What I’m looking for in a Query Letter

Hey everybody. I apologize for the radio silence, there’s been loads of work, a little bit of stress, and a ton of prep going on from one convention to another.

Today I wanted to put on my ParvusPress editorial hat:

editor_black_cap

If you want to buy me this hat, I’m totally okay with that.

and talk about query letters. Specifically, I want to talk about what I’m looking for in a query letter. So let’s start with putting me in the office:

http3a2f2fmashable-com2fwp-content2fuploads2f20162f022fdalton-trumbo-640x359

Yeah, totally this.

and now give me a stack of query letters:

serveimage

Ready? Awesome.

Here now are 5 things I’m looking for while I’m reading your query letters.

i. A series of sentences that entice me to find out more information by reading the manuscript. A query letter is not a synopsis. It is not the opening three paragraphs of Wikipedia. It is not a blurb you read when you press that Info button on your TV remote.

The query has one job – to make me want to read the manuscript. How does it do that? By sounding interesting. By being enticing. By having sentences that aren’t flat and flaccid on the page.

Start where the action is. Don’t give away the twist. Get the vibe of the story and world across. (What’s that mean? Find the tone and get it across to me.)

ii. A query letter that’s not longer than the first chapter of the manuscript. With the majority of submissions ParvusPress sees, there are some form of query letter as the body of the email rather than just a few lines of typical email banter. The format of the query letter, the structure of the sentences and paragraphs that are trying to encourage me to open the attached manuscript is critical.

Email length is hugely important, because I’m looking at dozens of emails a day (and that’s not counting my own personal email with five times as much material in it), and I’ve got a short window in which to read and process this material. Granted, that’s a function of ParvusPress not being my sole job, and needing time to prep for and work with coaching clients in addition to completely freelance editing and writing projects – so while I am in control of the time I have, the time is still valuable. To make the best use of it, I do come to my inbox with a certain amount of expectation. I expect to see new submissions. I expect to see queries. And I expect those queries to be more or less the same relative length.

When a query runs long, I worry that the manuscript will run long, meaning it will be bloated or meandering. A long query that spends extra time and space hashing out the same points over and over again (albeit in different ways) isn’t going to encourage me to read the manuscript (how many different ways is the author going to tell me the fate of the galaxy is at stake?).

Keep the query tight and evocative. Excite the reader to get into the manuscript to see more.

iii. A concept, even one that isn’t new, that gets expressed in an exciting way. There are so many story types, and within each genre there several well-tread (overdone) concepts: people destined for greatness because of prophecy; angels and devils clashing over mortals; a magical item necessary to save the kingdom or country or world.

It’s hard to present these ideas in new ways, and it’s equally difficult to roll out new concepts. Presenting any idea is scary, and there’s plenty of blog-fodder on the topic of encouragement despite being scared. But the presentation is paramount – whatever you write, be excited to share it. Even if that excitement is nervous energy, use that excite to shape the message you’re putting out.

Find the exciting way to tell your idea. Passion and enthusiasm is contagious, and there’s nothing wrong with counting on people to think positively about your work as they could negatively (it’s a 50-50 proposition, right?)

iv. A strong demonstration of authorial voice. I want to make this point as clearly as possible, as voice is one of those concepts that gets a nebulous treatment with flexible definitions depending on the user and context. When I say authorial voice, I’m looking for a query that is not packing a subtext of self-doubt. The language is clear and decisive, the focus is on the world in the story as though it’s the only world (meaning it’s not like I’m reading an email where you’re telling me about this story like you’re curating at a museum), and the things being described in the query are interesting.

That makes word choice important. Sentence structure becomes critical. Decisions about which elements to present and which to hold back become mandatory. How are you going to demonstrate that you’re in the business of telling a great story and that business is good? (There’s a way more colorful version of this question I ask at seminars, and if you want to hear it, come see me at GenCon at the end of July)

v. A query letter format that tells me the person writing it actually cares about their efforts, and isn’t just dashing something off for one reason or another. Sloppy presentation dooms good ideas by burying ledes, obfuscating critical elements, and dragging out ideas that could be stated in simpler terms.

Someone who takes the time to compose three paragraphs after an intro where a person’s name gets used (You know how you get ‘Current Resident’ junk mail to your home? Getting an email that starts with ‘Editor’ is a lot like that.), where the first paragraph sets up the world and the protagonist’s experience, the second gives a taste of conflict and possibility, while the third covers the title (in all caps) and word count (the actual word count, not an estimation), and hopefully thanks me for my consideration when I’m done reading is definitely going to make it higher up the food chain than the sloppy six sentences that mention title and word count at opposite ends of a not-formatted paragraph, where I can’t quite get a sense of what’s going on in the manuscript because the writer forgot to hit the Enter key once or twice.

In short, this is the “Give a damn” rule (Again, more colorful name for this available).

At Parvus, I’m looking for SF/F (previously unpublished) manuscripts. But these ideas apply just as much to other genre. If that’s what you’re writing, send it on over.

Go forth and write. Write the hell out of your day.

We’ll talk soon. Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Reach, Platform, and Audience

Hello again everyone, I hope you’re doing well. How am I? Oh, not too bad thanks for asking. I spent the weekend recuperating and generally enjoying myself, and have taken advantage of the warmer temperatures to break out the lighter bathrobes. Because jobs have uniforms. #becomfortablewhileworking

So it’s Inbox Wednesday, and that means I reach into the inbox and answer questions. If you’ve got a question, and would like to see it answered on the blog, send it to me.

Today’s question is from Mike, who has actually a pile of questions all tossed together. Here I’ll just let you read it:

John, I don’t know what to do. I got my Writer’s Market, I’ve been putting out queries and getting rejected. I’ve been reading a lot of blogposts that say I need to develop my reach and use my platform to build a community and not just a consumer base. When people talk about platform, do they mean social media? Isn’t it enough that I’m blogging 4 times a week and doing videos? What exactly is a community, and how is that different than an audience? What do I do? – Mike

I will disclaim that I edited that paragraph to insert some punctuation and capitalization.

What Mike is worrying is separate from the manuscript’s completion, but isn’t necessarily contingent on the MS being done. Yes, I know, there are blogs out there that say you start building that audience after the MS is done and out the door, but I’ve always felt like doing that is like inviting people to dinner while you’re doing the dishes already.

Yes, you can’t build as strong or as large an audience mid-writing as you can post-writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be writing while building the audience. If you’ve had three or four or two or ten books out the door already, I’m assuming there’s some measure of audience already present, so to that portion of my readership, frame this in terms of expanding the audience. For the first-time crowd, we’re coming to this without the established elements.

The tough part in publishing, be it self-publishing or tradtional publishing (though this applies also to loads of things outside of writing and publishing) is navigating the jargon and buzzwords. People love them. They dress up everything with a term like it’s a hat on Derby day, as if that’s going to give the substance of their words, their content, more importance.

Buzzwords are not fairy dust. They will not allow us to sail over the streets off to Neverland with the creepy kid in green tights. If your content is clear, actionable, and engaging, then you shouldn’t need to trot out the buzzwords to validate credibility. Speak clearly, honestly, passionately, and you don’t need to crutch on anything.

