Category : The Writing Craft

  • November 11, 2015

    Nonfiction that Stands Out

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    “Apart from platform, how can I stand out to an agent or editor? There’s a lot of demand for books in my subject, but also a lot of similar titles already in print.”

    Great question! It shows especial savvy that this author began with “apart from platform;” obviously, platform is usually one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) factor in catching an agent or editor’s interest as a nonfiction writer and it’s best to be realistic about that. That said, relatively new and non-famous nonfiction authors are published every day, and the factors that caused an agent and then editor to say yes to those authors are often the same as the answers to the question asked above, “How can I/(this project) stand out?”

    The answer to this question is part knowing-your-project and part developing-your-project; in other words, there are probably ways in which your project already stands out in its field that you just need to identify and highlight in your pitch materials, and there are probably also a few ways in which your project has the potential to stand out in its field that will require you to do a little re-writing or re-framing of the manuscript or proposal. We’ll look at both.

    Knowing the Stand-Out Aspects of Your Project

    To identify ways in which your project already stands out, ask yourself some of these questions:

    • What is the best thing about this project? What do you do REALLY well that is obvious in your nonfiction book? Is it the writing? The easy-to-understand instructions? The unconventional teaching methods? The fun anecdotes? If you don’t know, ask a few people who have read several similar titles to read yours and tell you what stands out, what you do better than anyone else they’ve read.
    • What is the most unique thing about this project? What do you do differently from the majority of authors/titles in this field? Why is
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  • November 2, 2015

    Ask the Agent: How do I approach someone at a conference? (and other questions)

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    I’ve been trying to catch up on all the questions people have sent in, so let me share a handful of queries: “When speaking with an editor at a conference, what is the best way to approach the allotted 15 minutes? Do I focus on the editor and the titles she’s worked on? Do I focus on my novel? Do I bring a one sheet?”

    The best way to approach your time at an editorial appointment is to do some research and practice. Pitch Book CoverCheck to make sure the editor you’re meeting actually acquires books in your genre. Find out what you can about the editor’s likes and dislikes. Then practice what you’re going to say — sharing your name, your book idea, the conflict, theme, genre,and hook. Be clear and succinct, and rehearse your talk out loud, so you know what it feels like to say the words. Be ready to engage in dialogue with the editor. Dress professionally, and bring some words to show them (many like a one-sheet; I prefer the first five pages). In my view, the focus of a successful editorial appointment is your book, so think through how to talk about your book in an engaging way without sounding like just another pitch.

    Another person wrote to ask, “Should I pay more attention to a literary agent’s list of authors they represent, or to their agency’s list of authors? In other words, if a Big Deal Agency has bestselling authors, how much does that mean if the agent I’m talking to doesn’t represent any of those writers?”

    That’s an interesting question, since every agency tries to promote their bestselling authors. I was at Alive Communications when we represented the Left Behind series that sold 70 million copies worldwide — and while I didn’t have much of anything to do with that series, I certainly mentioned that we represented it when I was a young

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  • October 28, 2015

    Craft and Process Lessons from NaNoWriMo

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    brick green no smile b:wIf the title of today’s post sounds like gibberish to you, you must not hang out with very many writers. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a month-long writing challenge performed by any author who wants to participate during the month of November. The concept is simple: write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1st and November 30th. What started as an exercise for a small group of writers has grown into a yearly marathon for hundreds of thousands of authors, during which they neglect sleep, work, children, spouses, and friends for a month and get a really short, messy novel to show for it.

    I’m definitely not knocking NaNoWriMo; I’ve known dozens of writers who love their crazy November and the community created around pursuing such an ambitious goal in a month. Now, as an agent, I’m not exactly crazy about the influx of short, messy novels I get in January after people “polish” their NaNoWriMo projects and immediately hunt up the closest available agent’s email address, but I do think there can be some valuable takeaway for authors who participate in terms of craft and self-awareness as an artist. Whether you’re planning to officially participate in NaNoWriMo or not, the process of writing a big hunk of text in a comparatively short time can be one that leaves you a better writer at the end of it if you approach it correctly!

    Adjust Your Expectations

    If you go into NaNoWriMo expecting to have a finished, salable manuscript when it’s over, you are going to be disappointed. Let me say that again: If you go into NaNoWriMo expecting to have a finished, salable manuscript when it’s over, you are going to be disappointed. While the event may be called “National Novel Writing Month,” what it actually is is “National First Draft/Extended Outline Writing Month,” but “NaFirDrafExOuWriMo” has been slow to catch on. Really; unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction,

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  • October 21, 2015

    Editing for Authors: Part 9, Writing Lessons from Editing

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    brick green no smile b:wHere we are at the final installment of my “Editing for Authors” series. If you’ve been following from the beginning, you know we’ve talked about several different editing styles and strategies and that the overall goal in employing any of them is to make your manuscript better (and by extension, more salable). Eventually, however, because there’s no such thing as a “perfect” manuscript, you’ll have to decide that it’s done and put your red pen away and send the thing off into the cruel world to make its fortune. And since, as the title of this series suggests, you are predominately an AUTHOR, once your editing duties are completed you’ll likely start working on a new manuscript in pretty short succession. And while the return to the freedom and creativity of writing can and should be a glorious change from the dictates of editing, you shouldn’t rule out the possibility that your recent editing exploits can offer several lessons to you about your writing– lessons that, if heeded, could result in that fun, creative writing process turning out a stronger, better-written first draft this time around.

