it’s fair to state that the vast majority of unpublished writers at every level need reinforcement. For this reason, a group of friendly folks sitting around a table and providing encouraging words is a good if not noble idea. But once a writer’s confidence-quota is reached, this budding author in my opinion would be better off taking courses at a college, such as a refresher in English 101, or English Lit 201, or Composition 301. I suggest supplementing this coursework by reading books on writing by experts such as Jacques Barzun, William Zinsser, and Theodore Bernstein, along with material that pertains to the respective genre in which the person is writing–and leave the critique groups to other amateurs.

In My Opinion, Amateurs Critiquing Other Amateurs Is a Waste of Time

And this isn’t just my opinion. Every A-grade agent, editor, submissions editor, and publisher I know says the same thing. And many don’t just say it, they yell it. I offer this: Would a person with chest pains sit around and discuss his or her condition with a group of friends who all have experienced a heart attack–rather than immediately rush to a doctor? The answer is so obvious it makes the question absurd, yet these heart-attack victims are more capable of diagnosing their friend’s illness than amateurs who give advice to other writers via critique groups. Please think carefully about what I just wrote before considering me a snit for offering this analogy.

Again, I Support Critique Groups, But at the Early Stages of Writing Only

A few years ago, at my request, one of my workshop participants who holds a Ph.D. in English took over an established critique-group at the library where I was conducting my programs, and reading and critiquing individual material was a component of this person’s format. I never would have asked this individual to mentor the sessions if I didn’t feel it would be of value to her CV and to aspiring writers with respect to the confidence they would gain. Still, I’ve found critique groups to be a springboard at best, and I feel it’s important to sever the cord as soon as possible.

There Is an Exception

If a critique group is led by someone who is involved with the major royalty publishing industry as a published author, working editor, or established agent, this changes the playing field. Then the group will likely receive competent advice. Yet even in this sort of setting, individual critiquing by the members of the group, other than passing comments, in my opinion is not advisable or desirable for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. While respecting the opinions of amateurs, let professionals do what they’re trained to do–and be certain not to lose track of who’s who.

Something Else to be Aware of

Another issue to consider is that just because someone is published, this doesn’t automatically mean the person would be a good editor. On the opposite side of the coin, a quality editor, while possessing developmental ability and/or line-editing or copyediting skills, might not be a particularly good writer. This representation applies to all fields. Some highly regarded law professors are not the most adept attorneys in the courtroom or for certain sorts of trials. Not in any way excusing Mike Tyson’s abhorrent behavior, but ask him if he’d hire Alan Dershowitz again.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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When Two People Are Speaking, Less Is More

It’s always crucial to make certain the reader knows who’s speaking, but when it is just two people it’s not necessary for one to identify the other in every other sentence: “John, it’s wonderful to see you again.” “Martha, I’m so glad you feel that way.” “Why, John, I didn’t know you cared about me.” “Martha, I care about you a lot.”

This reads like something that’s made up be comical, but here’s the same material without the speaker identification in each line, set up by a simple phrase to begin the segment: Martha sat down next to John and said, “It’s wonderful to see you again.” “I’m glad you feel the same way.” “Why, I didn’t know you cared about me.” “I care about you a lot” In this, is there any question as to who’s speaking once it’s identified that Martha began the conversation?

A Character’s Actions Can Indicate Who Is Speaking

“Darn, this crate is heavy.” As Don pushed the heavy cargo in a cart, his foreman bumped into him as he was coming around a corner, almost knocking him down. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you making that turn.” Don smiled at his boss’s comment and got a tighter grip on the handles. “I’ve been doing this for so long, I know what to expect.” His boss nodded. “I guess, but I still should’ve been paying more attention to where I was walking.” He looked at his watch and then to Don. “Why don’t you stop in my office later today when you have a minute? I might have a new job for you.” “Really?” “Yep, I believe your attitude earned you a promotion.”

In this material, there’s no question about which character is saying what. And as with Martha sitting next to John and initiating a conversation that doesn’t require additional speaker attributes, a character can do common things, such as look at the other person, to indicate who’s speaking. Jack glanced at Joe. “You sure we can do this?” His brother shook his head. “Nope.” Or something like this: Joe threw his shovel into the dry riverbed. Jack heard the blade grind against a rock. “You don’t look none too happy.” He glared at him and pushed up his Stetson. “I ain’t.”

Multiple Speakers Create the Need for Speaker Attributes

When there are three or more people speaking, direct speaker attributes, such as Don said or Martha said, must be used with greater frequency. But if the same two speakers are exclusively involved in an exchange, once they are identified for the reader it’s not necessary to treat this as any different from the two of them talking to each other with no one else around. This only changes when another character enters into the dialogue.

Analyze the Way Your Favorite Author Handles Speaker Identification

This is the suggestion I always give in my creative writing workshops. If you like Cormac McCarthy or Nora Roberts or Nelson DeMille or Clive Cussler or James Patterson or Elmore Leonard, grab one of their books and study how a major writer structures speaker attributes and interior monologue so the reader always knows who is who. You will see a lot of good old-fashioned “he said” and “she said,” but you’ll also notice some masterful skill at adding variety to this most important aspect of writing effectively for what is a most sophisticated audience–you.

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 28-04-2009
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

It is important to recognize all of the various writing components that can be utilized to develop and enhance characterization. Yet while dialogue is definitely one of these elements, it is often reduced to a lesser status. Here is a typical textbook definition that, via the specific omission of dialogue by name, diminishes this writing medium as a valuable means for crafting characterization:

Characterization is the process of conveying information about characters. Characters are usually presented through their actions, dialect, and thoughts, as well as by description. Characterization can regard a variety of aspects of a character, such as appearance, age, gender, educational level, vocation or occupation, financial status, marital status, social status, cultural background, hobbies, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, ambitions, motivations, personality, etc.

While dialect is mentioned, and this reference certainly indicates the use of dialogue, the insinuation can hardly be described as comprehensive. Perhaps nothing can more adequately place the reader in the mind of a character than the dialogue attributed to that individual. Nor can we learn any more about an environment, whether physical or social, than through reading dialogue.

A Contemporary Novel with 100-Percent Dialogue

For an exercise in excellence in this medium, regardless of how one feels about Stephen King (as a writer, I regard him as a super genius), DOLORES CLAIBORNE is an extraordinary example of the use of dialogue to tell a story. And in this instance the entire text consists of a monologue by Dolores–and without one word of interior monologue or a single adverb attribute.

Reading Suggestions That Demonstrate Outstanding Dialogue

GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, THE SOUND AND THE FURY, RABBIT RUN and TORTILLA FLAT are all classics that contain extraordinary characterizations portrayed through dialogue. For purely contemporary readers, anything by Elmore Leonard will be of benefit; however, GLITZ may be the book to parse first.

Many find creating good dialogue to be the most arduous aspect of their writing. And it is hard to argue that straight dialogue can be inherent with problems. But when a writer considers dialogue as a means of communicating characterization, then the task can be much less daunting and a perfect way to present a story with great depth and definitive focus.

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It would be nice to relate that writers seldom have pacing issues. And as any novelist knows, the story’s tempo is often–as it should be–on the forefront of an author’s mind. But sometimes a story just doesn’t seem to be moving along at the right speed.

In the writing workshops I’ve facilitated over the years, budding authors often asked about ways to better pace their material. One of my suggestions has been to insert dialogue if the scene is flagging. This, of course, isn’t always possible or even practical. However, I find this option is available more often than it isn’t. And this is another reason why learning to craft effective dialogue is important (read “paramount”) to any writer’s success.

Dialogue Can Promote “Showing” and Eliminate “Telling”

Another of the greatest benefits of developing dialogue skills is that this element often ameliorates the dreaded “show vs. tell” contention. This is because dialogue automatically creates action, as the characters are speaking. As a by-product, dialogue also encourages the writer to maintain an active voice (and write around potential passive tense; i.e., “have been,” “had been,” “would’ve been”, etc.).

Reading “Out Loud” What We Write Is Never More Important Than with Dialogue

In discussing dialogue in general, it is critical to understand that we can’t write like we talk anymore than we can talk like we write. It is the ability to write between the two that makes for quality dialogue. And the best way to determine if the goal has been met, as in all writing, is to read aloud what was written.

And if it sounds bad the initial time we read it, no matter how many more times we traipse through it, it isn’t going to get any better. What will happen by re-reading is that we will memorize the lines or the pattern of the dialogue so we can read it more fluently. But the person reading it for the first time is not going to have the author’s patience or persistence. Hence, if we stumble the first time and we read it, rewrite it!

Steinbeck and Leonard As Models of Great Dialogists

I wrote an article, “Four Authors of Classical Contemporary Literature Defined the Craft of Writing Perfect Prose,” and stated that it’s hard to dispute Steinbeck’s brilliance as a dialogist. In the medium of dialogue, if he is not considered the quintessential classicist, few would dispute that he is certainly near the very top of the craft. However, from a purely contemporary standpoint, many find Elmore Leonard the current standard-bearer, and I find this difficult to argue, as he’s one of my favorites as well. Pay attention to the way both these brilliant writers use dialogue to pace their scenes.

Publishers Often Consider a Writer’s Dialogue Skills First

As an aside to dialogue as a pacing tool, regardless of whomever and from whichever era a writer chooses to study material, many of today’s renowned publishing-house managers have documented that dialogue is often the first aspect of a novelist’s ability they consider when contemplating a work for publication. That, in itself, should tell anyone the significance placed on dialogue.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Can an Unknown Writer Compete at a Higher Price Point Than a Franchise Author?

The question posed by the subtitle is too absurd to even consider, yet it happens all the time. My favorite story involves a fellow who thought so much of his skill that he priced his e-book at $16. After a year of vigorous promotion he complained he’d sold only four copies, and one his wife bought for a relative. If e-books by major authors are priced in the $10 range, shouldn’t this have told the writer something about pricing his work?

Success Stories Abound for the $.99 e-Book

All anyone has to do is look at Amanda Hocking’s success and the way she priced her material. If I remember correctly, she even gave away some of her work to “grease the wheel.” Many authors, who often possess more marketing savvy than writing skill, have given away three-fourths of their books and offered the respective endings to their stories for a buck or so. And some of these books have sold in the tens of thousands of copies–and in a few instances even more.

It Seems Like $2.99 Is the Far Outside

I attended a seminar not long ago at which a successful e-book pioneer discussed pricing. This person had experimented with all sorts of price points and determined that $2.99 was the absolute outer limit for an e-book that was not previously released by a mainstream print publisher. His position was that $2.99 is the stretching point an e-book can withstand that’s not of the Stieg Larsson ilk, and anyone even remotely attune to the publishing industry knows how seldom a phenomenon like that occurs. It might be worth noting that the first e-book concerning Bin Laden’s death was released at the same time as the print version, and the e-book price tag was $1.99! (I’m discussing fiction in this article, but the Bin Laden book is a prime example of desiring to sell many copies at a low price rather than much less at a higher price point.)

So It Appears That $.99 to $2.99 Is the Comfort Zone

At the recent BEA conference, the CEO of one of the major publishing firms explained what everyone already knows, and this is that no one in the print business has yet learned how to market e-books. He went on to say that all of the distributing mediums which currently exist are quite good for hunters (of material) but not very good for what he called gatherers. With this in mind, it’s paramount for e-book writers to understand that unless a marketing plan is in place to drive a reader to a particular work, even a free book won’t be read–because no one will know it exists.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 15-03-2010
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing) by admin

I recently read something that leads to me to believe that the field of professional developmental book editing needs to be covered in detail.

Editors in the U.S. Have a Poor Reputation Abroad. Really?

I happened upon an Internet message board for writers on which someone was asking if hiring an editor to critique a novel was a good idea. When I read a little further, I noticed the person was specifically asking about me and my company. This was certainly okay, as I always strongly recommend scrutinizing any potential editor, agent, or publisher. But what really piqued my interest was a reply from a person from Great Britain who said that editors were respected in his country but that their contemporaries in the U.S. did not enjoy the same standing. This was certainly news to me–and I imagine a few other editors in America if they’d read the same remark.

Rationale That Defies Logic

There were no comments one way or the other in response to the man’s query regarding me or my services, but it was mentioned that book editors had been the source of a number of recent threads, so I decided to venture further into the site. Two hours later I pushed back from the computer, aghast at what I’d read. With few exceptions (very few), there were dozens upon dozens of posts vociferously denouncing editors. One of the site’s apparent gurus firmly stated that it would be of no value to hire an editor, because if a publisher sent a manuscript back to an author for correction, if an editor had been used, what would the writer do, since the person, independently, would be incapable of properly making the requested modifications.

If Professional Editors Are Such a Bad Idea, Why Do So Many Best-Selling Authors Praise Their Work?

Logic like what I’d just reported doesn’t deserve the compliment of rationale opposition, to quote Jane Austen, but let me at least provide a little help for those who universally defamed professional editing. As one lone brave contrarian who responded to the thread stated, “If editors are such a horrible idea, why do so many best-selling authors, in their respective Acknowledgments, extol the value of those who edit for them?” To step farther onto this cold deck, I’d like to see a list of best-selling authors who say they don’t use an editor. I even noticed a piece the other day from a man who has edited for both Stephen King and John Grisham. Both those authors must surely have needed counseling for employing this fellow at some point in their futile careers.

There Is a Time When Amateurs Critiquing Other Amateurs Doesn’t Work

I used to facilitate writing workshops sponsored by a large community library system in South Florida, and at times I encouraged program participants to critique each other’s work based on a project I assigned. But I also made it crystal clear, if a writer was serious about having material considered by a legitimate royalty publisher, at some point the material would require a professional review.

Here Is What Editors Do

Professional editing is not about correcting grammatical errors, punctuation, and syntax issues, even though certainly anything a writer might have missed will be identified. Editing at a professional level entails considering a work related to its publishability in the current literary market; and specifically what it will require to polish a draft so it will be accepted for review by a bona fide royalty publisher. Depth of characterization, quality of the characters, character arcing, transitioning of the exposition and dialogue, dialogue quality, dialogue rhythm, story pacing, the pitch of the scenes, lack of contrivance, point-of-view consistency, redundant words and phrases (this is a bigger deal than most amateurs think), the strength of the story, and the overall readability of the narrative, are just some of the issues an editor must address.

An Amateur Can’t Know What the Industry Is Looking for

For many experienced writers, this is the number-one reason to employ a professional editor, since this person will possess the expertise to know what is working in the business at a given point in time–and what isn’t. The professional editor will also know where and with whom agents are placing work. This is particularly important because there are often esoteric happenings in the publishing industry that are weakly disseminated or aren’t provided to the public, at all.

A Professional Editor Can Save a Writer a Lot of Money, Time, and Aggravation

It doesn’t cost a lot of money to have a professional editor read a manuscript and provide a critique. Isn’t it a lot better to find out from a professional if a work has a chance, rather than to send out queries and submission packages with no idea of the true caliber of the material? Over the years I’ve read an inordinate number of drafts from writers who have spent years promoting work that has no chance of being published in the condition in which I received it. And what unfortunately happens to an often-rejected writer who doesn’t understand a work’s deficiencies is that he or she becomes disillusioned and at times even bitter.

