Thursday, July 22, 2010

Revise First, Celebrate Later

Last time I talked about the recent upsurge in prologues, and how I usually make a note to myself that the piece would be stronger without one. Flipping through my notepad while trying to come up with something to talk about today, I realized another common theme had emerged: proofreading and editing.

Imagine you’ve just finished writing your first manuscript. You get that rush of pride, pump your fist, maybe go out and celebrate. Then you’re hit with that rush of adrenaline and decide, instead, to immediately begin querying. Because you need to get your Awesome Incredible Manuscript out there for agents to see! And rightly you should!

Just not yet.

Finishing a novel is a major accomplishment, so definitely take the time to celebrate. Did you know that of the massive amount of people who attempt to write a novel, only 3% actually succeed? So you’ve already got one up on most of the population. That’s definitely something to be proud of! But trust me when I say that first draft is not what you want to send out to agents.

Proofreading, editing, and revisions are a major part of the writing process, and cannot be overlooked due to your overwhelming excitement. You’ve got a complete manuscript in front of you, and that’s an incredible feat. But now you need to refine it. Sometimes it helps to step away for a week, or even a month. You’ve been pounding away at your keyboard for months (or years) trying to finish your story, and a break after that kind of work is needed. Even if only for a few days, it will allow you to clear your head and reevaluate what you’ve written.

I can speak from experience. I spent seven months working on the piece I’m currently querying. I wrote it in three months, then rewrote half of it, then revised and edited for another four months. It was hard not to start sending out query letters as soon as I’d finished that first draft; I understand completely how hard it can be to reign yourself in at times. You wrote a novel! You want people to see it! But those months of editing and revising really helped to improve my manuscript to the point that, when I finally began sending it out, I knew I was sending out my best work.

The thing is, it took a lot of time and effort to get there. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read through my work trying to find mistakes that needed to be fixed. So what did I do? I took the advice of some writer friends and got myself two critique partners. And let me tell you, it was the smartest decision I’ve ever made. There are lots of places online where you can find them, or even local writing groups. The key is to find a reader who is going to be honest with you and tell you what things in your story can be improved upon. Because it’s your work, you obviously have the right to veto any comments they make, but think long and hard about their suggestions. As much as you love that scene between Little Red Riding Hood and your Darth Vader-esque villain, is it really necessary? Or that argument between Mom and Dad about the ratty old couch – does it help to advance the story, or is it just filler?

Critique partners will also help with proofreading and line edits. They’ll hopefully catch the occasional tense change, or make note of a character who is suddenly coming across as a completely different person. Those kinds of changes are pretty easy to fix, and trust me when I say proofreading goes a long way. When I’m reading a manuscript and there are a bunch of typos on the first page, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the piece. Usually those typos go all the way through the story and lets me know that the author didn’t take the extra time to look over their work. Massive amounts of typos really pull the reader out of the story, and that connection you were hoping to make can’t really happen.

Over the course of this summer I’ve read a pretty good amount of work that felt very much like a first draft. While the plot might have been great, the characterization fell flat, or jumped around a lot. Or maybe the characters were awesome, but the plot was so confusing it became impossible to follow. There are times when a story told in first person will suddenly jump into third, which results in me having to go back over what I’ve read to make sure I didn’t confuse myself. Wrong words take the place of what was obviously supposed to be there, and nonexistent words like “anyways” and “alot” show up. Those kinds of things are problems that might have been resolved by a careful read through, or a critique partner.

So, congratulations on finishing that novel! Now it’s time for the real work to begin. Take your time revising – you’re in no rush. In just a little while you’ll have a shiny manuscript that’s all ready to go, and then you can proudly send it out into the world, head held high, because you know it’s your very best work.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Additional submission information

Congratulations to Laurie S! She's the 500th person to submit a query to me since I reopened to queries in mid-May.

Well, technically, she's not the 500th person to submit. I have been trying to keep up with my backlog. At first, it was only a week's backlog and then a couple of weeks, and then the back log slipped to a month. So, in fact, Laurie S. is just the person who happened to submit when my counter first made it to 500. A milestone that doesn't make me very happy. It means that despite my best efforts, I can't keep up to the tune of 500 backlogged queries.

But I do promise and commit to continuing to use my best efforts to try to stay on top of them. (Flash: I'm having visions of sinking in the oil-soaked Gulf, at this particular moment. Wonder why?)

But as I was going through some queries the other night (yes, that's when I do most of them, at home with Harry at my feet), I realized that maybe if I provided a bit more information, it would make things easier for me as well as for those authors who are submitting queries. I'm seeing some common patterns of submissions for books that just don't appeal to me. So I thought I might as well come clean.

I don't like stories about Al Qaida or terrorists in general. I'm really not into war stories, either. And, despite the fact that I live in DC, political or CIA thrillers rarely excite me. (Perhaps I see too many of them in real life on a daily basis.) I'm just not that into action adventure (what I call "guy stories"). This doesn't mean I would never be interested in a story set during war time, but my focus really is on fiction that appeals to women. When I say I'm interested in thrillers, I'm much more fascinated by psychological thrillers where the focus is on the characters and who and why they're doing what they're doing, rather than on the plot-driven, action adventure thrillers that I seem to be seeing in great profusion.

I am also not likely to be interested in stories about pedophiles or defrocked priests. And stories with too many illnesses (cancer, etc.) just make me sad.