Here’s where the gasps come in, when I start talking about clarity and people start questioning things like professionalism or tone. So now we move from one minefield about buzzwords to another about tone and assumptions.

A platform is whatever medium you use to communicate whatever ideas you have to whomever listens. On the internet, there’s a gap between you the speaker and the audience, built out of time and distance. It’s totally great that people in Guam and the Seychelles can read your blog at 4 in the morning, but 4 in the morning over there may be 2 in your afternoon, when you’re out walking the aisles of the grocery store trying to choose raisins. Likewise, any comment they leave for you on the blog, even if you get a notification message on your phone, still has a gap between them expressing it and you receiving it. These gaps are baked in, and we can easily take them for granted or rage about them as it suits our purpose.

It doesn’t matter if you blog about your teacup collection, or your love of bad dye jobs, or if you write blistering thinkpieces about how what kind of breakfast you eat reflects your political views. It doesn’t matter if it’s all tweets, all Facebook updates, Peach notes, Slack channels, or whatever. What matters to you is that you use your platform and that you’re comfortable with it.

Let’s look at the other side, put on your publishing professional hat. Mine has a pom pom on it. Traditional publishing is going to look favorably on people with a large audience or a large potential audience (that’s called “reach”), because there’s a chance/hope that audience will go buy products they sell.

There’s no guarantee that if you’ve been self-published and have a large audience already, that a traditional publisher will come along and acquire the book and put their machine behind you, catapulting you to even bigger heights. Remember, we’re still wearing our publisher hats, so we need to consider the expense of working with a self-published author versus acquiring a new author and giving them a bit of direction and grooming.

Take off the hat now. Your platform is more your tool than anything else, because you can put anything on it. But the more erratic your content, the more undisciplined (and that’s not the same as scheduled) stream of material you produce is going to make it hard for the audience to get a handle and become interested. Mike, it’s great that you’re posting so much, and keep at it if you’re digging it, but don’t think that throwing a ton of all-0ver-the-place content out there is going to keep people coming back. Find your message, find the core idea you burn hot for, and focus on it.

Because you’re not out there video after video, post after post, repeating a sales link over and over, right?

Be a person. Yes, you’re a person who’s making stuff, and would love for people to buy that stuff, but I don’t know many people who feel comfortable building relationships with sales robots.

womanrobotcor_450x350

Some robots have all the luck.

The “community” buzzword is as much a group of people who regularly enjoy your content, as well as being the group of people you could reach and “convert” (meaning they’d buy a book). The more sales-y these buzzwords, the more I slink away with a sneer.

Think of the community as the people who you want to communicate with regularly. Treat them well, because they’re people, even if you’ve never seen their faces since you do all the word-making and they do all the reading. You grow that community not by throwing sales links out over and again, but by bringing injections of reality into your platform.

Talk about the rough writing days. Talk about the days you’re taking off to go parasailing around Costa Rica. Talk about the book fair, conference, convention you’re going to, and how you’re totally going to go all gelatinous in the knees when you meet your writing heroine. Basically, Mike, be a person who writers, not just a writer who exists among people to produce pages and receive money for them.

This isn’t to say the money isn’t there, or that it’s a hostage negotiation to liberate the dollars from wallets, but you’re going to have a way easier time doing that when you treat the audience like they’re as much a person as you are. The money will be there. I’m assuming Mike, that your MS cashes the check your query and platform write.

Everything goes out the window if that MS doesn’t work. This is why I say over and over that the MS has to be in its best shape possible before you go query, and in addition to editing and beta reading, another form of shaping up that MS is holding yourself accountable to that platform. Say you’re going to do something, then do it. No, I’m not perfect at this at all. I suck quite a bit at doing this. I say I’m going to do a ton of things, and forget about half of them until I randomly look at my Dropbox and say. “Oh yeah, I was going to break down Jessica Jones, wasn’t I?”

Here’s a great way to think about reach – Do I come across as someone who has a passion/skill to produce something that people would want to buy?

Here’s a great way to think about platform – Do I comfortably (because if you hate doing something, you won’t be likely do it often, see: holiday resolutions) discuss and share my creativity and passion in ways that encourage other people to take an interest and communicate their own creativity and passion back to me?

Here’s a great way to think about conversion – If I keep doing what I’m doing in the way I’m doing it, will people want to exchange money for what I’m doing, or do I need to change the way I get the word about what I’m doing?

Here’s a great way to think about audience – They’re people. I’m people. I can’t control how each and every person will respond, so all I can control is how well I do my work and how openly I communicate and share it. I do me, they do them, we all get together and benefit over common intersections.

*

Mike, I hope that answered you question. Thanks so much for asking it. I’ll see you guys Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Happy writing.

 

The Ins and Outs of “Good” Fiction

I hope you’re enjoying your Friday. Fridays as a freelancer have always felt like every other day of the week, in that there’s always some kid of work to do. Granted, the workload isn’t always the same, but there’s always something I could be doing that isn’t a video game or watching Netflix.

Today I want to talk a bit one of those questions I tend to deflect, because there’s always some other question to answer first, but today seems like a great day to answer it. I don’t skip this question because it has no answer, it’s just that the answer it does have is really … never what a person is expecting.

When the question is “What makes good fiction?” there are two ways to take that question. First, it’s “What book can you recommend?” but more often than not, I’m being asked as a freelance editor or as an editor at Parvus Press, “What makes for a good MS?” meaning “What can I do to get my MS published?”

If you’re asking for book recommendations, I just finished The Force Awakens audiobook, because I’ve been listening to it while driving places. It was a full production, with the Williams score and sound effects under great narration. Totally worth the $20-something iTunes price tag.

But chances are you didn’t come here for books to read/hear today. So let’s talk manuscripts.

Before we get too much farther along, I have to disclaim that what I’m talking about here is specific to me, and that while many people may share similar suggestions, because “good” can be such a subjective decision, you may find that what I like, some lady over there may hate. And I know, I know, a lot of writers decry the fact that there’s no enforced standard, but I’m glad there isn’t. Because all of the variation in writers and criteria and edits and revisions, we get a wealth of books on the shelf rather than a collection of sameness. We’re not making beige cubes at our local Norse furniture emporium, we’re telling stories – we wouldn’t want them to be the same.

Here then are my signs for “good” fiction:

Characters I can connect with in multiple ways. I will prize a character above all else, because they’re the people doing the stuff in the stories. A good character has many different ways  I can connect/agree/believe in them, whether that’s their attitude, their decisions, their moral compass, or their skills I envy. I put myself as the character in the story, and ask, “Were I in this spot, would I do the same thing?”

It’s not that I believe myself to be the character (do you know many cops, detectives and superheroes I’d be?), but I can project myself into their situations and get a sense of whether or not I’d do what they do. It helps ground the character for me. It helps me to feel like I’m connected to an actual person, even if they’re a space robot with shoulder missiles.

