At What Stage Should You Seek Out a Developmental Editor?

I’m asked this question almost daily.

Old vintage typewriter on wooden table. Selective focus. Toned images.

With the inception of inexpensive self-publishing, new writers flocked to put their books out into the readersphere.  Ran, flew, rushed to do so.

And it showed.  Almost as soon as this vast sea started surging to an e-retailer near you, readers began squawking.  Because, to be blunt, the vast majority of these books were simply awful.  Elementary.  First efforts (and most of them read like first drafts of first books).

Readers of course had been used to professionally finished books—both by the author, the editor, and the publishing house putting out the final product.

And this new ocean was anything but . . .

But writers heard these readers and reviewers.

While speaking at conferences (even those dedicated solely to self-publishing), I began hearing presenters pound on writers about editing.  The voices grew stronger.  More numerous.

Again, writers heard this advice.  And are now heeding it in huge numbers.

Thank God.

I worried there for a bit about the heralded dumbing down of America.

So now, knowing they truly need their manuscripts edited, no matter which venue they plan to pursue, writers at all stages of the game contact me with that question:

When do I need a developmental edit?

I help writers at every step of this process.  From first drafts to those already under contract to a major publishing house.  Last year, Randy Denmon’s first novel was published by Kensington.  The editor at Kensington was so impressed with the final manuscript after Randy and I worked together, he put in the second contract that Randy must work with me again.

Randy was well down the writing road when he initially contacted me.

But I’ve worked with tons of brand-spanking new writers, with first books that were truly diamonds in the rough.  And they’ve gone on to sell those first novels to publishers, which have done very well. Mary B. Morrison’s Soul Mates Dissipate launched her career onto the NY Times Bestseller list.  

So I’ve worked with writers on both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere in between.

Writers learn enormous amounts from a great developmental editor—no matter at what stage of the game they find themselves to begin.

There is really only one milestone to reach before doing so: Complete the first draft.

It’s not that an editor can’t help in the planning stages.  I can, and do.  But that’s usually more discussion, rather than words on the page.

And it’s not that you can’t benefit from an edit with only a few chapters or part of a manuscript finished.  Again, when working with an experienced book editor, benefit always occurs.

But I caution writers not to do that.  For one simple reason.

When you’re in the creation stage, the last thing we want to do is flip to the other side of the brain (editing), and staunch that creative flow.

Writers learn to write, first and foremost, by writing.  By getting those words and paragraphs and scenes and chapters down on paper.

I’ve never actually seen it work well for someone to study the art of writing before putting said words on paper.

Because, again, writing is a creative endeavor. It comes from the deep recesses of the numinous mind.  And, most importantly, if it’s to be very good, from the heart.  

We want to massage that muse until she’s singing arias to the ethers and her voice becomes ever more shining and clear.

It takes a while to find that voice.  To hone in on it.  To dig away the dirt and bring the clear tenor to the surface.

Which of course circles back to letting characters and storylines and plots run where they will.

In short, to just write.

Then it’s time to study the craft of writing. To put on that analytical hat and see where you are.  To begin dissecting down to the bones, figuring out the issues, learning how to fix them.  Basically, learning the craft of writing.

Now it’s time to work with that great editor, teacher, mentor, coach.  Now is the time to plunge into the science of the art of the craft.

And then your words on the page can be turned into a bang-up book.

How to Structure an Amazing Pitch for a Writer’s Conference

You know how writers’ conferences are.  Fast, furious, with lots of breakout sessions and hopefully, one-on-one meetings with agents and editors.

Back view of businessman standing on ladder and drawing sketches on wall

I’ll be giving the opening speech at the NETWO 2016 Annual Spring Writers’ Roundup, and will be hearing lots of manuscript pitches, as will all of the presenters involved.

Usually those agents and editors are booked full to overflowing, and often you get about five seconds (perhaps at the cocktail party!) to pitch your book.

Yikes!

So how do you get the attention of that perfect literary agent you have your sights on?

It’s simple really.  Simple, sadly, doesn’t mean easy but it all boils down to perfecting the perfect pitch for your book.

First off, you’ve done your homework beforehand, in 2 different areas:

  1.    Identifying that agent and/or editor who is just ideal for what you write.
  2.    Honing that pitch.

You have to do number one before even beginning the arduous task of boiling your book down to a couple of beautiful sentences.  Because one of the first things said agent will ask you is, “Why are you coming to me?”

More nicely, but that’s what they mean :)

And you of course already know that she handles what you write, and professional that you are, you can compare your manuscript to other of her authors and books she represents.

That’ll perk up her ears.

So you’ve done that, and are ready to attack her in the elevator or bathroom.

Laugh here. That’s a joke.  Agents and editors hate being caught during personal time.  They tell horror stories about it at dinner.

And although writers can and do get desperate trying to catch the eye of that perfect person, you’re better off not to start 50 yards back after assaulting someone during private time!

Back to the homework.

Once you’ve identified to whom you hope to pitch, then we get down to the brass tacks of what you’re going to say.

