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.

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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.

 

How To Talk About What You’re Doing

You’re writing stuff. I’m writing stuff. You’re making stuff. I’m making stuff. That lady over there is doing a thing. That guy you sort of have a friendly relationship with because you can both laugh over that thing on your commute is doing stuff.

Loads of people are doing stuff. Doesn’t matter what that stuff is specifically, it can be writing or making decorative candles or producing presidential busts made of navel lint or poetry or competitive gargling, whatever you’re doing, you need to know how to talk about it. To other people. Often out loud. Often in some other form of media.

There’s this weird switch that flips  when someone has to go speak in front of people. Maybe it evokes that social conscious fear of being vulnerable, maybe it calls back to our neolithic elders taking turns around the fire at the cave wall. Maybe it’s all about the eyes staring back at you, waiting with a pregnant urgency and some kind of unspoken need to have things communicated at them.

It’s a tangle of nerves, a flushed weight in the stomach, jellyfish and razor edged burning butterflies hacking and quailing in the guts. The air seems to be at once frozen and fiery. Your tongue grows fat in your mouth. Your voice cracks like someone dropkicked a bagpiper down a flight a stairs. Cue the possible vomit. Cue the cold sweat. Cue the stack of “uh” and “um” that you swear you don’t do. Cue the weak knee rumba.

Scary. Awful. Intimidating. Awkward. Terrible. While we seem to lose the dictionary for positive words about creation, we can draft plenty for how bad we’re talking about what’s created. I spend a lot of time thinking about that imbalance.

And that’s not because I’m somehow immune to it. I’ve visited many garbage cans and bathrooms en route to speak or seminar or play a game. Many porcelain gods received my offerings before and after many things I’ve done in my life. I get it.

Do you like doing that? I don’t. If you ever find anyone who likes doing that, please introduce me. I have many questions.

So let’s talk today about how not to do that. Let’s talk about how to build a better experience.

At the core of talking about what we’re doing, there are three concepts. There’s pride, an internal sense that we’re doing a thing well, because we’ve got tangible evidence (words on the page, yarn … yarned, etc). There’s doubt, that volcano of insecurity that our words and creations are crystalline and there’s a hurricane on the horizon. And there’s interest, the curiosity and want for the world to have whatever you’re creating in it.

Slide any of these elements up and down the intensity scale, and you’ll watch pride swing to arrogance or self-defeat, doubt leaps to blind surety or denial, and interest bound to obsession or avoidance. Why we move them in the extremes more than anywhere else is probably the subject of another post or another blog altogether, so let’s go past whatever arbitrary scales we can build, and talk practical things we can do.

Don’t lose that interest. Yes, you can think it’s a good or bad idea to go make whatever you’re doing depending on the minute or hour or day of the lifetime, but somewhere, at some point, you thought that what you’re working on should be a thing that existed outside the realm of your imagination. The world would be better with your story in it. The world needs your product. And that’s true. You should get your stuff out there. It would make the world a better place, and more importantly, the journey you’ll undertake to get your stuff into the world will substantially help you too. Also, maybe, you’ll make a few dollars, which can be helpful for buying tacos or paying for streaming video services.

There’s a passion under that interest. You may not acknowledge it, you may not believe it, but beneath the “I want to do this thing” sits the potential tinder to spark a fire to keep you making this thing even when it feels like you encounter “don’t do this thing” from all corners. There is nothing wrong with passion. Passion is half the caduceus along with ability when we’re talking about talking about what you’re doing. You have to steel yourself that your internal fire will keep you warm and ward off the predators and doubt that stalk the perimeter of your brain campfire.

How you light that fire, how you send flames skyward is up to you. Maybe you listen to a playlist everyday, maybe you don the writing bathrobe, maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and make action movie explosion sounds. Do something, proactive and out loud, to give yourself the permission to go do stuff and enjoy doing it. Yes, even when it’s hard. Even when you’re not sure where the course goes. Even if you hit a wall and you need to change direction or get some education. You’re still allowed to love what you’re doing and keep doing it.

And then keep doing it. I mean practice. Practice often. Write often. And if you’re about to tell me that you’re preemptively shaming yourself because you’re somehow convinced that no one’s going to like the thing you’re doing before you’re even done doing it, let me tell you the bread story.


You decide to have a fresh loaf of bread with dinner. You have time, you have all the ingredients, so why not? Bread is cool. So you follow your favorite recipe. You mix the dough. You set it to rise. You’re looking forward to making the kitchen smell awesome. The dough rises, and you’re super pumped. You got the oven ready to go. You put the dough in the proper pan, you slide the pan into the oven.

