Three Tiny Things to Improve Your Writing: Is Everyone This Neurotic, or Is It Just Me?

I’ve been editing books for about 15 years now, so a lot of edits I suggest are based on intuition. Something about the writing irks me and I make note of it, sometimes without even knowing why it’s irking me. Often there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about the sentence, it’s just not amazing. Unraveling my reasons sometimes takes a bit of thought and today you lucky readers get to hear that bit of thought. Here are three tiny things that (in my humble opinion) will improve your writing effortlessly.

Varying Word Choice and Sentence Structure
As any of my poor, beleaguered clients will tell you, I lose my shit if I see the same word more than once in close proximity. Well, maybe not lose my shit so much as compulsively request that they change it. Why? It’s not grammatically incorrect, but it makes the writing feel repetitive and unimaginative. Writing is so much more sparkly and interesting when it has variety to it. And variety includes varying word choice and sentence structure.

What qualifies as using a word multiple times in “close proximity”? I tend to say twice in the same sentence or two sentences in a row, but it also depends on how it’s used. For example, you have a scene where your protagonist talks to a man at his house that goes on for five pages. When the protagonist gets to the house, his internal narration describes the house as “cozy.” A page later, he describes the house in internal narration again and he uses “cozy” again. Even though these two “cozy”s are a page apart, if you use “cozy” every time you describe the house, it’s going to get repetitive and boring pretty fast. There are a million synonyms for “cozy,” so use one of them instead of “cozy” for a second time.

Now I am not completely neurotic, so I know there are situations where there is no other possible word to describe something (like “kitchen”) or that any other possible synonyms will make the writing sound forced and unnatural (like using “dromedary” in the place of “camel”), so I allow exceptions to this compulsion of mine all the time. (I also don’t apply this rule to commonly-used words like “the” or “and”.) But if it is possible to use a different word without ruining the writing, I would prefer that.

Same goes with varying sentence structure. At a certain point using the same sentence structure repeatedly makes your writing become formulaic and flat. Here’s an example:

He walked outside and looked at the sky. He waited for the sun to rise. He stood there for a long time. He wanted to see the sun one more time before he died.

All of these sentences use the same structure (“He (verb)”) and they’re all short, simple sentences. To improve this, the author should change the structure of some of the sentences, maybe open some with prepositional phrases, and also try to vary the sentence lengths, so they’re not all short and choppy.

Cutting Out Unnecessary Words
For me, unnecessary words fall into two categories: 1) words that make a sentence longer and more convoluted than it has to be without adding new meaning, and 2) words that tell the reader something they don’t need to be told directly because the meaning is already implied.

Here’s an example of the first category:

I set my ring of five keys down on the wood table in the front hall next to the vase.

My first comment on this is: Why specify that it’s a ring of keys? Most people’s keys are on a ring, so mentioning the ring doesn’t add anything.

Also, why is it important that there are five keys? Unless the number of keys have been given some additional meaning (like there should be six keys, but he’s lost one of them), there’s no reason to mention how many keys there are.

Next, why is it important that the table is made of wood? A lot of tables are made of wood, so “wood” doesn’t impart any new meaning to the sentence. If you said “the 18th century, hand-carved Spanish oak table,” then I get the impression that the protagonist is rich, or really into antiques (which you typically have to be rich to buy), so it does alter the meaning of the sentence and add value to it in a way “wood” doesn’t.

And finally, does it matter that he puts the keys next to a vase? Does it matter that there’s a vase on the table period? If not, why mention it?

If one of my authors gave me this sentence, I’d suggest they condense it to: “I set my keys down on the table in the front hall.” See how much tighter that is? And nothing has been lost in the meaning of the sentence.

My personal philosophy is that any words that don’t alter the meaning of the sentence drag a sentence down with useless filler, so keep an eye out for any unnecessary words in your writing.

Now for words that tell the reader something they don’t need to be told directly because the meaning is already implied. Here’s an example:

“I’m totally over him, I swear!”

Trisha’s eyebrow shot up. She didn’t believe me.

The way that Trisha arches her eyebrow implies that she doesn’t believe the narrator, so it’s superfluous to then tell the reader, “She didn’t believe me.”

Here’s another example:

He put his hand on the doorknob, twisted it clockwise, pushed the door inwards and walked through it.

This is a really drawn out way to say, “He walked through the door.” All those little steps of putting his hand on the door and twisting it, etc. are implied in the action of walking through a door, so it’s unnecessary to mention them.

Avoiding Double Possessives
Now this is a truly tiny thing and it really could just be me, but I feel like a sentence reads better when it doesn’t have a double possessive in it. Here’s an example of a double possessive:

She placed her headband on her dresser.

In this case, I would prefer: “She placed the headband on her dresser” or “She placed her headband on the dresser.” Why? To me, it sounds clunky to use “her” twice, or at least it sounds more smooth and seamless not to use it. Yes, it slightly changes the meaning so that the noun without the possessive might not belong to her, but my question is—is it important that the noun belong to her? Does it matter whether the dresser in question belongs to her? Probably not, unless this passage is about her fighting with her sister over their father’s old furniture. In that case it might be really important that this is her dresser. But if it’s unimportant that it be made clear that both nouns belong to the character, to me, it sounds better to just use the possessive with one noun. After all, you’re not definitively saying the noun without the possessive doesn’t belong her, you’re just leaving it open to interpretation. And most people will interpret it to mean it does belong to her unless they’re given a reason to believe it doesn’t. For example, if she’s staying at a hotel, then the reader knows the dresser doesn’t belong to her (unless of course her family owns the hotel).

These are just a handful of types of fun suggestions you’ll see on your manuscript if you become my client. That is, of course, unless you’ve already fixed these things, in which case you get a gold star!

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The 9 Most Common Mistakes I See on Opening Pages

A while ago when I solicited advice on what topics to cover in my blogs, someone asked me to cover common mistakes I see authors making in their first pages, so here is my rough list.

One quick note before I start the list, just to give you an idea of my mindset going into a manuscript. When I read a submission, I don’t ask myself: “Is this a good book?” or “Is this person a good writer?” I ask: “Am I interested in reading more?” There’s no such thing as an objectively good book, because reading is a subjective experience, so I don’t attempt to judge what’s “good.” All I’m looking for is a desire to read more. If I don’t feel compelled to read more, I stop reading.

