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Category Archives: Self-publishing
Over at Indies Unlimited not too long ago, I ran across this comment from multi-award-winning author @MJBowersock:
[A]nyone who has not already been published, who is not a name that people recognize and that will draw sales, will not win a publishing contract with a traditional publisher. It’s like winning the lottery. It could happen, but the chances are, it won’t.
That’s not quite the kiss of death to our dreams of one day breaking into the publishing big time (the big houses call themselves “legacy” publishers now, Bowersock says). But it’s close.
So my question is, what about all those conferences that bring in rafts of agents and editors who claim to be starving for new talent (like you and me)? Are they scamming us? Do they consider a day at a conference listening to pitches some sort of paid vacation?
If Bowersock is right, I guess so. And our chances of coming away from a conference with real hopes for a contract are nil. Conferences aren’t cheap. Pitching is scary. Why go through such an ordeal?
Here’s one answer: because there are benefits from pitching to actual editors and agents that you can’t get any other way.
I’m not suggesting that any writer invest thousands of dollars in conferences. But I am arguing that a judicious choice of conference at the right moment in your process can be worth at least as much as what you’re paying for that cover or that expert to format your text—
—Because pitching gives you several kinds of feedback you won’t get from any other source.
You know what you get from query letters: “Sorry, we’re not the right agency for this book.”
What about your writing group? I consider writing groups essential. But the members of your writing group read as friends and colleagues. They don’t read as business people, charged with making money out of your book.
And therein lies all the difference. They hope to make money off of you!
I’m not plugging for any conference, but I’ve been to quite a few, and I’m sharing my experience. I’ve learned things from pitch sessions that no one else ever told me. I’ll do it again.
If you do decide to pitch, be sure to make your investment count:
- Be ready. Don’t rush to a pitch session with an unspellchecked draft while you’re still trying to figure out whether your main character’s hair is black or red. Exhaust your writing groups and beta readers first.
- Review the faculty to make sure you can pitch to people who work with your genre. Make sure they work for good agencies and aren’t just somebody’s Facebook friend.
- Get one-on-one critiques as well as pitches. If at all possible, pay extra to have the right person at the conference read a query letter or a first page and meet with you so you can ask follow-up questions. Pay for “pitch practice” if you possibly can.
Here are the kinds of questions you can get answered even if there’s scant hope of a contract. They’re the questions you would pay an editor to answer, and Lord knows good editors aren’t cheap.
Do I know what my book is about?
You can muse all day with your writers’ group about your story question, your main character’s goals, why she can’t achieve them, how her journey ends, and so on.
In a pitch session, you have five minutes to lay it out. Five minutes with a steely eyed editor daring you to make him buy it. Get tongue-tied with that agent smiling ever-so-sweetly at you?
Then you haven’t figured it out.
Seeing that stare glaze over or that smile turn to a frown tells you that it’s time to take a good look at your structure so next time you’ll know what your book is about.
What’s derailing my book?
When was the last time you got a response from a query that said, “Sorry, here’s why we don’t want your book.” [Interject sound of strangled laughter from author]
In contrast, you’re three minutes into your pitch, and Steely Eyes says, “I don’t understand why anyone would do that.” Sweet Smile says, “That sounds like a really unpleasant character.” They both say, “I’m lost.” (Often followed by a specific hint as to where and how the road signs got turned around.)
Yeah, I know, if they’d just read the darn book, they’d get it. But the fact is, you’ve just recited part of the back cover blurb that will make readers buy the darn book, and now you know a few things that can turn readers off.
And you have specific issues beyond just-not-good-enough to consider before your next submission: motivation, characterization, style.
Is my idea the high-concept, totally original, million-dollar gem I think it is?
Agents and editors see hundreds of ideas in your genre. You may well be asked, “How is this different from all the other books I’ve seen recently about crazed werewolves in New Jersey?” That five minutes will tell you whether you know the answer to that.
How does my work stack up with someone who is not my friend?
Really, it all comes down to this one: An agent or editor at a conference does not need to make you feel good.
They don’t need you to be in the mood to give them friendly, constructive advice at the next writing group meeting. They don’t need to keep you happy so you’ll hire them again the next time you need an editor.
They’ll give you your five minutes, but after that, they’ve got twenty other people lined up, one of whom might have THE BOOK they came to the conference to acquire.
So the instant they know your pitch isn’t clicking, they won’t string you along.