Having a Work Professionally Edited Is a Means to an End

For the overwhelming number of writers who are with major royalty publishers, professional editing is not only a means to reach a satisfactory result, but the only way. For anyone who wishes to question this remark, I only ask this person to seek out any wildly successful author and ask if a professional editor has helped that writer become published–and remain that way.

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

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I don’t know when, on the writing curve, Stephen King or Nelson DeMille might seek editorial advice, only that it is documented that they do. So it begs the question, for the writer trying to break into the business with a major royalty publisher–and who accepts that a professional editor looking at the manuscript might not be a bad idea–when is the right time to hire a book editor.

Generally There Are Two Issues

For most people, it’s a matter of time and money. Let’s look at the time element first. A common practice is for a writer to send a manuscript to an editor for a critique after it is felt that the material is in A-grade condition and ready for market–except for perhaps the slightest touch-up. But if it’s determined there are plot or character elements that cannot be remedied by modifying, deleting, or inserting a few sentences here or there–which is overwhelmingly the case–then the entire piece will often require a wholesale revision.

How Much Time Does a Writer Have?

If an author should seek an editor to review a story concept and its setup from an early point in the creative process, steps can be taken to keep the plot elements in focus. And the time saved can be substantial, since a revision can often require months. From a time standpoint, isn’t it better to catch any problems early–and rectify them–rather than spend considerable time on a draft that will have no prospects in its current condition? If a writer has the discipline to work with an editor during a manuscript’s developmental stage, this initiative can be a valuable time- saving practice.

How Much Money Does a Writer Want to Spend?

No one likes to pay a second time for a process that failed initially. This is the most salient reason I can think of to justify bringing an editor into the fold at the start. The early-stage placement of a manuscript with a professional editor is almost always the most economical way for a writer to work, and usually substantially so.

Does Anybody Really Do It This Way?

Unfortunately, many unpublished writers will consider an editor only after a series of rejections from agents or publishers who accept unagented submissions. This article is not going to change the modus operandi of a great many writers who are already ensnared well within the publishing labyrinth. But I hope these contentions might motivate some others who read this piece to consider contacting a professional editor toward the beginning stages of the first draft and not after it’s completed.

Editors Are Becoming More Flexible

As with most everything facing a writer who is hoping to become published for the first time, there is no one size that fits all. And while I hate to close an article with a disclaimer, it is important to report that some well-respected editors continue to accept completed manuscripts only. Yet it seems that a sizable body of highly regarded editors are acceding to this article’s primary premise, which is to encourage authors to present early-stage material for review.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 23-02-2010
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

Not long ago I received a request to review an author’s query letter. It was awful. The letter was written in a structure that would make a seventh-grade English teacher cringe. And as is commonly the case with writers who are unfamiliar with the nuances of the publishing industry, the genre definition for the novel was incorrect, as well.

A Monumental Mistake Compounded

While discussing how to improve the letter, one question led to another, when the author informed me that over time he had used SIX editors on his novel (and he was dead serious). This floored me. How does a writer find a half-dozen editors on this planet who don’t understand the genre of the work they are editing? This ineptness by both parties (I’m lumping the editors together as one entity) brings up several issues that I feel a responsibility to address.

Anyone Can Claim to Be an Editor

First, sadly, anybody can claim to be an editor. There is no formal credentialing. I know of people who cannot write but claim in their advertising to have helped dozens of writers get their novels into print, only to learn that every one of these works was self-published. I have had people attend my creative writing workshops who do not understand writing at anywhere near a professional level, but have “Editor” printed after their name on a business card. History is littered with editors making all sorts of outlandish assertions, such as guaranteeing a writer a contract with a major royalty publisher (which landed the principle of one editorial outfit in jail a few years ago).

The Problem With a Manuscript Can Generally Be Attributed to One of Two Factors

I’ve found that working with clients is about honest relationships as much as writing. If a writer has found a competent editor, and nothing has happened in a positive way with respect to the manuscript after exhausting all of the available avenues, there is likely something wrong with the concept for the market in which the work is intended–or the writing is not up to the demands of the industry. This last statement does not imply that the editor was less than scrupulous in supporting the manuscript, only that there is only so much anyone can do with a project. And my experience is that hiring another editor will not help.

Respected Editors Will Not Compromise Their Relationships With Top Agents

Another thought to bear in mind is that most industry-respected editors have long-standing relationships with A-grade agents. One reason for writers to employ highly regarded editors is the desire to have their manuscripts presented to those agents with whom these editors have a fellowship. This is particularly important today, because an ever-increasing percentage of top agents are not accepting unsolicited material, with the bulk of their referrals coming solely from editors. And no editor I know of wants to harm his or her reputation by suggesting material that is not thought to be publishable. I can’t state this more emphatically.

The Best Advice Anyone Can Receive

Now back to the fellow whose experience with six editors fostered this article. I have to assume he was either quite naive or very unlucky, as somewhere along the way one of the editors had to have told him the truth about his writing. Or he didn’t want to listen and kept burning through editors in hope of finding someone who would like his work. There is no value in dragging along a corpse. Related to his fiasco, from my personal experience as a writer and not as an editor, the advice someone gave me decades ago is in my opinion still the best recommendation anyone can receive about a manuscript that is not going anywhere–and this suggestion was to write something else.

Two Critical Issues to Understand and Accept

I want to offer a final remark on query letters and another on editors editing manuscripts: For an unpublished writer, the greatest query letter ever written is not going to enable a deficient manuscript to become accepted by a bona fide royalty publisher. And neither can a host of the best editors in the industry, short of one of them ghosting the entire piece, save writing that is flawed.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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A short while ago a young scribe wrote over a post of mine that writers did not need to have their manuscripts edited prior to submitting them to an agent or publisher. His rationale was that agents and/or publishers would provide the service, and therefore the writer could and should avoid the independent editor’s fee. I tried to explain the fallacy of this person’s thinking, of course to no avail, but later I decided to take a closer look at why this sort of misunderstanding might occur. My findings are the purpose behind this article.

Editors Do Still Edit

Although I lead the topic line of this article with agents, I want to discuss editors first, and state without qualification that editors at the publisher level do still edit. But this is far from universal, and there is widespread disparity as to who does what for whom. A franchise writer with a major house will have all the stops pulled out to see that his or her material is polished in every way, should the author allow any “tampering.” The executive editor who works with the writer may even personally edit this author’s manuscript if there is some last minute tweaking to be done. But more often than not, if a draft requires attention after it’s submitted by an established writer, this manuscript will be sent outside to an independent editor for fine tuning. And, yes, the cost would be absorbed by the publisher.

What I just wrote applies to large publishing companies. However, I’ve also noticed a substantial number of boutique publishers who’ve sprung up during the past few years who legitimately provide developmental editing as well as line-editing for material they accept. The downside is that the editor is usually the publisher, and often he or she is one of only a couple of people involved in the entire operation. Hence, with the backlog any start-up royalty publisher will generally have to contend with, lead times can soon run amuck. And if a writer does some research into these sites, my comment will be borne out. The most common lament I’ve read is that the specialty publisher could not meet the promised release date–or anything close to it.

What If a Writer Isn’t at the Franchise Level or Interested in a Start-up Indie?

In the middle is everyone else, meaning 99.999 percent of all writers. And this is where there’s a rub. On the very day I was defending independent editing as a discipline, I received an e-mail from someone who was working to get a editing prospect of mine represented by an agent. I didn’t feel this man’s work was ready, but this liaison presented the draft to a major publisher and a high-powered agent. Both summarily dismissed the manuscript, with the agent saying, “In today’s market, a manuscript had to be perfect in every way to stand a chance.” For me, that’s the end of story. But there’s confusion because of what some agents do offer, as well as the way manuscripts are treated in other countries.

Some Agents Also Edit

In the scenario I just alluded to, this agent was not in a position to edit this writer’s draft. I can assure anyone reading this article that most don’t have the time or the staff. But there are exceptions. A well-respected agency states on its Web site that it works with its authors from a developmental perspective and will also line-edit their work. I’ve never submitted to this agency, nor do I know anyone personally who is signed by this firm, so I won’t provide the company’s name, but they are legitimate in every respect and certainly do not charge fees for reading or editing. But I think someone will have to search long and hard to find a second such firm. However, I do know of independent agents who work with their clients’ drafts, so others of a similar persuasion do exist. They just aren’t standing on every street corner.

So, in Truth, What Can a Writer Expect?

It’s pretty clear: For a writer’s material to receive in-house editing, it depends on who the author happens to be, as well as the agent or publisher. I think I’m being accurate in stating that the overwhelming number of agents do not edit material for their clients. If the manuscript doesn’t look relatively clean to them, it’s rejected. But if a spotty draft somehow passes muster with an agent, what are the odds a publisher will accept it? I can’t answer that. However, when a work reaches an exalted point in the evaluation process, especially at the publisher level, I believe any writer would be prudent to make certain the manuscript is in as good of shape as possible, and this means having it professionally edited beforehand.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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A writer can start with THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE and move from it to any number of academic works on what a manuscript layout should look like. But adhering to the following eight suggestions will assure an acceptable format for almost all fiction.

Hint Number One–Your Name, Page Number and Book Title in the Top Left Corner of Each Page

In the top, left corner of the page, many editors prefer your last name followed by a hyphen and the page number, and one single space below this, the title of your book. Then three single spaces below this (if you’re not beginning a new chapter, which I’ll cover later) begin your narrative.

Hint Number Two–Double-Line Space the Narrative

No one I know will accept a single-line spaced manuscript, and there is good reason. In the days of the covered wagon, when everything was edited with a pencil, the suggested corrections were made between the lines. Many of us still prefer to work this way, and the format is paramount when line-editing material manually. Plus, most people find double-line-spaced copy on an 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper much easier to read and therefore more comfortable to work with.

Hint Number Three–Double Space After a Period

Double spacing after a period enables room to manually annotate punctuation changes and draw lines to move sentences around. I am aware that some people are saying this is “old school” and therefore the double space after the period is no longer necessary. But every editor I know prefers two spaces after a period, as do I, even though for the purposes of this published piece the text is provided with a single space after each period. Finished copy and submission material are two different animals.

Hint Number Four–Indent Paragraphs 1/2″

Most word processing programs seem to use a 1/2″ indention as standard, but I often receive manuscripts with erratic or inconsistent paragraph indentions. If you always indent 1/2″, then your text’s appearance will be consistent and this will also enable you to “fudge” when you want your text to look its best from an aesthetic standpoint.

Hint Number Five–Never Justify Text

Under no circumstances should a manuscript be submitted with justified text. This makes copyediting a nightmare (read “impossible”), since extra spaces between words are something a copyeditor flags.

Hint Number Six–Locate the Chapter and Its Number in the Center of the Page

As with unusual or inconsistent indentation, I receive a wide variety of chapter setups. My suggestion is to type out the word Chapter with a capital C and follow this with the number 1, 2, 3, etc., one space after the word; i.e., Chapter 1. This isn’t as Mickey Mouse as it seems, because this differentiates a Chapter 1 from Part 1, for example. The Chapter designation is a location in which centered text is not only acceptable but desirable.

Space the chapter identification down however far you desire, with an equal number of lines below it before your begin the narrative. Five single spaces from the book title in the top, left corner to the centered chapter identification, then five single spaces to the beginning of the narrative, is a good template.

This again provides room to “fudge” if need be during later revisions and not require a writer to have to repaginate an entire chapter–or even the entire book. With our more sophisticated word-processing software, this isn’t the big deal it was 20 years ago, but there are times when it’s desirable to have material appear in a certain way on a specific page, and this is why I continue to suggest allowing extra room to maneuver text.

Hint Number Seven–Use a 12 Point Times New Roman or Courier Font

Many in the publishing industry seem to recommend these fonts. Also, if a writer sticks with either Times New Roman or Courier, this could save having to manually go through an entire manuscript to clean it up should it have to be changed to either of these font styles later.  Because, even with all of the word-processing genius that’s out there, different fonts don’t often wrap in the desired manner when the entire text is converted from one font style to another.

Hint Number Eight–Leave an Extra Double-Spaced Line at the End of Each Page

If you choose to ignore everything I’ve written, please leave an extra line or even two at the end of each page, especially during the early drafts of your work.  Meaning, instead of typing to the last line, which will generally be line 24 of double-spaced copy, type only to theoretical line 23 or line 22.  This has nothing to do with editing but will enable you to revise and often not have to repaginate work, irrespective of the sophistication of your word-processing software.

If you follow the suggestions outlined in this article, you won’t have any difficulty with 99 percent of the editors, agents, and publishers out there.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Genres Can be More Than a Little Confusing

There is perhaps nothing more perplexing in all of writing than trying to understand genre. While preparing this paper, I ran across the following sub-genres for Romance: Suspense, Paranormal, Fantasy, Time-Travel, Futuristic, Licensed Theme, Medical, Regency, Medieval, Highland, War, Gothic, Western, and Mail-Order Bride. And these are by no means all that fall into the Romance bailiwick. There were a couple dozen more.

In the Mystery category we have the Cozy, Police Procedural, Forensic Hard-Boiled Crime, Serial Killer, Suspense, Thriller, Legal Thriller, Medical Thriller, Technical Thriller; and other extended Mystery subdivisions that include Science Fiction, Gay, Military, Political, Paranormal, and so many more that the separation is beyond blurred. To confuse anyone to the point of no return, if that’s not the case already, take a look at the Writer’s Digest genre listing. And it’s not all-inclusive.

What Makes Genre Even More Complex Is That It’s Often Not Specific to a Particular Publisher

Long ago, the editor-in-chief with a major publisher indicated to me that one of my novels was rejected because it did not fit into the firm’s definition of a Thriller, since its titles are exclusively “gruesome murders by a serial killer tracked down by a cop who is in turn threatened.” Traditional Thrillers involve international intrigue and a life-and-death struggle to save the planet (or close to it), which is the way my story was written.

An Author Must Determine the Genre and Relevant Sub-Genre in Which the Novel Is Written

The point is obvious. A writer must determine the sub-genre in which his or her work is written, and then tailor the presentation to the agent and/or publisher to whom the material is being presented–as this relates to books that particular agent has placed or the publisher has printed. This requires parsing books on the agent’s or publisher’s list to make certain the submitted novel is indeed complementary. An author who makes this effort can eliminate the major hurdle that a submission is “not a solid match,” since the writer will know beforehand that this could not possibly be the case.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 22-03-2011
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

I never realized the problem with writing a novel that fit in with many genres until I received a rejection many years ago from a publisher who had at one time been my editor. She told my agent that my thriller fit medical, military, and political genres, and her imprint’s guidelines were too restrictive to support a book such as mine. Of course I was crushed and couldn’t understand such lunacy.

Readers of Certain Imprints Have Specific Expectations

It required many years before I finally accepted what I’d been told, and I feel what I eventually understood is worth passing on. First and foremost, it might be obvious that a person reading an Avon book expects a Romance, and a particular sort of story with a specific set of characters. And it’s just as obvious that readers of Pinnacle thrillers anticipate a mass murderer, killing victims in a gruesome manner “on stage,” while pursued by a cop who will have the tables turned on him or her, and this person’s lover will also be brought into the fray.