So without further ado, here are the most common reasons I stop reading:

No Sense of POV
There’s a description of a place or thing or situation, but no sense of who’s telling the story. Sometimes I can’t even tell if the book is written in 1st or 3rd person until a couple paragraphs down. Readers connect to characters. We’re human so it’s through other humans (characters) that we become anchored in a story, so when there’s no sense of who’s telling the story, what their perspective is and how that perspective acts as a filter for the description of a place/thing/situation, then there’s nothing for me to latch onto, there’s nothing to compel me to keep reading.

Voice Doesn’t Feel Natural
In this case, the book has a POV, it just doesn’t feel like a real person. Voice is a hard thing to pin down, but the best way that I can describe it is the sense that I am being told a story by a person with a distinct point of view. If that voice doesn’t feel natural, or it feels distant, then I won’t connect to it. Two things that can prevent a voice from feeling natural are over-narrating and over-thesaurusing.

Over-narrating is mixing explanatory language into narration. Here’s an example, “As he crept forward, he began to consider the possibility that there was no one in the car.” Not a bad sentence you might say. But what if it was phrased like this: “He inched forward, light as a tightrope walker. The windows of the Subaru remained dark and motionless. What if there was no one in the car?” When you compare the two, the second description puts you more firmly in the physicality of the scene, while the first one feels distant and cerebral, because it’s over-narrated.

Over-thesaurusing is basically what it sounds like. It’s when the writing is so full of big, arcane words that it doesn’t feel natural. For the most part, you want to use language that people would commonly use in dialogue, even during narration, because it keeps the voice relatable and realistic. I’ve had authors respond to this advice with: “But I do have a really good vocabulary, and I actually use these words in real life.” That’s great, but to most people convoluted locutions pejorate an otherwise superlative tome. (Try saying that 10 times fast!)

Abstract Concepts
Sometimes I’ll see submissions that open with an unknown narrator waxing on about an abstract concept, like time or love. Assuming it says something fresh and unique, this is not a bad opening if it’s limited to a few sentences, but when it goes on for a quarter of a page or more, it begins to get boring. I want to have a sense of who the characters are and see some action to propel the plot into motion, and these kinds of openings lack both of those things.

Too Much Action
By this I mean, opening with an action sequence without any grounding in the characters. Yes, you want to have some action in your opening, but you also want the reader to connect to your character and to understand what’s going on. When these kinds of openings go south is when the author withholds too much information about what’s going on. I think they’re withholding the information in order to intrigue the reader, and this is effective for a short while, but if the information is withheld for too long, the reader will lose interest.

Here’s a common example: A girl is being chased. We don’t know who/what is chasing her (is it a family member, the mafia, a four-foot tall boa constrictor she just released from a laboratory that experiments on animals, etc.), we don’t know why she’s being chased (did she steal something from the drug store, is trying to escape a monster, etc.), we don’t know what world this takes place in (is it a dystopian world with an oppressive government she’s fighting against, is it 400 B.C. Rome, is it present-day Alabama, etc.), and we don’t know who she is. How long can descriptions of her running, hearing footsteps echoing behind her, and turning down dark alleys be intriguing enough to hook a reader’s interest? I’d say maybe six sentences, maybe less, depending on the writing. After that, you need to bring in more details of where she is, why she’s being chased, who/what’s chasing her and who she is. Though ideally you’d be able to bring these things in from the beginning.

Too Much Dialogue
Dialogue is a form of action, so I’ll often see books that open with it. The problem comes when it’s just dialogue, with no internal narration to give me an idea of who the characters are and the world they inhabit. While dialogue can show me both of those things, it can’t do it quickly or effectively enough on its own. So my suggestion if you want to open with dialogue is to just use one or two lines of it, and then add some internal narration that shows me who the characters are and what’s going on in the scene.

Nothing New Under the Sun
There are no unusual descriptions/phrases/images/ideas that take me to a new level of understanding. This is probably the hardest thing to pinpoint. When I read a submission, I’m hoping to be surprised. I’m hoping to see something described in a way I’ve never seen before, or to have an idea expressed in a way I’ve never thought of before.

Part of this is that real people are complex and unique, and when you have a character that perceives something in a new way, it makes me feel like the character is a real person, which takes me out of myself and into the character’s head.

The more obvious reason is that there are already so many books out on the market, and every time you send out a query, you’re making a case that despite all the books already available, the agent/editor should take a chance on you and your book. And if you don’t give the reader something new, your case won’t be very strong.

Here’s an example of a description that won’t grab my interest: describing a wolf as “lupine.” Lupine means wolf-like, so this is basically saying: the wolf is like a wolf. If you described a sparrow as lupine, I’d be intrigued, because I’d be thinking “how can a tiny little bird be wolf-like?” (Of course, you’d need to be able to explain this. Maybe you could describe the bird’s feathers as sticking up like fur, a certain fierceness in the sparrow’s eyes and posture, etc.)

Other descriptions that won’t catch my eye: majestic mountains, a glowing moon, fierce waves, a blinding sun. These aren’t tautologies the way lupine = wolf, but they are adjectives that are commonly used with those nouns, so they don’t show me something new. If I saw mountains described as wimpy, I might be intrigued. It’s not necessarily about describing something the opposite way it’s commonly described, it’s about describing it in a way that it isn’t commonly described, which then tells me something about the protagonist and how he/she views the world.

And this doesn’t just apply to how you use adjectives to describe nouns, it can and should be a new way of thinking about description period.

Telling Writing
The old adage of “show, don’t tell” is one I urge writers to really internalize. Telling writing explains to the reader who the characters are and what they feel, which doesn’t actually put the reader in the character’s head space. Showing writing, on the other hand, allows the reader to see/smell/touch/taste/hear what the character is seeing/smelling/touching/tasting/hearing. With telling writing, the reader stays outside of the character. With showing writing, the reader becomes the character.

Here’s an example of telling writing: “He felt scared and alone.” Do you feel scared and alone when you read that? Probably not. Because you don’t know what scared and alone means for that character, you don’t know what it feels like for that character.

Info Dump
An info dump is a form of telling writing, but more specifically it’s telling the reader a bunch of information in one place, as opposed to weaving it into the story through the action. For example, sometimes I’ll see this in a dialogue: “As you know, we’re stuck on this planet until someone rescues us.” A better way to show this bit of information is for the characters to talk about where they found food, if the radio to ground control is working, what’s weird about the planet, etc.