And we do this backward.  In 2 steps.

  1.    It all starts with the synopsis.

Wait! You say.  I just want that 2-sentence pitch!

Yep, but we start honing in on those by fashioning a great synopsis to begin.  And here’s what you need:

A good synopsis is composed of very specific elements:

A). The tone of it should be almost conversational—as if one were giving the gist of a book to a neighbor, while leaning across the fence.

Of course, the tone needs to reflect that of the book itself.

B). Make it creative—create, evoke, show—rather than ‘told to.’  Have the flow of the language sound like that of the text itself. In other words, give a flavor of your writing.

With most writers, 99% of the time, the prose in the synopsis is opposite of that from the book.  If the first thing an agent or editor sees/hears is a dry synopsis, you run the risk of him not looking past it.

C). Use active voice, rather than passive; the latter gives that ‘told to’ effect, the former draws a reader into the story.

D). Cover the beginning, middle, and end.  The agent or editor needs to know the end of the story to evaluate whether you can complete it.  Include backstory only if needed.  Give a sense of time and place.

E). Evoke the central conflict and identify the antagonist or opposing forces.

F). Highlight some of the big plot points, including the climax.

G). Give clear characterization of the protagonist—his reason for involvement in the story problem, the goals, the stakes, the character’s Achilles’ heel, needs, primary strength and weakness.  Show how the protagonist has changed—what need was fulfilled, what goal met, what character flaw overcome, etc.

H). However, do not give a lot of details, especially ancillary ones.  We don’t need to know ages of characters here (unless age is a big issue, such as a mid-life crises, or YA rite-of-passage, etc.), their professions (ditto), where they were from, who their family was, etc., unless, again, this plays a part in the story itself.  Also, name only the important characters

I). Make this read as does the inside jacket-cover blurb from books you love. Study those. Emulate them.  Then, take what you learned and apply it to your own book.

J). One page.  At most, two.  Single-spaced

Okay, got that.  Done, right?  You have the perfect one-page synopsis.  Whew!

And why do you need that now?  A., to fashion from it your pitch, and b., to have it on hand in case you get the attention of that literary agent or editor, who now agrees to see more.

An inside secret here: Agents and editors most often cringe at synopses.  Because writers tend to be terrible at them.  I’ve had more than one top editor at a major house tell me he doesn’t even read the synopsis because they’re usually so bad, he’d never even look at the manuscript.

But yours is different now, no?

  1.    So, finally, we’re ready to tackle that pitch.

And this is where you go backward:

  1.                Take your long synopsis, and cut it in half.
  2.                Cut this down to two paragraphs.
  3.                Then, to one paragraph.
  4.                Pare that down to a couple of sentences.
  5.                Boil all of that down into one, thesis sentence.
  6.                Finally, write another sentence or two around that.  This is your “pitch.”

While yes, this seems backward and a lot of unnecessary struggle, the exercise really works.

Finally, get very clear on one last point.  Because if that literary agency or editor is interested, this will be her next question: Who are you and why are you qualified to write this book?

Hone in on only that which pertains to you writing this book.  They do not want to know that you’re married with two children and live on the coast of Maine with your Golden Retriever—unless, the coast of Maine is a pertinent point in the storyline. Or that the Golden Retriever is the actual narrator.  Even then, include only that part.

Include any publications you might have had.  That is a big plus.  If you don’t have those, don’t worry.  The debut novel is still king, at least for the time being.

Once you have all this pared down to the essence, you can confidently pitch that agent or editor at the drop of a hat (or cocktail napkin).  You’re always prepared, always professional, and that’s what they’re looking for.

Because when it all boils down to it, the only thing agents and editors are seeking are books that they can sell.  That’s it.

They want to know:

֎   Why you think they’re right for your book.

֎   The core of it.

֎   And who you are.

Everything else is just window dressing, and will get in the way of your goal.

Now, go write that perfect pitch!

Do Authors Have To Start A Novel At The Beginning?

When you go to write a novel, is there a right way to begin?

Old typewriter on wooden table, series of three

Starting a Novel 

It would seem so, no?  I mean, a book starts at the beginning, whether, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Whether, At dusk they pour from the sky.” Or, I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. Or, When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”  

A book opens with that first line.  Some memorable, some not so much.  But our hope as writers is to always start with a big fat punch.

That’s the published book though.  And a thousand roads lead to a manuscript being finished.

Most folks think that writers start at the beginning, and write from there.  And, many do.  A lot of my authors outline the story before they ever put word one to paper.  A lot of them start at the end.  And of course, just about every way in between exists as well.

The inspiration for my first novel, By the Book, came to me through the voice of a young girl, calling her aunt.  Just the voice.  Just the name.  I had no clue who these people were, or what was going on.

“Auntie Net, Auntie Net,” the child called, the words running together in my mind to sound more like Antietam.

And the book was quite a civil war . . .

That wasn’t the opening, however.  It does make its appearance—just much later in the book.

My second novel, I Just Came here to Dance, came to me with the opening line: “Some folks said I went crazy that summer.”  And that’s the opening line to the published edition as well.