    For your future writing to benefit from your editing experience, you’re going to find it helpful to sort the types of edits you made into groups– did you have a lot of plot-related fixes to make? Holes, conflicts, missing information, out-of-order events, confusing timelines? What about cliche or repetitive language? Did you routinely overuse certain words or phrases? What kind of verbal clutter did you cull from the last manuscript? Attribution? Adverbs? Excessive description?

    Once you’ve sorted your edits into general categories, you’ll start to be able to identify what your “weak areas” are. Obviously, everyone will make a few each of many kinds of errors/weak writing choices, but we all have certain shortcomings that are more prevalent than others, and these are the kinds of weaknesses you can hope to improve upon if

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  • October 7, 2015

    Editing for Authors: Part 8, Editing for a Specific Audience

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    brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to Editing for Authors, the series where I surprise myself every week by having something else to say on the subject!

    I’m getting ready to wrap up the series, but before I do I wanted to talk briefly about a type of editing that differs a little from the rest of the methods we’ve been discussing but is still worth having in your “editor toolbelt,” and that is the ability to edit your manuscript with a specific audience in mind. This type of editing is different in that, while the goal of the majority of editing techniques covered so far is to make the manuscript objectively better, your goal in editing for a specific audience is usually to make the manuscript more marketable/salable to that particular audience, be it an editor/publishing house or the reader, whether or not that actually makes it a “better” book.

    Let me start with the disclaimer that I obviously never advocate changing your book or compromising your message just for the sake of being more commercial or more “trendy” and that if you feel deeply convicted that certain content belongs or doesn’t belong in your book you should follow that conviction and trust that if it’s supposed to be published it will find the right publisher, etc., etc. Now that that’s out of the way, there may be times when you will want to edit your manuscript with a specific audience in mind, and yes, this may mean toning down certain elements or adding or removing others, as well as making different style or formatting choices than you otherwise might, even if there’s nothing objectively “wrong” with yours.

    This type of editing is done to make your manuscript more appealing to a specific audience– in cases where you know that a certain publisher or imprint you’re submitting to has specific guidelines for length or content, it only makes sense to edit your manuscript

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  • September 30, 2015

    Editing for Authors: Part 7, The Machete

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    brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to “Editing for Authors,” the series where we guarantee you’ll be sick to death of the word “editing” by the end or your money back!

    Most of the series to this point has dealt with editing that adds to or changes the manuscript– correcting grammar/punctuation, filling plot holes, honing your voice, rounding out characters, re-organizing information, etc. As important as these tasks are, however, one of the most important jobs of an editor is not only to add what’s missing, but to trim off the excess or mediocre content (“trim” here being a word which may mean “hack, chop, and/or slash away without mercy”). Being able to fix mistakes and add missing content is all well and good, but an author-editor needs to be able to recognize when the best course of action is simply to cut out a piece of text, and be mentally and emotionally prepared to do it.

    Think about your manuscript like a garden. You planted every single seed in that darn thing, and watered and fertilized and sweated over it all summer, and now you feel an emotional connection to every living thing growing in there. The problem is, you mistakenly planted a bunch of weeds right alongside your flowers (or, if you’re weird, vegetables) and didn’t realize it until they were full grown and mixed in among the rest of the garden. Now, even though the weeds are choking out the flowers, you feel like you’ve invested too much hard work and time in them to pull them– okay, so it’s not the best analogy, but many authors do struggle when it comes to cutting repetitive, unnecessary, or inferior content.

    It’s only natural– no one writes their manuscript thinking, “Okay, that was a great chapter; now I think I’ll write a mediocre one.” We usually like what we’re writing and think well of it, so when someone tells us our prologue is

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  • September 23, 2015

    Editing for Authors, Part 7: Rewriting vs. Editing

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    brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to the series on editing for authors that will continue until I run out of things to say on the subject! If you missed last week’s post (which appeared on Friday instead of Tuesday), we discussed the second part of “big picture” editing: editing for consistent writing quality, and how, as a self-editor, one of the most important tools you can have is a knowledge of your own strengths and style.

    Often, when editing a manuscript, whether one you wrote in a hurry or one you wrote in stop-and-start mode over a long period of time, you’ll encounter some of the aforementioned “big picture” problems– missing information has led to a plot hole, or hurried storytelling have resulted in an absence of your voice in part of the manuscript, or long interruptions/breaks in the writing process have led to an inconsistent tone, etc. Editor-you finds these flaws and makes note of them, but now you have a tricky job in front of you: if editor-you tries to fix these problems, you run the risk of the edited portion of the manuscript reading as less authentic or more bland/sterile than the rest of the manuscript, but if you let writer-you off her leash and tell her to fix things, there’s no telling what new mess she might get herself into. (After all, most of this is her fault in the first place.) How, then, do you reconcile your editing goals with your creative voice in fixing “big picture,” writing-or-story-related problems?