Sometimes it’s information the reader doesn’t need to know at this stage of the game, such as what a character looks like. The only time when it’s important to know what a character looks like is when it influences the plot in some way. For example, if it’s about a girl who’s bullied for being plus size, then it’s important to know that she’s plus size. But I still don’t need to know whether her hair is brown or blond, because it doesn’t affect the story in any way.

Common Tropes
There are certain openings agents have seen so many times that they’ve become cliché. They include opening with the main character dreaming and/or waking up, using the character looking in the mirror as an opportunity to info dump what they look like, opening with a prologue of a killer stalking his prey (typically a man stalking a woman). If it’s been done a million times before, don’t do it.

How You’ll Get an Agent in 2018

2018 is your year. Anything’s possible. Here’s how you’ll get an agent this year:

You’ll do your research.
While sending your book out to as many agents as possible increases your chances of getting published, you want to make sure that you’re sending it to agents who are actively seeking books like yours. That means that the agent: a) represents your genre, and b) is open to submissions. Sending your book to agents who don’t meet these requirements is a waste of your time and energy, and it’s also a waste of your emotion when they turn it down. The publishing industry is rife with rejection already, so there’s no need to add more to the pile by sending your book to someone who isn’t right for it.

How do you know if an agent is right for your book? Research the hell out of them. The best place to find current information about an agent’s interests and whether or not they’re open to submissions is on the agent’s website. There are other websites like Manuscriptwishlist.com that have more detailed bios and submissions list. And MSWishlist.com has a collection of #MSWL (manuscript wishlist) tweets from agents and editors.

Another way to find agents who are looking for your kind of book is to read other books in your genre that you feel are similar in topic and/or style, and then look at the acknowledgements in the back to see who represented it.

Even googling the agent can sometimes provide you with interviews they’ve done or blogs they’ve written, which can give you a better idea of their interests.

And of course, there are book resources like the Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents and the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.

You’ll continually develop your craft.
You might keep getting turned down because you just haven’t found the right agent yet. Or there could be ways to improve your writing to help you get to that next step.

There are a multitude of ways to develop your writing craft. Here are a handful:

  • Read books on writing.
  • Read agent blogs on writing.
  • Read books in your genre and analyze them in terms of writing, characters and plot and compare them against your own book. (I know it’s hard to be objective about your own book but try.)
  • Attend conferences where you can get feedback on your writing from agents and editors, or do contests where you win agent critique (sometimes a part of conferences, sometimes posted on Twitter, etc).
  • Join writer’s groups or get beta readers (ideally people who have been published by traditional publishers. Everyone has an opinion that is valuable, but the closer you can get to traditional publishing experts (like authors who’ve been traditionally published and successful, editors or agents) the more likely that feedback will bring your writing to that next step.)

You’ll work on your platform.
How much of a platform do you need to get published? It depends on what genre you’re writing in. If you’re writing nonfiction, you need to have a serious platform to break into the market. If you’re writing fiction, you don’t necessarily need a platform, but it will definitely help you if you have one.

How will you build your platform? There are many ways to go about it. Here are some ideas:

  • Increase your social media following.
  • Create a website, blog or podcast that offers valuable content to potential followers.
  • Drive traffic to this website, blog or podcast by interacting with other bloggers/podcasters/websiters who focus on a similar topic and becoming a part of their community.
  • Create a viral video.
  • Give speeches to large audiences on a regular basis.
  • Make connections with others in your field who can offer some kind of marketing assistance. (For example, if you know another author in your field with a large Twitter following or email list, see if that person will promote you to their followers in some way.)

Find your niche and build your platform there. Every little bit of platform helps.

You’ll participate.
In conferences, in Twitter pitch parties, in writing groups. Whichever medium you prefer, engage with others about your book. Writing is a very solitary, very personal activity, and it can be difficult for some writers to bring others in to the insular world of their writing, or for themselves to go out and join with others, but the benefits make up for whatever discomfort that comes with making the personal public.

By joining in conferences, you learn more about the craft of writing and the expectations of the publishing industry. You may even get to pitch your book to agents and editors, who can then request to read your manuscript. And if it’s a conference that offers advanced reading appointments with agents and editors, you can get feedback on your writing from industry professionals.

By joining in Twitter, you get connected to massive writing community that is majorly supportive, and dialed in to the publishing industry. And if you join in Twitter pitch parties, you get the opportunity of pitching your book to a sea of agents, getting requests from them, and getting your manuscript read more quickly.

By joining in writer’s groups, you get feedback on your writing and the support of others in the same position as yourself.


Here’s to 2018: the year you get an agent!

The Submission Process Part 3, After Submission

In this final installment of my submission process series, I’ll tackle what happens after submission, whether the submission resulted in a book deal or not.

No Deal Next Steps:
Despite the best efforts of yourself and your agent, your book didn’t sell during the first round of submissions. At this point you should talk to your agent about next steps. The first question you can ask is: will there be a round two? If the agent says yes, then the next thing you need to determine is whether or not it makes sense for you to revise the manuscript before round two. If most of the editors that read your book turned it down for the same reason, then it makes sense to revise it. If the reasons they turned it down varied wildly, then it can be hard to determine what changes need to be made, if any. Talk to your agent about revisions before you invest a lot of time making them to see whether or not she thinks it would be worthwhile.

If your agent is not planning to send out your book for round two, you have a few options:

1. Give her a new book to send out.
You may have a novel you wrote a long time ago or one you’re in the process of writing. In either case, this novel is a fresh slate, so your agent may want to send it out. However, your agent isn’t required to send out this other novel if she doesn’t feel it’s ready or right for her. At which point, you may have a third novel she might be interested in, or you may want to try one of these other three options.

2. Void your agency agreement and try to find a new agent for your book.
When and how you can cancel your agency agreement should be spelled out in the agreement itself, so make sure you look at that before you move in this direction. Assuming nothing prevents you from voiding it, make sure your agent gives you a list of the editors that read your book before you start querying new agents. The reason for this is that any future agents who might represent you on this book can’t send your book to the same imprints or publishers that already turned it down, so the agent will ask to see this list before making a decision on your book. If the list contains all of the imprints he would have sent it to, then he may decide not to represent you on this book. Many agents also will not represent a book that they don’t believe they can sell to a major publisher, so if your book has been turned down by every or even most major imprints, then a new agent doesn’t have much of an incentive to represent you on that particular book. In which case, you may want to try option 3.