Platforms Have Little or No Wiggle Room

As the latter example indicates, a single murder wouldn’t work, nor would a potential catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions. For a book to be accepted by Pinnacle, there must be a heinous mass-murderer on the loose, and the story needs to contain a traditional law enforcement element pursuing the evil-doer. So, no pandemic can be about to be unleashed. Or there can’t be an imminent nuclear threat along with some prefabricated agency’s personnel trying to save the day, such as with 24.

If a Genre Is Not Specific to the Story, a Myriad of Problems Can Develop

I’m often faced with having to explain to my clients that their respective books fit not only into multiple sub-genres, but also cross the lines of major genres too. I find this particularly common when someone is writing YA material that begins as a Mystery and then turns into pure Fantasy. Or YA material that suddenly depicts a murder or a sex scene in somewhat graphic terms, making the work unsuitable for young adults yet overall too soft for commercial fiction. Another problem area is a contemporary Thriller that becomes Sci Fi/Adventure later in the narrative. If you bought what you thought was a James Bond type of story that morphed into Dr. Who, how would you feel about your purchase?

Distinct Boundaries Exist   

I hope this is now starting to make sense for readers of this article much quicker than it did for me many years ago. There are specific guidelines that publishers expect their stories and therefore their authors to follow. And with all the current sub-genres, these parameters are more restrictive than ever. So when I suggest that writers approach only those agents or publishers who have placed or published material in the genre and sub-genre in which their particular stories are written, there’s a definite method to my madness.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 22-02-2011
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

One of the most confusing issues in all of publishing involves ISBN codes. How does a writer get an ISBN for a book? How much does one cost? What does the number mean? Does a book require a new ISBN if it’s reprinted? Are the numbers different in countries outside the States? The list goes on, but unfortunately seldom if ever are the most important questions asked. The purpose of this article is to explain how the ISBN works. I’ll also be providing several links along the way for verification and clarification purposes, but I it’s important to explain the basics of the ISBN first.

The ISBN Is One of Many Codes

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. The definition of the ISBN is provided by isbn.org, but a simple explanation is: The ISBN code is a unique identifier for books that are intended to be sold commercially. The system was created in the U.K. in 1966 by W. H. Smith and called SBN or Standard Book Numbering. It was adopted in 1970 as the international standard ISO 2108. Another number, the ISSN, or International Standard Serial Number, is used for periodicals such as magazines.

Be Aware That Different Codes Are in Use in Countries Outside the U.S.

The first issue to keep in mind is that many countries use their own ISBN system. For example, Canada uses the CISN format, which means Canadian ISBN Service System. Also, Amazon uses its own identifier, which the firm calls ASIN (however, the number follows the ISBN code). The second issue to be aware of is that the ISBN has no relationship whatsoever to the Library of Congress Control Number (which is free, by the way). I think anyone serious about becoming published in any medium would be prudent to click the Library of Congress link and spend the 15 or so minutes it will take to read through the FAQ’s.

Instances in Which a Writer Doesn’t Need an ISBN

It’s important to understand that if a writer has no intention of selling his or her book via a commercial setting, handing it off to a wholesaler or distributor, or is not planning on placing the book in a public library, there is no need to apply for an ISBN. But, if the author plans to sell the book through an outlet(s) of some sort, to answer the first question I posed, the ISBN may be purchased from only one official source provided by the U.S. government, and this is publisher R. R. Bowker, 630 Central Ave., New Providence, NJ 07974-1154. The company’s toll free phone number is 877-310-7333.

Yes, R. R. Bowker Is the Only Official Government-Authorized Purveyor for ISBNs in the States

Now that I’ve clearly established Bowker as the originator of ISBNs, what about the inordinate number of firms and individuals who resell the numbers? Here is where it really gets sticky, but let me begin with cost first. The cost of a single ISBN from Bowker is currently $125, while ten ISBNs are sold to the public for $250 or $25 each. The first question is, why would anyone need more than one number? And the answer is, the person wouldn’t–unless the writer plans on having a book published in multiple mediums.

If the latter is the case, each format, such as an e-book, hardback, softcover, trade paperback (which is different in size from mass market softcover), etc., requires a different ISBN to identify the particular medium for the book. Simply, one number applies to the hardback and another to the softcover, etc. But as long as nothing changes in a book in the original medium in which it is published, it can be reprinted ad infinitum under the same ISBN. But change any wording in the narrative, or the medium in which the book was originally published, and a new ISBN is required. Not rocket science, but we’re not even close to being finished with this topic.

A Barcode Is Necessary for All Books Sold Commercially or Placed in a Library

The next issue is the need for a unique barcode number, and this must also be purchased from Bowker (I know, how convenient). A unique barcode number is necessary so the bookseller can identify the price point at which you want to sell your book. So the first rule is not to purchase a barcode until you determine what price you want your book to sell for. And since you might have an e-book priced at one price point and a softcover release at another, you would need a separate barcode for each; hence, again, the need for more than one identifier

Barcodes don’t have the dramatic price drops that are commensurate with ISBN codes (more on this to come). A barcode is $25 each from 1 to 5, $23 if purchased in lots of 6 to 10, and $21 in any spread from 11 to 100. Again, since they involve price points, you will have to tell Bowker your retail pricing for each style book so everything can be keyed-in accordingly. While we’re still a long way from quantum physics, what comes next is a black hole that can reshape a writer’s universe–all the wrong way.

The Following Section May Be the Most Important Information a Writer Seeking Publication Will Ever Read

A great many publishers and individuals resell the ISBNs, and it certainly appears advantageous for a writer to buy a single number for say $40 in lieu of $125. The problem is, who owns the legal right to the title the ISBN identifies if the author has not received a release from the company or person who sold the number? According to the staff at Bowker, and I pressed them on this issue several times to make certain of the consistency of what they were telling me, each year they are contacted by a multitude of writers who are justifiably distraught after they learn the rights to their book are really owned by the person or company that resold the ISBN to them!

I would think this is also a double-edged sword for the individual (or company) that is retaining the rights, since if the work is plagiarized, the person (or company) will be sued right along with the thief. So, unless the staff at Bowker is lying to me to protect their interests, I think it would behoove any writer to make certain an ironclad release is signed before acquiring an ISBN from anyone outside of Bowker. By the way, 100 ISBN’s are only $575 (according to what Mrs. Milsey taught me in the 4th grade, that’s $5.75 each), and 1000 are just $1000! It’s easy to see why buying in bulk and reselling the numbers at a 20 to 40 times markup has substantial street appeal.

The ISBN and Barcode Can Be Combined on One Format

If you should be interested in how the barcode is determined, since it also has a book’s category and other information embedded, Barcode Graphics Web site explains the process in detail and this is why I chose to highlight the firm in this section. Included in their definitions is the tidbit that the Bookland EAN symbol is the barcode of choice in the book industry throughout the world because it allows for the encodation of an ISBN with the barcode on a single label.

This company’s price for 1000 of a single label with a both codes in a standard configuration is $27.75. So once a writer has the ISBN, and a price point, a single label can be ordered. Just be aware that there are a gargantuan number of graphics outfits that can print labels, so it would behoove a writer to shop around, but I imagine $27.75 for 1000 labels is a pretty strong baseline.

To recap, if you’re going to sell your book outside your individual efforts, you will have to acquire an ISBN and a barcode number that can be affixed to each book (unless of course the publisher prints the Bookland EAN combined-label somewhere on the book). And, again, as with changes or different formats that will require a separate ISBN, you will need a unique barcode for any price points that aren’t the same.

The Release Should Be Issue Number-One

Regardless of from whom anyone acquires an ISBN outside of Bowker, the single most important issue is that the writer have a release signed by someone who has the authority to do so (which is another subject, and a monster in its own right). My opinion, if anyone wants it, is that it’s probably better to go ahead with Bowker, buy ten ISBNs, get the exact number of barcodes that are needed initially, and be done with it (other than getting the labels printed in some manner if your work is not exclusively an e-book). And if someone accepts my quantity suggestions for each component, the total for everything for one e-book and one printed book that can be sold by a wholesaler, distributor, retailer, or placed in a library, looks like a price tag of around $325, give or take $10.

It would be easy to load up on Bowker because of the company’s obvious monopoly status, but in fairness, would it be conceivable to have a hundred different authorized outlets dispensing numbers? This seems like perhaps the only instance I can think of in which our government could’ve handled something internally–such as via a Library of Congress affiliate agency of some sort, especially since this is already being done with periodicals–and made money rather than turning it over to a private concern. But, as many have said before me and many more will say after, who knows?

[Special Note:  The dollar amounts for ISBNs and Barcodes were as of June of 2011. Please check for current prices for each component.]

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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It’s Important to Recognize That a List Is Just That–and Nothing More

Over the years, I can’t begin to count the number of times writers have contacted me, bubbling with enthusiasm, to let me know that a book of theirs was now listed with the major distributing venues, and they are now “on their way.” I always hated to tell them that the only thing they are on the way to is disappointment, should they believe the lists are sales vehicles that will move even one book for them.

Don’t Get Excited by Placement with Ingram or Baker & Taylor

Today, almost any title can be placed on either of these lists. And it’s easy to believe that Ingram’s distribution lock with bookstores and B&T’s with libraries would constitute an immediate path to sales. After all, there are still more than 10,000 retail bookstores in the U.S., along with almost 125,000 libraries if the educational system in the U.S. is added to the mix. Let’s see, if those libraries buy just a single book from Baker & Taylor, the world is mine oyster. If only this was the way it worked.

The Function of Ingram and Baker & Taylor

These firms, which I believe it’s fair to imply have attained monopoly status, since they distribute books to retail bookstores and libraries respectively with really only a single other company of any size infringing on either’s turf, have one thing in common: each is a distributor, not a sales entity.

Distribution Means One Thing, Sales Another

Neither firm sells the first book via its respective list (Ingram now publishes through its own company, Lightning Source, but it still does not sell books via the medium; however, marketing programs are offered, which is a topic all unto itself). It bears repeating, neither Ingram nor Baker & Taylor employ a sales force to sell books. They fill orders for books that are presold by sales teams from the various publishers. And that is all!

An Unknown Author on a List Is Like a Drop of Water in the Atlantic

All sorts of statistics are published as to the number of titles on Ingram or Baker & Taylor’s list at any given time, but 70,000 is commonly bandied about. Without publicity, how easy would it be for a reader to find a title amidst 70,000–when the search is not author or title specific?

Amazon Has Its Own Issues

Placement with Amazon might seem like the final step to sales, celebrity, and perhaps salvation. But the same issues exist as with Ingram and B & T. Yes, with Amazon, there’s a lot of “help” available, but the title count in this case is exponentially greater, and therefore the chances for success governed by the multiplier. One of Amazon’s high-ranking executives revealed not long ago that some books on the site don’t sell a single copy.

Back to Understanding What Placement on a List Really Means

For a book to have a realistic chance for a writer, it’s imperative to be listed with Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Amazon. But this is a starting point and not the top to what is a very tall mountain–that except under the rarest of circumstances must be climbed one slow step at a time.

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If querying literary agents isn’t difficult enough, how is a writer who is attempting to break into the business supposed to decipher the sales figures that are posted by major agents when individual statistics during a 12-month period might indicate the placement of over 100 titles by a single agent?

Sales Numbers Can Reflect the Entire Agency and Not the Individual Agent

Keep in mind that an agent such as Richard Curtis, who one agent-tracking Web site credits with 159 titles sold during a recent 12-month period, is stating the figures for his entire agency. Prolific producers such as Richard Curtis, Sterling Lord, Al Zuckerman, and Jane Dystel are historically providing numbers generated by their respective agency imprimaturs and not their individual sales, although they certainly might play some role in each transaction.

Query the Right Agent for Your Material

If you check their individual Web sites, you will notice that some of these high-production agencies are mammoth, employing a couple dozen agents and numerous subordinate staff members, such as readers. This is why it’s imperative to find out which representative at an agency is the right choice for a particular work. And why it does not behoove a writer to send material to the lead agent when another person is better suited.

Be Careful of the Agent on the Marquee

The reason for this admonition is because many agencies don’t pass material from agent to agent to see who might like it from a genre perspective. So in instances in which a cozy mystery might be ideal for Jane Jones, it might not be suitable for hard-boiled police mystery guru John Jones. And if John Jones is the agency founder–and the person queried–his personal attaché may only look for material that will fit his eye if the query is addressed to him. And no one I am aware of enables a writer to submit to multiple agents within the same agency, as this seems to be universally disparaged.

There Is an Exception to Be Aware of

There is, however, one disclaimer that must be made, since there are indeed some agencies for which all queries are reviewed by a submission coordinator, regardless of to whom the letter is addressed. This submission coordinator often screens queries and passes those that are deemed worthy to the agent who is thought to best fit for the project. But I don’t think anyone would consider it bad advice to suggest that a writer find the right person to query, from the outset.

Proactive Things a Writer Can Do That Will Work

Nothing about locating the right agents to query is easy, but with the last sentence in the preceding paragraph in mind, a serious writer can save a lot of time and aggravation by making the effort to do these four things:

  • Closely follow Publishers Marketplace to learn which agents are selling what and to whom.

  • Become knowledgeable of the content of the recent book(s) an agent of interest has placed so something can be referenced in the query, especially if there is plot or thematic similarity.

  • Utilize the Agent Query Web site at agentquery.com to verify the agent’s title, address, etc.

  • While on the Agent Query site, access the agent’s personal information (the URL is often shown; if not, go to the agency Web site and search for the particular agent you want to query). This is important because the submission criteria listed for the agent is often more detailed and current (read “different”) from what is provided in the short bio provided on Agent Query.

A writer making the effort to complete these four tasks will be ahead of 95 percent of the querying competition–which is an immense advantage when considering the overall numbers.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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From academicians to book critics to lay readers, each is often eager to recommend a list of authors who will provide aspiring writers with a sound foundation from which to build. Any suggestions should be revered, but it would be ridiculous for one person to state that her/his idea of quality prose is better than another’s.

However, there are four aspects of the craft of writing that many who understand literature would argue have never been better addressed: Steinbeck’s perfection with dialogue, Faulkner’s depth of characterization, Hemingway’s precise narrative style, and Fitzgerald’s palpable creation of mood.

Steinbeck’s Brilliance As a Dialogist

One of the quickest ways to appreciate John Steinbeck’s brilliance in the realm of dialogue is to read TORTILLA FLAT, THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT, and OF MICE AND MEN. Accents are often hard to maintain in a novel without eventually grating on the reader, yet Steinbeck’s last line of dialogue in TORTILLA FLAT is as fresh as his first. THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT provides a perfect medium for demonstrating his range. And it is then a simple step to OF MICE AND MEN to gain an understanding of Steinbeck’s genius in the art of writing divergent dialogue at an extraordinary level.