And then you’re gripped with the absolute realization that you don’t know the first damned thing about bread, that other people make bread that’s better than yours, that no one would like your bread. So you pull the dough out of the oven, about four minutes into baking.

It’s not even bread yet. It’s warm dough. Of course warm dough isn’t bread, it’s not done yet. But you’re absolutely certain that this dough won’t ever turn into bread, which is why you’ve stopped it from ever becoming anything more than some goop you hashed together some afternoon.

You deserve to have bread. Taking the dough out of the oven early so you can judge against fully baked breads is not going to do anything positive for you. Please let your dough bake. That’s how the bread happens.


In that story, replace “bread” with “whatever it is you’re working on.” It takes time to turn ingredients into dough, and more time after that to make dough into bread. Don’t get angry at the flour that it isn’t bread yet.

You’re going to make bread, yes, but you have to go through the steps. You have to spend the time. You have to put in the practice. Mix this. Pour that. Beat like it owes you money. If you didn’t want bread, why did you lay all this stuff out on the counter?

Ability, that other caduceal serpent along with passion, comes from invested performance repeated often. When I say “invested” I mean “not half-assed.” If you want crappy bread, do a shitty job following the recipe and see what happens. Since no one ever sets out to intentionally make bad bread (or bad whatever-it-is-you’re-doing), expect that practice to take time, sometimes be challenging, and to warrant exertion.

The more procrastinatory or anxious may be sitting here at this point saying, “But John, how do I know I’m able?”

Good news: you won’t know until you try.

Rehearse positively. This is the part of trying where people find themselves backed into a corner, but they still squirrel some way into lacking commitment. Sort of like when we dust. Sure, we do the big stuff, but how often are we getting behind that one piece of furniture in that corner of the room where no one ever even looks?

This is the object of your passion we’re talking about here. Are you really going to treat it (and by extension yourself) like that? Do you think so poorly of yourself, do you feel so undeserving of enjoying a thing, or (gasp!) even being good at a thing, that you find reason upon reason not to do it. How serious are you really then about making this thing?

Which means practice. Before I go speak somewhere, for days in advance, I stalk through the house going over my points. Before I blog, I talk to myself or the dog about what I’m going to say, what’s the best way to say it. I ask myself how my wordy heroes would say it. I craft chunks of it in my head.

Don’t let the editorial seizures consume you. This isn’t where you write a line, then delete it, write it again, delete that, then pick up your phone to check your text messages and wander into the kitchen for another drink. Rehearsing positively is where you do a thing with the assumption it’s going to be received well. Not tepidly. Not “ehh”. Well. Picture that however you like. Maybe that’s people saying nice things. Maybe that’s sexy pantsless happy times with people as a result of your creations. Maybe that’s getting cake.

When you prepare, do it with every bit of focus you can muster that what you’re doing is working.

Distinguish mistake from failure. You’re going to suck at stuff from time to time. You’re going to blunder through describing what you’re doing. You’re going to monkey some emails. Not all mistakes are proof from the great beyond that you never should have started doing whatever you’ve been doing. They’re mistakes. They’re opportunities to learn, change course, and try again. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the ultimate decision to pack it all in and give up comes from you, not the outside world. You can thank that passion and interest mentioned above for empowering that decision and keeping it from the hands of any doubters who aren’t you.

Failures are few and far between. They’re the dead end in the maze, but where you don’t double-back and try again. They’re the great surrender. They’re weighty decisions. They’re totally separate from mistakes.

Mistakes are the errors we make because we don’t know better. Maybe you’ve never tweeted before, so you mess up your first few tries. Maybe you never asked a human if they wanted to chat, so you try to make a joke and it doesn’t land. These moments are temporary. It’s that bastard doubt that makes them appear monumental.

Yes, there’s a danger from compounding mistake upon mistake out of delusion or stubbornness, but that’s not the same as failure either. That’s a pile of mistakes and a lack of recognition that there’s at least one change to be made.

Mistakes do not last forever. They might hang around for a while, but remember that you’re the bouncer of your internal nightclub, so you can toss those mofos anytime you like. Failure’s forever. (Note: If you fail, then try again, it’s not a failure, it’s a mistake.)

Cover the obvious. If you’re going to talk about what you’re doing, and there’s a vocabulary specific to it (like names or verbs), learn the vocabulary. Learn how to use those terms properly, and learn how to express them in multiple ways. The more ways you can describe or apply that vocabulary, the more you’re going to assure the listener that you’re on firm ground, and the more you’re going assure yourself that you’re not duct-taped to the passenger seat of a garbage truck on fire as it plummets off a cliff into the dark ocean below.

