Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Your Manuscript Might Be Getting Rejected And How To Fix It

Sending your novel out in the world is not for the faint-hearted. Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable than someone judging your work, and it's hard to remember that rejections are not personal, they're all business. At the end of the day, while your work means everything to you, an agent or an editor is looking at it in a monetary sense, i.e. can it make any. No matter how charming your story or lyrical your writing, if it won't sell copies, it may not see the light of day.

So what are some of the most common things a writer hears with rejections and how can you work your manuscript so that these comments won't apply to you?

Sure, there are books we've read that are similar in story to others. In fact, some themes are used over and over again to the point of roll-your-eyes saturation. After all, how many books on vampires, mermaids, first love, road trips and kids with a super power can there be? As a writer, if crafting a novel with any of these storylines, it is certainly frustrating to see a plethora of these books on the market with new ones coming out every month and yours is rejected for this reason. But that's the point entirely: Why would someone want to plop down $17 to read a story they've already read? And why would a publisher invest thousands of dollars in a book when they already have a similar one on their list? The only thing you can do when you meet this type of comment is look for something to add to your story that makes it unique and completely different from what already exists. Research the current marketplace, see who published similar books, and make a point of reading every one you can. Then try and find what makes yours different than these and punch up that element and make sure it becomes a significant part of your query and logline to distinguish it. If you can't find one, then that's a pretty darn good place to start.

This translates into that while the story may be entertaining, there is not enough meat to it to make it stand out and sell. In a sea of high concept stories, why would anyone choose this one? That's not to say that every story needs to be high concept, but there needs to be something substantial enough in it other than it being characters going from A to B or boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl to make people want to read it. Publishers are buying fewer and fewer titles every year, so the bar is higher than its ever been to wow them and make them want to fight for your story when it does not have more obvious selling points. All you can do here is go through your book and see where you might be able to beef it up or add a storyline that will help it stand out. For example, if a character is bullied, maybe make the bullying aspect a bigger and more powerful theme. Or if a character has a strange quirk or obsession, play up more how it is affecting their life and everyone around them, therefore standing in the way ultimately of the character getting what he/she wants or needs.

A quiet story, or a soft story, is the polar opposite of a high concept story. It may be beautiful, but again, it will appeal to a smaller sector of the marketplace and there may be reservations about its selling power. Some stories are just meant to be that, nothing more, and they become something else entirely if you try and tweak them too much to suit the marketplace. If a quiet romance can work for Sarah Dessen and sell, why can't it work for everyone else? The difference here is that Sarah Dessen has already established herself, and her publisher knows that her books will sell on her name alone because she's proven herself within her genre. It's much harder for a debut author to make a splash in this way in a quieter genre. You might want to put the quiet book aside to submit after you've sold something else, because once you've established yourself as well publishers may be more open to seeing other work from you that they might not have considered the same way initially. Regardless, quiet, soft stories remain a hard sell in this current market.

Have you taken the time to go through your entire manuscript and check for spelling and grammar errors? It can make a huge difference in the presentation and readability to any agent or editor, and many may pass for that reason alone because the writer seems lazy or sloppy. Some writers may assume they don't need to go that extra mile because someone else will ultimately catch all that and clean it up for them. Not so. It is always essential to present your best, cleanest work. There are multitudes of websites out there that can help you with proper grammar and punctuation usage, so there is no excuse for not doing so before submitting your work to industry professionals.

This one is a big head-scratcher. What do all those buzz-words mean? Over-writing is just that: you are saying TOO much and it is taking the reader out of the story. Flowery language and over-description, or too many moments where the character is questioning everything and immediately coming up with the solution disrupts the flow and strays from an organic, consistent tone. Self-conscious writing is very often applied to first person narrative writing, and that's a tricky one. Because you are writing from one character's POV, you are relaying both their actions and their thoughts. However, there is supposed to be a wall maintained between the reader and the writer, and solid writing lets the reader forget the writer is there at all. Self-conscious writing is passages where the reader again loses that voyeur feeling and is reminded they are reading a story rather than being immersed in it. It is often an overuse of flowery language, literary devices and contrived and over-planned stories. This is a fixable problem, thankfully, and it may mean another revision or two (or more), but if you keep your eye trained to the places where this might be the case and rework them, you will end up with a stronger story.