While I never say never because I am constantly amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of authors and their ability to create something wonderful from an otherwise unappealing plot idea, I do find that I have lots of queries for things that don't appeal to me.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with these kinds of projects. Best-selling authors, obviously, have made their careers on just these kinds of stories. But I do think agents gravitate towards things they like. I know it would be hard for me to effectively represent something that I didn't like or couldn't properly evaluate.

So, please, save us both some time and if you have one of the projects I've described above, you're probably better off going to another agent with it. In the meantime, I'll continue to hum only 500 queries to go, only 499 queries to go. . .

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

They're Just Not That Into Me: The Art of Rejection

The first word of the rejection letter I received yesterday was “Though.”

And the first word of my reaction was “Ouch.”

I’ve submitted, and been rejected, often enough to know nothing promising can come of a letter that opens with “Though.” Granted, the thin envelope should have tipped me off—thin is never good in the world of literary submissions—but I was still taken aback by how quickly my brain was forced to conclude, Yeah, it’s all downhill from here.

And indeed, the remainder of the message on the little blue cardstock upheld its opening tone: “Though your work has been declined by our editors, we thank you for allowing us to consider it.”

My writerly half was a bit stung. According to my experience with rejection letters, this one was committing quite a few egregious fouls. There was no personalization, no signature (fake or otherwise)—and the length! My work has been declined so summarily that I can’t even get twenty words? I reiterate: ouch.

But my volunteer/intern half took things in stride and attempted to console my writerly half: Think about how many submissions you’re up against; think of those punk slush-readers who just don’t pay enough attention; think of how much money X Review apparently needed to save by way of this crappy rejection mini-letter; etc.

I know these arguments are more legitimate than “How dare they!” Any agent or editor who accepts material electronically will tell you e-mail opens up an agency or publication to hundreds more submissions than they received via snail mail, and in most cases this makes it logistically impossible to send each writer a detailed, personalized response. I also know literary reviews are struggling right now in an economy of readers who still can’t justify an extra $50 a year for subscriptions. The magazines cut their own spending in turn, and this often trickles down to smaller, plainer rejection letters, which reduce printing costs, and shorter messages, which might allow a staff member to help out with a project other than tailoring rejections with names, titles, and addresses.

A few of my graduate classmates used to tell urban legends about receiving helpful, detailed critiques from certain editors along with extensive line editing in their actual manuscripts, but I’ve had no such luck. I have become accustomed, instead, to polite and concise notes that let me know someone appreciates my submission but is sorry to say my story cannot be used at this time. These, I think, are successful enough in their missions. They let the author down easy, but they include a dash of hope, of encouragement for the author to submit more work in the future. And I find myself wondering whether I would really want the intensive feedback I mentioned above. Knowing how specific certain publications are, I’d fear an editor would mold my story to his exact standards but would render my work ill-fitting for anywhere else. And knowing that feedback from writing workshops can be extremely contradictory, I’d also worry that one review’s exhaustive revisions would alienate big groups of readers who might like my story as is, that maybe X Review truly wasn’t the right place for my work.

But still: “though?”

So as I lick my wounds today, I’m also contemplating what makes for a “good” rejection, and whether there even is such a thing. I know, from internships with different reviews and literary agencies, that if a rejection letter is too soft, some authors will re-query, unsuccessfully. I once opened an e-mail that simply asked our agency (not EPE) to “indulge [his] request that [we] take another look.” My supervisor was furious at this author’s demands on her time and at his presumption that our agency didn’t know what it was doing when we first turned him down. (Our second rejection letter was…um…clearer (but we still didn’t start with “though”).)

These, I think, are two ends of a definable spectrum: too nice and not nice enough. In between there are countless nuances of rejection letter etiquette. Too long, too brief, too personal, too generic, et al. Ultimately, however, it helps me to remember that even the nicest, most delicate, or even flattering, rejection letter is still a rejection letter at the end of the day. I’ve found, from a writer’s standpoint and from an agency's, that honesty is the common denominator in all valuable feedback. And if the price of X Review’s honesty is a message that starts with “Though,” then so be it (she grumbles).


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stop and Think

Knowing your audience is extremely important for Young Adult authors. When I read young adult partial manuscripts I first think is it something I enjoy (since I could be considered at the highest tip of the young adult audience) and then I think is it something I would want my younger siblings to read (who are at the bottom and mid-range of the young adult audience) and if they would enjoy it.

Unfortunately, I find the content in the young adult partials inconsistent. Either I like it, but would cringe if I saw my younger siblings read it or overall the partial is too childish. For example a character may be described as thirteen but swears like a sailor, or a fifteen-year-old character is acting more like a two-year-old (who wants read a main character having a tantrum?). If your character is thirteen, have them be thirteen not a thirty-year-old with a mature cursing vocabulary. Curse words don’t have to be added randomly into a young adult novel to make it be current or relatable. A character using curse words randomly seems like the author is trying too hard to be hip. Curse words are tricky because they can work well. If they are consistently (but not overly) used with the character being drawn, then curse words work well in creating a YA novel for all ages.

So again I want to encourage young adult authors to stop and think about whether the actions of your characters are plausible and can reach the wide YA audience effectively.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Release

As the summer reading season begins, we're celebrating the release of Celeste O. Norfleet's latest book--Heart's Choice. Football legend Devon Hayes has always fantasized about Hollywood actress Jazelle Richardson. When Devon and Jazz finally meet, their chemistry is off the charts--but Jazz is determined to live her life away from the spotlight, and she's wary of the man who loves being a celebrity. Learn more about the book here, and happy reading!