This is also true for questions. People who aren’t you, people who don’t share your level of awareness or expertise, are going to have questions. Let them ask them. Don’t trot out responses that shut people down (so axe the “it’s not my job to educate you” and “you really should google that” from your response list). Someone’s question, even if you term it as off-base or completely screwball, deserves a response. That’s not necessarily a full answer, but you do have to say something other than “Go suck eggs and get that weakass interrogative out of my face.”

Prepare for questions. Make them part of the rehearsal. It will reinforce your comfort in explaining what you’re doing if you’re geared up to answer a question about whatever it is you’re doing.

Slow down to go faster. That panic and fear shoots us out of the gate at blistering speeds. We cram all the words together, like the oxygen is getting sucked from the room and the only way to get some back is to answer this lady’s question. So you open mouth and let fly. It’s a verbal firehose. It’s hard to understand. It’s hard to know what do to with the amount of information coming out.

Speed is a learned skill. It’s a sign of comfort with material. It’s a sign that you’re flexible with what’s happening. Have you noticed that when you were learning to write or bake or art or yodel or whatever, you started slowly, in halting steps? And then as you got more comfortable, you got faster? The same is true for talking about what you’re doing. You’ll gain speed along with fluency, trimming wordfat out of your explanation as it grows more clear and understandable.

Jumping and stumbling over your words, goofing up a tweet, missing that call to action in an email, they’re chances to learn and try again. You might be tempted to get in over your head, because you think maybe that if people see how much you’re doing (even if you’re doing it poorly), they’ll think you’re really really good at it. The same is true for going quickly. Instead of a vector of depth (burying yourself in so many things, getting so many plates spinning at once), you get an outward vector where hastily done material misses the quality mark, or invites doubt to come party when you’re not seeing the successes you want.

Want to get faster? Keep trying. Keep pushing forward for more progress. Go at a pace that’s just the right amount of challenge and comfort.

Admit newness if you’re new. This is one of those points where you can find some disagreement. I’m not sure why that is, but this seems to really divisive. There’s an attitude of “fake it till you make it” that this somewhat flies in the face of … but maybe I should back up and break this down.

“Fake it till you make it”, for me, has been horrendous advice, because I’ve never been comfortable faking something I don’t already have a knowledge of. It seems incredibly foolish for me to fake a thing I’ve never done before, risky in some way, especially because the things I’ve never done are often undone because they inflame some kind of emotional or mental issue with me. This is why I don’t go all in on teaching or why I never got one of them corporate jobs. Those things scared and rubbed at me the wrong way, so I didn’t pursue them. Naturally, I didn’t want to fake anything and pretend like that’s what I should be doing, because I fundamentally disagreed with them. And why fake anything? Why prop up any artifice, even if it’s to trick yourself? I don’t want to trick myself, I want to go do stuff and get better at it.

Which is why I advocate for admitting you’re new at doing something if you’re new at it. It doesn’t excuse the mistakes, it doesn’t white them out. But it does reduce the urge to castigate yourself for making them in the first place. Yes, you’ve never tried something before. Great! Anyone who gets furious with you that you’re not doing it right is a jerk, so don’t concern yourself with their opinions. Don’t dogpile on yourself because this is your first time. Everyone’s had a first time. Chances are, everyone’s had a second time too. And after you do whatever you’re doing, you won’t be as new at it. Keep doing it, get less new. That’s the beauty of the idea – you don’t trick anyone, you’re honest, you don’t fall into the thresher of doubt that you’re “supposed” to be at some level other than inexperienced. Just be patient, keep at it. It will get easier. You’ll get better at it.

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Throughout these nearly 2800 words, I’ve used “doing something” (or some variant) a lot. Just replace “something” with whatever you’re doing or creating. And then talk about it. Wherever. Social media. In person. Both. Get a skywriter. Throw yourself a parade. Make the neighborhood kids get tattoos. Mow a billboard into your lawn.

Just talk about what you’re doing. You’ll get better at it the more you do it.

See you later this week for #InboxWednesday.

 

 

The “Are You Ready To Get Published” Checklist, John-style

There’s been a lot of talk about self-publishing about it being good or it sucking or it being the salvation of stories or the whatever-it-is-to-whomever-needs-it. And because at the moment, it’s a pretty expedient route to getting something published (in this context, I mean getting something into a format or structure where someone else can consume it, sometimes in exchange for money), that means lots of people can write something and put it out for people to come running like thirsty animals at the watering hole.

This also presents an interesting wrinkle in that when people don’t come running, as if you’re Prometheus delivering fire (as opposed to Prometheus delivering a terrible movie), you get to bitch about. Loudly. Frequently. On social media. In public. At workshops. At conventions. To your dog. To any human who lucks into your path.