Faulkner’s Genius with Characterizations

The mere mention of William Faulkner can cause many to quail. But a lot of Faulkner aficionados, of which I am included in this group, feel he is unchallenged in the realm of characterization. Many erudite souls recommend ABSALOM, ABSALOM as an ideal example of why Faulkner rules the world of characterization, and one needs to read only the first paragraph in the initial chapter to realize the reason for this praise. Another suggestion is that serious writers read THE SOUND AND THE FURY. The characterization of Dilsey the maid is, in itself, a masterpiece.

Hemingway’s Impeccable Pitch

With simple words, Hemingway’s narratives are so powerful and his depictions so poignant that he is credited with creating a unique style. An efficient way to experience his skill is to read THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. What is often overlooked about Hemingway’s crisp, concise style is the quality of pitch his technique provides. His passages of perfect pitch in themselves can be important to analyze by anyone desiring to become a better writer.

Fitzgerald’s Mastery of Mood

Mood, like voice, is one of those magical areas that is easy to recognize but impossible to define with much accuracy. But whatever mood happens to be, it can be experienced in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In THE GREAT GATSBY, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, and TENDER IS THE NIGHT, there is an unmistakable mood that is so sentient the reader easily and pleasantly becomes enveloped by it. In just the opening paragraph of TENDER IS THE NIGHT, the mood for the entirety of a story is set in place. Whatever Fitzgerald’s voice was, he found it. And whatever mood is, he created it with exceptional flair.

There are numerous other writing elements, and subcategories of each, that anyone serious about becoming a novelist must consider. But for those who desire an understanding of what many regard as the four pillars necessary for developing proficiency at writing quality prose, especially if the interest is to have a book signed by a major royalty publisher, it is difficult to argue against studying the distinctions of dialogue, characterizations, narrative pitch, and mood established by Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, respectively.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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The same as a secretary or administrative assistant to any executive, interns or subordinates are often used to screen manuscripts to make certain that the agent or publisher isn’t inundated with substandard material. And considering the volume of submissions agents and publishers must sift through, now multiplied many times because of the Internet, without good gatekeepers the process would be overwhelming.

So What Is a “Reader” Looking For?

It’s not so much what they’re looking for as what they’re looking at. And whether anyone wants to agree or disagree with many of the contentions proffered by respected agent and author Noah Lukeman in his book THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, A WRITER’S GUIDE TO STAYING OUT OF THE REJECTION PILE, I firmly believe he’s spot-on when he says that “readers” look for reasons to reject a work. And they look hard. Real hard.

Exactly What Aides Evaluate

To effectively answer this, ask yourself what you would look at first. Wouldn’t it be grammar? Forget for a moment about how fast the “hook” was established, or some spectacular characterizations, or how rapidly you were engaged in the protagonist, or any of the other “gripping” issues we who write live by. Isn’t grammar the first element you notice when beginning reading any text?

It’s very basic, but if the sentence construction is flawed, most people will put down a book from an unestablished author. Yes, well-known writers, or highly publicized material, go by a different set of rules, but we mere mortals have to deal with the throes of what Ms. Milsey taught us in 4th grade and what other indomitable spirits worked so hard to drill into us from that point forward.

A Clean Draft Is the Single Most Important Issue for Writers To Contend With

Ask yourself, how do you react when you pick up a book and you’re immediately exposed to sentences with improper subject and verb agreement, pronouns not related to the correct antecedents, unacceptable comma placement, runs of exposition that stop you because of misplaced modifiers, superfluous wording, elliptical expressions, or any of the other rhetorical bugbears?

In this respect, a staffer employed by an agent or publisher to evaluate material is no different from any of the rest of us when we’re reading for enjoyment. Enjoyment is not having to revise the story in our minds while we’re reading it.

If a Draft Survives the “First Cut,” Publishers’ Assistants Then Go for the Jugular

If material is patently readable, then the real work begins for “readers,” as they look for whatever they can find to have the draft rejected. Here are several considerations that can deal a death blow to a manuscript:

  • High on the list are POV shifts, an element that even the most skilled authors sometime find difficult to maintain.
  • Passages written in passive voice are often cited as negatives, even though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with injecting text with occasional passive runs, as it’s often impossible not to use passive elements and retain content fluency.
  • “Telling” and not “showing” is an easy way out for aides who are eager to dis material, as there’s always rhetoric that can “show” the action in more vivid detail. This element is important but often grossly overstated as to its significance, as many scenes need to move along and not be bogged down with capillary-level introspection.
  • The overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Old as the hills, but still a killer.
  • Dialogue pacing is another element that’s a high priority and something many writers never consider.
  • Some aids are taught in college or have read that some expert has determined that interior monologue should always follow a spit of dialogue. Some “readers,” and not just early-stage interns, won’t bend this rule, ignoring the pitch of the entire scene to ferret out a single “offending” exchange.

Quirks and Still More Quirks

An inordinate number of issues can destroy a manuscript’s chances, and this article touches on just a few of the more potentially contentious elements. It’s important to always remember that agents and publishers have preferences, just the same as we all do. And they, like the rest of us, hire aides who will pay strict attention to their likes and dislikes. Hence, if a subordinate sees something unappealing about a draft, it’s sent to the slush pile to wallow forever, in all but he rarest of cases.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 31-10-2012
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing) by admin

Overwhelmingly, publishers are an honorable lot. And I firmly believe that the very first consideration for most is the literary value of any work they’re considering for publication. Yet even though I’m confident this is an accurate assessment, would any publishing house refuse TWILIGHT or FIFTY SHADES OF GREY once either’s readership was established.

What’s the Norm?

For the sake of the integrity of this article’s topic, let’s assume we aren’t discussing what surrounds one mega blockbuster that comes out every three years or so and controls the bottom line of a major publisher. Instead, we’re looking at the industry based on a manuscript presented by a writer who’s trying to gain a foothold.

The Market for the Story Will Be High on the Agenda.

If the draft appears patently readable (this isn’t a joke), the initial consideration often gets down to market. This isn’t always from a dollar-driven perspective but relates to the specific market to which the imprint’s sales team sells its books. The key to this is the word “specific,” since each publishing group’s marketing operation has generally spent years (read “decades”) branding its various imprints.

I’ve mentioned Pinnacle before, and since I’ve tried to write for the firm a couple of times and missed the mark for one reason or another, I can discuss what I experienced firsthand. Pinnacle wants a Thriller with the murders described as they occur and in gruesome detail. The killer must also go after the story’s protagonist, and the latter must have a love interest that’s clear to the reader from the outset. Failure to deliver any of this and the narrative will be rejected. Almost every imprint has a set of guidelines that are inviolable.

A Publisher’s Comfort Zone Has To Be Recognized

Ask yourself, would a story sell to the New York market if written about an Amish buggy maker from Yoder, Kansas, who trades in his leather punch for a pair of handcuffs and travels the 30 miles to battle crime on the mean streets of Wichita every night? As silly as this might seem, I’ve experienced difficulty getting traction for a soon-to-retire criminal investigator from Florida who happens upon a serial murderer in rural Indiana. If the historical aspect of the story wasn’t absolutely paramount to the plot, I’d have moved this narrative’s setting to Long Island or outside of Philadelphia. Really! Geography is legitimate consideration.

It’s Crucial To Examine Exactly What an Imprint Publishes

If a publisher is strong with Historical Romances, for example, it’s hard to get a Mystery accepted by the company even if the house might’ve published one or two in its oeuvre. And it’s particularly problematic if the Mystery is written in a minimalist style, such as THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE or THE MALTESE FALCON. I know from experience that any Thriller submitted to a publisher with definite Historical Romance underpinnings had better be quite strong on physical scene description, deep into introspective characterizations, and committed to layers of character dimension. Of course it’s hard for most writers to pace a Thriller adequately while providing service to each of the elements I just outlined, but a publisher’s comfort zone cannot be overestimated, and a writer must adhere to what I’ll refer to as the “house rules” or his or her time will be wasted.

Once More, Will It Sell?

I read years ago that certain publishers would accept noncommercial material to enhance their prestige, and I don’t doubt this was true then and remains a noble position that many industry executives continue to hold in high station. Yet the “Will it sell?” mantra–now more than ever–seems to trump everything else. So if a book is not considered highly marketable, it’s doubtful in today’s crowded, corporately controlled environment that many works with limited commercial prospects will stand much of a chance. And this is even true when a previously published author has not achieved success with a most-recent work. The sad realities are what they are, at least as I know them, and this is why many established writers have chosen, or are exploring, alternatives to mainstream publishing.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 11-01-2011
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

A while ago I read a paper that offered guidelines which ran from a page for flash fiction to 60,000 words as the starting point for a work to be considered novel-length. I’m not remotely qualified to comment on flash fiction, but it seems 60,000 words is an acceptable metric for a narrative to be classified as a novel.                                             

If the 60,000 Number Is the Starting Point for a Novel, What Is Considered Too Long?

When I began querying my initial novel 20-plus years ago and called a few agents (not a good idea, even then) to get a feel for the market, I remember the first words out of several of their mouths: “How long is your manuscript?” I thought it was quite odd to ask this without knowing one thing about the story. But when I began editing for a living, I often found myself requesting–also early in the conversation–the same information. What follows are a couple of reasons why.

The Interest in Length in Many Cases Relates to the Cost to Print the Book

It’s very hard to get many agents to consider a mammoth work from a heretofore unpublished author because they know submissions editors will balk at considering something that is essentially a tome. This doesn’t mean the “new” author of a book with a high word count cannot achieve success, but large books cost more to print and consequently often retail for more money.

Following this thinking, it’s hard to entice readers to pay an additional amount for something written by an unknown author. Certainly e-publishing renders the increased-cost argument nugatory, but until the industry reaches a point at which nothing will ever be printed, the contention regarding word count will likely retain some degree of validity.

Traditional-Length Stories are What the Public Desires

Commercial Fiction in the 80,000- to 90,0000-word range seems to be what appeals to the general public, since this provides an 8- to 10-hour read for most people, and it’s the ambit a great many agents and publishers recommend their authors’ works fall within. Of course a book could be 55,000 or 120,000 words (or whatever), but the 80,000- to 90,000-word model provides a good framework, especially for an unpublished writer trying to break into the business.

It’s Always Important to Understand There Are Exceptions

A single factor normally determines why publishers allow exceptions, and this pertains to an author’s following. This implies the writer was published in some medium previously and has achieved considerable success. And the publisher is gambling that the next book will sell, regardless of its size. I could be very wrong, but if J. K Rowling had written the first installment in her series at the length of some of her later works in the oeuvre, we might never have heard of Harry Potter.

One Rule and a Summation

The rule is: there isn’t one. But as I constantly write, unpublished authors have to jump over a very high bar, and it’s constantly being raised. So it’s imperative to make an agent or publisher’s work–as it applies to accepting a manuscript–as comfortable as possible.

Some of the positions maintained by agents are purely personal and even regrettable. But regardless of the reasons for agents’ and publishers’ purported biases, writers have to be prepared to work around those that are extant. Yet I must mention that I recently spoke with a highly regarded submissions editor who said she has never found word count to matter, irrespective of the genre.

I realize this article is fraught with contradictions, but the publishing industry is tough enough to crack without trying to circumvent what are considered the traditional word-count metrics by many if not most of those who make the ultimate decisions regarding the fate of a story.

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 18-03-2010
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

Let me state flat out that the importance of understanding and writing consistent POV cannot be overstated, since this is one of the first elements agents, publishers, and professional editors notice, since shifting POV is considered not only a deficiency but a sign of amateur writing. I can’t always tell writers how to get published by a major royalty publisher, but I am certain of ways not to. And the unskilled shifting of POV is one of the fastest ways I know for material to end up in the slush pile.

Some Highly Skilled Writers Can Indeed Shift POV Effortlessly

There are of course exceptions. Some highly skilled writers can shift POV seamlessly. But their POV shifts are done sparingly and generally at high-tension plot points in which the writer is not concerned with the movement because the scene is so powerful that the other character’s view is necessary. And not expressing that POV would hinder the scene.

I wrote an article on POV in which I illustrated an instance in which I felt the shift was not only acceptable but desirable. So the issue is not confused, I’m not going to include the article at this time, but will mention that E.M. Forster said that POV shifts are fine–as long as nobody notices them (his remark made me laugh too). The difficulty for most writers is that POV shifts are most often not only noticeable, they are overwhelmingly detrimental to the narrative, as well.

Even Some of Literature’s Most Famous Writers Have Made POV Mistakes

It does not require close reading to find problematic POV shifts, and even some of literature’s most famous writers err. For a developmental writing workshop series I facilitated, I reread Saul Bellow’s THE VICTIM, since I use it in one of my syllabuses and I wanted to refresh my memory on one aspect of the plotline. I noticed two instances in the story in which Mr. Bellow shifted the POV, and to the extent that I required me to reread both passages, one several times.

A callow youth might read something by a famous author that contains jarring POV shifts and assume this sort of writing is acceptable. I’m sorry, it is not! Especially if a writer has hopes of being paid for being published in today’s highly selective literary marketplace.

A Clear Explanation of POV

If POV is foggy, perhaps this will make it clear: A character whose POV the scene is written around (maybe it would work best to consider this the “lead character” for this illustration) can demonstrate actions and express thoughts. Every other character in the scene can demonstrate actions but never thoughts, since the thoughts of another character in the same scene automatically reflect that person’s POV–and what is referred to as shifting POV once the scene’s initial POV is established by a character. How POV is maintained for the reader–related to which character’s thoughts are controlling the scene–is the key to POV consistency. To repeat, the first character whose thoughts are expressed dictates the scene’s POV.

Along this line, it is important to keep another issue in mind. Even though this lead character can show actions and thoughts for the reader, he or she must couch the viewing of others. This means that the lead character can state what he or she desires, whether this be personal information or whatever else about other characters or situations, but he or she can only suppose what is going on in the mind of others. Hence, we read phrases in which the lead character says that it “seemed,” or it “appeared,” or it “looked” like something was occurring related to another character or circumstance. Again, for POV consistency, once the lead character in a scene is established, no other character can express an opinion via interior monologue about anyone else. Only the character “controlling” his or her own POV can express “thoughts,” and then only about his or her own emotions.

Examples of POV–The Right and Wrong Way

Here, now, are examples of the same scene with John and Mary written three ways. The first is in John’s point of view:

“Hi,” John said to Mary. He gazed into her eyes, more nervous than he had ever been in his life.

“I’m happy that you came by,” Mary said, her voice sounding positive to him.

John, uplifted by her tone, experienced a sudden burst of confidence that he hadn’t thought possible. But as he continued to stare at Mary, she blinked several times before turning away. He could only guess at what had caused her sudden change in comportment.

He took a deep breath and his voice was shaky. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Mary kept her head down. He heard what he thought was a muted sob, then she looked up at him and seemed to force a smile. “No. I thought I could but I can’t.”

Since the scene is written around John’s POV, he can state his positions because he knows for certain what he is feeling. His thoughts are “leading” the scene. But he cannot know for certain what Mary is feeling. He cannot know, for example, that she forced a smile, only that she seemed to have forced one. It is only after she says “no” that the reader can infer that John might have made a correct assumption. If the last spit of dialogue read, “Yes, I thought I couldn’t, but I can,” this could mean that her smile wasn’t forced but was one of subtle satisfaction with her decision. What follows is the same scene in Mary’s POV:

“Hi,” John said to Mary, as he gazed into her eyes.