In life, there are people we like and people we don't. If we find their behaviors repugnant, their morals questionable and their personalities abrasive, chances are we won't like them much. So why is that any different when we are reading a story? If you want a reader to go on a journey with your character, he/she must be invested in him/her and care about what happens to him/her. Even if he/she is a miserable sot, he/she must have some redeeming qualities that are displayed that help a reader relate to and root for him/her. Relatability and likeability are hugely important.

There are obviously so many more, and at the end of the day, any agent or editor's pass is also completely subjective. However, it gives a writer a starting point to work with and see where they might be able to improve upon his/her story before it goes out too wide and great opportunities are lost.

Can you think of any other ones and how to fix them?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Doing the "I Finished The Second Book" Happy Dance

Holy crap! I did it! I finished my second book, and literally eight minutes before the bell rang and I had to pick my eleven-year-old up from school. SO glad you all couldn't see me doing the happy dance in my living room. That would have been waaaay embarrassing. Although it's a completely craptastic first draft that needs much revision and polishing, the bottom line is, I did it, and in just 2-1/2 short months. So I guess it's official: I'm a writer. :) It's not some fluke that I happened to write a book; this is something that I can do over and over again. Maybe the speed with which it was written was part pressure of feeling like I needed to have something else other than just the novel I have on sub, but part of it too is this time I had a much better idea of what I was doing. I understood more about structure and outlining, I caught careless mistakes because I'd learned so much about grammar and punctuation from the first one that I could teach a course, and I actually tackled this with a fully formed story in my head.

On top of that, my friend and one of my crit partners spent yesterday fielding multiple offers of representation after just a couple of months of searching, which kept a huge grin on my face. It's always wonderful when good things happen to people who truly deserve them. Her story is so different than mine (literally and figuratively) and it just serves to show that you can't hold yourself up against anyone else's experience to determine when and how things should happen for you. Everything in its own time. As George Michael would say, "Ya gotta have faith."

I'm so relieved to have draft #1 behind me and have committed to not even touch it for a few weeks so that I can enjoy immersing myself in my daughter's last few days of elementary school, because neither of us gets that back again. And that's the good stuff that makes up the fabric of our personal stories, the ones we keep just for ourselves. :)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pushing It To The Finish Line Turtle-Style

June 6th looms on the horizon like a D-day of sorts in my house. Though it means that I will have my kids home for the summer and we have all sorts of wonderful things to look forward to, it also means the end of my quiet, uninterrupted writing time as I know it until late August. I'm almost done with the first draft of my new novel, and the fear of not finishing it before they are omnipresent has really put a fire under me, so I created a series of goals for myself that felt realistic.

I created an imaginary self-imposed deadline of June 6th to bang out this first draft in it's entirety. Trying to meet that goal, though incredibly daunting, has helped me stay focused and push everything I can to the bank burner (including housework! Sorry family!) so that I can get the words on the page. I have given myself permission to just write, even if it's not perfect, and not worry about correcting ANYTHING at this point. Instead, I keep a pad handy and make little notes to myself so that when I revise later, I can target areas I know from the get-go I will need to address. Writing without the pressure of having that first draft be perfect takes off a HUGE amount of stress, because I have promised myself no one will read this until I have given it at least one revision pass, no matter how anxious I may be to get some feedback. The self-imposed deadline has given birth to an average writing day of anywhere from 8-12 pages, which is great, and also means that if I keep this up, I should meet my goal.

Next, I have given myself the entire summer to tackle revisions. I don't want to rush the process in any way and send my agent something crap, nor waste my crit partners' time by sending them something to read before I think it's truly ready. My mother may be willing to read umpteen drafts of my novels, but realistically, I can't expect everyone else to. Not without a large denomination Starbucks gift card involved at least.

I have tried to absorb all I have learned from the process of writing the first one and not fight it. Check grammar, punctuation and verb tenses. Then check them again. Make sure every piece of dialogue and every scene furthers the story along in some way or chuck it, no matter how beautifully written. I saw a great suggestion on a blog this week that said to create a folder called "Darlings", as in "Killing Your Darlings", and cut and paste all the beautifully written chopped passages of your work that were painful to let go of and keep them here. Maybe they will serve a purpose in something you write in the future.