Further, it gives a tease of pleasure, as if there’s more to come later, when those first sales trickle in. And then like the Muppet, you start counting sales. One, Two, Three (ah ha haa) sales. Maybe you get up to like 40 or 400 over the course of a month or a quarter or however you obsessively slam the refresh on your browser. And that pleasure is narcotic. I can speak about the joys of narcotic rushes. I can tell you just how addictive it is to feel good. I can also tell you that you will do stupid things (like bitch on twitter, or pick fights with authors or editors or agents) to get another hit. I mean, in a publishing sense. I guess you could sell your stuff for book sales, or commit sex acts in alleyways for pageviews. I never really thought about that. (Now I can’t help but think of a sign that says, “Will swallow for blog hits” and expect one of those websites to scoop it up in a hot minute)

All this is divisive and great for fomenting argument and message board chatter. And it obscures the facts:

  1. People are going to write things.
  2. Some of those things are going to exist in stages where the manuscripts are rife with errors, either within the context of the story (cliched characters, plot holes, stuff like that) and also with the words and structure (spelling, grammar and punctuation errors)
  3. People want to get published.
  4. There are lots of ways to get published, or more broadly, get people to pay for things you’ve written.
  5. Some people are going to see one way to get published as superior to another, either because of things involved in getting published that way (agents, labels on books, etc) or because of expedience (upload a file, start “selling it”) or because of some other thing I’m not aware of but I’m sure someone will tell me about once this post goes up on the blog.
  6. If you rush to publication, regardless of route, you may encounter difficulty in the form of rejections or negative feedback because your manuscript may have any/all errors described in #2.
  7. You may get your work(s) published and still require a day job.
  8. You may have to publish several books/things in order to get some sort of income that you can live on consistently without fear of financial dire straits.
  9. Not every thing you write needs to be or is going to be published.
  10. Editors who aren’t you (or aren’t immediately related to you and are therefore biased) are useful to developing your work and your ability to produce that work, even if you’re focusing on a route to publication that puts editing after a submission and acceptance process.
  11. Not many people agree on the “best” course of action.
  12. Lots of people espouse all manner of philosophy, panicked thoughts, emotional reactions and BS statistics to try and persuade or dissuade people from certain actions or avenues in publishing.

Now, I’m sure I’ve forgotten loads of things because I’m writing this late at night when I’m tired, but I think I’ve put down some nice basics there. To that end, here’s a nice checklist you can use to help you produce whatever it is you’re doing.

Question 1

Is your manuscript complete? Before we go anywhere else, the thing you’re writing has to be done. And by “done” I mean the particular manuscript has to be finished, that you’re not adding more to it or fiddling with it. Even it’s a part of a series, this book (whatever number it is) has to be a whole book. Sure, it can end on a cliffhanger. Sure, it can leave some parts of a greater plot unanswered. But by itself, it has to be a complete story. However long that is. However many words. Complete.

Sub-Questions under Question 1

Does your manuscript have a main character that we can easily pick out and follow through the course of the story? A story needs a protagonist. The audience has to have some character we follow more than all the others (yes, even in an ensemble story where you have a group of characters together), so that they can see the plot and the character(s’) response to it. If there’s no clear protagonist (as in The Phantom Menace, several films from the ’70s and anything I wrote while in college), then audience won’t have an easy access point to the story, which means they won’t be as invested as they could be, and that may mean they put the book down to pick up something else. (And that’s not ideal if you want a stable audience or good reviews or repeat sales.)

Are your characters NOT stereotypes, cliches, “Mary Sues”, overpowered unchallenged uber-folk or one-dimensional cardboard? Here we can talk about the character spectrum. If you’ve got characters that are ‘too’ anything (too perfect, too beautiful, too good for the challenge of the plot, too troubled as to be unmotivated, etc), as per above, people aren’t going to have an access point into your story and created world. They don’t need to be super flawed either, it’s more about writing characters that someone somehow and in some way can relate to.

Did you spell-check it? Seriously, in my writing program of choice, spell-check is a pretty accessible, either by a menu or a keystroke. Use it. It shows respect to your readers and helps solidify the impression that you actually give a damn about what you create and didn’t just rush to stick your name on something in the hope that money would soon thereafter follow.