John’s anxiety was obvious to Mary, even by his one-word greeting, since his voice had cracked.

“I’m happy that you came by,” she said in a soft tone, hoping this would provide him with some degree of self-assurance.

John seemed uplifted, and appeared to experience a sudden burst of confidence that pleased Mary. But as he continued to stare at her, she blinked several times before turning away. She hoped that he wouldn’t misinterpret her actions, because it was she who now needed to gain composure.

He took a deep breath, but his voice was still shaky. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Mary kept her head down, hoping he wouldn’t know she was crying inside, but then she looked up and forced a smile. “No, I thought I could but I can’t.”

Here Is the Same Scene with the POV’s Shifting Back and Forth–and the Consequences

“Hi,” John said to Mary, as he gazed into her eyes, wondering if she really wanted to see him.

“I’m happy that you came by,” Mary said, her voice soft, and thinking she should’ve been more aggressive, since he’d made everything so awkward.

John, however, was uplifted by her tone, and experienced a burst of confidence that she hadn’t thought possible. Then he’d noticed a change in her comportment as she looked away to consider what to say next. He needed time to think and she wished he were someplace else.

Mary kept her head down and made what sounded to John like a muted sob. Then she looked up and forced a smile. As they stared at one another, he dreaded the words: “I thought I could but I can’t.”

This example is overkill, but I’ve read material just as bad, and it demonstrates just how devastating inept POV shifts can be. Lack of speaker designation is the most common issue with POV shifts, as depicted in the last paragraph, since the reader is unable to determine who was speaking.

A Final Bit of Advice

As I mentioned earlier, there are exceptions to strictly maintaining POV via one character. But if a writer is trying to find an agent and become published for the first time by a bona fide royalty publisher, I strongly suggest avoiding POV shifts.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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The first obvious issue for any reader of this article is the title, since it strays dramatically from the norm of using “versus” to separate the two mediums. The reason for my word choice is because technology now enables anyone to self-publish an e-book for very little out-of-pocket expense.

This still doesn’t imply that self-publishing is not loathed by the major print publishers and upscale indies, along with the agents who support them via their submissions, but the rising presence of this electronic medium seems to have created a degree of acquiescence for the digital aspect of self-publishing. I want to reiterate that this newfound tolerance should not be considered akin to support, since the stigma assigned to self-publishing by the mainstream industry remains as strong as ever, and the purpose of this article is solely to try to provide a degree of clarity.

[This article was originally published by me in 2010, but the material continues to be relevant as in 2014, except it must be noted that the mainstream publishing houses; meaning the mega-major royalty publishers and quality independent presses, are all involved with trying to crack the digital market. For this reason, the bias against self-publishing, in large measure because of the widespread advancements in digital, is no longer near as pronounced as it was in 2010.]   

POD is Not Self-Publishing

Print On Demand is confusing to the people who assume this to connote self-publishing. POD has nothing to do with self-publishing, except that it enables a self-published book to be converted into a hard copy–and at a heretofore unavailable low cost. A single copy in a paperback book, including cover artwork from a template, can be printed for as little as $35, with the entire process taking less than an five minutes  (the present technology consists of a sophisticated printer with a couple of other components, which combined have a price tag of around $100,000).

A run of a few hundred copies of a book by a traditional printer, depending on the purveyor, can reduce the cost of an 90,000-word book to approximately $5 per unit. According to industry figures, the average self-published book (average in this instance refers to the mode or most common number), sells 41 copies. For someone bent on seeing his or her name in print, I think most folks would agree that a single shopping bag with a couple of dozen books in it at a total expense of a few hundred dollars is indeed preferential to a garage loaded to the ceiling with paperbacks and a hole in a bank account of several thousand dollars.

Major Royalty Publishers Are Utilizing POD

Because of the high cost of distribution and warehousing of non-bestsellers, especially since gross retail sales for a particular title are usually far from a sure thing, it only makes sense that major royalty publishers have embraced the POD model. Publishers can produce (or have produced, as the case may be) an exact replica of a soft cover on demand–and not have to keep the book in inventory awaiting a consumer buying decision that might never come.

From a business standpoint, the POD model for a soft cover (and probably hard cover in the not too distant future) makes all the sense in the world. This might mean that the remaining major book retailers still out there will be reduced to kiosks in the mall, and considering the high cost of maintaining large retail space, this dramatic change could occur quite soon. [I've predicted this for some time, and I firmly believe this will happen, as for the most part leases on brick-and-mortar bookstores aren't being renewed.]

So What about Self-Publishing?

Self-publishing is changing too. Authors are now being solicited (okay, badgered), via a constant barrage of POD options presented by the self-publishing houses, to buy the books the writers themselves wrote. Rather than once again creating a new business model, it’s much easier for a self-publishing company to access the convenience of POD and not view it as a competitive medium. Unfortunately, self-published writers unwittingly fall for their respective publisher’s constant solicitations and still end up with a trunk full of unsold books (which I guess is advantageous to a garage full).

Self-Publishing Is Still Self-Publishing

Like leopards not changing their spots, self-publishing is what it is. And my advice is still the same for any writer who has run out of patience and tossed in the towel: self-publish as inexpensively as possible. With e-publishing, a book can be made available with an ISBN number or its counterpart for less than $100 (and closer to $50 in many cases, I’m told). If a hard copy is desired, the POD element enables this starting at $35 for a single soft cover in trade paperback size. 

Before Self-Publishing, Consider the Regional Independent Publishers

The advance from a major royalty publisher (the mega houses plus Kensington) for a heretofore unpublished author for a work of fiction is generally in the neighborhood of $20,000 (but of late can be as low as $5,000, and I’ve even heard of a fiction writer being offered $1,500). There are, however, some very well-respected independent presses that are worth looking into after the big guys have sent out their rejection slips. In most instances the advances will be less than what the major’s might offer, and a writer might have to do a considerable amount of grassroots marketing (although the majors are requiring this, too, and more so than ever), but I continue to suggest giving the independents a shot rather than immediately turning to self-publishing.

Publishers Marketplace Is the “Old Reliable”

Publishers Marketplace, via its newsletter Publishers Lunch, shows which agents are placing what with whom, and a writer can learn which indies to ply for a specific genre by checking the respective links. A writer can also Google the words “Independent Publishers” and create a list. The problem with this, however, is sifting through the vanity presses that disguise themselves as legitimate royalty houses. This is why I suggest Publishers Marketplace as the first and in my opinion best resource for accurate, concurrent information. But before jumping on the indie express, and to take one more precaution against ending up with that garage full of books I always warn against, I also recommend that authors make a visit to the “Preditors and Editors” Web site (the site operator spells “Preditors” this way, and I have no idea way, but this medium has historically done a good job of singling out the bad guys). This will be time well spent and enable one more snapshot of what can be lurking in the bushes, which might be something with the body of a lamb but with a head that immediately morphs into a hydra the moment the contract is signed.

A Final Few Thoughts on Self-Publishing and POD

In fairness to self-publishing history, there are indeed accurate tales about people who have self-published and been wildly successful. But to my knowledge, all had one of two things in common: phenomenal marketing created via a gargantuan Internet presence or a highly successful advertising or media career. In the nonfiction market, those who made it were also the undisputed experts in their respective niches. Most of us mere mortals aren’t fortunate enough to fit any of these categories, and this is why I keep stressing to self-publish the absolute cheapest way possible, should this be perceived as the only option still available. And if print is desired, use a POD medium and make the least number of copies that will satisfy immediate needs, even if the cost per copy might not allow for a profit on the early sales. If the book sells, then move into larger print runs that will reduce the cost per copy so a viable sales model can be developed. I promise I’m giving good advice on this.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 10-12-2012
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

Genre Trumps All Else

This would seem to be so obvious that it doesn’t need to be mentioned, yet not understanding genre on the part of the author is a problem I find with a lot of material that’s sent to me to edit.

Let’s Start with Literature and Mainstream Fiction

Both genres cater to an essentially adult market, and constraints on profanity generally aren’t an issue because of this demographic. But there can be serious concerns when a book crosses over . For example, if Holden Caulfield said “F” this and “F” that in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, what sort of impact would that have had on the novel’s sales (more than 60 million and still counting)?

Even material as stark as both STUDS LONIGAN and AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY were relatively profanity-free, and if an epithet was spoken, it was mild. And Henry Miller’s material, while graphically sexual, contains little profanity of any sort. Even Cormac McCarthy’s novels, which in my opinion are as visceral as narratives can get, are overwhelmingly sans profanity. The same can be said for Erskine Caldwell’s works, as well as those of Faulkner and Steinbeck, both of whom often dealt with quite adult themes and circumstances.

Common Denominators for Profanity

If I’m reading jailhouse argot, or the conversation between two drunken sailors, every other sentence with an “MF” in it is perfectly acceptable. Likewise, to impress their peers, gang members are going to use all of the seven words that can’t be spoken on TV as often as possible, and anyone writing dialogue centered in this environment has to lace it with profanity or the runs won’t ring true with the reader.

But when writing dialogue in standard settings, one “F” word goes a long way, and unless it’s part of a character’s established profile, even a single utterance of the “F” word won’t be acceptable to the reader. However, the “F” word used judiciously can indeed be a powerful tool. In no other book has the “F” word had more of an impact on me than in William Maxwell’s SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW. And it appeared just once in the entire novel.

But Watch Out for YA

It’s not so much what kids read, but what parents will let them buy or will purchase for them. The Internet makes just about any reading material available to anyone, but when considering a novel someone is paying for, regardless of who’s remitting the funds, buyer demographics enter into the equation.

Even “hell” and “damn” can be a problem in a YA story, especially if these words are spoken routinely by the story’s protagonist without provocation. I always think of myself when I was 17 years old and meeting a girl’s parents for the first time and cussing repeatedly in front of them for no reason, thinking it was cool. I was told in no uncertain terms by her father that my language wasn’t acceptable in his household, and he escorted me to my car and made it clear that I was never to ask his daughter out again. This life’s lesson applies to writing profanity as well.

Always Consider the Market for Your Story

Genre is market, and I’m concluding this article as it began by emphasizing the importance of identifying who will be reading your story. Will it be only older adults? Or will young adults make up your audience as well? Can profanity detract in any way from the image you’re wanting your characters to portray, especially your protagonist? Does profanity fit the scene? And how do you want to use profanity–to shock or as part of a character’s normal speech? Whatever the situation, think it out carefully and choose wisely.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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No one likes spending money to hire an editor. I certainly don’t, and I am an editor. But it is a necessary evil, should a writer view it this way, and there are specific reasons why proofreading/copyediting by an untrained person is a recipe for problems if not disaster.

The Secretary

Several distinct categories of amateur proofreaders exist that I’ve found writers gravitate toward, and at the top of the list is the personal secretary. I’ve been blessed with a number of extraordinary secretaries in the 35 years I worked primarily on the business side of the healthcare field. And each one was able to spot my typos, missing words, and punctuation miscues, and I had a couple who routinely provided better ways for me to phrase something. But better ways to present my position? Never! If that had been the case, I should have been doing their jobs and they mine. And I’m dead serious about this.

A secretary who can clean up a boss’s hurried or sloppy writing is an immeasurable asset, but having the skill sets to understand the nuances of copyediting is like implying that a bookkeeper is also an accountant. These aren’t the same jobs any more than secretarial responsibilities can translate to understanding what is or isn’t a restrictive clause and if commas are or aren’t required. Sure, some secretaries can accomplish all of what any editor can provide. Look at J.K. Rowling. But how many Ms. Rowlings are out there, and do we know that she never used an editor?

The Spouse

Has anyone had a significant other provide golf lessons? Shouldn’t that answer using a spouse as an editor? To take this full circle, I don’t know of any editor who hasn’t at one time or another had a client’s spouse question the editorial decisions. I had to drop a good writer because his wife decided she could edit better than I and my copyeditor. She made wholesale changes to a draft I’d spent more than 200 hours on and effectively drove the material to perdition with no hope of absolution. This can apply to any relative, but I’ve found the spouse to be the primary culprit in the realm of bad decision number two.

The Friend

The third worst offender is the friend. Usually this person is considered really smart and often incredibly well read, having consumed thousand of books in his or her lifetime.  However, it must be understood that reading for enjoyment is not going to make a person a competent proofreader any more than looking at fine art will assure a person proficiency as an artist. Reading or looking at art obviously helps on the appreciation side of things, but has little if any relevance to practical application, as easy reading is the byproduct of very hard writing, something that’s been cited quite often recently by a wide array of noted authors.

Proofreading Is a Specialty

I estimate that I catch 95 percent of the copy errors a writer makes, while the remaining 5 percent would take me another lifetime to fully comprehend. Simple things like writing height and weight or the length of a room or the width of a board are missed by almost everyone who is untrained.

Pronouns such as “their” being used with singular antecedents can foul up the best writers. Using “different than” when it should be “different from” (unless you’re in the U.K.) is easy to miss. Applying “him” when “his” should be used to indicate the possessive is often overlooked. Past progressive tense when past tense is correct is a common error.

Proofreading Requires Enormous Knowledge and Extensive Training

The list of anomalies that apply to the English language is in the thousands, not hundreds, and no wonderful secretary, loving spouse, or uber-intelligent friend can be expected to demonstrate proficiency in a science that has a tome of guidelines and which requires a precise level of learned and practiced expertise to apply correctly. It’s just the way it is. And I wish it were different myself.

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Posted on 08-10-2013
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing) by admin

I believe it’s fair to state that the size of the publisher is probably the last thing on the mind of most writers who receive a contract in the mail. But there are issues to consider, especially with the groundswell of consolidation at the high end of the publishing industry and the proliferation of publishing options at the entry level, with small presses in the middle.

Big Means Big

The good part of being signing with a mainstream publisher is that this can never be taken away. And how much, peripheral to money, is this worth? If it’s like the job market, a survey was done years ago that indicated the majority of people would take a pay cut to receive a more prestigious job than the one they were in. No joke.

Big Means More Advertising Dollars Are Available

The question is, how much of that advertising money will be spent on your book, especially if you’re a relative unknown? And if your book doesn’t “take off” right away, how long will the major house stay with you before saying “sayonara”? A small house might be inclined to be substantially more patient with a book, since each work it publishes will have a stronger impact, by percentage, on the bottom line than one title “placed” within the larger number published by a major imprint.

A Number Rather Than a Person

Then there’s always the problem of getting “swallowed up” in a large organization, no different from the workplace, a school, a church, or whatever. Once the handshaking is over, at a major publisher, unless the book is a blockbuster, phone time will likely be at a premium. And at a smaller publisher, a writer might be more able to sit down and discuss marketing options face-to-face rather than via the vapidity of an e-mail. I’m not implying this lack of personal contact isn’t available with a major imprint, but the opportunities for one-on-one contact will likely be less unless the writer is a star.