A lot of authors write the conclusion first.  It helps them to know exactly where the story is going, so they can tailor every scene to lead up to it.

Many of my writers have begun in the middle, a scene from the action coming to them first.

And many others do that outline, and follow from the opening line to the closing one.

The point being, it doesn’t much matter where you, as the author, begin writing your novel.  It doesn’t matter the scene or the placement or who the people talking in your head are, at first.

No “right” way to do this exists.

Only your way does.

Doesn’t that occur in just about every aspect of writing?  While you can read and hear how other authors do things, that doesn’t mean it will work for you.  Creativity is an odd (and quite personal) process.

Writers contact me all the time with fears and trepidation about all parts of the practice.

I just spoke with one of my new writers, who’d just gotten back his edited manuscript and critique.  And yes, a lot of work sprawled before him to be done.  It can be overwhelming at first.

So many elements go into writing great fiction.

“I know you’re supposed to write every day,” he said, “but my work schedule just won’t permit that.”  (He’s in the military, stationed overseas.)

He was quite concerned because everything he had read about “famous” authors said they wrote, without fail, every single day. Produced x-number of pages or words per day.  Wrote at the same time.  In the same place.  Etc., etc.

Imagine his reassurance when I told him I personally knew lots of equally famous authors who didn’t go about it this way, but rather, didn’t write at all until long weekends and then produced enormous numbers of words.

Again, the point being, someone else’s way doesn’t matter. Unless if fits for you, it won’t work.  All that matters is your way.

Let’s circle back to the beginning of a book.  The thing is, that’s more than likely going to be completely rewritten anyway.  Often books actually start fifty or so pages in, and all the front matter is just for your benefit, as the author, to get your sea legs under you with these people and this story.

That’s not always true, as in the opening line to Dance.  But quite often the best beginnings to novels come once the initial draft is done, and you have a better grasp on the story and folks.  Then you can write the perfect opening to your book.  The one that grasps agents and editors and ultimately, readers, by the throat and compels them to read on.

So where is the idea place to begin a book?

Wherever you begin writing.

It is, as with all aspects of this craft, only important that you write.

How do you begin writing your novel?

Can Letter Writing Make You a Better Author?

Letter writing is somewhat of a lost art these days, no?  What with email, FB messaging, texting, etc., we’ve gotten away from the actual writing of longer missives to one another.

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Practice Writing

And while a case can be made that those are part and parcel of the same thing, in essence, they’re not.

Remember the days when you actually sat down and hand wrote letters to friends and family?  Oh, the days of sending a post, and waiting until a response arrived.  The joy upon seeing the person’s return address on the envelope!

It wasn’t so long ago, really.

The thought we put into those letters.  We crafted them with care, wanting to make certain we expressed our true thoughts and feelings.  Striving to communicate to the best of our abilities.  Trying to make sure the recipient truly understood what we meant.

Which is a pretty good definition of writing well

That’s tougher to do these days with all the communication devices and avenues with which we now communicate. Chiefly because, they are all so instant.  So, we rarely take the time to make sure the intent is crystal clear.

But if we take that time, take that care, letter writing can still be what it once was. And what a great way to practice writing!

Especially since the only sure-fire remedy for how to be a better writer is, of course, to write.

I often give my authors prescriptions to practice in entirely different genres.  Especially when taking a break from what they usually write.

I.e., if you primarily write novels, try your hand at essays.  If you write non-fiction, pen a short story during your time off.  Fire off a letter to the editor of any publication you peruse.

Or sit down and write a letter to someone you love.

It’s that old left brain/right brain thing, where you’re forcing yourself out of your comfort zone, into the world of creating and learning at the same time.

Because what we know from brain studies is that hand writing is more complicated than the digital versions because it integrates 3 key brain processes:

  1.    Visual: Seeing what is on the paper in front of you, in a different manner.
  2.    Motor:  You must use your fine motor skills to actually put the pen to paper and fashion the letters in order to form words.
  3.    Cognitive:  To remember the shapes of the letters requires a different sort of feedback from the brain.

Which circles us back to that left brain/right brain thing where creativity and editing merge

The old-fashioned way of letter writing produces added benefits as well.  When you sit down and write with no “send” function attached, it frees you to go deeper.  To weigh your words.  To take the extra time to make sure you’re saying what you mean to be saying.

How often do we hear these days: People often misunderstand texts and emails?  You don’t get the inflection in the other person’s voice.  Two lines in a text can easily convey the wrong message.  People don’t say what they mean.

All can be true.  And often are.

While I preach, “Tighten, tighten, tighten,” sometimes you just need more than 140 characters to get your point effectively across.  

It’s a fun exercise to actually sit down and hand write someone a letter.  How freeing it is!  Your creativity runs with it, and what comes onto the page is often quite surprising.  Emotions arise that you didn’t even know you had.  And as you go, words and phrases pop up that you see can be misperceived.

So, go write someone a letter.  You can send one to me! I still love seeing them in the mailbox.