Is there a plot? And are you getting to that plot within the first twenty pages? A story needs a reason or a conflict or a crisis or a problem that the characters can solve. It makes the reader feel things, it creates a sense of “will this work out for our heroes” and generally gives the book a point to being read. The sooner you can introduce the plot and its effects on the protagonist(s), the sooner we can get into following their efforts to do something about it. Bloating the story up front with details because “you need to know this in order to understand stuff later” doesn’t demonstrate that you’ve paced or planned the story out, and in a way tells me that you’re more concerned with your telling the story than my liking it. (Sort of like a party where the person cares more about the praise or attention being paid to their storytelling rather than the story’s reception or the listeners’ enjoyment – are you writing just to show that you can do it?) Lastly, does this plot build to a climax and then resolve? Yes, even if you’re writing a series, each component needs an internal structure and not just act as setup to books later “when you’ll really get into it”. I don’t want to get into it later, four books from now. I bought this book, I want to get into it NOW.

Question 2

Since your manuscript is complete, have you formatted it according the particular requirements of the route it’s going to take in publishing? Just about every way to publish a story requires it be formatted a different way. Some places want it formatted with certain spacing and margins. Others want a particular file format. This isn’t just caprice. Formatting it a certain way shows that not only can you (a) follow directions but also (b) that you give a damn about the thing you’ve created, and you want to give it the best possible shot at getting out into the world. If you don’t know how to format it for your particular publishing method, ask someone affiliated with that method or check online, nearly everywhere has ‘Submission Guidelines’ or an email address where you can talk to someone about it. And when you actually get those guidelines, follow them. Being a rebel here doesn’t do you any favors, and often leads to your work being rejected since you didn’t follow directions. (For example if Company X wants the document formatted a certain way, with inches and spacing, chances are it’s for easier reading and quick printing. Not helping Company X read your thing is not going to help Company X say yes to you.)

Question 3

If you’re going to engage an agent or publisher, have you queried them? And if so, did their response say “Please send us stuff?” Again, we get to the importance of following directions and doing yourself a favor and putting your best foot forward. Imagine for a minute that we’re not talking about books, but something more practical – let’s say you’re making a snack chip. If you want me to buy your chip and tell my friends to buy your chip, are you going to let me test one chip to see if I like it, or are you going to assume that I’ll automatically like it because you (who I don’t know) made it, and you’ve gone ahead and made me a whole giant bag? The query letter is that test chip. It helps set up the dialog and relationship between agent and writer, so that communication (like spice) can flow and deals can be struck. And just like the start of any relationship, coming on too strong is a great way to get yourself rejected. Don’t throw whole bags of chips at people, invite them to make up their own mind with a test chip. Then see where things go.

Question 4

Are you on social media? Are you available somewhere on the Internet, in terms of contact information or some other repository of your thoughts and stuff? I’m not saying you need to be all up on every form of social media. You don’t need to be an Instagram junkie or go crazy with Vines and know the difference between Tinder and Tumblr. But you are going to need some kind of spot on the Internet where people (people interested in talking to you about you and your stuff) can reach you. For me, that’s Twitter and this blog. Yeah, there’s some Facebook too, but not so much anymore. Notice how I didn’t ask about your personal life or about your family or your financial habits or whether or not you’ve got pictures of your kids I can see. Having a presence on social media DOES NOT MEAN you need to show everything to everyone all the time. You choose to show and share what you want, with the caveat that it’s called “social” media and not “I only whore my work and provide links to buy things” media. Social means you can and should expect interactions with other humans, some of whom you’ll agree with and some you won’t, and some of whom will like your work and some who won’t. Growing some thick skin isn’t a bad idea, but it’s applesauce if you think you need to wear plate armor against everyone. The nice thing is that a lot of social media is free (and this blog isn’t all that pricey either, I think it’s like $18 a year or so.)

Question 5

Did you get some people to look at your work? Did “some people” include professionals who can point out errors and issues with your creation? When you write a thing, people are excited. Maybe they’re a little envious. Maybe they just want to see you do well. Who knows. Their reasons are their own. And chances are it’s not hard to find people who want to read your stuff. Friends. Family. Relationships. Co-workers. Maybe you expand by getting librarians or bloggers. Maybe you have a writing group and you take their feedback weekly or monthly. They’re all great resources for encouragement and on-the-spot help. But have you considered getting a professional to help you? Sure, those other people are giving you free advice on some night or an afternoon, and the professional is going to cost you money, but remember how we’ve been talking about doing all you can to put your best foot forward? Getting an editor (and later, beta readers) to apply their expertise (that’s what you’re paying for with professionals) to help your work be the best it can be?