Small Can Mean Small Budget

The opposite of Random House, D&W Publishing (a name I’ve made up for this illustration) will almost certainly have a small marketing budget, so a writer can forget about a full-page ad costing six figures in the NYT. And a small publisher might expect more individual marketing by its writers, and at each author’s expense. However, to that point, it seems that all publishers are urging (read “demanding”) their writers to hit the bricks now more than ever.

Smaller Budgets, However, Can Have Advantages

A small press will almost always provide its authors with a closer sense of family, and many writers find this of great value. And while a smaller publisher will most often “stay with” a book longer, I’ve been told by authors who have signed with firms of both sizes that the smaller press was easier to work with all the way around. However, I’ve had others tell me there was no difference, and if the big press paid a larger advance it made the lack of “homeyness” a nonissue.

Time Enters into the Equation

If an author has spent years trying to land an agent, then more years pursuing a major royalty publisher, all to no avail, there can be huge satisfaction working with a small press. Some of these smaller publishers are renowned for their high-quality work and for the care their editors provide writers, and many “indie’s” can be approached without an agent’s assistance.

And, Yes, the Money

For many years, the major houses seemed to have a “standard” advance for new fiction novels that was $20,000. During this same period, the smaller independent publishers’ advances were in the $5,000 range for new work. Today, I’ve heard of major publishers’ imprints paying $5,000 to debut authors, and one purportedly offered as little as a $1,500 advance to a previously published client. And I know of several quality upstart independent publishers who sign work on consignment; meaning, the author is paid royalties on sales, with no advance.

Advances Have Been Reduced

When a reduced advance is involved, the major house versus smaller house scenario becomes easier to evaluate. If both publishers offered the same advance, it would seem to be hard to turn down the bigger firm; still, it might be prudent to consider the issues I’ve broached in this article. And while these are by no means all the areas to analyze, they are certainly some of the prominent ones.

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Abundant bear traps exist in the current literary marketplace that even writers who are old hands at accepting the vagaries of the publishing industry have difficulty navigating. Here are several issues–some old, some new–to consider.

Pitching a Book to the Wrong Agent or Publisher

Genre specificity plagues a lot of authors. It’s important to recognize that a hard-boiled detective mystery with a lot of torrid love scenes is not classified as Romance. If a writer is having difficulty pinning down the genre for a specific work, a friendly library staff member might be a wonderful resource (just please don’t expect this person to read your entire draft). Only after the genre is identified can a writer adequately source the query sites for suitable agents or publishers.

Agent or Publisher Bias Can Knock a Work Out of the Saddle

I recently presented material to a well-known independent publisher, only to be told that the firm did not handle anything dealing with Russians or the Mafia, something that was not mentioned in their already abundant submission guidelines. As luck would have it, a significant character in my narrative was a member of the Russian Mafia.

Of course this could be modified, but the point is that any writer can be blindsided by a bias against anything from Lithuanian folk dancers to fly fishermen from Montana. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a quirky business. And it seems that once something is found to be deficient in a manuscript, the agent or publisher tends to turn up the power of the already very intense microscope.

A Manuscript Can Suffer from the New Rock Band Syndrome

A manuscript can be deemed to be too close to other material. Or too far removed so that it doesn’t fit with anything else. Related to the way musical groups sound, I’m told these are standard rebukes in the recording industry. My personal experience is that it would be easier to climb Mt. Everest naked than to persuade an agent or publisher to accept material for which they have a predisposition toward rejecting for one of the reasons I just mentioned.

What if You Write the Perfect Manuscript, But It’s Really Not So Perfect After All?

Many writers contact a professional for assistance well after sourcing scores of agents and numerous publishers. It’s important to keep in mind that only so many agents and publishers work with each genre. And, unfortunately, agents and publishers inherently do not want to see work they’ve previously rejected. For these reasons, it’s critical to have a manuscript polished to a very high sheen (read “show car level”) before submitting it. Quite often there are issues that aren’t apparent to the author but which can be easily remedied; however, when left unchecked can send an otherwise solid body of work to the slush pile.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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To write a novel that will be appealing to a major royalty publisher involves more than just talent and hard work. It requires creating a plan from the outset and the discipline to follow it.

Everybody Has a Story Worth Telling

There’s a good possibility you have either been told this, heard this, or feel this way for your own reason(s). And while it may not be irrational to believe that each of us has a story worth publishing, doing so in a manner that’s palatable to a market that extends beyond our family and closest friends is indeed what separates writers.

It’s Often Not a Matter of Ability

I don’t think it would be out of line to state that we’ve all read a novel, for which we’ve paid our hard-earned money, and later shaken our collective heads in wonder and disgust at how the book ever got published. We might have even said to ourselves (and often) that we’ve written material that’s much better than what we just read, yet our stories were rejected. So why did a writer’s inferior material attract a publisher when our superior work hadn’t? Maybe our material wasn’t so perfect after all.

Specific Manuscript Faults That Can Cause Rejection

Assuming that basic grammar and punctuation were not an issue, several factors can determine why a manuscript was never considered publishable. In no particular order, here are some of those reasons. And please note that all of these shortcomings are the result of inadequate editing.

·       Certain plot elements seemed contrived

·       The characters were not interesting

·       The scenes were not fully developed

·       There was not adequate conflict

·       The dialogue was not realistic

·       The pacing was slow

·       The text was difficult to read

·       The premise was poor

·       The story design was wrong for the genre

·       Paragraphs and/or chapters were too long

These are some of the common reasons for rejection, yet we may have just read material published by a major imprint that contained some if not many of the very flaws that are listed. How is this so? Read on.

The Not So Obvious Reasons Poor Material Is Published

It is important to understand that today’s publisher is interested in readership potential more than ever, and an established author with a guaranteed market is key. The penchant to print books that will assure a certain number of sales encourages the following:

  • Books are written too fast, and this results in diminished quality

  • Books are poorly edited, since many publishers do very little of this today

  • Some of the most successful authors do not write some of the material under their names

  • Some of the most successful authors do not write any of the material under their names

The list is much longer, but the point is obvious.  And this is why a plan is critical for an unpublished author, or an already difficult task can soon become insurmountable.

Before Committing the First Word to Paper, Formulate a Plan and Force Yourself  to Follow It

For those writers who have the foresight to create a plan and the discipline to follow it, here are a few suggestions that will at least give each of you a fighting chance to have your novel considered by a quality agent and/or a bona fide royalty publisher:

1. Determine the genre and sub-genre of your book. If you should be having difficulty with this, go to the free “agentquery.com” Web site for current definitions and a listing of agents who work in your category.

2. Review current novels in your genre and sub-genre to determine the authors who are being published and by whom. Make a list of these authors’ agents (they are generally referenced on any novel’s Acknowledgments page). This will provide you with a group of agents to query, and you’ll likely find that some if not many will accept unsolicited material.

3. It is imperative that your novel it is an exact fit for the publisher’s definition of the genre–not your definition of it.

4. Pay attention to word count, paragraph length, chapter length, and general layout. Avoid long runs of italics and all parentheses if your material is fiction (the latter is a personal hang up of mine).

5. You can certainly take advantage of critique groups, writing workshops, and friends and relatives. But have a professional editor–one you have thoroughly checked out–at least read your manuscript before sending it off. And if you do take my advice on this, find an editor who has experience with royalty publishers in your manuscript’s genre.

6. You will not get a second chance with an agent or publisher. And the list of good ones who are still accepting unsolicited material is dwindling. So make your manuscript as perfect as possible in every way prior to submitting it for consideration.

Put the Cart in Front of the Horse and Create Your Liner Notes First

For anyone still in the planning stages, this is the time to put two paragraphs of your dreams for your novel on paper.  Design beforehand what your liner notes (and ultimately your query letter) should look like when your manuscript is finished. Do this and your characters will never be shallow and your scenes will never be weak. Now follow your dreams.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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More Agents Than Ever Do Not Accept Unsolicited Manuscripts

In the fiction area of the book-agenting arena, other than most agents/agencies now requesting or requiring submissions via e-mail, the rules for presenting preliminary material have not changed appreciably in the past 20 years. What has changed is the number of agents who no longer accept unsolicited material. Hence, they will only consider a project referred by someone with whom they have a business relationship, such as a respected colleague, well-known writer, or editor.

Understand an Agent’s Submission Guidelines and Follow Them

As stated in the opening paragraph of this paper, during the past two decades submission guidelines are still relatively unchanged, depending on the agent: one-page query; query with three pages; query with five pages, query with first chapter; query, synopsis, five pages; query, synopsis, first three chapters, etc. The primary difference, as I also mentioned earlier, is that many agents now except only e-queries/submissions.

Identify the Genre and Sub-Genre in Which Your Manuscript Is Written

Once the criteria for querying a particular agent is understood, a writer can save a great deal of time and aggravation by creating and following a plan.

First, it is critical to recognize the genre and exact sub-genre in which a work fits. For example, depending on who you talk to, there are now more than two-dozen subsets in the Suspense genre alone. The Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. @ http://www.aaronline.org/ is a great place to start an agent search, and another excellent free site is agentquery.com @ http://www.agentquery.com/default.aspx.

Query Agents Who Represent Authors Your Style Most Closely Emulates

A second option, if your story is written in the style of a popular author, is to check the Acknowledgments page of a book by that writer, for his or her agent. Query this agent–even if the person professes not to accept unsolicited material. The worst that can happen is a rejection. But you could receive a request to see a portion of your novel, and there is a solid reason why.

Agents Work in Genres in Which They Are Successful

People are generally most comfortable with what they know. Agents are no different. Familiarity, in this instance, is most often an asset and not a liability. Agents want books they believe they can sell–and they will gravitate toward genres in which they have a positive history.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 26-07-2011
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing) by admin

I’ve written many articles during the past few years on the art of composing query letters, and these have consistently ranked among the most popular of anything I’ve published. But even after explaining what an agent is looking for, and that a query must read like liner notes and not a synopsis, I continue to receive questions from writers. So I thought it might be a good idea to dissect a query down to what I call its capillaries.

Successful Queries Consist of Four Distinct Parts

The four parts of a query letter are as follows: the hook, the layout, the reason the book will appeal to a wide market, and the writer’s credentials.

The Opening Paragraph

The opening paragraph must contain a hook that differentiates the story from all others. It also must encapsulate the primary focus of the novel. Then it has to tell the agent that what follows is genuinely scintillating material which will be indicative of a story that is going to be a blockbuster, since all agents and publishers want only the next big book. This is not a joke or hype, even though some agents might indicate otherwise, especially when they are in a professorial mood. I do, however, know some agents who absolutely value quality over any other factor, but they too must put food on the table, thus the marketability of the book is not a minor consideration even for them.

Here’s What Not to Write for an Opening to a Query, As It’s a Synopsis

My 85,000-word historical novel opens with Ma and Pa leaving Virginia in 1872 with plans for settling in Missouri. Uncle Dirk goes with the family and is arrested for killing a man in a bar fight. Pa tries to spring him from jail, but shoots the sheriff and gets himself arrested too. Ma goes on by herself with the family and meets a man in Missouri who is more to her liking than Pa. Especially since Pa probably won’t get out of jail for many years, if ever. Ma has a baby by this man, a boy who when he grows up runs for public office. Pa is eventually released from jail and tells Ma she done him wrong and is going to let everyone know what kind of woman she really is, and that her son is illegitimate. She decides to shoot herself rather than face her shame.

Here’s the Same Opening for a Query That’s Not in Synopsis Form

A VOW NOT TAKEN, my 85,000-word work of commercial fiction, is the story of a young woman whose husband is sent to prison in 1872 for trying to spring his brother from jail and shooting the sheriff during the botched escape. Emily Davis must brave the frontier to find a new life for herself and her family, and she discovers love and happiness with a man after she settles in Missouri. Her life is everything she could hope for, until her husband shows up 20 years later and threatens to expose her as a bigamist; and her son, who is now running for public office, as a bastard.

Now that the agent is excited, what more can the author offer? The woman has decided to shoot herself rather than face her shame. Is this by itself enough to build on? Let’s see.

The Second Paragraph Has to Elevate the Query to the “I Have to Read This Book,” Level

Emily contemplates taking the easy way out. One shot from the pistol and she is free. But as she places the gun to her temple, her life flashes in front of her and she uncocks the hammer. If only her husband had listened to her and left his brother in jail. She never told him what Dirk had done to her. Getting free of him was going to be a blessing. After Dirk was jailed, why wouldn’t her husband leave with her and the children as she had asked? Why wasn’t he stronger–and why wasn’t she?

The Third Paragraph Cinches the Deal

A VOW NOT TAKEN is a story of a woman in conflict, yet Emily’s methods for defeating adversity will give readers a window into their own hearts and a different perspective on the difficult decisions that form people’s lives. Decisions, like Emily’s, are not made because of necessity or convenience, but for love. Emily shows that clarity is a matter of conviction solidified by time, and readers will be gratified when she is rewarded for maintaining her dignity while in the throes of intense peer pressure and public scorn.

A Little About Yourself and a Request

A VOW NOT TAKEN is my first novel. I have an English degree from CCNY, and I finished first-runner-up in statewide creative-writing contest sponsored by the local library system where I live. I maintain an active blog on which I offer chapters of my novel for review, and I am encouraged by what has become a substantial following. I am writing to ask if you would be interested in considering A VOW NOT TAKEN for representation. I am most appreciative of your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

The Key Is to Write a Comprehensive Opening Paragraph and Break It Down

Everything in this query for this pretend story, other than what I wrote at the end, came from the opening paragraph. Look for the parts in your story that set it apart. Is there love, hate, joy, fear, anxiety, jealousy? What is the story’s strongest element? That should be the lead.

In the make-believe novel I invented for this exercise, a woman is left to carry on by herself because of a husband who did not exercise good judgment. But can he be faulted for his brotherly love? Yet was he completely ignorant of his brother’s violation of Emily? I chose not to focus on the latter issue in this query, but in your treatment it might be the compelling element.

Once it’s established what makes the story tick, the entire query can be designed around this. It’s solely a matter of filling in the blanks. Just be certain not to “tell” the story in the query. Instead, “show” what makes the narrative work.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Many of us who professionally edit manuscripts spend a great deal of our time providing our clients with query letter assistance. And happily so. Because if we’re not coaching those who use our services on how to write effective query letters, a lot of very good authors are often unaware of some of the more critical nuances.

It’s a lot More Than Eschewing Adverbs and Running Adjectives

Forever, it seems, we have been warned against using adverbs in queries, the mind-set being that an agent will think that adverbs are indicative of the writer’s overall style. Hence, the novel will be teeming with “stopped suddenly” and “smiled broadly” and all sorts of other superfluous couplets. Or that there will be a plethora of “irregular, big, burgeoning, brown spots” or “loud, cantankerous, feeble, wrinkled, old people” lurking somewhere. These are givens in the realm of query letter writing, but what is to follow is not.

Avoid the Temptation of Comparing Your Writing to That of Another Author’s

First and foremost is the necessity for crafting a query that highlights the salient aspects of the story and not to permit the letter to come across as an overzealous personal pitch for its author.