Conflict that matters. A boring story is boring because I’m not sure why people are bothering to do whatever they’re doing. There are supposed to be stakes, and they should be high, relative to the scope of the story. The bigger the scale, the higher the stakes. If the whole world is in trouble, I expect to see a big deal at the heart of the matter.

I want to see the characters on an atypical day, a day that isn’t like the ones you haven’t mentioned, even if all your characters do is save the world Monday through Friday. Why should I care about what you’re making these people do? What’s the point? Why do I want to read on if you’re just telling me that they’re going out for tapas? Find your stakes, and elevate them, consistently, keeping a view on the consequences and their potential rewards or failures. Make what the people do matter. Give these things weight.

Dialogue that sounds like people. Yes, I know, you’re maybe not writing people. You’re writing an advanced race of techno-yeasts that want to save the galaxy from the outbreak of the Bast virus, but if you want people (readers) to relate to your yeasts, they need to communicate in a way that we can understand and empathize with, else we’re right back to the “Why should I care?” problem discussed above.

One of the ways, and I think the strongest way, is to get a ear for hearing how people speak. Get a sense of their cadence, their volume when speaking some words over others. Listen for how they break up the sentences. Listen to how they run on. Find the quirks. No, I don’t mean manufacture quirks just you can insert world-building jargon (looking at you BSG and “frak”, you’re that sore in the mouth that would just heal if everything stopped being so damned cutesy about it), I mean distinguish characters not only by aesthetics or cosmetics, but also their linguistics. How someone says something can be as or more important than what they’re saying.

*

These are all practical skills that take time to learn. Nope, it’s not easy. But that’s why we take our time writing and rewriting. You can get better at this stuff, just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys next week. Have a great weekend.

 

Happy writing

Manuscriptus Gigantus

Good morning. Welcome to Friday. So prepare for a lot of jokes about things being big, or small, or just good enough. Yes, it’s time to talk about your manuscript’s length. We can do this. Maybe without too much snickering.

manuscriptphoto1.png

Whenever we talk size, and then make a move to clutch our pearls because we feel our hard work is under attack or is automatically termed inadequate by people who haven’t experienced it, it’s important to remember that size is subjective within an objective range.

It’s given as a range because no one can agree on a single length, a uniform measurement that everyone adheres to. And this is because you can’t ask a writer to produce every book the same way. Even when you give word counts, not everyone writes exactly to the limit. Sometimes they don’t want to, other times they don’t have to. We compensate for this by using ranges. Here then, are the ranges I’d expect and tell people to use:

Picture Books
I talk to a lot of authors who want to make books for kids, either their own, or their kids’ kids, or just young kids in general. And it’s a nice market, frankly. The art does the majority of the idea delivery, but the accompanying words give moms and dads something to sound out so that future generations can be exposed to the awesome idea that reading is a good part of life and is totally okay to do.

Your magic number is 32 pages. That’s become a rough standard. Now on those pages you may have 1 line, you may multiple lines, so if we’re talking word count, aim for under 500 total words.

Early/Easy Readers
These are the books that, not surprisingly, easy to read. They’re based on a level system, with the higher levels having more words, and each level increasing by 200 words. So if your level 1 book has 100 (most level 1s have either 100 or 200 words), your level 2 will have 300. (100 + 200)There’s a plus or minus here of around 30 words. (Though no one’s going to flip out if your level 3 book has 509 words.)

The Short Stuff
“Short stuff” refers to the group of less than 45k fiction, and there’s a lot of variations and definitions, so I’ll break this down and define things as needed.

Microfiction is a complete story that ranges from 140 characters (Twitterfiction) to 200 words.
Flash fiction is a complete story of 201 to 1000 words.
A short short story is a complete story of 1001 to 4000 words.
A long short story is complete story of 4001 to 8000 words.

A novelette is a complete story of 8001 to 17,500 words
A novella is a complete story of 17,501 words to 45k.

When I say a “complete story” I mean it has all the stuff you’d expect in a full novel, just in a smaller package, and that it all works. It’s not just a chunk of a draft (you wouldn’t take the first 18 chapters of your MS and call it a novella, it’s not a complete story)

Young Adult
Here’s a fertile workspace for authors. And as a result, there’s a lot of variation in the MS size. Likewise, the average MS is coming in larger than ever before, so expect this range to increase over the next two to three years.

It’s a safe bet to have your YA at 55k to 70k but it’s becoming more common that YA weighs in around 75k, with a ceiling somewhere near 80k-81k (though many people take the upper end there to mean the MS is bloating, so mind your mileage.

I’ve been asked if there’s a basement level on YA, and I’d say 45k. Some blogs and people will say 40k, but 45k feels better .

New Adult
Another fertile space for authors, New Adult arose from the expanding reader pool that weren’t tweens, but not yet comfortable diving into the literary classics that secondary education keeps insisting are the only “true novels.” Like Young Adult, these labels then absorb other genre labels, so you can for example have “New Adult Paranormal Romance” or “Young Adult Crime Thriller” without being completely laughed at. They range from 60k to 85k.

The Adult Novels
Here we get to the sweet spot. It’s important to remember that there are far more genre than I could easily list out here, so I’m just going to list the ones I come most into contact with.

Science Fiction and Fantasy novels (not counting the epic novels) run from 90k to 120k. The “epic novels” (think supersized versions) take that upper number up to 175k, but they also call for increased scrutiny, especially from first-time authors who want to use “epic” to disguise MS bloat or an inability to /disinterest in trimming down their work.

Westerns (which are coming back, thanks to the current political climate romanticizing past America) run from 50k to 80k.

Mysteries and Thrillers (different than Crime fiction, which is below) run from 70k to 90k.

Crime and Noir fiction run from 90k to 100k, thanks to a strong resurgence in the last 20 years across multiple media. There’s also a lot of crossover into urban fantasy here.

Romance is a huge genre with a lot of very popular off-shoots, more than I could easily account for. This diversity leads the range to be 40k to 100k, with Regency, Inspirational, Romantic Suspense, and Supernatural Romance ranging from 40 to 80k typically.

Horror as a genre is often left broad, because things that scare us are numerous, whether we’re talking splatterfest books of the 1970s or the more cerebral stories of impending tentacled horror. The typical MS spans 80k to 100k.

Memoir, Biography, Autobiography
Jumping the fence to non-fiction (I’ve never handled the comedic alt-autobiography where you’ve got the fictive history of a not-real person, but I’d consider that comedy which could be 60k to 90k), the range opens up to practically Romance lengths, anywhere from 50k to 110k usually.

There are a lot of numbers here, so I’ve put them together in handy downloadable chart form. Download your copy here.

As we wrap this up, it’s important to remember that these are guidelines, and that a novel can easily not fall into these categories as a standout. But as a range, it sets an expectation for author and reader (whomever that is) alike.

Come in over range, like way over range, and you’ll give the reader the impression you’ve written a bloated MS that you can’t possible pare down. Come in under range and you’ll give the reader the impression you’re nervous and that the MS is starved for anything other than a bare story skeleton with only enough info as to tell the plot in the simplest terms.