Sub-Question under Question 5

Are you relying too heavily on the editorial process after an expected acceptance? Yes, if you go by some routes in publishing, the editing of your manuscript happens after you sign some paperwork and have been accepted as an author-under-contract. It can really tempting to hold off on editing your manuscript until that part, because it’s going to a pro, and that’s they’re job and it’s out of your hands. Yes, it is out of your hands. But do you think your work is the only thing they’re doing? That they don’t have deadlines or pressure from their bosses to get a certain amount done? And do you think that even at that level they can’t say no to you and say, “This thing is a mess and a nightmare, let’s go back to like square 2”? Publishing in its many incarnations is a marathon, not a windsprint. The better condition your work is in before the race kicks off, the better it’ll hold up to all the rigors your work is going to face.

Question 6

Are you prepared to handle the numbers? I don’t often talk about my own numbers, but I’ll give you some here. I have a series of small monographs available on Smashwords, and to date, they’ve earned me about $34. Thirty-four dollars. Contrast that to my editing income, which is about three thousand times times greater (tax brackets kicked my ass), give or take a percent. Granted, I talk way more about editing novels and games and content than I do about writing my own stuff, and even my own fiction production has slowed since more and more I’m editing to pay bills and live, but thirty-four dollars fills my car up with gas ONCE, or buys me 5 burritos. That’s not a lot, but I’m grateful for it. Writing, in terms of being a writer that produces book upon book, that’s a job, and that means contending with things like sales numbers and expectations and the cost of living or what you’re comfortable owning or not owning.

Question 7

Can you do it more than once? Maybe writing is just something you want to say you tried one time. Maybe it’s to honor a promise or just a goofy thing you started ages ago and now you’re just seeing where it goes. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’re writing things because that’s your retirement. Or because your career is going to put your kids through college. Or because this is what you’ve always wanted to do, so out of your apartment in your city, you write ferociously and still make time to do things like go grocery shopping. Chances are that once you’re published, someone somewhere is going to ask or expect you to do it again. Now if you’re planning a series of books, this is a given. But if you’re just lobbing one word-grenade out there, someone’s going to want you to have extras handy. Which means writing more, possibly faster than you did the first time, and possibly on a schedule and deadline other than your own (especially if you didn’t read that contract you signed too carefully). Ready to do it again?

* * *

I write this not to draw a line in any sand and say “Publish this way and not that way.” I think the “hybrid” model, where you do whatever works best for the project is ideal, even if it means you straddle “fences”. I do think that even work that goes out to agents and publishers can stand to edited, and I do think it’s critical we start pointing out emperors that have no clothes on and talking more about what makes for good writing and not just good sales. I do think sales are a consequence of a well-made product, and I know you can point to tons of material that’s well-made but sold poorly, but I think it’s also time we change our collective thinking about how we perceive writing as art and craft. I think we need to do all we can to produce the best not so that we can demand fat checks, but so that we can bring our stories to people who want them, and we do so with the best polish and construction possible.

I take a lot of heat for saying “You should be writing everyday.” and I’m still going to say it. Because I do think ANYONE can take ten minutes to write down an idea so they don’t forget, then take ten minutes the next day to write a little more, and then a little more the next day. Some people get on my about my privilege, that I’m discounting peoples’ responsibilities. I’m not. I don’t have the same responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean I’m not cognizant of the fact that hours of a person’s day gets consumed by other things. I’m not asking for hours a day. It’d be nice, I think practicing a craft works best when you devote time to it, but even ten minutes regularly counts. 10 minutes. That’s not much. Can you do more? Then do it. Write. Create. A little at a time. If you feel that it deserves more, or that you should be giving it more because 10 minutes is unfair or sounds like I’m yanking your chain, that’s on you. I do think it deserves more. I do think you should do it at least an hour as often as possible. I do think it should be taught more (and better) in schools, and I do think that words can elevate and change minds. I don’t understand how people can ask me “to understand”, when they just tell me I’m being privileged or I don’t know what it’s like. I admit I don’t. Now just tell me how you can say writing or making a thing is as important as you claim when you’re not regularly making time to do it?

Go write things. Produce art. Art hard.

Happy writing.

What Not To Say To An Editor, Part 2

Last week, I wrote Part 1 of this series. This is Part 2.

For the people just coming on board now, I’m an editor. (It’s not my only job, but it’s a good one) And what I’m detailing here are things you shouldn’t say, write or mention in your correspondence with me (or other editors, but I’m speaking mostly from personal experience). The following statements are BIG HUGE RED FLAGS that will often lead you to rejection, suspicion of being creepy, uncomfortable work situations and becoming an example of what not to do.

Take note, good readers.