3. Try to find a new agent for a new book.
Your new book is a blank slate that doesn’t have the submission baggage of your initial book. Hence, agents can consider it with fresh eyes. When I receive a query from an author who was previously represented on a different book, it typically makes me pay more attention to it, because I know the author has a talent that has been recognized by a fellow agent.

If none of the above options work out, you can try option 4.

4. Self-publish.
I have mixed feelings about self-publishing, as I detailed in this blog, but for some authors it’s the best option.

Yes Deal Next Steps:
YAAAAAAAAAYYYY!!!!! You received an offer on your book!!!! Next, your agent notifies the other editors reading your book that you have an offer and often gives them a deadline by which they need to make their own offer.

If no other editors make an offer, then your agent negotiates just with the offering editor for things like a higher advance, possibly higher royalty rates, and control over sub-rights. If you have offers from two editors, you have more leverage during negotiations. If you have offers from three or more editors, your agent will have an auction. During an auction, each publisher makes an opening bid, then the agent notifies the editors that don’t have the high bid what the high bid is, and the lower bidding editors increase their bids. Then the agent notifies the editors what the new high bid is, and so on and so forth until things start stagnating, at which point the agent asks the editors for their final bid. And once the agent shares those final bids with the author, the author decides who he wants to work with. At which point the agent notifies the winning editor that author accepts the offer.

One difference between publishing and a lot of other fields is that once an agent accepts an offer on the author’s behalf, the publishing process swings into motion, even though there is no contract yet. The contract will come from the publisher’s contract department, not the editor. The contract department has a backlog of contracts they’re working on, so it’s not unusual for it to take 2-4 weeks to receive a contract from them.

In the meantime, the editor may ask the author to fill out a questionnaire detailing the author’s contact information, bio, websites, blogs, marketing connections, a short synopsis of the book, etc. The editor may also provide the author with editorial feedback on the book and a delivery date by which the author needs to turn in his revisions.

Once the agent receives the contract, she will review it herself and pass it on to the author to review and/or share with a lawyer (or anyone else) should he choose to do so. At this point, the author has already accepted the basic terms of the contract (advance, royalty rates, sub-rights control), so these terms are not open to negotiation. What is open to negotiation are areas like: royalty rates not presented during initial offer (for things like highly discounted copies), cover approval/consultation, the definition for how a book is deemed “out of print” (which is important if the author ever wants their rights reverted), the number of free copies the author receives and the discount at which he can purchase more copies, the author’s responsibility in the event of a lawsuit over the book and his control over any settlements, and a myriad of little details like that. The agent then compiles a contract memo detailing the revisions she and the author are requesting, and sends it to the contract department. It can take the contract department anywhere from a day to a few weeks to respond to this request. Some revisions they will easily agree to and others they may push back on, so it’s not unusual for there to be multiple rounds of negotiations.

Once you’ve accepted the final terms of the contract, huzzah! You have a book deal!

The Submission Process Part 2, During Submission

Finally the wait is over! Here is my second installment of blogs detailing the submission process in which I’ll tackle what happens during submission.

Submission Day!

Your manuscript is polished to a fine sheen, and your agent’s pitch and editor list are nailed down. Now it’s time to actually start submissions! Depending on the agent’s personal style, she may pitch editors either over the phone or via email. And editors can ask to see the manuscript, or they might decline if they don’t feel it’s right for them. In some cases, they may recommend someone else at their imprint who they think would be a better fit for it. In other cases, they may not respond at all, which is its own kind of “thanks, but no thanks.”

The degree to which your agent keeps you in the loop about who’s asked for it varies agent by agent, so this can be a good question to ask during your initial phone call with the agent. Ask the agent what his typical communication style is during submissions. Does he let you know when you receive requests or rejections, or does he just tell you when you’ve received an offer? Most agents fall into the latter category, but at least you’ll know for sure what to expect from your agent if you’ve discussed it.

On Your Mark… Get Set… Wait

If I were to describe what happens during submissions on the author and agent’s end in one word, it would be: waiting. A whole lot of waiting. I once heard an editor say she receives about one manuscript a day. Most manuscripts are roughly 300 pages, so that’s 9,000 pages per month. And typically, they don’t have time to read manuscripts during work. So they need to squeeze in reading time during their commutes, evenings and weekends. And at the same time, they need to edit manuscripts they’ve already acquired. So it can be several weeks or months before editors can look at your manuscript. It also means that they may only read the first page of your book, and then turn it down if they don’t find themselves pulled in by it. It might seem harsh, but it makes sense when they have so much to read and so little time to do it.

Let’s say that an editor reads your complete manuscript and absolutely loves it. What happens next? Often editors, especially ones lower down on the totem pole, will ask some of their coworkers to read it as well to get their feedback. If their coworkers love it just as much as they do, then the editor will present it at the imprint’s weekly editorial meeting to try to get the buy in of her superiors and the marketing department. In advance of the meeting she will prepare a Profit & Loss statement, which is meant to project whether or not the book is financially viable. (For more information on P&L’s, check out Jane Friedman’s super helpful blog here.)

In advance of the meeting, she will also reach out to the agent to find out which other editors at her publishing house are currently considering the manuscript. (This is because only one editor at each publishing house is allowed to make an offer on a book, so that two imprints at the same house don’t end up competing against each other.) The interested editor will then talk to her colleagues at other imprints that are also reading the book, and they will collectively decide who will make an offer, depending on who’s interested in the book and which imprint is the best fit for it.

With the go ahead of the other imprints, the feedback of editors in her imprint and a P&L statement in hand, she presents the book to her editorial board. If she convinces the board of the book’s viability, they will give her clearance to make an offer. She will either call or email the agent to make an offer. (The amount of the advance she offers will be based on the projected sales she estimated in her P&L statement.)

Your agent will then call you to share the fabulous news, and call the other editors still considering the manuscript to let them know you’ve received an offer and give them a deadline by which to make their own offers. If you don’t receive any additional offers, your agent just negotiates with the original editor for a higher advance, possibly higher royalties (depending on what was offered and what’s standard in the industry) and/or control over subrights (if the agent thinks it’s in your best interest to retain the foreign rights, for example). The editor may agree to improvements in these areas, or they may not. If you receive an offer from a second editor, then you have a little more bargaining power. If you receive offers from more than two editors, then your agent will have an auction.