“And none will hear the postman’s knock without a quickening of the heart. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” – W.H. Auden

I Have A Great Idea But Don’t Know How To Start A Novel

Sound familiar?  I hear this pretty much every day.  And from folks just thinking that maybe writing would be fun, all the way to multi-published authors wrangling with a new book idea.

Starting a novel can be a bear.  Those embarking on this writing journey most often just don’t know how to begin a book.

How to Start a Book

Starting a novel can be a bear.  Those embarking on this writing journey most often just don’t know how to begin a book.  And those who’ve been traversing this path for a while know that, well, the beginning is so very crucial to the book’s success.  Which just means luring people in to actually read further, in the way you’d attract a trout to fly.

The opening pages are everything.  Especially when it comes to getting that agent to take a look.  Then the agent being able to convince an editor to accept a submission.  And of course, to draw in readers so they don’t move on to the next free Amazon pages.

Which holds true whether you Traditional or Self-publish.

You have to grab the reader by the throat in a way that he can’t stop.  In oh, about five minutes.

You must fashion those words on the page, those people in a compelling scene, with just enough tease to entice everyone to turn the page.  

A bit of a daunting task.

And I’m not big on ‘have to’s or ‘must’s.

But this is one reality of the book business that no one can ignore.

The company line from agents and book editors is that they read the first fifty pages of a manuscript before deciding whether to accept it.  Which is pretty much an inside joke.  Because they’ll ‘fess up at conferences that they really only read the first ten pages or so.

And behind closed doors, they admit to only reading page one.

Yikes!  But the reality is, if you don’t grab them there, you don’t grab them anywhere.

Then of course the next pages have to keep them engaged or they quit anyway.

This is one of those truths that new writers employ when saying that’s why they’re going to self-publish in the first place.  Those dastardly agents and editors just don’t give a book a chance!

But the deal is, if you can’t tantalize a jaded agent or editor, you’ll not be able to attract a mass of readers either.

Agents and editors are jaded in part because they’ve seen gazillions of books.  And, they know that if words aren’t spectacular on the page—from the get go—readers will go elsewhere.

So the stakes aren’t high or anything!

What’s a writer to do?  What’s the secret of how to start writing?

The closely guarded secret is:

Write.

Just write.

But, what about all the above?  I thought the opening held the keys to the kingdom?

It does.  But that doesn’t mean it needs to be perfect, or good, or even decent when you start.  All that comes far further down the road.

Beginning the novel encompasses one main (albeit multi-faceted) point: Finding out who these people are and what the heck they’re doing in this story.

And it may take you fifty pages to sort through all of that.

In fact, that very often occurs: You’re fifty pages in before the characters click and the story takes off.

I see this all the time.  That first long section clangs and glugs along, vague characters growing slowly more distinct, a story becoming more defined, and finally, finally, finally, they all take off as one.

And that’s where the book begins.

Writers are often horrified at first with the prescription to lose those fifty opening pages.  Or sometimes more.  All that writing!  All that building of character!  All those beautiful scenes!

Yep, they may get axed on the editing-room floor.  Or, pieces may come back in later, via flashback perhaps, or a carefully placed sentence here and there.

But the point being, all of that initial material was for you, the writer, sort of like author’s notes about people and plots.

Which also means all that work is never wasted.  You’ve learned who the Protagonist really is, no?  What the point to his story is.  Where it’s going from here.  

All of that is vital information—for you, the writer.  Now you know the folks much better and more deeply and can evoke them on the pages with far fewer words.

Your reader is trusting you to give her only those bits that are important, which build the character as he goes through the events of the story.  All the rest is background dressing.

So how do you begin a novel?  Just write.  Doesn’t matter where you’re dropping into the story, or with whom.  Just write.

And once you’ve finished the first draft, then we go back and tackle the opening.  Then and only then, we make the beginning spectacular.   

Can I invent A New Genre For My Novel?

You have an idea for a book—a great idea!

Novel Genre

You sit down and begin writing and the words just flow.  Your characters jump off the page.  The plot is crystal clear in your mind. The storyline races to a finish.

You love this book!  It includes so many elements of what great fiction is.

Now, time to market.  Off to those agents who will surely scoop it up, offers to represent arising in droves.

Only . . .  they don’t.  Rejections come in instead. Perhaps you even receive personal responses from agents, praising this or that part of it, but in the end, saying, “Not for us,” in some form or fashion.

And while writers contact me daily with this issue, and the reason can be any number of things, I can often boil it down to one question:

“In what genre are you writing?”

So much of the time, the answers are hodgepodge:

“Well, it’s a story of these people who . . .”

“It includes elements of mystery and romance and . . .”

“It’s fast-paced but not really an Action/Adventure . . .”

“It’s set in the Old West but it’s really about . . .”

Or, the most dreaded: “It’s a combination of a Thriller set in Historical England with Romance as its central theme, so the audience includes all of those readers and will be huge!”

I could go on. But the point is, so often the writer can’t identify the genre.