Let’s all celebrate that we talked about length without too much giggling, and at no time in the last 1133 words did I mention anything about motions on oceans. Go us.

See you next week. Have a great weekend writing and doing stuff.

 

InboxWednesday -Epilogues, Prologues, and Immediate Series

It’s Wednesday, so pull on your waders and let’s head out into the inbox and see what we can find. Today we’ve got 3 questions: 2 about writing technique, and 1 about a publishing concept. Remember, if you have a question about anything writing, publishing, story, or really anything, you can get it answered on InboxWednesday, you just need to ask it.

I’ve written a dystopic MG love story set fifteen years after the melting of the ice caps. It’s sort of like Castaway meets When Harry Met Sally, […] if there were cannibals and pontoons. It’s nearly complete at 190k, I’m just writing the ending now. Any thoughts on an epilogue? – Mark

Hi Mark. Thanks for writing in. Before we talk epilogue, I want to point out that you’ve written 190,000 words, and that’s before you’ve written an ending. It’s possible that your ending could take your MS over 200,000 words. There’s an older rule that says anything over 110,000 qualifies as an “epic” novel. Ulysses is 265,222 words. Order of the Phoenix is 257,045.

I’m calling your attention to it because you’ve identified your work as MG, and middle grade generally falls between the 22,000 – 55,000 word range because it’s aimed at tweens. Even upper middle grade fiction is about 40,000 – 55,000, so be careful that the size of your story doesn’t do you in.

But that wasn’t what you asked me.

An epilogue is “the final chapter at the end of the story that reveals the fate of the characters that may or may nor occur some time after the novel’s events and possibly hint at sequels or loose ends.” Now whether you interpret “final” to be the last chapter you write after you write the chapter where you resolve the plot or whether it’s just the last chapter in the book, that’s up to you. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to advance time after you resolve plot so you can Harry Potter-style fill us in on our now-older protagonists. You don’t.

It’s okay to have some stories just end with a satisfying conclusion. Yes, even with the loose ends from chapter 12 still untucked. Yes, even without hinting that you’re going to crank out 6 other books with this main character. Sometimes a book is a single book, and that’s okay.

I’m not a fan of epilogues just for the sake of adding a nice smile and sigh at the end of an already satisfying story. It’s always struck me as sort of indulgent, maybe even a little flash and smug to have the need to keep demonstrating how talented an author is by giving an extra portion of character and content when we’ve already been sated.

So, Mark, my answer to you is tread carefully. How much resolution do you think is necessary? How much would a reader think necessary? Get the MS out to a beta reader and see how they feel with the story’s conclusion. (And seriously take a look at the word count, please.)

John, I’ve got a 46,350 word fantasy novel that I’m about to query, but I’m thinking I need a prologue, because a lot of books I’ve read this month all had them. Do I need a prologue? – Elise

When I wrote the first draft of this answer, I was sort of in a mood, so I said, “Take some of Mark’s words and add them to your MS”, but that’s kind of a dick answer, so instead I’ll mention that 46k is on the lean side for fantasy novels (most in the genre range from 90k to 110k), but there are a lot of venues who want novellas, which range from 20k to 52k usually. Now I don’t know where you’re querying, but you might want to look at calling it a novella and finding novella specific resources if you’re not getting much novel traction.

The prologue you asked about is an opening to a story that “establishes setting and gives background details.” In fantasy and science fiction, the prologue doesn’t feature the characters we’ll follow for the other chapters. Time is a factor, some prologues take place prior to the main story (as in Lord of the Rings, when you learn about Isildur and Agent Smith in the war), or they involve lesser characters who are just around for a few pages to set up the fact that we’re on a distant planet in a remote solar system and today’s taco day.

There’s no reason why you can’t do that world building in the beginning of the story. And frankly, even with a prologue, you’ll often need to do more building and setup in addition to whatever’s in the prologue if you do write one. And no, you can’t fit all the worldbuilding and setting into the prologue and expect the reader to understand it all before you get into the substance of the story.

Like epilogues, I don’t think you need a prologue every time, and especially not every time you dive into the SF/F waters. Often I read an MS with a prologue that sets up there being a prophecy and a single character fated to create massive story upheaval. Sometimes prologues are a few pages where the nigh immortal badguy sets up his reign of terror that will span generations. What I’m saying Elise, is that prologues often cover the same well-walked ground, and they can be mighty dull.

The solution? If you’re going to prologue, go with the amuse-bouche approach. Give us a little world building so we see how you work your craft. You don’t necessarily have to tease the plot, you don’t have to tease the characters, but take a few pages to show your writing chops in the created world-space and vibe of your story. make it a place where you show your technique, giving us an appealing entry point to the more specific story.

Good luck Elise.

John, what’s an immediate series? I read about it on a message board and didn’t understand what it was. – Karen

Karen, an immediate series is an old idea made new, but it didn’t always have that name. A long time ago, a lot of publication was done serially, with monthly installments showing up in periodicals like Collier’s or Black Mask, depending on genre. This episodic breakdown was good for publishers since it meant readers had to buy issue after issue or subscribe to follow a story from start to finish. It was also good for writers, in that it called for stories to be divisible into publishable chunks, and that work on craft helped form the foundations for how we produce stories today.

Serialization often focused on chapters. The immediate series focuses on more than chapters, often looking at novellas or near-novellas in length, that can be quickly published with very little lag time (because they were already written, it’s just a matter of getting them out the door). For instance, you may write 3 novellas about anthropomorphic samurai appliances and then self-publish one every 21 days in the Spring.

It’s about taking a shotgun approach to the reader’s shelf – get a lot of material out there, so that there are a lot of purchasing options, which can build an audience and financial base.

Doing that is not bad or wrong Karen, it’s one of many perfectly feasible approaches to publishing and marketing. For some people, it works, thanks to the strength of the first book, or the series premise. For some, it’s just emetic, you deluge the reader maybe too hastily and the books aren’t as strong, so a reader can skip any of the 15 you throw out there and you don’t build that audience or base.

Hope that answered your question Karen, thanks for it.

*

Looking at the inbox today, I think Friday’s post might be about MS length, which is sort of a contentious topic, but it’s worth weighing in on. See you then.

 

Happy writing.

What’s Up With Beta Readers?

I hope your weekend was a good one. Mine was good. It was brutally, nastily cold here in NJ, so I bundled myself up and worked. Lots of editing, some reading, loads of emails (Wait until you see #InboxWednesday).

This week we’re going to talk about a part of the writing process that I don’t really talk about a lot. We’re going to talk beta readers.

The reason I don’t usually go into a great heap of detail is because I have a mixed relationship with beta readers. Some experiences have been great, some way less than great, and it’s a part of the creative process I probably should spend more time on, because it’s becoming more mainstream to rely on them.

Let’s start at the beginning. A beta reader is someone asked to read the manuscript and provide critique, generally as one of the later stages of post-writing pre-publication. As their name says, they read.

They’re not editors. I mean, they may be an editor as their job or something, but their service to the manuscript is not a directly editorial one. They read and provide feedback. If you’re asking a beta reader to edit (aside from whatever things they randomly catch, I mean specifically wanting them to read and edit), then you’ve merged proofreading and beta reading.