Timing and What Happens In Between

I have authors ask me all the time what the typical turnaround time for all of this to take place. And my answer is that it varies so widely that I don’t know that there is a “typical” turnaround time. I have received “interest” from an editor (telling me she’s going to share the book with her editorial board) within a week a sending a book out. I’ve also received an offer four and a half months after sending it to an editor. I’ve received rejections the same day I sent out a submission. And I’ve had other editors never get back to me about a book they requested, (even after giving them a deadline of six months after I sent it to them).

So in the midst of all this waiting, I follow up with editors. I know agents who wait until editors have had a book for three months before following up with them. I tend to wait two to two and half months. Then I follow up once a month after that. Often editors don’t respond unless they’ve either decided to reject it or they want to make an offer and are somewhere in the process of getting their ducks in a row to do that, at which point they might let me know they’re getting more reads on it, or they might ask me which other editors at their publishing house have it. Editors tend to play their cards close to the vest. They treat their offers like sneak attacks, to prevent agents from warning the other editors reading a book that an offer is coming. So a lot of times, the best indication that an offer is coming is a casual email asking which other editors at their publishing house are reading the book. (Though I’ve also had editors ask me who else is reading it the day they request the manuscript, so it’s even easier for them to sneak an offer on you when you least expect it.)

Round Two or Three or Four

An unfortunate truth of the publishing industry is that not all books sell in the first round of submissions. Sometimes it takes round two, or three, or four before you have a sale. (And sometimes even with four rounds a book doesn’t sell.) So it’s important to have a conversation with your agent before you sign with him to find out what his plan is if it doesn’t sell in the first round. Some agents only do one round. Other agents might ask you to revise the book before they start round two. (I will do this if all the feedback we received from editors said the same thing.)

All the waiting that takes place during the submission process can be maddening (trust me, I know!), but just remember, you’re not the only one waiting. Your agent is right there with you.

The Submission Process Part 1, Pre-Submission

I’ve had a few authors on Twitter ask me for a behind-the-scenes look at the submission process, i.e. when an agent sends your book to publishers. Initially, I planned to cover the whole submission process in one blog, but suddenly I had written over two pages and still hadn’t gotten to the actual submission, so I decided to divide the blog into multiple installments. So here’s my take on what an agent does pre-submission.

Editing
You’ve just signed with an agent. Congratulations! The first stage of the pre-submission process is editing. Your agent may have only a handful of edits or a never-ending deluge of nit-picky tweaks. (Prior to signing with the agent, he should’ve given you an overview of the types of edits he expects, so hopefully there will be no surprises here.) It’s not unusual for me to go through multiple rounds of edits with an author. I’d say typically for me the editing process takes 4-6 months, though I’ve spent anywhere between a month and a year honing a manuscript. You only have one chance to make an impression on editors, so it’s worth taking the time to perfect your manuscript.

The Pitch Letter
When a manuscript is getting close to being ready to send out, I will start working on a pitch letter. A pitch letter is basically the agent’s version of a query. It’s about a page long and briefly describes the plot and details the author’s accolades. Sometimes agents will use the author’s query verbatim, other times they’ll write an entirely new pitch. I always look to the author’s query for inspiration and my pitches tend to be a combination of the two.

The most common reason why I opt to write my own letter (or only use snippets of the original query) is that the author’s query, while providing useful plot details, doesn’t have a sense of urgency behind it. The stakes aren’t clear, so the plot feels passive. And if editors get the sense that not much happens in the book, or that the protagonist doesn’t face enough obstacles, they’re not going to want to read it.

There’s always a tension in pitches (and queries for that matter) of knowing how much of the plot to give away. You want to share just enough that the editor is intrigued, without giving away any secrets. So another reason I will write my own pitch is that I felt the author’s query gave away too much or too little of the plot.

(Side note: whether an agent initially reaches out to editors with a phone call or email, she still needs a pitch letter to accompany the submission.)

The Editor List
I had someone on Twitter ask me, “How do agents come up with an editor list?” There are a number of ways. For me, it’s typically a combination of editors I’ve met with in person or spoken to over the phone, and editors I found on publisher websites, ManuscriptWishlist.com or PublisherMarketplace.com.

(One quick note about editor lists before I get back to ways of determining the best editors: Agents are only allowed to send a manuscript to one editor at each imprint. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term “imprint”, an imprint is a subdivision of a publishing house. For example, Little Brown is an imprint of Hachette Book Group.) This is why finding the best person at each imprint is so important: there are no take backsies if you pick the wrong person. At least not usually. Some imprints/publishers have a policy where editors will pass on manuscripts to other editors there if they feel it’s a better fit for someone else, or they will forward the agent’s pitch to everyone there and if an editor is interested in seeing the book, he’ll request it from the agent.)

The first source I mentioned (meetings/phone calls with editors) should be straightforward. The agent actually spoke to the editor in the past and the editor specifically asked for this type of book.

Which leads me to internet sources. Some publishers have a website for each imprint that lists its editors and their interests. This can be a useful tool in determining which editor to choose, especially for newer editors who don’t have many books under their belts and won’t show up on PublishersMarketplace.com (more on that in a second).

A lot of newer editors are also on ManuscriptWishlist.com, which typically offers more information on not just the genres the editor wants, but the specific plots/characters/concepts the editor gravitates towards. For example, a children’s book editor might specifically request middle grade books set during summer camp, so if you have a book with that setting, you know you have a better chance with that editor than just an editor looking for middle grade books in general.

PublisherMarketplace.com is a website that offers a variety of tools and newsletters related to publishing for $25/month. One of these tools is their Deals page where agents, publishers and authors can post about a deal they recently made. Each deal post includes a summary of the book, the agent who sold it and the editor who bought it. This is the most comprehensive place on the internet where you can get a sense of an editor’s tastes, so I probably use it more than any other online source. If I have a mystery novel and I want to find the best person at Dutton for it, I will do a keyword search for “Dutton” and limit it to just fiction books, then scroll through the deals that come up. (I could also limit my search to books in the mystery sub-genre, but this will prevent me from seeing books that were categorized under other sub-genres like “Debut” that could in fact be mystery novels, hence I use the blanket genre of fiction.) There may be several editors at Dutton who do mysteries (there are in fact), so to narrow it down, I will look at specific mystery novels the editor acquired that have already come out, and go on Amazon and read the first page to get a sense of the book’s writing style. If you read the opening of several books that editor has done, you can often get an idea of what kind of writing she responds to, and if you feel your book has a similar style, the editor can seem like a natural match.