And while it may seem that a novel might have a bigger audience if it includes Romance and Mystery and Suspense, if it doesn’t actually “fit” into a certain niche, it’s dead in the water—whether you’re shooting for Traditional publishing or intend to self-publish in the first place.

But why?  Why can’t your book be an amalgam of many different genres, or categories, or even sub-categories, or even a genre you make up comprised of the established ones, and still sell well?

It’s your book, dammit, so why can’t you just write what you want to?

Well, you can—if you don’t care who reads it.  And although we all write to some extent for ourselves, we also create for people to actually experience our words.  In short, to read them.

What’s always been true within the industry is that books are sold through very rigid sales’ lines.  I.e., different publishing houses have various imprints for all of the genres they publish, and a book has to fit within the individual genre lists in order to be placed on the very strict conveyer belt of distribution channels, from which book stores then buy.

Otherwise, book stores don’t order the book.

And while from the outside this may seem vague, or even contrived, a very clear reason does exist for novel genres.

In short, that’s where the readers live.

And publishers know this. They know who their readers are—who reads Cozy Mysteries as opposed to Suspense Thrillers.  Those genres are planets apart (as are the guidelines and specs for writing them), and publishers don’t waste their time trying to sell cantaloupes to fish.  They make sure the cantaloupes go to the primates and the fish meal into the bass tank.

Selling books is somewhat of a mystery—even to the oldest of Traditional publishing houses.  They cannot tell you what the new trends will be.  They are truly terrible at predicting.

But publishers are razor sharp at decimenating who is reading (buying) what.  And they focus on successfully selling to the different audiences.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s an eye-opening experiment you can do on your friends and family and strangers in the airport:

Strike up a conversation with any of the above about what they like to read.  Almost always, the answer will be vague—kinda like those mentioned previously about writers identifying their genres.

“Oh, I love fiction!” someone might reply.  “I read a lot of different authors.”

Then dig a little deeper and you find that not only does she read Mysteries (pretty much exclusively), but she’ll tell you what kind of Mysteries, and which specific authors.  In nothing flat, you can see exactly which sub-category of Mystery this person reads.  And, pretty much everything she raves about will fall into that list.

The things she doesn’t like will teeter off the edges.

The point being, the reason publishers’ lists are so rigid, so specific, is that they know this.

And while often new writers intend to self-publish for exactly this reason (“I don’t want some publisher telling me what I can write!”), the results for putting out a genre-less or cross-genre book will be the same as when querying those agents.

You’ll have no sales’ channels through which to sell your book.  Which translates to: No one will read it.

So can you invent your own novel genres?  Why yes, of course you can.  Just know that in doing so, you’ve banished your book to no-man’s land—where nobody reads it.

Can you reinvent the wheel?  Anything’s possible.  But I’ve been in this business nearly 30 years, and I haven’t seen it happen yet :)

New writers often use the example of Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing phenom of this century, saying, “She self-published what she wanted to and now look at her success!”

Yes, the success part is surely true.  But Hocking published Adult Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance. And these are, well, established genres . . .

So, give yourself (and your book!) the best shot possible.  Writing to the different genres is really not so difficult (nor does it hamper creativity), and the specs are widely available.

Go write that page-turner, as well as one that will sell!

Do We Really Know What Makes A Great Writer?

Is it writing in a magnificent voice?  Is it fashioning fabulous characters who jump off the page?  Is it penning a page-turning plot that keeps readers engaged?

Comic drawing: the ancient writer and the computer

what makes a great writer? 

It’s all those things.  But none are the essence.

Is it selling a million copies?

We all want that, no? To be able to quit day jobs and just write, just gloriously write and be paid for our toils.

But that’s not the crux of the matter either.

This can be and is an exacting endeavor.  Writing well takes oh-so long to master, and even the kings of the craft are always still learning.

Although writers are often born, no one comes into this fully baked.  Even Hemingway said that the best thing that ever happened to him was losing his first three manuscripts on the train (link to that blog).  Because he learned to write with those, so that his next showed a realized promise when published.

The truth is that until one puts in the blood, sweat, and tears to learn and then perfect the skills, talent remains just a promise.  As the much-used and variously attributed quote goes: “Writing is easy.  Just open a vein and bleed.”

Your writing life may or may not be so difficult, although at junctures along the path, it sure feels that way.  I have lost count of the writers I’ve known who’ve quit—sometimes years and years down the road—finally succumbing to the agony of defeat (my apologies to Wide World of Sports!).

Because defeat in this world is agonizing.  We aren’t selling bread dough here, but pieces of our very souls.

And then once you have perfected that novel, truly gotten it to ‘The End,’ then, oh then, you have to face the business of writing itself.

Trying to get published.  Searching for the perfect agent—the one who recognizes your talent for what it is, who believes in your work, who sets his sights on selling your tome for huge monetary figures.

Or not.

Because often said agent will indeed love your work, but demand changes, talk of revisions.  And back to the drawing board you go.

Once signed with that agent, then you sit on your hands and wait.  And wait.  And . . .  Nothing moves quickly in this industry.   Months and months and even years go by.