I believe that anyone who does a job should be paid. So yes, I believe beta readers should be paid. Flat fee, per chapter, whatever, they’re helping you out just as much as the editor, and you’re paying them (right?), so make with the payouts.

But wait, you cry, where am I supposed to get the money? Or worse, why do these people deserve to get paid, they’re just reading?

And that, right there, is the reason why this post exists.

They’re not “just” reading. Their job is to read with a particular eye on story elements. Some authors provide a list of specific questions (hopefully they avoid the fluff ones like: “Did you like it?” or “Did you like X character?” because a beta reader is a lens for getting feedback focused on specific elements. What elements? Here’s some of the elements:

+character arc
+plot development and pacing
+tension
+story pacing
+number of characters
+the ease of readability
+narrative tone
+gauging how exciting the climax was
+gauging how satisfying the resolution was

These are story elements. They’re subcutaneous to the ego stroke of whether or not the person liked the story and can therefore blow smoke up the rectal cavities of authors. If you’re looking for praise, let your grandma read the story. A beta reader is not a praise factory, they’re a critical eye with a bit more objectivity than the editor who’s spent weeks with the MS or the author who’s been tapping the keys about it for a year.

Because they’re not being asked to fellate the insecure author (I talked to quite a few beta readers over the weekend whose feedback was irrelevant to their playing some kind of “you did good enough” validation), we come back to this idea that the author is the superior in whatever relationships concern the MS.

Let’s see how we get to this way of thinking.

The author has the option to hire an editor, and if they do, then the author employs the editor. There’s a servile power dynamic there.

The author tells the beta readers what to look for, so there’s another servile power dynamic there.

Pretty much anybody pre-submission serves the author’s needs. For some people, this power, particularly over a manuscript that they are very emotionally tied to or invested in, is ripe for abuse.

It doesn’t help that some pinheads mistake the “beta” in beta reader for a subordinate position off the bat. For the record, a beta reader is a text beta-tester, the surrogate audience member. Considering their role as audience, I would challenge any power dynamic because the beta reader is your resource for how the story will engage the marketplace. Confuse a beta reader, disinterest them, and you expose the fleshy story underbelly and possibility that your MS isn’t the polished gemstone you think it is. This is not to say it’s on the other extreme of formica or whatever zirconia gets sold on late night television, but there’s no reason to disregard or belittle the feedback because it isn’t the radioactive glowing praise that your MS is a bestseller waiting to happen.

Which is why I advocate for paying your beta reader. Treat them as a peer, not a tool, in your process and value their feedback. If you have (I’m making numbers up) 3 readers, and 1 says that the story is bloated with too many similar sounding names, or you’ve got the story all over the place in the first few chapters, consider what they’re telling you. Don’t blow it off just because it’s not as praising as what your other two readers might say. Remember that your MS may not be liked by everyone, that should you go forward and traditionally publish, an agent or editor may possibly have similar concerns, that your MS may languish in rejection hell for a while until those concerns get revised.

You want a beta reader to push you, to flip your MS judo-style, beat it up a little (or a lot), because you’re trying to get the best MS possible. So why not beat it up a little? Does that mean more work for you? Yeah. Is that bad? No.

Not every beta reader is going to extol your praises. Not every beta reader is going to spew hot lava at you. Like so many other things, it’s about the combination of all feedback, rather than the authorial power dynamic. It’s okay to get feedback that’s harsh, I’d go so far to say it’s vital, unless you want to just live in a clueless bubble of faux-perfection where you don’t push yourself or your craft out of some fear that your emperor will be exposed as a nudist.

Getting to stage in production where you need to engage beta readers is not the end of the marathon that is publication. You still have to get the story packaged and either submitted, or into the hands of readers. So let’s talk for a minute about a different kind of power dynamic, where the author puts them on a pedestal. Which isn’t the point either.

Yes, the beta reader, to some extent acts like a surrogate audience, but again, they’re not just reading your story for enjoyment. Giving them concepts to keep an eye out for helps you steer through the parts of writing where you may find or think yourself weak. They’re useful, like so many other things I’ve talked about on this blog.

To suggest the beta reader is superior in some way is to suggest that you’re writing as to earn the praise of the audience more than the pleasure of writing or the want to see your story in the world. Yes, there’s an element of praise to be had by an audience, but it can’t be the only reason you sit down everyday to write. Not everyone is going to like your work, and they’re not supposed to.

Treat your readers like people, because they are people. Don’t be a dick, don’t throw some alleged superiority in their face. They’re trying to help you, let them.

I’ll see you later this week for #InboxWednesday, where we’re going to hear from Tonda.

See you then. Happy writing.

InboxWednesday on Thursday – MS Prep

Hey everyone, hope you’re doing well. My apologies for the altered schedule in blogposts, many things work and otherwise have been afoot, and I prefer to be able to blog at length, rather than on a set schedule. It doesn’t do either of us any good to go short in our discussions.

InboxWednesday is designed to get you answers to questions that I don’t normally answer on the blog, on topics ranging from storycraft to development to today’s topic, manuscript preparation. If you have a question, ask it. There are no stupid questions. Or find me on Twitter for regular bouts of writing tweets.

Today’s question comes from Luke.

John, I’ve finished my MS, do I need to do anything before I start querying?

Luke, first of all, congratulations on finishing the manuscript. That’s not the easiest thing to do in the world, and you should take a minute or 90 and go celebrate. Have cake. Watch cartoons. Do something fun.

And then when you’re done getting your I’m-done groove on, here’s what you do with that finished MS.

Make sure it’s finished. No, seriously, make sure it’s all done. No notes in the margin, no half-written paragraphs or sentences. Make sure you’ve got all the chapters all into 1 document. Get someone to read it and see if they think it’s done. Not good, not nice. Just see if it’s a full story with a beginning, middle, end, conflict, and resolution. Oh, and make sure it has characters. What I’m saying Luke, is that you’re going to query a complete manuscript so that you don’t have to use vital words in your query mentioning that it’s a complete manuscript. So, get it all in one file, all in place.

Check your spelling and punctuation. I know, it’s 2016 and we have smartphones and heated toilet seats, but would you believe that there are people who don’t spellcheck a document before sending it somewhere? I mean, in Word, you press one key. It’s not a perfect flawless spellcheck, but it’s at least something. You’re trying to get someone to give you a contract for your work, take the extra however many minutes to make sure you spelled “obvious” correctly on page 16.  Likewise, make sure you’ve ended sentences with punctuation, and that you’ve got quotation marks where they’re supposed to be. It’s important. Little touches at this point make all the difference.

Get it read, or better, get it read AND edited. Before we go all query-happy, you’re going to want to talk to other humans about what you’ve done. (Okay I realize that makes it sound like I’m comparing your MS to that time I watched a kid named Joey light a firecracker and throw it into a pile of dry leaves, but you know what I mean) I’m talking about getting people to read it. Competent people who aren’t super-biased. So yes, your partner, spouse, kids, occasional sex partner, dogwalker, and pizza delivery guy can read your MS, but they’ve got a vested interest in saying nice things to you. Go find people who don’t have to worry about upsetting you. Where? Social media that isn’t your family-only Facebook page. I like Twitter. Or websites like this one.