I’m not sure you’re worth it.” This has only been said to me four times, and each time was a new experience in uncomfortable and bad times. If you (prospective client) and I are talking, and you heave a sigh (which is totally visible when you type, if you’re curious) and then drop that bomb on me, I used to freak out and then spend inordinate amounts of time justifying why we should be working together.

When I was struggling for work and was way too busy helping other people without actually succeeding, I was always working uphill for paychecks, wondering when I’d be able to have some money in my pocket. And that absence of cash (which admittedly is a good thing to have on hand, say when you want to go out on a date or buy a burrito or purchase a video game), really turned me into a doubt factory. I doubted whether or not I was good enough to do this job, if I should get a “real” job, if I should just give all my time and energy to this relationship so that someone will love me, etc etc. Basically, being poor and thinking that having money equaled success (newsflash: it doesn’t, sorry Gordon Gekko) made me think I wasn’t worth much of anything — so I’d always have to prove that I was good “enough” to a person / place / relationship / job / client / ice cream sundae so that I didn’t have to walk away in shame and hide myself in a cave or something.

The point is — that’s a shitty attitude to have. And if you or I spend our time forever justifying whether or not we’re worth it to other people, we’re not going to have the time or the energy to actually do the things we wanted to do in the first place. (Side note – sometimes those people you’re trying to be good enough for just aren’t worth it. For realsies.)

So, if you say “I’m not sure you’re worth it.” what you’re really saying is “I’m not sure I’m/the work/your potential to change my work is worth the commitment to improving, since I’m really scared about doing this because it might succeed or it might fail and discovering that really makes me uncomfortable since it is not what I am used to.”

You’re worth it.
Your work is worth it.

I’ve been editing on my own for years, what good is your help?” I’ve been doing a lot of things myself for years. I built the desk I’m writing this on. I just ate some food I made the other night. But you know what’s nice? Not having to do that. Letting someone else take care of a task for you is nice, and gives you more time to other things (like bathe and knit and golf). Also, if you come look at this desk I’m writing on, it’s not a bad desk, but doesn’t even come close to the super-desk in the other part of the office that dates back from Ellis Island and the 1880s. That thing weighs in the hundreds of pounds and was built with more skill than I thought a man could have. I trust that construction and that work far more than I trust my own, and likewise, you should trust people do the job they’re good at. Anyone can screw together an IKEA desk and it’ll be serviceable, but for really awesome work, go to a professional.

If you edit my work, it won’t be the same. I’ll lose the voice/tone/feel/structure/vibe/sound I want.” Let me just clear up a misconception about editing. What I do is make YOUR work clearer and stronger. Editing is not me coming into your work and changing it the way I want it, editing is refining your work so that it can be enjoyed by others the way you intended.

What happens when you hand me work is that you and I talk. And we figure out what you’re trying to do in the story or the chapter or across several pieces of story or whatever, but basically we map out what’s going on, and how you want it to be seen/experienced by the audience. Then I go back to my lair and educe that desired experience from the text. Yes, that means I might chop up sentences, delete whole paragraphs and suggest that entire characters get the boot. So, you’re right, it won’t be the same. Things will have changed, but that’s on purpose – the changes are there to help you get your point across, get your ideas out there and get that voice/tone/feel/etc etc broadcast.

Can I pay you a little up front and then more when I sign my book deal?” Now if this were fifteen years ago, and book deals still had large sums of cash attached, I’d say yes. But, in today’s industry, and with traditional book publishing not being the cashcow it used to be, my answer is NO.You can pay me over time if you absolutely have to, or you can pay me when the job’s done like everyone else. I don’t want to wait for your ship to come in weeks/months/years from now and you just happen to get around and write me a check. Pay your editors, support us, and help us help you.

[INSERT TITLE OF BOOK OR NAME OF WEBSITE HERE] says that I should get an agent and then let them handle the editing, so I like, don’t need you.” Ahh, the agent quandary. Here’s where things get a little murky. Not because I don’t know an answer to this, but because there are several answers and people don’t always like them. Here we go:

a) Not every book needs an agent, it depends on what the author wants to do with it (if you’re self-publishing and only need like 40 copies for example, then no, you don’t need an agent).
b) Not every agent is (gasp!) a good editor (likewise not every editor is a good agent).
c)Not every book and/or website is going to be useful for you. (Be discriminating. Educate yourself with a variety of sources then make your decisions.)

There’s also a fourth element here: That in order for an agent to pick up your manuscript, it should be in the best shape of its life. That means free of glaring errors, formatted correctly, and engaging with the best story and characters possible. Getting an editor to help you make that happen goes a long way to securing the agent and all those other steps down the line.