And then a fish on the hook!  An editor at a publishing house just bit.  But she wants more revisions, more changes, more . . .

Then eureka!  The contract appears.  Although often, with far less zeros than you had imagined.

And then comes the marketing–an entirely new world to master.

Hopefully, if you’ve set your sights on self-publishing, you’ve at least walked the aforementioned road beforehand.  Because that’s how you learn what you still haven’t mastered.  That’s where you keep diving in and getting better and better, so that when you do publish that novel, all the elementary mistakes aren’t shining forth for the whole world to see.

It takes a very long time to master this craft.

And then once your book is out, you deal with reviews of all ilk, toughening your skin even further.  Because you’re going to get slashing reviews—everybody does.  Not an author on this planet hasn’t had to deal with critics who delight in opening those veins once again.

As one reviewer said of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “This book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

No industry, no endeavor that I know requires more fortitude.  More persistence. I would imagine creative works of all sorts feel the same to those in them, but I’m not a painter or a musician, so can’t speak to those!

Writing itself will humble you to your knees.  Marketing will do the same.

So you have to get real sure why you’re doing this in the first place.  Do that sooner rather than later.  There is no shame in realizing that this isn’t your true heart’s desire, and going off to a goal more attainable.  No shame whatsoever.  And the best idea is to find that if that’s so, you come to the realization while your life is still left to be lived.

But if, as the poet Rumi said, you ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night, “Must I write?” and the answer is yes, then settle in for a very rocky ride.

Settle in, you must.  Mount Everest is not scaled in a day, but scaled it can surely be.

My dear friend (and once editorial client), author Rhett Devane, summed this up beautifully: Like my homeless and hopeless protagonist in Secondhand Sister, I am as persistent as a ditch weed.”

My wish for you as the New Year dawns is that all of your writing goals are realized.  That your dreams come true—now or in the future.  And that through it all, you write, just gloriously write.

What Makes For An Effective Plot?

What makes for an effective plot?  How do you keep a tale moving?

Architectural plot in the silhouette of a bookshelf

Plot vs Story

Plots are really the simple part.  Can’t you think of five right off the top of your head?  Most writers can (and do).

The difficulty comes in the development—creating the story effectively and believably, with the right cadence to pull all of the elements together.  You can outline any book out there (including your own) by simply jotting down what happens in each chapter.  But is that the plot?  Or the storyline?

The plot is the gist, the point, and part of the theme of the book.  And the storyline is how you get from point A to point Z.  I.e., the plot is the entire forest, and the storyline, the trees.  Both organization and structure come into play here as well, the organization being the roadmap that the structure bolsters up.

So, once you have your plot clear in your own head—boy finds girl; boy falls in love with girl; girl dumps boy; boy spends rest of the novel trying to win girl back—the real work begins in regard to moving along the plot, otherwise known as the fleshing out of the storyline.

Many factors come into play within the specter of creating interesting and believable storylines and plots.

֎   First and most important (in that everything hinges on it) is focus.  Most often I see storylines that ramble.  One might begin with a bang-up cliffhanging scene, which really pulls in the reader and sets a great tone, leaving us champing at the bit to turn to the next chapter.  But then, that next chapter wanders off to Brazil somewhere (a setting which then never reappears in said book), often with different characters entirely, and the thread of the narrative is lost.

What just happened to your plot?  Your storyline?  The protagonist in whom I’ve just invested my trust to take me through the course of this book?  In other words, where are we, and who the heck are THESE people?

֎   Or, the narrative is going along fine, except the writer keeps drifting off on tangents that sort of relate, but don’t add one thing to the plot or characters.  An old adage in this business says to not take readers down a road that doesn’t lead directly back into the main stream—those readers just may take that road and not come back (i.e., put down the book and not pick it back up).  A good litmus test for every single scene in the book is: Is this vital to my plot/characters?  Can I lose the scene and lose nothing of real value (except, of course, brilliant writing :) ?

֎   Pacing is key, and by design.  It doesn’t just happen.  This relates to focus, as again, without it, everything pretty much falls apart.  But pacing includes a variety of factors, even the cadence of your voice.  Do your prose and sentence structure relate directly to the type of book you’re writing?  As an example, the long, rambling nature of Faulkner’s prose would be completely out of place in a Thriller, where the style required through so much action is short and crisp, in places, almost staccato.  Next, are your plot points strategically placed?  Plot points are what make your story move.  You’re looking overall at roughly three major plot points, and a host (nine or so) of minor ones.

I see a lot of belabored minor points—where the writer spends way too much time beating the reader over the head with some issue—and conversely, big holes remain that the reader can’t bridge.  Spend your time creating the important things, and then you can tell the lesser ones.  Yes, some of this is by feel.  But much of it’s logic too.  And when you focus on the nuts and bolts, the feel will eventually come.

Writing is an odd amalgam of art and skill, with the latter feeding the former at just the right times.