I also use good old-fashioned googling to narrow down my choice. Even if the editor doesn’t have a bio on his publisher’s website or ManuscriptWishlist.com, you may be able to find other information about him online that points to his specific interests. Sometimes when I google an editor, I find a bio for him on the website for a conference he recently attended, or I find his Twitter page, or his personal website. The internet is a magical thing.

Creating an editor list is often the most time-consuming part of the pre-submission process (apart from editing), though sometimes it comes easier than others. Sometimes when I read a manuscript for the first time, I immediately think of editors who will like it, and the list comes effortlessly. Sometimes crafting the perfect pitch is like swimming through jello, nothing comes easily, and I have to go through several drafts to write something halfway literate. But it’s all part of the process.

Tune in to my next blog where I’ll cover what happens during submissions!

What It Means When an Agent…

Want to know what goes on inside the minds of those enigmatic creatures, agents? Here’s my take on how agents make decisions during different stages of the query process:

What it means when an agent turns down your query:
This can mean a million different things, but what it ultimately means is that your book wasn’t right for the agent, and the agent wasn’t right for your book. I did a blog a while back that broke down the most common reasons I turn down a query. Other agents might have their own blogs on the topic. But one thing I have come to realize over nearly 15 years of reading queries is that when I read a query, my job is not to make an objective value judgment over whether a book is good or not. My job is to determine whether or not I personally like something. This is because reading is a 100% subjective experience. It’s impossible to come to an objective opinion on the merit of a book. And even if I was able to do it, the publishing industry as a whole doesn’t operate that way, so my determination that a book is objectively “good” wouldn’t necessarily mean any publishers would agree with me. Publishing is a lot like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You hear one person say, “It’s too hot” (“I really love the characters, but I felt the pacing was slow”), and another person say, “It’s too cold” (“I thought the pacing was wonderful, but I didn’t connect to the characters”), and so on, until you get to the person for whom “it’s just right.” So don’t take a “no” as a judgment about the worth of your book, because all it means is it wasn’t right for that particular agent.

What it means when an agent requests a partial:
Typically what this means is that the agent is curious about your book, but wants to get a better idea of the writing before they ask for the whole enchilada. I tend to request partials for one of two reasons.

Reason #1: I didn’t get to see any sample pages upfront, or I only saw a small sample, so I’m not sure whether or not I’ll connect to the writing. The most common situations where this applies for me are Twitter pitch parties and pitches during conferences. In these cases, I really like the idea of something, but the proof is always in the pudding, so I don’t want to request a full manuscript until I know I like the writing.

Occasionally I’ll receive a query with no sample chapters (someone clearly didn’t read my submission guidelines). 99% of the time I will turn down these queries, but every once and awhile I’ll be curious enough from the query to request sample pages, so that’s another situation where I’ll request a partial.

Reason #2: Sometimes I’ll know from the first two chapters that there’s something about the voice that I’m not connecting to, but I can’t put my finger on what it is, and there are other things about the writing that I like, so in those situations I often request a partial.

But those are just my reasons. Some agents always ask for a partial before they request the full. So try not to read too much into it if an agent asks for a partial.

What it means when an agent requests a full:
The reason I request a full can be anywhere between “I’m intrigued by this, let’s see where it goes” and “OMG, THIS IS AH-MAZING!!!!” But for other agents “I’m intrigued by this, let’s see where it goes” could mean they request a partial. Every agent is different.

For me what requesting a full typically means is that something about the writing and the voice of the narrator has grabbed me. I might not know where the story is going, but I’m curious enough to read more.

What it means when an agent turns down a requested manuscript:
Clearly there was something that the agent admired about the manuscript or he/she wouldn’t have requested it in the first place. The primary things that I take into consideration when reading a manuscript are: writing, characters, plot arc, pacing/tension, and the market for the book. If I have concerns about any of these things, I have to take a step back and think about how serious my concern is, how fixable it is, the time investment involved to fix it, the likelihood that the author will get what I’m concerned about and be able to fix it, and the likelihood of selling the book with or without it fixed. If I feel like the author might not be able to address my concerns, or that the time investment involved to address my concerns is too large when weighted against the likelihood of selling the book, then I turn down the book. Publishing is a risky business and agents don’t get paid unless they sell a book, so if they’re uncertain their risk will pay off, turning a book down is their best option.

What it means when an agent asks for an R&R:
For anyone unfamiliar with the term R&R, it’s when an agent turns down your book, but gives you feedback and asks that you resubmit the manuscript after you’ve made some changes.

My thought process for deciding whether or not to work on a manuscript is the same as what I described above. The difference is that there are aspects of the book that I love and believe in sufficiently enough to make the time investment of giving the author pointed feedback and reading the manuscript again feel worthwhile. An R&R is also a great opportunity for me to see how the author responds to feedback and what he/she can do when given specific direction, without the risk that comes with signing an author.

What it means when an agent offers to represent you:
Again, I use the same thought process as I mentioned above, but in this case I feel strongly enough about the stuff I like about the book to overcome any concerns I have. For me, the writing and the characters are the hardest things to nail, so if the author has accomplished both of those things but the plot lags a little, I’m usually comfortable with signing an author. If it’s the other way around, and the plot moves quickly, but the writing and characters are only ok, I will probably turn it down. But that’s me.

I’m So Incited!

I’m sure most writers have heard the term “plot arc” or “story arc.” Today I’m going to delve into the first part of that plot arc: the inciting action.

The inciting action is the event that propels your protagonist into action. Through this inciting action, you show the reader what the protagonist’s goal is and you establish a conflict that’s going to get in the way of achieving that goal. It doesn’t have to be on the first page, but it should be in the first chapter.