For example, if a query says that the work is written like a Pat Conroy novel, an agent can and often will infer that the author is stating that he or she writes as well as Mr. Conroy, a lofty goal indeed. If comparisons to other works are desired, it is much better to simply imply that the novel is written in the style of a particular noted author–and not that your ability compares to that person’s skill sets, regardless of how you or others in your circle of friends and acquaintances might rate your talent.

Humility is a big plus; conversely, braggadocio is a sure way of turning off an agent, since how you comport yourself by the content and tone of the query can have a great deal to do with how this person will perceive working with you.

Be Certain to Write the Query in a Way That Is Indicative of How You Wrote Your Novel

The well-respected literary agent and oft-published author, Noah Lukeman, wrote about how too much information via a writer’s bio can be more damaging that helpful. And so much so that the bio can serve as the means for rejection–and not the text of the manuscript itself.

When I first read Mr. Lukeman’s position on this I was appalled and offended, but as I thought about it more I decided not to blame the messenger. If a writer is an academician in a scientific field, and that person’s query letter style, for a mystery novel for example, doesn’t indicate anything to the contrary, why should the agent believe that the book is not written like a professorial thesis. In the same vein, if someone has been designing advertising copy for 20 years–and that individual’s query for a police thriller is rife with overblown rhetoric–why would the agent think any differently about the condition of the narrative he or she is being asked to read?

There Are Facts About an Unpublished Writer’s Background That Can be Advantageous

In line with what I just discussed, I suggest that unpublished writers write sparingly about their credentials, except should their CV include writing honors they’ve received, and only if this pertains to the genre in which the book they are presenting happens to be written. Workshop or symposium awards, and book competitions in which germane work was singled out for excellence, are what the author would want to present at the close of the query. Forget everything else. Just thank the agent for his or her time and rest your case.

Give Yourself a Chance

If you’re careful about hype, watch the obvious benchmark rejection issues such as unnecessary adverbs and running adjectives, and keep you CV pertinent to the novel you are presenting, you’ll allow the description of your story’s features to dictate if the agent is going to request your manuscript. And you won’t be rejected for reasons that may well have nothing to do with the quality of your work.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 11-05-2009
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing) by admin

Query Letter Writing–a Daunting Dilemma

Some years ago, to add to a discussion I was encouraging related to the nuances of query letter writing, a woman who had just received a contract for her first novel–and from Simon & Schuster no less–wrote me to lament how arduous she had found the task of crafting her missive to appeal to agents. She admitted that she considered the query more difficult than writing the actual work, and had spent over a year on her letter. For discretion’s sake, I won’t reveal the name of the author, but many people would recognize this now well-known Ph.D., and her breakthrough novel.

The Synopsis-Syndrome

I chuckled at her comment, not out of derision but from empathy, since I have often felt the same way about my own queries. While I haven’t spent a year on a letter to attract an agent, at times I wish I had. One of the problems is that I have often found my query turning into a synopsis. And in parsing the query letters of others, “the synopsis syndrome,” as I call it, seems to be the most chronic malady that inhibits the presentations.

For a Successful Query Letter for Fiction, Less Is Generally Better Than More

A writer desires to tell as much as possible about the story of which he or she is so passionate, and is often influenced by an industry success story in which someone has crammed as much as possible onto one page, even to the point of reducing font size to make the text fit. Unfortunately, the end result for most is invariably a synopsis and not a presentation of the subtle plot and character elements that accurately depicts the writer’s skill and which sets the work apart–and what will influence an agent to request the manuscript.

Think of a Query Letter As an Advertisement; Hence, Sell the Sizzle and Not the Steak

When I began writing seriously back in the days of the covered wagon, an agent once railed at me about a poor query I had sent him because it told too much of the individual aspects of the story and not about the work as a whole. He said to write the query as if I was designing the liner notes for the novel. I found this to be some of the best advice I have ever received. As a comparison, if one wants to be successful in sales, one of the time-worn axioms is to “sell the sizzle and not the steak.” It might be suggested to apply the same maxim to writing a query letter. This can be like grasping “showing versus telling” the first time around (or the tenth), but it has to be understood if a query is going to work.

Write a Query from the Gut, Not the Heart

It might help to think of your work in visceral terms; meaning, what are the hard-hitting aspects of your story from an overall perspective. This will take your thinking beyond the brick and mortar. And remember most of all that you are wanting to provide the agent with just enough knowledge of your work (and ability) to foster interest. If you do this by carefully choosing words to create the most impact, would it not be logical that the agent might assume your novel is written at the same level? Should you review queries that have been effective (and I can’t suggest this strongly enough), please notice how little is told about the actual stories–but how much the successful letters indicate the respective author’s competence for writing quality prose.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 16-01-2010
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

Fact: Query letter writing is an art form.

Make no mistake about it, writing queries that produce results is a craft.

Fact: A query should not be written like a synopsis.

I devoted an entire article to this, yet writers who have read the piece continue to send me sample queries that ignore this premise. Yes, there are exceptions. There are exceptions to everything in publishing. But if an author wants to entice an agent to stand up and take notice, as I said in the article, sell the sizzle and not the steak. Pure and simple, for fiction it’s best to write a query the same is if creating liner notes.

Fact: A writer has to know the genre in which the work is written.

If the author doesn’t know the genre in which his or her work is written, any bona fide editor can explain it. A writer who doesn’t take the time to figure this out has virtually no chance. Genre identification is paramount. And while critique groups, etc., are a wonderful sounding board, they are historically populated by amateurs, and as such not the place to learn about genre specificity in today’s complicated and ever-changing market.

Fact: Structurally, a query can be designed like a short theme.

Yes, a simple but effective way to structure a query is like a theme. Begin with a core thought that highlights two or three critical plot elements. Justify these issues in the next paragraph, then close the letter with why readers will gravitate to the story. Personal credentials if they pertain directly to the work can be added in a final brief sentence or two, along with a statement of appreciation for the agent’s or publisher’s time.

Fiction: Copying the words or phrases from a successful query will assure another query’s success.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A query should define the voice and strength of the writer and the project. An experienced agent or publisher can pick up the nuances of a writer’s style. Counterfeiting doesn’t work.

Fiction: Query letters should never contain questions.

This farce has been bandied about for some time and is ridiculous. No one likes a query that reads like a movie opening: In a world…followed by a “what if” scenario. But there is nothing at all problematic about asking an agent or publisher to consider a novel’s most poignant issue or issues. And if some agent has written to the contrary, so be it. Hundreds of other agents, and all of those I know and work with, think differently.

Fiction: A query should fill as much of the page as possible.

It’s quality not quantity that matters. A query with 500 words jammed on a page is not going to be perceived to be any better than 300 words that clearly and concisely demonstrate the writer’s skill and the “hot points” about the story he or she has written. An overwritten query can plant the thought that the novel is structured in the same manner.

What can distort this last remark are the bloated query examples posted by some writers whose work has been accepted for publication. But when a query turns into a synopsis, which is almost always the tendency in longer efforts, it’s generally a quick reach by the agent or publisher for the SASE or the rejection template on the computer file.

Fiction: If my query doesn’t work the first time, I can write another one later to the same agent for the same book.

Agents keep records. At least many of the good ones I know do. And, universally, as I’ve experienced it, agents never want to see a query about the same material a second time any more than they will consider a manuscript they previously rejected. So it is imperative to get it right the first time.

A final thought: A poor query will never get a book in front of an agent; however, a great query can influence an agent to look at a novel that might just require a touch up. And critical feedback can often be gleaned from an agent. For anyone not using a professional editor (curses), I cannot think of a better way to receive professional advice without having to pay for it. However, most authors would be way ahead of the game if they sought professional direction to assure a quality query before bombarding a highly selective marketplace with less than sterling requests to review material.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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As an independent book editor who freely solicits outside material to edit, I receive a great many manuscripts with this caveat: “I have sent my manuscript to many agents but received rejections that indicated my work needs editing by a professional. If I have you edit my manuscript, should I send it back to agents who have previously rejected it?”

Agents Don’t Want to See the Same Material a Second Time

At least this has been my experience for more than 20 years, during which time I’ve queried a half-dozen of my own novels. There are exceptions, but an editor for whom I carry great respect told me early-on that he had never heard of an agent representing a book from a heretofore unpublished author he or she had rejected earlier. And while I’ve had a well-regarded submissions editor refute this, until a previously unpublished writer tells me his or her personal book was accepted by the same agent after it was rejected, I’m sticking with my original statement and what the first editor told me eons ago. If someone was already published and has a following, this is a horse of a different color, but for industry unknowns, again, once a draft is rejected I suggest moving on to fresh territory.

A Writer Can’t Be Faulted for Not Knowing the Nuances of the Business

There is no handbook on how to deal with agents or to what level an author’s representative will go to support a draft. Most novice writers think that if their work is good enough an agent will accept the manuscript and polish it for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. But, again, it relates to where the writer is on the “usefulness curve.” If a writer is an established property, an agent might well edit a draft. And many publishers send drafts written by their franchise writers to editors for extensive revision. These editors are not often listed in the acknowledgments, but in some instances they do more writing on the work than the author. It’s just the way the business works.

Publishers Do Indeed Edit

To reinforce what I just wrote, when a problem is discovered quite often the publisher will revise the text (or have it sent out to an editor the company contracts with), and sometimes this can entail major effort. But this is likely not going to involve a new author’s material unless that work is thought to have blockbuster potential. And even though every publisher wants “the next big book,” none are naive to the reality of the likely sales numbers for the material they have agreed to publish for a heretofore unpublished writer.

There Is a Moral to This Story

Few writers I have come in contact with, and I’m included in this lot, have not sent out material that wasn’t ready. We all think we wrote something really good, and if it needs a little touch-up this will be provided at the agent level.

Unfortunately, an average agent’s workload consists of upwards of 50 queries each day, along with several manuscripts each week. Add to this the existing clients they represent (and specifically their needs) and how much time does an agent have left to edit material? Sure, the larger agencies have personnel to assist with the day-to-day chores and even to edit, but most employ or use interns as readers and do not have the capacity to hire a bevy of high-end, in-house editors.

However, there are agencies that do claim to provide extensive editing services for their clients at no charge. And while this might well occur, I have no personal knowledge or experience with any agencies that offer these services to previously unpublished writers. All I know about are the crooked outfits that have scammed unsuspecting authors, and I’ve done my best over the years to alert writers to who these are so they can avoid them.

Same Old Same Old

My harangue is identical to what it has been for years. For all practical purposes, a draft gets one chance with an agent or publisher–and that is all. So I don’t think it’s out-of-line to suggest having a professional critique material before sending out queries for it. Because, in addition to the moon and the planets needing to be aligned in a precise syzygy, the one indisputable fact, if there is one in the publishing industry, is that a manuscript should be in the best possible shape the author can get it in, period, before submitting it to an agent or publisher.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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What Is a Redemptive Character?

In writing workshops I’m often asked what is meant by writing redemptive characters, and even by experienced writers, so it’s not surprising when there’s confusion about the meaning. It simple terms this implies writing a character(s) in a way that readers can find something about the person(s) to identify with or care about, and in best case scenarios–root for. But this paints the explanation in rather simple strokes. I find there’s much more to it, so let me spend the rest of this article providing some concrete ideas on how to apply this definition in a broader sense; but a little history first related to the traditional concept of the redemptive character.

Very Few Successful Novels Are Solely Plot Driven

I once asked an erudite workshop group to make a list of well-known novels with absolutely not one character who could be liked. After several months we’d parsed hundreds of books. There were a few honorable mentions (or dishonorable, if you so choose) such as ON THE ROAD and TROPIC OF CANCER. And I think THE SUN ALSO RISES and BREATHING LESSONS made the “almost list.” But when we’d finally completed our task, and a dozen people had contributed to this study of what amounted to more than a thousand works, only STUDS LONIGAN and WUTHERING HEIGHTS made it to the top of the heap. So writing a book without a likeable character that will sustain a reader is not an easy chore.

Manuscripts Are Rejected Because Agents and Publishers Aren’t Invested in the Characters

Not becoming invested in the characters is often because these figures weren’t found to be redemptive. Another knockout factor is that the characters just weren’t interesting. So this begs the question, “What is a way to make a character interesting?” One answer lies in writing a character who is genuinely likeable and therefore patently redemptive. Another technique is to make a character compelling, but with the reader’s approval of the person’s actions not necessarily entering into the equation.

A Character Doesn’t Have to Be Paddy’s Equal in THE THORN BIRDS to Qualify As Redemptive

This is one time when there is a magic bullet, and it’s a Howitzer. But the answer is not always obvious. In THE GODFATHER, most of us pulled for Michael, along with the Don (and in separate eras). The majority of people cared about Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but Hannibal held many people’s interest even more so as an antihero.

Perhaps with the Don and Hannibal, readers (and moviegoers) respected their power, however disparate its source. Yet while many people had their vicarious sweet tooth satisfied by the earlier Don, they later sympathized with the older character, which is a tribute to Mr. Puzo’s immense skill in character transitioning. With respect to Hannibal, a lot of people were enticed by Thomas Harris’s brilliance to want to know why the good doctor had become a monster, and this was the plot focus of a later installment.

Redemptive Character Writing Covers a lot of Ground, So There’s Plenty of Room to Get Comfortable

Don Corleone and Hannibal Lector might not seem like sterling examples of my original definition of redemptive characters, but each in his own way is just that. Look at the recent vampire groundswell. The creatures are written in a manner that render people compassionate for their plight. A key to becoming published is to write characters who, regardless of their proclivity, are redemptive–for some compelling reason–in the eyes of the reader

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

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Sometimes the Most Respected Reference Manuals Don’t Provide Pertinent Advice

Most often the reason for the error is the time that has passed since some rule was written. An example of this is a reference in THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE that allows for placing thoughts in quotations. This has been eschewed for decades, but in my writing workshops not long ago I had a participant cite section 10.42 from TCMOS and the following text: “I don’t care if we have offended Morgenstern,” thought Vera.

Fortunately, TCMOF illustrates four other ways to handle thoughts, and I believe any contemporary writer will be well advised to choose either of the last two, which is either straight interior monologue without any quotation marks or the use of italics.

THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE Also Approves of Dual Punctuation Ending a Sentence

Every so often I’ll receive a draft from a client with both a question mark and an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Never write like this. If a question is exclaimed with such force that an exclamation point is deemed necessary as well, use this as the only punctuation to end the sentence. Again, never both—no matter how tempting it might be.

Strunk and White Are at the Top of the List of Style Enemies

I believe it’s fair to state that almost every college student who has ever taken a 101 English course was informed via the syllabus to acquire a copy of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White. A while ago I was sent a very clever article about all that was wrong with this manual from the perspective of grammar, and while I could credit the author and replicate what I was provided, it would consume pages. So let me instead offer one example that stood out for me from my first reading of THE ELEMENTS a light year ago. It dealt with avoiding unnecessary adjectives and reads as follows: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” The sentence contains three adjectives and certainly stronger nouns could be found to eliminate the need for at least two of the adjectives.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE is rife with misstatements about grammar that are evident to anyone who studies English. A great many of the problems are related to pompous drivel from Mr. Strunk (and later never corrected by Mr. White when he lent his time to the text) and have nothing to do with style or grammar. This involves questionable advice about when not to apply commas in a series (hence fomenting the “running comma” debate), to their absurd rationale for eschewing passive voice except in extreme circumstances, exacerbated by the inaccuracy of three of their four examples of passive voice that are in fact active! No wonder so many people who took an English101 course became confused about passive voice—and stayed that way forever.