See, writing books is simple.  Just decide on your plot.  Then outline how you get from A to Z.  Organize it with effective plot points.  Make sure the pacing fits the book.  Stay focused.  Simple.  We only run into problems when we confuse simple with easy . . .

Can Beta Readers Help An Author Make A Better Novel?

They’re all the rage, no?  With the advent of self-publishing (which comes with no editing), this idea has flourished.  And even agents now smile when the authors they represent utilize beta readers.

Two cute children nerds are perplexed and thinking.

Beta Readers

Is this worthwhile?  It sure can be!

Strange, coming from an editor, right?  Although these readers don’t have the years and knowledge and study and experience of an editor, real editing is expensive, and many folks just don’t have the wherewithal to purchase such services.  So having several or many sets of eyes on your book can absolutely find some flaws.

As this shouldn’t be for your draft, but rather a ready-to-market manuscript, we’re not talking typos or grammatical/spelling issues, but instead, whether the book itself holds up as per plot, storyline, and characters.

Before the Internet (am I dating myself or what?), this was done in writer’s groups where you actually met in person regularly, to read aloud and have the group critique you.  These can be so effective, especially when you’re trying to find your sea legs.  The very act of reading one’s work aloud helps a fledgling writer to hear his own prose from a different angle (that old left brain/right brain—writer/editor—thing).

And these groups were made up of writers at all levels—rank novices to multi-published authors.  So hearing the critiques across the different strata, not only of your work but of others’, often proved quite enlightening.

As writers’ groups moved more and more online, the human element was lost.  And so were a lot of the other benefits.  It doesn’t mean beta readers don’t have their purpose, it just means that to sort through the ones that are best for you is vital.

So, if you don’t have the resources to hire an editor, and are considering beta readers, what parameters should you set?

  1.    First off, seek those who read the genre in which you write.  I know, sounds like a no-brainer, right?  But sometimes it’s difficult to tell out there.  In other words, if you write YA Fantasy, sending your manuscript to someone who reads/writes Traditional Westerns is not going to bear much fruit.  In fact, it can actually be quite detrimental.

For example, I recently heard from a writer of mine, who has been in revisions the past year and a half, and who is already agented by a top NY agent.  Once revisions were done, this writer googled beta readers, and chose 3 who seemed a good fit.  Note: They seemed a good fit.

The critiques were fairly scathing.  “Too much history,” one said, “which takes too long to get to the real story.”  “Take out the flashbacks,” said another, “I don’t care what happened in the past.”  “Too much dialogue,” said a third.

As I began asking deeper questions, my writer said she found out after that two of them wrote YA Fantasy (with the profusion of that genre, it’s not surprising that everybody is a beta reader now!  :) )

What does my writer write?  Historical Literary Fiction.

Not the best of fits, as the first two comments above showed.  They didn’t want to know the history (which was crucial to the characters and the culture).  They were confused by the back and forth in time (which is weaved beautifully through the narrative).  They were, of course, used to a much more straightforward, linear, action-packed storyline (and dare I say, more on the surface).  Literary is quite a different beast from any other genre, and takes a more sophisticated reader than is commercially abundant.

The dialogue comment made by the third stumped pretty much everybody.

But the point being, if you get readers who aren’t used to your sort of work, it’s the old thing about trying to make pigs fly—you’ll just spin your wheels and annoy the pig in the process.

  1.    Second, what’s the skill level of the reader?  Most of these folks these days are fledgling writers themselves.  And while that’s not always a bad thing, it is, to put it bluntly, not very helpful.

The thing about folks learning to write (and it takes years and years and years to hone one’s craft), is that while doing so, people are learning the rules.  And there are a lot of them!  Rules for prose, for sentence structure, for characterization, for plotting, pacing, organization, plot structure, etc., etc., etc.  No wonder it takes so long to master all of this!

And while doing so, new writers become Rule Nazis.  “You can’t do X because it breaks Y rule!”  Which it very well might.

But if you’re a half-way skilled writer, have spent the time learning your craft, more than likely, well, you already know the rule.  Have mastered it.  And have effectively broken it because it adds more than it takes away.

New writers, however, get stuck in the sticky bog of all that.  They’re still trying to learn the rules!

As another of my writer’s critique readers said, “You have run-on sentences.”

Did I mention this work is Literary?

My writer also found that the readers had self-published first books.  Period.  Um . . .

So look for authors who have lots of published books to their credit.  Who know the difference in Category Romance and Women’s Fiction.  Who understand why although the rule says don’t switch viewpoints, places exist where it’s not only acceptable but quite marvelous to do so.

  1.    Know—just know—that a fairly large percentage of critique is quite self-serving.

In a physical writer’s group, this becomes evident fairly quickly, as you actually get to know the folks as humans, rather than just people who critique.  And is that ever an eye-opener!  So many have been involved for years and years, and live to show off their knowledge . . .

No matter if their knowledge is all surface or not.

As the old saying goes, “Those who can, create.  Those who can’t, review.”

Sorting through this is much more difficult with faceless, online readers.

So, just realize this can and does occur.