Here are a couple examples of inciting actions:

  • A girl loses her scholarship to college. Here we see what her goal is (going to college), and the conflict that impedes that goal (losing the money to go to college). Upon this foundation, you can further develop why it’s so important to her to go to college or to this particular college. Maybe she has an awful home life she wants to escape and this scholarship was the only way to afford a college out of state (far away from her abusive mother). Or maybe this is the premier school for astronautics and going there would secure her a position at NASA (her dream come true). Her reason will help fill in her character at the same time you’re propelling the plot into motion.
  • A murderer kills someone or a dead body is found. This is the classic inciting action in a mystery novel. The goal for the protagonist (whether they’re a cop or an amateur detective) is to figure out who’s the killer, and the conflict is that the murderer didn’t leave his name and address at the crime scene, hence no one knows who he is. Which isn’t to say that you absolutely need a dead body in the first chapter of a mystery. I represent two mysteries where the body doesn’t appear until around page 90. But each of them have an inciting action. In one a woman goes missing in the first chapter. In the other a woman is invited to her 25th annual high school reunion, which she doesn’t want to go to. (Shameless self-promotion: The latter, Class Reunions Are Murder, is coming out in January!)

The reason that an inciting action is so important is because it gives the reader an end goal for the protagonist. And if the reader knows what the end goal is and likes the protagonist (or is least intrigued by him), the reader will become invested in finding out whether or not he achieves his goal.

Sometimes I’ll receive submissions where the author opens with an action that propels the protagonist into motion, but the protagonist’s goal will be unclear. To me this is not a proper inciting action, because if I don’t know the protagonist’s goal, I have no reason to root for him. There’s nothing to keep me turning the pages, to make me invested in finding out what happens to him.

Or the defined goal the protagonist is trying to achieve is too vague and abstract. For example, if her goal is just to be happy or to find herself. The goal should be a tangible thing, or else there won’t be enough action in the plot to drive the story forward. Or it could make it harder for an agent to differentiate what’s special and unique about your book.

Sometimes I’ll receive submissions where the conflict doesn’t show up until halfway through the book. The protagonist has been going along, doing things, but she’s not put in a position where she needs to make an important decision until a third of the book has gone by. How can I be concerned about whether or not she’ll overcome the obstacles stacked against her if there are no obstacles?

Or I’ll receive a submission where the conflict doesn’t build over time. There’s one obstacle at the outset that doesn’t progress or develop. For example, a woman is trying to decide whether or not to sell the family farm. A way that conflict could build is to increase the obstacles stacked against her. She could have a bad crop season, her son (who she depends on to work the land) becomes sick, she can’t pay her bills, and there’s a nasty family next door who is pressuring her to sell (and might be killing her chickens, though she can’t prove it). Imagine that story without any of those additional obstacles, that doesn’t evolve beyond the decision of whether or not to sell the farm. The conflict is so passive and internal that there’s not enough action to move the story forward.

Or there are multiple conflicts instead of one consistent conflict. The protagonist goes over here and faces one conflict, then he goes over here and faces a different conflict, and so on. This kind of plot can leave the reader feeling like the story isn’t cohesive, that it’s too random.

If any of these examples remind you of your own book, take a close look at your book’s structure. Much of writing is in rewriting, so if you don’t realize your inciting action is unclear until after you’ve finished writing your book, you can always go back and revise. And I highly recommend you do.

What Makes an Ideal Client

Last month when I was soliciting possible blog topics from my Facebook and Twitter followers, one question that came up was: What makes someone an ideal client? The short answer is: the same qualities you’d look for in any relationship, personal or professional. Here’s the long answer:

Openness
By this I mean someone who is open to the agent’s feedback and advice. I always tell my clients they don’t need to take every suggestion I give them, they just need to address the underlying issue I’m pointing out. For example, if I feel like a passage is too wordy, I’ll often suggest an alternative way to phrase it (if I can think of one). If the author doesn’t like the way I reworded it, they’re free to reword it any way they want, so long as it makes it less wordy. Or on a more macro level, I might give someone the feedback that a certain chapter feels slow, and offer possible ways to make it read faster. They can either take these suggestions, or come up with a different way to make it read more quickly. I always feel the editing process should be collaborative, and for that to happen the author needs to be open to seeing their book in a different way.

Honest Communication
In a similar vein, there needs to be a line of open communication between the author and agent. The agent should communicate her thoughts directly and conscientiously, and the author should do the same.

Early in my career, I had a very broken line of communication with one author in particular. I would give her feedback on her manuscript, and instead of telling me why she disagreed with my feedback via email or over the phone, she would passive-aggressively argue with me in the manuscript itself. Like I would say to her, “I feel like you need to further develop the concept of X here.” And she would write in the manuscript, “Some people may want more information on X, but I feel that I covered it thoroughly here and in chapter 5.” I was very young and very new to agenting, so while I continued to give her feedback, I didn’t confront her about this passive-aggressiveness. (I was perhaps just as bad at communicating as she was.) I complained about her to my coworkers, and they laughed, saying that’s why they’d pawned her off on me, so they wouldn’t have to work with her. The way our agency operated was that the president decided which books she wanted to work on, and then one of us would work closely with the author to get the book ready to send out. And I, being young and eager to prove myself, was happy to spearhead any projects thrown my way. And because of this, I didn’t tell my boss how much my communication with the author had broken down, or if I did, I didn’t put my foot down and say that I wouldn’t work with this author anymore. (I was bad at communicating with my boss too!) Ultimately, after repeating this passive-aggressive dance with the author over several drafts, we decided that the book was ready to go, and we sent it out. Surprisingly, it didn’t sell.

Now when I see an author who seems cagey about what changes she’s open to making, my spidey sense flares up that I might have communication issues with this author, and I become wary about working together. It’s not so much about an author disagreeing with me over edits, it’s about an author disagreeing with me and not telling me directly. And that’s a dance I don’t want to do again.

Respect for the Agent’s Time
This just means your manuscript is clean and professional (it doesn’t have weird spacing issues or need to be reformatted), and you made the changes the agent asked for (or made clear which changes you didn’t agree with and the two of you reached a compromise). And it should go both ways; the agent should be just as respectful of your time. Meaning that she shouldn’t ask you to postpone a family vacation to work on a revision (assuming there’s no deadline you need to meet), and she shouldn’t give you frivolous changes to make, etc.

At my old agency we had a client who would send us a draft of his book to read, and while we were partway through it, he’d send us a new draft. And he did this over and over again. That’s what I call having no respect for someone else’s time. Don’t be that guy.