My work is perfect, and I don’t ever need an editor. I don’t change a thing, and I just send it straight to Amazon. You can buy my things here, here and here – (and the rest of the email is basically a sales letter).” I’m very happy for you. Honestly, I’m glad you’ve distilled down the formerly scary publishing process to a few mouse clicks after you spend a few afternoons writing.

(I should point out that the above quote came paraphrased from an email that also included a sentence “I don’t know what’s so hard about being prolific, I already have several books published in under XYZ years.” – and yes I got permission to tell you this.)

Publishing your work shouldn’t be so scary that you’re discouraged from doing it, but it shouldn’t also be so simple that there’s no talent or craft required to do it. And if you do as much reading/trawling/searching through Amazon as I do, you may encounter a lot of self-published authors with a dearth of books….and a matching stack of 1-star reviews, that often include comments about poor story structure, weak writing, bad grammar and being a general waste of money. Hiring an editor can prevent a great deal of this before it happens, the caveat being that in order to avoid ignominy as the one-star-Amazon-author, you have to exercise your brain and talent muscles to produce work and get it edited so that it’s in a better than first-draft-shape.

And for the record, no one’s work is ever 100% perfect on the first draft. It’s just not. Expect it to grow, change and evolve as your tastes, skills and other factors (like a reader or time) influence it.

I hope you’ve found this helpful.

Happy writing.

One cake, many slices – How do you get what’s fair?

Good morning everyone. Before you come read the rest of this article, please look at the following:

http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/how-much-do-you-want-to-get-paid-tomorrow/

And at some point, my good friend Chuck will have a post about it, and I’ll link there too. But, I’ll go first for now.

We’re all writers. We all want our books in other people’s hands and on their shelves after we get money in exchange. We crave their praise and encouragement, we are fed and nourished by their desires to imagine.

That money thing though, oh man, that’s the tricky part.

You want to see a bunch of writers revert to those apes from 2001? Talk about money and royalties and getting paid.

I used to be one of those people who wanted to charge $40 for everything I did. Now I don’t do that, and I’m much happier for it, but I do remember my thinking:


1. I’m not sure I’m good enough to be worth more.
2. With so many other writers out there, how is there going to be enough for me to ask for any more than that?

A lot of that was fear, and self-doubt, bubbling up through me like crappy John-isn’t-awesome magma to lay waste to my future paradise.

But that’s been abolished now, so we shall celebrate by plunging back into the fray to rescue others.

Amazon (and their Kindle) is what made me make the jump to self-publishing. Well, that, and I’m impatient and think new media should be embraced. Amazon most recently began this service called KDP Select. Allow me to give you a nice analogy.


We’re all partying. Perhaps there is nut bark. Perhaps we’re rocking out. Doesn’t matter. But at this party there is cake. Let’s call this cake KDP Select’s money.


Now, we’re all at this party, and this is such a rocking party that the whole house is packed, the line stretches out the door and down the street and into the next town. But….

There’s only one cake. And this party is the only way to get this cake. And we can only cut this cake in progressively smaller and smaller slices to accommodate those people at the back of the line. 


Also, if you want a slice of this cake, you can’t go to any other parties or throw any parties of your own. 

Now, do you still want the cake? I mean you’re welcome to have some, and thanks for coming to the party, but there is a really good chance that you’re going to get a very tiny slice, and I’m not sure this one cake is worth trading away your own ability to have parties.  (Note: I’m not sure ANY cake is worth that.)

I was on Twitter this morning (it’s Sunday today) and there were some thoughts being tossed back and forth…and I started the conversation not so sure about what I had to say about KDP and their plan to be whatever it is they’re turning out to be. By the middle of that conversation, after I read that link at the top of this post, I know what I want to say.

1. I agree with the sentiment that writers should be their own distribution hubs. It’s our stuff, it’s our hard work, and like the good folks of The Wire taught me, we should hustle to get it out there.

2. I believe now more than ever a writer can learn/be taught how to be their own distribution hub and their own conduit for success.

3. I think $500,000 is a cruel joke when it’s split between so many deserving people, forcing a sort of brainy gladiator eat-your-own environment.

4. It doesn’t take very much for a rebel to go mainstream, right Amazon? I mean, one minute you’re letting people have options in publishing, now you’re doing the same thing people went to self-publishing to avoid? Dirty pool.

5. A writer has to understand what they’re willing to do, not do, go with, fight against, accept or rebel against, before they can even think of taking a side – education and information still trump ambition.

I don’t think KDP is the way to go. It’s not a panacea. It’s an extension and mutation of the subscription system that breeds into exclusivity, rarity and scarcity. The competition in writing should be the talent, not the earnings.

You deserve cake. A big fat honking slice of cake.