Pitching at a conference isn’t the way to learn how to make your structure work or how to make your concept a stand-out. But it’s one sure method of finding out fast how close you are to those goals. The day the frown is accompanied by a business card and a willingness to take a look, you’ll know you’ve finally managed to answer the questions that will sell your book.
Do you have advice for making the most of pitch sessions? Share!
Though it’s about Canada, Barlow touches on an issue that affects us all. She writes, “When I Google my own work, I discover so many sites offering free (i.e., illegal) PDFs of my books that I can’t keep track of them anymore. And neither can my publisher.” I basically gave up trying to address this problem. Maybe it’s up to readers not to buy from these sites? As Barlow writes, we all fall prey to the idea that if it’s available online, it ought to be free. American copyright law doesn’t address this problem, either, and, as is often the case, the Canadian example can be instructive.
So how to spread the word among readers? What do you think?
The Federal government is in the process of revising the Copyright Act. If you don’t think that matters to writers, think again.
I’m always surprised to see blank stares on writers’ faces when I launch into a speech about copyright. Some of them aren’t clear why copyright really matters. Others aren’t sure what copyright even is. Fair enough—it’s not the sexiest topic in the writing world. But even if you don’t notice it, it’s fundamental to our business.
Here’s why. I am a non-fiction author of six books and a magazine writer. To earn my living I sell the right to use my work, either to publishers who pay me advances and royalties or to magazines who pay me fees to publish my articles. For most of my twenty-five-year career, this revenue has constituted most of my income.
Simply put, copyright law is what makes it possible for me to…
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I do get so tired of “absolute” rules. Don’t do this, never do that, Stephen King said blah blah blah and therefore it’s sacrosanct. Chuck Wendig nails it with this rant—okay, gentle disquisition—on the “sacred cows” of writing advice.
I bet you have an opinion on this!
Writers in the Storm often supply good lessons. This is a particularly cogent first-page critique that takes aim at some my worst foibles: too many metaphors, authorial intrusions, details readers don’t need, details they do need–what about you? How would you rate this first page?
Via Jane Friedman and Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, I came across this delightful exercise from The New Yorker. Dave had reviewed four top “editing” programs, Grammarly, Ginger, Hemingway, and ProWritingAid. He linked to an article in which writer Ian Crouch takes Hemingway the App on a spin in Hemingway’s actual prose.
You probably know somebody who claims to write like Hemingway (I do). Or who claims to want to write like Hemingway (I sometimes do). So it’s interesting to see that Ernest’s scores vary from a bad, bad 15 to an excellent 4—which means a fourth-grader could understand it— depending on which text you choose. Crouch’s analysis of a passage from The Sun Also Rises also shows how sometimes it’s the broken rules that make a passage work.
Hemingway the App has a free online editor you can play with. I thought that would be fun as well. In general, I find these editing apps annoying, not least because they miss some really basic stuff. For example, in the first page of my novel Blood Lies, published by Bantam/Doubleday way back when and republished by me online, the sentence that is tagged as VERY HARD TO READ (bad, bad, really bad) is actually two sentences connected with a semicolon. Yes, I know some people think there’s a rule: no semicolons. I’m not there yet.
On the other hand, I do find that much of my line editing involves simplifying those sentences that rolled so sonorously through my head when I wrote them. I find that I’ve become more skilled at hearing the ones that need a weed trimmer taken to them. The trick is to give yourself some distance from your prose and come back to it with a stranger’s ear, as much as possible.
In any case, here’s my annotated page with the Hemingway comments. They gave me a Readability grade of 3, only “good.” Crouch says, “The app suggests that anything under Grade 10 is a sign of ‘bold, clear writing.'” Maybe my writing is too simple! See what you think.
red—adverbs (I am supposed to cut one);
yellowish—my 4/51 “hard to read” sentences;
green—passive voice (they say I’m okay with only 3, but I take exception to “was scorched’; “scorched” is a predicate adjective in this construction;
purple—my VERY BAD HARD TO READ sentence. But I had only 1.
I came across this in a blog post on “Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing“:
“Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it’s likely useless.”
“Students need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays.”
Now, in both cases, the authors don’t mean that all “to be” verbs should be eliminated. But for writers trying to develop their skills, such well-meant exhortations all too easily become sacrosanct rules.
Wearing three hats (at least)—as a writer, as a member of critique groups, and as a student of language both as a teacher and writer—I have an ambivalent relationship with “rules” like this that I encounter in my groups, in Facebook posts, and in conversations where my identity an a “English teacher” apparently defines me irrevocably as a language crab.