It’s Important to Recognize Words That Don’t Convey Their Intended Meaning

“Moot” means debatable, yet many people think it refers to the opposite. And sentences designed as aids to illustrate the word’s correct usage serve to advance this misconception. Here are two sentences taken directly from Dictionary.com: “If you cannot repay your friend right now, the question is moot.” And: “Which factor is the more important and which at the least remains a moot question.” With examples like these, what is someone supposed to think is the definition of “moot”? The best way I know to keep this straight is to think of “moot” in relationship to a “moot court,” which refers to a debate court.

I’ve mentioned “mundane” before in articles, but the word fosters repeating my contention. It originally meant “worldly” and “elegant.” Now it means “commonplace” and “ordinary,” and is generally used in a disparaging way. Yet when we read a Victorian-era novel in college, “mundane” was meant in its original context.

Understand the Time Frame of a Work’s Publication

Reference manuals that pertain to rhetoric–as well as the words that compose the English language–must all be viewed in a contemporary context. This is no different from reading a work such as Kafka’s METAMORPHOSIS, which was published in the ’20s, and assume in 2012 that any of us can mimic that style and place our protagonist’s thoughts in quotations.

Read Contemporary Bestseller Material to Develop a Comfort Zone

This isn’t surefire, but a writer can generally get a feel for what’s acceptable by reading a contemporary novel that has become a success–and especially if this is debut material published by a major imprint. Most of these “first-time” authors have had to follow accepted convention quite closely, and this will often give an aspiring writer a decent idea of what will pass muster, as this book certainly had to make it through the publishing gantlet or it wouldn’t be on the bookshelf.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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With a certain degree of frequency, I’ll be approached by a client about having his or her work turned into a screenplay, as there is confidence from some quarter, if not directly from the author, that it will make a great movie, TV show, miniseries, etc. And I’ve been asked, since I’ve worked with this client’s material, if I’d be willing to write the screenplay. Invariably, it also comes up if I’d consider becoming a “partner” and write the screenplay without payment but with the prospect of a split of the profits when the work is purchased. This is when I split, and what follows explains why.

Screenwriting Is an Art Form All Its Own

Above all else, I do not take any work on consignment related to a project’s being signed by any medium. If I did this, I would have a library full of unpublished manuscripts sitting next to my cardboard house abutting a Dumpster.

Ignoring the necessity of shelter and food, the next reason is because I have never felt qualified to write a screenplay, as it is a separate discipline from crafting a novel. Screenplays have their own set of requirements related to layout and structure, and I’m not versed in any of them.

But of greatest importance, spending the funds to turn a manuscript into a screenplay in my opinion is a colossal waste of money.

It’s Important to Understand the Process

Once a producer likes a storyline, the normal modus operandi is for that studio executive to commission a respected screenwriter to design the screenplay. And since any screenplay submitted by a layman would be revised substantially, it would be just as easy to work from the manuscript. One big reason it’s done this way is because an experienced screenwriter has knowledge of what can or can’t be converted to film based on an estimated budget, which is no minor detail and something the average individual would not know much if anything about.

How an Option Plays Into This

An option to purchase a work is not a contract for the material but essentially buys time for the studio to consider the project. This sort of “wait and see” agreement generally ranges from 12 to 18 months, and an unknown writer can earn on average from $500 to $5,000 for granting this right, which is aptly referred to as “the option payment.” The lower range is more common, and any previously unpublished writer getting $5,000 should run around the town square naked at noon.

The Purchase Option

If the option is executed, this means the writer would be entitled to “the purchase price” established by the original options agreement, and is why an experienced agent or lawyer (or both) is mandatory. Fees for the exercising of the option are often tied to a project’s budget, and as it increases so does the writer’s stipend. But this is all over the place, ranging from the low five figures to breaking seven.

One Definite Author Advantage Provided by Options

The nice thing about a properly structured option agreement is that if the work is not “greenlighted” within the option period, the rights are returned to the author and the writer is allowed to keep the original option fee. And at this point the work can be shopped around without any fear of legal repercussions.

Author Realities

How many times have you heard of a writer’s work being re-optioned? And how often have you learned of a writer, whom you know, whose material has been turned into a movie, TV series, or miniseries? I have one associate during the past 20 years who had a short run with a cable TV show, and I know a lot of people who write.

To put this in perspective, some insiders say having an option exercised is 10,000 times more difficult than getting a book published by a major imprint, and how hard is that in today’s sardine-crowded market? The poor odds, as much as anything, are why I never had the urge to learn how to write screenplays.

I won’t accept work to edit unless I believe in my heart of hearts the story has a shot at finding an audience in some milieu. And I’m okay with this even if the odds are 1,000 to 1, as my clients at least have a chance at success at some level.

The Cold, Hard Facts

But when the odds become 10,000,000 to 1, I have to bow out, as I can’t take a person’s money when the possibility of success is right up there with getting bitten by a mountain lion in Manhattan, killed by lightning in Death Valley, or hitting 10 of 10 numbers on a keno card. This last example is around 9,000,000 to 1, but who’s counting at this point, right? And it’s what I’m really getting at in all of this.

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Posted on 20-05-2009
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

Sometimes “Telling” Is More Effective Than “Showing”

An author and scholar, Francine Prose, for whom I have immense respect added fuel to a long simmering fire by stating in a book of hers on writing that too much is made out of “showing” instead of “telling.” To paraphrase one of her points, she writes that the avoidance of “telling” leads to confusion which causes novice writers to think everything should be acted out. And to quote her: “There are many occasions in literature in which “telling” is far more effective than “showing.”

Agents and Editors Are the Harshest of Critics

If everyone wrote as well as Ms. Prose (she has more two dozen titles to her credit), or the brilliant, mostly classical authors’ works she cites in her book, who could argue? And that is the rub. Especially for someone trying to become published for the first time, and who is having his or her manuscript viewed by the harshest of critics–book agents and book publishers. People who are seemingly searching, as if with an electron microscope, for the most miniscule detail to warrant rejecting material.

Don’t Wave a Red Flag–Avoid the Dreaded “Been’s”

In the real world of an author fighting tooth-and-nail for his or her manuscript to receive a fair hearing, the writer has to provide a narrative that does not wave a red flag–or even a yellow one. Nothing can kill a book quicker than if it is perceived to be written in a passive voice–as indicated by the constant uses of “been”–which is a surefire disclosure that the scenes are “telling” rather than “showing” the action.

If a Choice, Overwrite “Show” Rather Than “Tell”

While 100-percent correct that many times it is advisable to “tell” instead of “show,” for most authors pursuing a bona fide mainstream publisher, it is much better to have overwritten “show” than “tell.” Let me put it this way: I’ve never heard of anyone being rejected for the former–but very often for the latter. So while the ongoing “show versus tell” debate might whet some appetites for eschewing the argument altogether, writers need to incorporate as many accepted elements as possible into their material, and “showing” (and the active voice it supports) is considered a component of quality prose writing, and superior to “telling” (in a passive voice) in the overwhelming number of instances.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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It’s not uncommon for authors at all levels to be wary of editorial assistance if this means it will involve omitting or adding material to their drafts. “When completed, will it still be “my” work?” is the question on these writers’ minds.

In competent hands, the narrative will be polished, but from the perspective of voice it will not read any different from the original draft. And any quality editor will make certain to not only maintain the voice but the tone as well.

Only After Voice Is Established Can Any Editing Begin

The very first issue the editor must face is to read enough of the manuscript to get a clear understanding of the writer’s voice. No competent editor would change one word or clause without being 100-percent certain of the author’s voice, since this influences syntax at every level of the narrative.

“Does my changing this spit of dialogue, for example, alter the way the reader will perceive this character? And if I modify this run of internal monologue, am I certain I’m adding to the dimension of this character–without changing the character?” These are the questions every good editor asks. And the reason is so the voice of the writer is always respected.

Maintaining Voice Is Not Limited Solely to Characters

All areas of a narrative have the identical requirements. A 12-year-old with normal intelligence can’t suddenly sound like a college professor any more than a scene can be described by an Ivy League-lawyer in the syntax of the average high-school kid bagging groceries.

The Narrative’s POV Influences Voice

It’s easy to think that POV is limited to tone, but I’ve found it’s generally more indicative of voice. A skilled editor will assess the POV in the various scenes to come away with a voice for the entire piece. Disparate scenes and their inherent nuances won’t influence the way these elements are presented to the reader any more so than the way the characters in the story are depicted. Unless someone is writing in distinctly different voices, such as what’s displayed in the Vintage International compilation in one volume of Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE AND SEVEN OTHER SHORT STORIES, the voice of most narratives will be consistent throughout. And a good editor will understand the author’s voice and protect it when making revisions.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® in now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and line-edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line-edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 06-08-2009
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

For many, tone and voice seem synonymous, and it is easy to see why people might feel this way; however, the terms are decidedly different. But before either can be properly differentiated, it is important to take a close look at writers who mastered voice.

Thomas Mann’s Short Stories Showcase Voice

One of the best ways to understand something is to provide different treatments of the subject.  Thomas Mann’s eight stories in the popular Vintage imprint with DEATH IN VENICE as the lead title is ideal to work from since each story is written in a different voice. Yet Mann’s masterpiece, THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, depicts his voice as a separate entity unto its own–and one could say that it was his true voice, although this could be heatedly argued.

While the short stories in the DEATH IN VENICE grouping enable a relatively quick study of the range voice can take, this is far from conclusive. The reason is because voice is without boundaries. This open architecture, in and of itself, leads to much of the confusion about voice.  And this is the first distinction between voice and tone, since tone can generally be identified without too much of an argument.

So What Is Voice?

When someone hears that a “new voice has exploded upon the literary scene,” does one automatically expect to read the next Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Ann Rand, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, or Erskine Caldwell; or should we seek writers from our current era such as Pat Conroy, Elmore Leonard, E.L. Doctorow, Tom Clancy, or Barbara Kingsolver for reference?

Each of these writers possesses a distinctive voice, but what do we say about authors who create work in the same genre and are similar in style? Does each writer still have a separate voice? Of course he or she does. Just as one singer can sound like another but not possess the identical range in every key.

An Attorney Letter and Family Correspondence on the Same Subject Illustrate the Difference

One of the best ways I can come up with to express voice is to parse an invitation for the reading of a will from an attorney and compare this with the same request from a close relative.

The first might read something like this: Dear Mr. David C. Howson: Please be advised that your attendance is requested on Thursday, January 11, 2009, at 1:00 p.m., in the offices of John Carlton Jones, Esquire, Attorney at Law, 201 West Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois  60601, for the reading of the Last Will and Testament of Horatio Clark Howson.

Conversely, here is an invitation from a close relative: Dear Davey, your uncle’s will is going to be read next week at our attorney’s office, and we look forward to seeing you there. Jo Ann will call you with the details. Love, Aunt Mary.

Style Establishes Voice, but There’s a Lot More to It

Same message about the dearly departed, and although both are conveyed in what is considered a soft tone in relative terms, they are written in decidedly different voices. So while it is obvious that style creates voice, what about an academic paper written in an authoritative tone? Isn’t this also an authoritative tone? Certainly, except it would probably be easier for definition purposes to claim the voice as authoritative and the tone as strong.

Tone Has Three Basic Mediums

All sorts of elaborate academic definitions are available, some consuming as much text as this entire book, but for my purposes, tone is either soft, moderate, or strong.  These areas of course can have any number of gradients, from very soft to aggressively strong, but the three delineations provide the basis for comparison.  This is still speculative, because what one person considers moderate another might feel is strong (and of course vice versa).  But it’s much easier to come to a consensus on a specific tone than to devise a chart that categorizes voice.

So, Again, What Is Voice?

Voice is you. Should you and another person write a book about the identical topic, your story will depict your way of telling the tale via words and syntax that differ from what the other person will create. So when you write a book, and the critics proclaim a fantastic new voice has roared onto the scene, these pundits are talking specifically about you, because you are the voice of your writing. And a unique voice indeed.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 24-03-2010
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

Does Word Count Matter?

Word count is a common question writers ask, and not one that can be easily answered, if at all, but I’ll attempt to offer at least some degree of clarification. However, it must be kept in mind that much of what is written in this article will be nugatory if in ten years almost every book is published in an e-book format. It’s also important to understand that some people say that word count doesn’t matter. But I say it does, and what follows are my reasons.

The First Issue to Consider Is If a Writer Is Presently Unpublished

Previously unpublished authors are scrutinized much more closely than well-known writers with an established readership. A 150,000-word book by an unknown has one obvious thing going against it from the outset, and this is the cost to publish the book if it’s twice the size of an average work in the same genre. This would likely entail a higher price point and the immediate concern that the buying public will be reluctant to pay more for a book by someone who is not yet “branded” (with an e-book, this of course is a nonissue).

So What About the Previously Published Writer?

This seems to be what causes the most confusion. Some people might love to read Joe Jones so much that every word is a trip to Nirvana and therefore the more text the merrier. Also, publishers might be reluctant to come down too hard on their strong revenue-producing writers and leave their overwriting alone. Or, simply, publishers aren’t editing their successful writers’ works, and what is submitted is essentially what is going to be put into print and word count never enters the equation.

There Are Some Quantifiable Answers

And these relate to genre. In Literature, for example, how can any book be too expansive? Yet, in the Police Thriller world, there is a model in the 100,000-word range, give or take 10,000 words either way, that seems to work best. Perhaps the rationale is a ten-hour or so read for the average individual taking part in a round trip, coast-to-coast flight. This might be a silly analogy to some, but look at 80 percent of the novels in an airport bookstore and get back to me if you think I’m altogether wrong.

Asking About Word Count Is Normal

I also find myself looking at word count whenever someone presents me with a novel to edit. And there is good reason. If a writer has a 250,000-word Science Fiction first draft, I know right away this is not the project for me. On the other hand, if someone has a work of Commercial Fiction that is 125,000 words, and even though I can almost always assume the novel is going to be 25,000-35,000 words too long, its length doesn’t concern me.

Don’t Be Put Off By Word Count

Some of the word-count “hoopla” is just that, in my opinion. I remember an absurd situation a dozen years ago that was the result of sending a manuscript of mine to a well-known agent. My book was 78,000 words in length and contained a light romantic element that was significant to one of the story’s developmental arcs. The august agent informed me that a novel needed to be in the 120,000-word range to allow enough rhetoric for a “juicy enough romance to develop.” Go figure, as I’m still scratching my head on that one.

The bottom line is that nothing is more subjective than word count, but if you’re trying to become published for the first time, I think you’ll find it a good idea to try to fit your story within the current parameters for the genre in which you write.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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