Better still, get readers and go find a freelance editor. Someone who can professionally poke your MS with sticks and other tools to get it into the best shape possible. No Luke, it’s not frivolous. Yes, I know you just ran spellcheck. But spellcheck isn’t going to be able to point out that you have no conflict past chapter 4. Or that you started called one character by another character’s name about halfway through the story. An editor is a resource you should strongly consider making use of. I’m one. Here’s another. Here’s another. Here’s another. Yes, you’re going to pay for the help, but as I’ve said, it’s the difference between trying to fix a leaky roof by yourself versus hiring the roof guy.

Format it for submission. Let’s suppose you wrote this MS in Scrivener. You’re going to need to Export it (Ctrl + Shift + X) to a file type that’s specified in the submission guidelines. Maybe that’s a PDF. Maybe that’s a Read-only docx. Maybe that’s pasted into the body of an email. Whatever the case, make sure you prepare a version of the MS for that. If it’s email, make sure pasting it won’t throw the spacing all to hell. If it’s a PDF or docx, make sure the margins are where they’re supposed to be, and that the font is appropriate. If the guidelines say use a sans serif font at size 12, do it. Following directions is important, Luke.

Doublecheck your submission guidelines and relevant info. One of the fastest ways to get rejected is to send the query you meant for Person A to Person B (or worse Persons B-Q en masse). I know I just said format the file correctly, but this is past that. If say, you’re submitting to Publisher X, make sure you do what Publisher X wants done. Yes, I know, it’s hella annoying to have to do all these things over and over with just a little variation – Publisher X wants it one way, Agent F wants it another way, Agent D wants something else – but for as much as it’s a test to see if you can follow directions, it’s part of the process to see if you give a damn about what you’re doing. So many people get just as far as you have Luke, and then balk at this last step. You already did the hard part, this is just tiny organizing. You can do this.

Send it out without being super outcome dependent. Okay, here’s the challenge. You just spent however long getting this story out of your head. You did a lot. You really want to get that book out into the world. You want to have people give you money. You want to see people like your work. You want your agent to arrange the foreign movie deal. Whatever your endgame, there’s a chance it’s not going to happen. Or if it does happen, it might not happen the way you’ve been picturing it when you’re supposed to be at your dayjob. I know you’ve got many eggs in that basket, or many baskets counting on the eggs in that one basket, but I really have to stress that whatever happens it’s going to be okay. You get rejected, you make the changes you need to, you try again. You get knocked down, you get back up. Your dream isn’t stupid, it’s just hard to accomplish. Which is why you have to keep working so hard. Don’t give up Luke.

Hope I’ve answered the question. Have I missed anything? Should I tell Luke to start drinking heavily? Let me know in the comments or come find me on Twitter.

See you guys tomorrow for a rousing discussion of how not everyone is going to like you … or me … or each other … tomorrow we’re going to talk about reception.

 

Happy writing.

 

Bringing Back The Johnversation

A long time back, I thought I’d take over the world by putting up a lot of Youtube videos. It would have worked, if I put up a lot of Youtube videos.

But the Johnversation, which is really what I call any audio or video I produce, is back.

And today, we talk writer’s block. Check this out.


EDITED OUT AFTER TWENTY MINUTES OF MUCH PROFANITY


 

Okay, there’s supposed to be an embedded player here, but because I truly believe WordPress is designed to be as difficult as possible when you need it to be easy, I’m going to just link you to the page where you can click the play button. I really wish all the “paste this on your website” coding was actually easy to use.

Here’s the link to the Johnversation. I’m sorry I’m not savvy nor patient enough to get it to load. Oh also, Soundcloud can suck moldy lemons for telling me the only way I could use their service is to pay some absurd subscription fee, even though I don’t put up more than a file or two a month.

If you want to download today’s Johnversation, here’s the link.

See you in 2 days for #InboxWednesday.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – When Do I Talk To An Editor?

Good morning everyone, I hope you’re doing well, and that your Wednesday is a delightful one. While you’re reading this, I’m at a doctor’s appointment, so spare a good thought that I’m doing alright and the muzak or the bill hasn’t sent me into a murderous rage.

Today’s topic for #InboxWednesday comes to us from five different people, all asking the same question.

When do I need an editor, and when should I bring in an editor into what I’m writing?

I love this question, so this answer is going to be somewhat meaty, but it needs to be.

Here we go …

There’s no wrong time to bring in an editor. It’s just the role the editor plays will change relative to when they get involved with your manuscript. I’m going to break the writing process down into 3 periods to illustrate this.

Early Stages of Writing
I’m categorizing this as “the period of time when the majority of a draft isn’t written, the ideas are maybe just bullet points, or maybe they aren’t even written down yet.” Yes, I know that’s nebulous, but there’s no way I’m going accurately ballpark a percentage as to how much is on paper versus how much isn’t. And even if I could, there’s no percentage required so you “unlock” editor access.

You can bring the editor in at this point to help you work through those decisions yet to be made (what’s the conflict, what’s this character’s arc look like, what’s the action beat between this moment and that one, etc) as well as to hone the decisions you have made (if you do X when you’ve already got Y, they’ll feed together; why are you starting the book at that spot, when the spot two paragraphs later seems way more in line with what you’re doing; etc)

This is developmental work, where the manuscript’s foundation is laid through decisions and conversation. It’s a fertile land where there’s so much potential and so much story ore to mine.

The hard part, at least editorially, is knowing when to steer and when to be along for the ride. It’s easy to turn someone else’s work into something the editor would create themselves, just by passing a few comments and closing a few options. That’s the danger in “I don’t think you should” coming up in the developmental process. An editor isn’t there to steer this process completely, their presence is as stabilizer and lookout, keeping the craft afloat as the writer navigates MS shoals and other nautical metaphors that I wish I was better at making up.

It’s a very “do it by feel” issue, since some writers are going to be more receptive to the presence of someone else while they’re making the story, and some are going to see it as more an intrusion of something personal, closing ranks as they protect the fragile idea. Neither side is wrong, though it can be a frustrating experience to be consulted and then shut out while making suggestions based on the limited information you get from conversations.

Middle Stages of Writing
Let’s categorize the middle stages as the time when the manuscript is being written, lie by line, chapter by chapter. This is the production stage, when there’s already a road map and the decisions of development have led the writer to put their ass in the chair and make the words happen.

Bringing in the editor here takes away the developmental element, and instead brings in the editorial process. The chapters, paragraphs, sentences, beats and concepts now exist beyond the idea stage, so the way they’re broadcast to the reader (the words chosen for them) become the focus. Here an editor can ask what the writer meant in a particular line, or that they’re unclear with naming something consistently. It’s the editorial process you’d expect, happening still when the body of the MS is still being crafted.

It’s sometimes tough for people to see this as anything other than meddling, like a backseat driver asking if you’re ever going to get to the destination. I’ve heard it described as the person who hovers over dinner being cooked to the point where you doubt whether you’ve boiled the water correctly.