On the one hand, I believe that anyone who aspires to be a “writer” should make him- or herself an expert in the conventions and usage of Standard Written English, if only to be able to make sound judgments as to when the rules should or should not apply. If you’re going to set yourself up as a writer, you’re claiming to practice a craft, and you should know your tools.
At the same time, I know from long study of language that many of the supposed rules are actually judgment calls (I’ve posted about this issue several times).
And some of them aren’t rules at all. They’re myths passed down and around because they give the impression of expertise when they’re really evidence of hearsay, or of history at work. How many times have you been told you can’t use adverbs because Stephen King said so? Or that you can’t say “hopefully” because Strunk & White say you can’t? (You can’t chair, host, or debut, either, if you worship at that fount—though I must say I do wish that people who cite Strunk & White would actually follow it more often than they do).
The trouble is that too much reverence for rules can banish perfectly good writing strategies. And approaching “to be” with a silver cross brandished before you is one way to kill off some useful and even necessary tools.
I have always been among the first to argue that strong, precise verbs are the crux of good writing, and that a sentence built around an active verb is more compelling and often clearer than one built around “is” or “was.” But fearing “to be” can result in some painful sentence contortions. More to the point, here are three things you can’t do without “to be”:
1) The progressive tenses
Fear of “to be” means that all actions have to take place in the simple past or one of the perfect tenses (the ones with “have” or “had” as auxiliaries). Nothing can be in process, ongoing, when another action occurs or interrupts. Intolerantly striking every instance of “is” or “was” leads to absurdities like “She read the newspaper when he entered.” The sentence says either that his entering caused her to start reading the newspaper or that the two actions occurred simultaneously. The natural layering of time and events in narration inherent in “She was reading the newspaper when he entered” disappears. (Yes, I see people doing this all the time.)
2) The “it cleft”
I refer you to Martha Kolln’s discussion of this device for controlling rhythm and emphasis if you would like more examples. In short, read these two sentences aloud:
a) It was Thursday that I fell off my horse.
b) I fell off my horse on Thursday.
Same information, but different meanings. In a), it emphatically wasn’t Monday or Friday when I fell; it was Thursday. We can hear in this simple arrangement the implication of doubt or disagreement as to what day it was. And while falling off a horse matters in both sentences, in b), it’s far more foregrounded, a simpler assertion bereft of the undercurrents in the first. Which you choose should be dictated by your needs in that particular language situation. Fear of a word removes the first option from your repertoire.
Try these two:
a) It was on my fiftieth birthday that I fell in love.
b) I fell in love on my fiftieth birthday.
I leave you to unpack the subtle, but potentially important differences, in these two ways of saying the same thing.
3) The Passive Voice
Out, dreaded fiend. Let me get my silver cross.
I am well aware of the ways that careless reliance on the passive voice can lead to disaster, and certainly to a gush of red ink from an editor’s pen.
But the passive voice, used with deliberation, can serve many functions, among them the same function as the “it cleft.” It allows you to manage where emphasis falls in your sentence.
a) Maggie had long been traumatized by flying insects.
b) Flying insects had long traumatized Maggie.
(By the way, before continuing, it might be a good idea to make sure we all agree on what the “passive voice” actually is.)
I submit that the next sentence after sentence a) is likely to begin with “She.” We will immediately learn more about Maggie. She will be focus of our attention–the why of her terror.
In contrast, the sentence following example b) will begin either with “They” or some synonym for “Flying insects.” The nature of these insects, including how they acted on her, will take precedence. We may end up with the same information. But if we want Maggie front and center, sentence a) puts her there.
As Kolln and Loretta Gray’s book Rhetorical Grammar and Joe Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace will tell you, the passive voice has other important functions. For example, as Kolln points out, you couldn’t write
Joe was wounded in Vietnam
without it. It also supports the “Known-New Contract” (more about that in a future post).
You can’t benefit from these options without that much-disparaged verb “to be.”
Nuances this subtle should matter, and be within the reach, of any writer. They should be choices, made with mindful attention to their effects and whether or not these effects serve a writer’s needs at any given moment. Don’t kick them out of your bag of tools because somebody said they were “weak” or “passive.” They have jobs to do. When you need them, use them.
(You may have noticed that I just love this “grammar” stuff. What about you?)