    A good place to start is to treat your editing as if it were a job you were doing for someone else. If you’ve ever paid for (or received with a publishing deal) a professional edit, you know that the editor generally doesn’t just go through and make big alterations on his own. Sure, he’ll make a lot of little changes, usually having to do with usage/consistency/grammar, etc., depending

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  • September 18, 2015

    Editing for Authors: Part 6, Know thyself, edit thyself

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    brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on editing for authors. This week, we’re continuing the discussion begun last time on the developmental editing process. As I said in part 5, the purpose of a developmental edit can be boiled down to two goals: to make the manuscript coherent in content and consistent in writing quality.
    Consistent quality can obviously speak to a myriad of different aspects of your manuscript– punctuation, grammar, sentence construction, voice, dialogue, storytelling, etc. all contribute to the overall quality of your manuscript, but since we’re talking about developmental editing, we know we’re looking at quality in a big-picture sense– the overall way you put together your stories and your overall writing ability. Elements that contribute to this big-picture quality include a consistently strong writing voice, effective storytelling (through good dialogue and and strong characters), and an identifiable tone throughout.
    While editing for coherence can be a challenge because of your extreme familiarity with and knowledge of the story/material, editing for consistent quality can be difficult for the opposite reason– many writers, especially those who’ve only written a few manuscripts, don’t have the self-awareness necessary to first identify their voice, storytelling strengths, and tone, much less the ability to edit to improve these. One of the first questions I ask authors who meet with me at conferences is, “How would you describe your voice?” and more often than not, especially with first-time novelists or non-fiction writers, I’m met with a blank stare. Knowing what elements most strongly characterize your writing– whether it’s subtle humor, rich language, punchy dialogue, or larger-than-life characters– and knowing the overall tone of your book allows you to notice when those elements are missing from a portion of your manuscript, or when you’ve veered from your tone.
    Just as beta readers can help identify plot holes and missing information, they can also help you identify your specific voice, the tone of your writing,
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  • September 2, 2015

    Editing for Authors: Part 5, The Big Picture

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    brick green no smile b:wWelcome back (after a couple weeks off) to my series on editing for authors. I spent the last two posts talking about the role of a style sheet in the editing process (here and here, if you missed them). A style sheet is an extremely helpful tool in making “little-picture” edits such as consistent spelling or formatting, and in keeping track of details such as a character’s hair color, mother’s name, or the kind of car she drives. When it comes to editing your book for the “big picture,” however, it’s hard to draft a checklist that can anticipate the variety of bigger-scale problems that can show up in a manuscript. Learning to recognize problems such as inconsistent pacing, incomplete plots, weak dialogue, or mushy writing voice takes a different kind of perspective and a different set of editing skills. These kind of “big picture” edits are part of the developmental editing process, the purpose of which can be boiled down to two goals: to make the manuscript coherent in content and consistent in writing quality. We’ll look at the first of these two goals this week.

    Coherency in a finished manuscript is one of the hardest things to assess accurately as a self-editor. After all, all your manuscript’s content came out of your head– you invented the crazy plot, you know the thoughts running through the characters’ heads, you understand the connection between seemingly unrelated anecdotes or lessons in your memoir, you appreciate the significance of a piece of information in your business book, etc. Inevitably, some of this information that is so clear in our heads gets muddled when we transfer it to the page, leaving a reader confused about a sequence of events, a character’s actions, or a seemingly pointless paragraph. We can try to edit our own work for clarity and coherence, but because we invented these scenarios or are writing out of our

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  • August 25, 2015

    Why does everyone want to be published?

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    I thought you’d like to see this question someone sent me: “I’ve been writing for several months now, and I’m trying to figure out what my motivation is. Can you help me understand WHY so many writers want to become published authors?”

    A fascinating question. Okay, this may surprise you, but I believe most new writers basically Keyboardwant to get published so that they’ll be famous. They want that thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover, show it to their friends, leave it on their coffee table, maybe peruse a copy at the bookstore and casually mention to someone in the aisle, “You know… I wrote this.” I think most new writers are seeking fame and encouragement, that they believe validity and meaning will arrive out of publication. They see fame as offering a measurable amount of worth and competence.

    That’s not to say most new writers don’t also have something they want to say — they do. It’s just that many newer writers struggle with having a worthwhile story. Think about it — we all know it takes a while for a writer to become competent. Rarely do you see a novelist get her first completed work contracted. The industry average is five complete books before landing a deal… in other words, if you’re starting out, it will probably be your fifth completed novel before you get a contract. That’s why so many writers give up after one or two — it takes persistence to complete five novels before a publisher will pay attention to your work. So, in my opinion, many writers get into the business as a way to express themselves; as a way to get noticed.

    Yet most writers who have achieved some level of fame fairly quickly eschew it in favor of craft. They may still enjoy the warmth associated with being recognized, or having someone come up and

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