At this stage, it’s not about sowing doubt. At least, doubt isn’t supposed to be spread here. This is a chance to purge it, by finding the elements that are working along with the elements that don’t. Yes, this one sentence kind of rambles and doesn’t work in this investigative beat, but this character dialogue over here is just fantastic. It’s worth pointing out the good as well.

Many writers make the mistake of running a credit/debit T-chart sort of thing when they get feedback, thinking that all the comments are to be weighted equally and that every comma splice or vague pronoun undoes the part where a joke works or the action is well made. No, it doesn’t. When something in the MS works, it works, and that’s independent of the fact that six pages prior, there are too many “she” in a sentence. Calls for revision do not undo the praise. At least, it shouldn’t. But that might be an issue to address outside of the writing process for some people.

An editor here shifts also to motivation, to keep the writer going, stoking the fire so that the creativity behind the MS doesn’t go out, replaced by some new hot idea, shiny thing, or distraction. The writing process is about endurance and discipline, and there are so many people, places, things, blogs, words, comments, ideas, and fears that eat discipline and leave doubt and disappointment as a lovely pile of scat for the writer to step in and then drag around on all the rugs.

The Later Stages of Writing
The manuscript is complete or nearly so, let’s say it’s the last few chapters or maybe it’s just been read by a spouse or a close friend as a beta reader. Here the editor takes on the role that most people think of when they think editor – with the tools laid out to work through the manuscript’s ideas and presentation so that it’s in the best shape possible to do with whatever the writer wants.

In addition to flagging grammar, plot holes, unclear motivations, craptastic dialogue, the editor can also keep an eye out for what comes next. Want to query? See if the editor can help you frame them. Want to self-pub? Maybe the editor has some advice. You won’t know until you ask, and asking’s free, so ask all the questions you have.


There isn’t a “wrong” time to bring an editor into your work. Yes, there’s a budget to consider, because you have to pay the person you’ve hired to do a job, but there’s no rule you’re breaking by doing it at some time other than when you’re absolutely finished.

It’s worth pointing out my own experience, that if you hire me in the early or middle stages, I’m going to want to work with you in the later stages as well, so we both walk the manuscript towards completion and through editing without additional surcharges or doubling down on the expense. But that’s just me, and I don’t speak for everyone doing this.

Bias as aside as I can get it (I like being hired, it helps me afford lunch), an editor is an asset to your writing, both specific to the manuscript as well as a resource for later work as well. People I’ve worked with months ago still get answers to their questions, and still get counseled on whatever issues they’re facing. There’s no walk of shame for a client. Once you’re in the rolodex, and neither of us have fired the other, you’re in the rolodex.

So make use of editors. Their job is to help you get the MS to wherever you want it to be. Don’t let some arbitrary convention and some absolutist sentence that editors can only show up at a certain point stop you from getting your MS out of your head, onto the page, and out to readers.

Follow me on Twitter for more info about this and other topics about writing, publishing and stuff.

Happy writing. Have a great Wednesday.

The Cycle of Praise, Competition and Insecurity

Let’s put ourselves in a very large comfortable room. It’s a writing seminar. You’ve paid money to come here. You’ve made all these travel and work arrangements. You have waited for this seminar for weeks. You’ve got a charged laptop, some pens, a legal pad and a bottle of water – everything you need to take notes or do whatever’s asked of you in this seminar.

Let’s go one step further and say that I’m not giving this seminar, that Published Author X and Author Y are. Published Author X is a big deal. They’ve got a lot of books to their name, they write a popular blog, they have loyal fans. They play up the role of cantankerous maverick, equal parts grouch who hates “the establishment” and practical rebel who occasionally fires off big, shouty rants. Published Author Y has fewer books to their name, is less angry and ranty, and could be mistaken for aloof. Author Y isn’t terribly practical, and is known for stressing the importance of theory and frequently references academic sources and studies and papers while Author X is ten times more likely to cite their own work.

Got it pictured? No, the genders don’t matter. No, the location doesn’t matter. Make it ideal. Make your supplies infinite.

Now, put me in the back of the room, Obi-Wan Kenobi Force Ghost style.

Use the words, Luke.

Use the words, Luke.

Ready?

Author X and Y tell you that this seminar isn’t just going to be them talking to you, but they want you to write and they’re going to move around the room and check your progress. This might freak you, but they cage it as “a chance to get help from experts”. So you smile and start writing.

The first hour goes past. They move through the room, and while they haven’t gotten to you yet, you can hear what they’re saying to others. People look upset, dejected and disappointed. A few tear up. Someone loudly stormed off behind you. Author X and Y both say to keep writing.

The second hour rolls along, and it’s your turn. Author X comes over, asks to see what you’re writing. They scrutinize it, and call over Author Y. They both look at it. You might ask questions, but all you get out of them are the non-answers of “Hmm” and “Oh.” Their faces are a mix of frustration, constipation and that face your old neighbor makes when the kids up the block are too loud. Seconds stretch. Then they speak.

It’s not bad, could be better, I guess.” and “Well, yes, it could be better, but it’s, you know, alright.” It doesn’t matter who says what. Their answers are vague and deflating. (If this isn’t deflating enough, insert your own pair of really uncomfortable sad things).

Now the question becomes – do you stay and try harder? Do you head out the door? Did you just waste your time? Are you disappointed?

Sadly, that scene happens in some variation to a lot of people. They come to a seminar looking for something more than the inspiration they get just from reading a post, they come for more than the awkward guilt or shame of knowing they could do more or do it with less difficulty. I believe that people come to a seminar or a workshop or a convention looking for answers or a route to whatever their next step in their journey is. They have questions they need answers for, they need feedback on their progress, they want to hear what they can do, how they can do it better and what they should avoid or work on not doing.

How Praise Helps The Writer

Writing is a solitary and often emotional activity. We accept a lot of risk in the production of what we create, often enduring lengthy periods of rejection or lengthier periods of anticipating/expecting rejection and feel a deep attachment to the characters, the stories and the ideas. We generally write by ourselves, sitting at tables and desks and often with a schedule that differs from everyone else’s comings and goings. It’s an activity that puts you in your head, drawing the story out and onto the page. Sure, you might get up and complain at your pet or potted plant about how the scene is or isn’t working, sure you might argue with coffee pot or ice dispenser when you can’t quite get something right, and yeah, I guess you might sit and write with your spouse or significant other on the couch over there folding laundry and staring (why can we always feel them staring?) at us while we type frantically away. When the bulk of creation is internal (meaning in YOUR head), there’s not a lot of praise. We’re slow to praise ourselves, maybe we grew up that way or we just had poor role models for praise, or like me, you were told that praise is short-lived and really only given when you “truly” deserve it … but never get told the conditions when you deserve it.

Little Praise, Then What?