Patience
This is probably the least obvious trait that makes an ideal client, but it’s just as important as the others. Getting published is a process, and sometimes it takes a long time to get there. I’ve worked on edits with authors for up to a year before I’ve sent out their books (though typically it’s more like 4-6 months). And even once you have a fully polished manuscript, it may take a while to get a sale. Earlier this year I sold a book that I’d been sending out for four and a half years. I know an agent who said the longest it’s ever taken her to sell a book is ten years. And even if your agent tries to sell your first book for several years, it’s possible you won’t get a sale until your third or fourth book. So be prepared for the long haul.

Trust
This ties in with openness and having good communication. A lot of what agents do (writing pitch letters, meeting with editors, submitting your book) goes on behind the scenes, and so you have to trust that your agent knows what she’s doing and has your best interests at heart. If you don’t, you should get a new agent.

Should You Self-Publish?

Every time I do a panel at a conference, an #askagent session, or any other kind of Q&A with authors, the topic of self-publishing comes up. So I thought it would be a good idea to break down when I’d recommend self-publishing to authors and when I wouldn’t.

These are the situations in which I’d recommend self-publishing to an author:

1. You want complete creative control over your book.
Any time you work with an agent and/or publisher, they’re going to have opinions about every aspect of your book, including the plot, characters, writing, title, cover design, your author website and Facebook page, even your pen-name. And depending on your contract(s) with these people, you might not get the final say on some or any of these things. For example, my agency agreement stipulates that I don’t have to send out a manuscript until I think it’s ready to go. So if the author and I reach an impasse, I’m not legally obligated to send out the manuscript. (It hasn’t happened with one of my clients yet, but it’s there in my contract if I ever need it.) Your contract with your publisher might likewise give them ultimate control over the title, cover design or final manuscript. No one can legally control the content of your website or Facebook page, (unless you have some crazy clause in your contract that gives the agent/publisher that right, which I’ve never seen before), but an agent or publisher may not want to work with you if they feel that content is inflammatory.

I can’t speak for every agent or publisher, but I (and most of the publishers I’ve worked with) try to work with an author to reach an agreement on these kinds of things. I don’t draw a line in the sand unless we’ve been going back and forth and really can’t reach an agreement.

So if you know from the outset that you want absolute control over your book and all future books, then self-publishing might be the right path for you.

2. You’ve already sent it to every agent/publisher on the planet and gotten no bites, and just want to get it out there.
This is probably the most common reason I hear from authors on why they self-published, and one I definitely understand. You’ve slaved away on this manuscript, pouring all of your time and energy into it, and you want to share it with people. Your only other option is to stick it in a drawer and forget about it.

In this situation, I absolutely agree that self-publishing is the best option, so long as you have no interest in trying to find an agent or publisher for it (or another book) later. (I’ll explain why in a moment.)

3. You’re writing a book specifically for friends and family that you have no interest in sharing with the general populace.
You’re a genealogy buff who’s traced your family back to the Elizabethan era. Your family will get a real kick out of reading about your ancestors, the rest of the world probably won’t. Self-publishing makes the most sense. In this case, you won’t be putting your book up on Amazon, or attempting to sell it elsewhere. So for these people, I recommend that you do not get an ISBN for your book. (I’ll explain why in a second.) I don’t know the ins and outs of ISBNs, especially for self-publishers, but it’s my understanding that you’re only required to have an ISBN if your book is available for sale.

Now I’ll delve into when self-publishing isn’t the best path for an author.

1. When you want an agent/traditional publishing for your book, or any future books.
Publishing is an industry of creativity and passion, but like any industry, it also has to make money to stay afloat. So to get an agent or publisher for your book, they need to not just love it, but also believe that it will sell a lot of copies. If you self-published your book and sold 100,000 copies in six months, you’ll have agents and publishers chomping at the bit to work with you, because you’ve proven that your book is in demand. If your sales figures haven’t been fabulous, you haven’t proven that your book is in demand, in fact you’ve proven the opposite. Publishing debut authors is already a risky business. And if you’ve established a track record of sales showing that risk won’t pan out, you’re going to have a hard time finding an agent or publisher.

I’ve heard self-published authors say, “Well, I really wasn’t trying to promote my book, and that’s why my sales figures are low. I’d actually try if I had a traditional publisher.” Unless you’ve suddenly become best friends with Oprah and you know for certain your book will be her next book club pick, publishers will not believe that your sales figures would be any better if they published your book. And this goes not just for the book you self-published, but for your future books.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll just tell agents and publishers that I sold 100,000 copies. How would they know?” They’d know because they have software programs (like Nielsen Bookscan) that track the number of copies sold of every book on the market. Well, every book that has an ISBN, which is legally required if you’re offering the books for sale. (Hence if you’re not offering the book for sale, it’s probably better not to get an ISBN.)

Yes, you could self-publish in the hopes that your book will be the next Fifty Shades of Grey, but self-publishing success stories like that are incredibly rare. You might hope your book is the exception, but you can’t rely on it.

So if you couldn’t find a traditional publisher for your first book, but you want one for your second book, my advice to you is to set the first book aside and focus on the second. You may still be able to find a publisher for your first book someday, after you find one for your second, (or third or fourth or fifth).

So what do you do if you’ve already self-published and now want an agent? You could:

1. Promote the hell out of your self-published book.
You could try to promote your book on your own, or hire a publicist. Give talks, write blogs, network, make balloon animals, do anything you need to do sell books. I’m looking for self-published books that have sold at least 7,500-10,000 copies for every month it’s been on sale. So if your book has been out for a month, and you hustle and sell 30,000 copies in two months, you could still find a publisher.

2. Write your next book in a completely different genre.
Maybe you self-published your children’s picture book and didn’t sell many copies. If your next book is YA or memoir, the sales figures of your picture book aren’t nearly as important, because they’re intended for an entirely different audience. However, if your self-published book is sci-fi and your next book is fantasy, you might have an issue, since there’s a lot of overlap between those audiences.

Ultimately the decision of whether or not to self-publish comes down to what you want to get out of the experience. Some authors have a wonderful time with self-publishing. Others don’t. If you know any authors who’ve self-published, ask them about their experience. If you don’t, look for blogs from self-published authors that break down the pros and cons. Do your research so that you make the best decision for you.