  1.    And finally, take what you can and leave the rest.  Just like in AA.

Decades ago, I was in a quite lovely writer’s group (this was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s).  I met the most wonderful people, some of whom are still my friends today.

I came away eventually with many impressions, but the chief among them was that it was very much like a 12-step group.  Same sort of dynamics.  Same sort of teaching/learning going on.

One of the big signs at 12-step groups says exactly that: Take what you can and leave the rest.

Because even with the best of intentions, you’re going to get bad advice.

And, advice that really doesn’t pertain to you (or in our case, to your writing).

You’ll get so many opinions.  Ask 100 people their opinions on Star Wars, and you’ll get 100 different answers.

The best thing to do with these is what I ask my writers about agent rejections: Were there any consistencies?  Did more than one agent say the same thing?  If so, really take a look at that (provided you sent to the right agents in the first place, which of course my writers do :)  ).

If everyone’s hitting on one theme, then really take a hard look at that.

If the critiques are all over the map, let them go.

So yes, beta readers can provide information to help you write a better book.  Just look for those who write/read what you write.  Find ones with a higher skill level than you have.  Understand that a percentage of it will be about them fluffing their own feathers.  And then take what applies and cast off the rest.

And then, only then, dive back into revisions.

Will I Get Rich If I Become A Published Author?

I hear this question at least once a week. Sometimes more. And it’s easier to answer than one might think.

Author.

Publishing, from within, is a far different animal from what it appears to be on the outside.  What most folks see (especially when thinking of writing a book) is big-name authors touted on talk shows, selling millions of books.  These authors are rich, famous, and seem to live the charmed life so many aspire to.

And since with the advent of technology, literally anyone can write a book and see it “published” (99.9 % of the time which means self-published), I hear often from people wanting to quit their real-life jobs.  Get out of the rat race. Become rich and famous and live that charmed author life.

I can hear the chuckles from any writer who’s been in the trenches very long.

And even though the answer directly affects my own business, I always give the truth as I know it—unvarnished, unadulterated, in all of its ugly glory.

Because the truth is that writing and publishing is a lucrative business for only a few.  And when you get to its heart, writing (especially fiction) is truly a labor of love.

And sometimes, not much more.  In September the Author’s Guild released a survey revealing that 56% of their surveyed writers made less than the poverty line, when only counting writing revenue.

Publisher’s Weekly reported the findings this way: “The survey, conducted this spring by the Codex Group, is based on responses from 1,674 Guild members, 1,406 of whom identified either as a full-time author, or a part-time one. The majority of respondents also lean older—89% are over the age of 50—and toward the traditionally published end (64%).”

So, what is that “Poverty Line”? The U.S. Federal government defines it as a single person making less than $11, 670 per year.

And what does the Federal Poverty Level statistic mean? Given that a single person earning less than $11,670 annually sits below the poverty line, 56% of respondents would qualify, if they relied solely on income from their writing.

The survey also indicated that not only are many authors earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less. Overall, the median writing-related income among respondents dropped from $10,500 in 2009 to $8,000  in 2014, a decline of 24%. The decline came for both full-time and part-time authors with full-time authors reporting a 30% drop in income to $17,500 and part-time authors seeing a 38% decrease, to $4,500.

Now, 2 key points need to not be glossed over here.

  •     First off, 64% of these are Traditionally published authors.  Meaning they have grasped the brass ring—the highest level of publishing is from Traditional houses, which pay you for the rights to publish your book, rather than you paying them.

So of this relatively small group of Traditionally published authors, 56% made less than the poverty line.

  •    The second key is the age bracket—89% are over age 50.  Which can mean many things, but the most important one for our purposes is that they’ve been at this a while.  Writing well isn’t learned in a day.  Or a week.  Or a year . . .   To truly hone this craft takes years and years and years and . . . .

So while I may indeed be cutting off income streams by being honest, it’s the only way for any aspiring writer to enter this industry—with her eyes wide open.

Writing—as you probably know, and anyone who’s been doing this for a while will confirm—is truly hard work.

I was talking the other day with a client of mine, who’s become a good friend, and writes Literary Fiction (the apex of the pyramid).  She’s represented by one of the top agents in NY.  The manuscript still needed revisions, and we’ve all been working to shape it into one that will fetch a nice (really nice—we’re looking in the mid-6-figure range) advance.

She’s now on her no-one-can-still-count revision.  And in despair she said, “Now I know why writer’s quit.”

Yep.  At some point, we all come to that proverbial crossroads.

I don’t know of mastering any task that will bring you to your knees more surely than writing.

But of course that despair is one of the things she has me for :)  Step by step, we crawled back out of that black hole—together.  And now she’s neck deep in revisions again, with a smile in her step.

So, will you get rich if you become a published author?  Why sure—it’s possible!  I’ve seen folks do so.

But if riches is the goal . . . perhaps gambling in Vegas?

If, however, crafting that one true perfect sentence, writing a storyline that holds together, driven by characters who soar to life and cannot be forgotten, if those things are your focus, then you have absolutely come to the right place.

And we welcome you.