Back in our imagined seminar, let’s go back to the Authors X and Y standing over you. We’re going to talk about the actual standing part in a second, but go check out their faces. The tension in the eyebrows. The pursing of lips. The somewhat blank stares. We’re taught at an early age (and through stressful experiences develop) to read faces for signs of danger or upset, and sometimes for some of us those systems are built on bad code. For me, if I can’t immediately register a positive response, I assume the super negative. I’m pretty sure a lot of people fall along that negative part of the spectrum if they’re creative.

Criticism might come from other people, but we define it. At the most basal, all Authors X and Y are doing are opening faceholes and passing air over cords in sound patterns. Our brains have to process those vibrations as sounds we know, then further process them into speech, then go one more step to put them into definitions and draw conclusions. Try thinking about that while listening to someone tear you a new one over the phone, or getting yelled at by a boss at work. It’s sound waves. The definitions at the end of that chain of brain processes? That’s up to you.

I’m not saying you should disregard what someone says, but I am saying to consider it before you lock onto the negativity of it. I’m also not saying you should jump the gun in the other direction and assume they hate it because they’re jealous of you. That’s a possibility, but no more so than your piece needing work or them being unable to properly express themselves and be able to maintain their personas and egos.

So What Can I Take Away From This?

Okay, let’s talk a little about this room we’ve imagined. See how you’re sitting and their standing? And how they’re standing over you when they walk around? We’re wired to accept them as authority figures. It’s how teachers interacted with as children. It’s how parents used to tower over us as we toddled about. Some of us tend to question authority and rebel and chafe at it, but most of us all get a sense that the standing person, the leader-person is more knowledgeable than we are.

This is not necessarily true. They might be more knowledgeable, as knowledgeable, or less knowledgeable than us. They’re just people. They do the same things we do. They’re fallible. They poop. They forget their keys and spill things and put off doing chores just like we do. They are human.

Yes, they’ve been published. They might have been doing this activity longer than you. They might have learned some things you don’t know and be able to help you do things you had trouble with before. On that basis, give them respect. But do not confuse respect for surety. This is not a case where you follow them into the mouth of hell. This is where you accept what they say then choose how you want to interpret it. No, you don’t get to be a dick about it, you do so graciously and sincerely.

“Thank you for [the feedback]. I appreciate you bringing that up.”

Don’t deliver that quote in that passive aggressive tone like you’re all sarcastic or worse, “killing them with kindness”. No, I mean really sit there with your feelings, compose yourself and thank them for saying whatever.

The Magic Trick

Okay, so Author X and Y? What you know of them are some facts (they’ve published books, they have a certain persona online, they’re hosting this seminar) and some abstracts (their personas, any emotion you believe them to have). You give them those abstracts. You project that. That’s stuff from you to them. In short: you expect them to be a certain way, they’re either going to act in accordance with that (live up to it) or you’re going to filter and color what they did or said to fit that expectation. We’re human. We do this. We expect the controversial person to be controversial, and when they’re not, we either claim the actions as poking fun at normal or we suffer a disconnect and have to change how we feel. We expect the aloof-looking person to be rude and we prep for it, and don’t give them a fair shake.

(Wait, the person I imagined WAS rude. So, yeah, they gets no fair shakes.)

The magic trick is that these people aren’t experts. There are no experts. There are people who have found ONE way to accomplish a goal, and there are people who are still looking. Instead of looking to duplicate what they did, look for your own path to goal accomplishment. Their path is not and won’t be your path. And only some of their advice is going to help you. Discern. Think for yourself.

Then What About Competition?

Stay in that imagined seminar, but I want you to add something to it. Picture the first things that come to mind when you read this phrases: legitimate publishing, traditional publishing, real writing success. A lot of people, upon coming across those words think about agents and editors and big offices and books going on bookstore shelves. For a long time that WAS publishing. Over time, we’ve seen a lot of different ways to get written things into the hands of people who want to read them. These new methods are different than the old methods for a lot of reasons – different end product, different steps in the production chain, omission of gatekeepers, whatever – but assuming the old method is “legit” and the new method isn’t is a lot like assuming the author at the front of the room holds some exclusive knowledge and has to decide if you’re good enough to know it. For me, that’s not legitimacy. That’s exclusion, and a loss of my control over my craft.

When teachers or agents or editors or publishers promote scarcity or exclusivity as a proof of legitimacy, they’re reinforcing the behaviors that deny praise and encouraging the anxiety and presumption of wrongness. First of all, they’re the decision-makers for that legitimacy. That makes the assumption that the person you impress speaks or has knowledge about what your audience likes. I might have been occupied for much of the day, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t vote this agent/editor person the power to determine what I like. They’re ONE person. If they don’t like your work, find someone else.

In our virtual seminar, look at the other people. You might think they’re all currying for Author X and Y’s favor, and you might think they’ll get it before you, but that assumes you’re not good enough to be liked. Now, let’s really shake things up. What if you didn’t buy into it? What if you didn’t write like you’re competing? What if there was no competition?

That's some deep shit, John

That’s some deep shit, John

There is no competition. None. Not because you’re better than they are, or they’re better than you are. They write. You write. You all have the same goal: to get your work out into the hands of people who want to read it (ideally in exchange for money).  Yes there’s scarcity in some models of publishing. But not in all of them. There are plenty of ways to accomplish that goal, why get rigidly attached to one? Yes, there’s a lack of praise all over the place. Negative feedback outnumbers (but not necessarily outweighs) positive feedback. We’re quick to give low reviews to things so that people can see how superior we think we’d be and so that we can get a moment of spotlight by sharing that negativity.

Can We Be Positive?

Yes, I hear you, you check out blogs and leave positive comments and tell people you’ll buy their books and you retweet and favorite their tweets. You promise you’ll talk to them when you finish your work. You tell your friends all about the books. That’s nice, but that’s the tip of the positive iceberg.

I am here to sink your Titanics of negativity.

I am here to sink your Titanics of negativity.

The 80% under the surface can be split into:

30% you learning something from what they’ve written (a model for dialogue or character or tension or something), 50% you writing. Yeah, you’re not going to escape that writing part. Sorry. It’s why we do this. But you can thank them. And not just, “OMG I <3 ur bookz! nbd tho” (or however the kids say that, I think I forgot a “squee” or something). I mean track down a method contact longer than a tweet and drop them a note. Tell them how their book got you through a rough part of your own writing. Tell them how you really enjoyed spending your lunch breaks escaping your hated job by exploring the world they made. Tell them how a character’s strength gave you hope when things looked bleak. Tell them how a moment in the story moved you.

It just got real dusty up in here, didn't it?

It just got real dusty up in here, didn’t it?

Put your guts out there.  See what you get back. You’ll be surprised to see what not being a negative fuckhole can give you.

The Cycle Has To End

If there’s little praise, then we are competing for it, then we’re not focused on getting guts on the page – we’re trying to divine what will please the praisekeeper – and they might be some fickle people. Snapping that cycle is as easy as looking at what you’re writing, remembering why you’re writing it and being aware that you (not others) are in charge of it. Yes, you can hand it off, but only do so to the people you know share the same intensity of care and enthusiasm you do. And when someone rains on your parade, understand that you don’t have to quit on account of storms. They pass.

Happy writing.