Next, plug my story into the Save The Cat formula and make sure it works and hits all the essential marks. I followed it loosely in the original writing, because it gave me more of a general guideline, but it will really serve as a fantastic tool to help make for a tight revision. If you are not using this method or don't know what it is, you should totally check it out. Truly, if your story doesn't have all the elements described, it helps you hone your focus on how to fix it. Great stuff.

When we finish typing "The End," if you're anything like me, you can't wait to get your book in front of readers and hope that they will come back saying you're written something epic that needs minimal changes. I have learned this is completely unrealistic, and have learned not to feel disappointed and overwhelmed by this in earlier drafts. That's why it's called a "first draft." Maybe one day I'll possess the skill to knock it out perfectly in one shot, but I have yet to meet a writer who does, so I give myself permission for that first draft to suck and to temper my patience by giving myself a little space and then reapproach it. At the end of the day, I know what I want the story to say, so until it's ready and I feel like all the holes are plugged and I am completely confident about what I've written, I will not jump the gun.

Last but not least, don't shortchange my pitch and figuring out how to articulate a great hook for my logline. This is ultimately what will spark the interest of agents and editors so if it's not the best it can be, you may be shortchanging yourself an opportunity to get your work read. I am allowing myself as much time as needed for this piece because it's so very important. My pitch for my first novel went through many incarnations until it reached its present form because either it gave too much away or was too vague or didn't have anything to hook the reader in and make them feel like this might be a story that they haven't seen before even though the theme might be familiar.

For those of you writers in the same boat as me in the coming weeks, enjoy the last of the silence, and then enjoy the time with your kids! That's a gift not to be missed as well! Your story will still be waiting for you when you can get back to it and any time away from it will only give you the benefit of fresh eyes! Good luck!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Keeping It Real In Your Writing

If I had to pinpoint a moment in any given story where I become truly invested in any character, it's the moment where that character is faced with a difficult situation and they are forced to let it define and defeat them or they finally summon what's inside of them and fight back like a kickass ninja. After all, in our own lives, these are the moments of greatest growth, where we show the world what we're made of and who we've become; how far we're willing to be pushed and what we're willing to accept before we say "No more!"

If your character(s) in your story never have a moment like this, that's a great place to start as you deconstruct what might not be working as well as it could. Your novel does not need to be a high concept adventure or fantasy novel for your hero to have a defining moment. This can also happen in a contemporary romance when someone has to reveal what's in their heart, or in a drama when someone is forced to face their fears and work through them to overcome an obstacle, or even in a comedy when the unlikely hero has to take a stand, or does something he never dreamed he could do that changes everything.

Life is filled with things, people and circumstances that we cannot control. Our want to is what makes us human. Or success or failure at it shapes who we are. It is critical to include these elements into our stories to make them relatable and realistic. Sadly, in most situations in real life, the puzzle pieces do not all fit together easily, all the threads are neatly tied together and everyone lives happily ever after. We can take every measure possible to block out the darkness and the pain and the things that unsettle us, but when they find their way in the cracks, that is where the drama lies that has the power to rattle us, to bring us to our knees and to challenge our spirit. To create a truly memorable and meaningful character, his/her life should hold no less in whatever manner feels appropriate for your story.

And just as in real life, sometimes we are forced to accept what we cannot change and to know our limits. Sometimes that brings about new beginnings. Don't always give your characters the resolution one might expect. Good luck!! Now get busy writing!!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Getting To Know Your Novel: A Love/Hate Story

There are really no words to describe the awesome feeling of starting a new book. That blinking cursor on a blank page that transforms into a first sentence - a portal into a new world. New characters with new mannerisms and quirks and story twists and turns that have yet to be revealed despite what you may or may not have carefully outlined. But in the beginning stages, you're still not committed. You can write one, ten, even twenty pages and then just let it go because there is not yet a tether that binds you to this story. You have yet to truly crawl inside these characters in a way that makes you unable to stop thinking about them, and the story has yet to become such a piece of you that you find yourself thinking about it as you shower, as you drive, and in every idle second in between your "real" life. It's like you're dating.

You start to feel like this story may actually become something as it starts to move up in page count, naturally, propelling into the sixties and seventies, and when you finally hit page 100, you may even have a victory dance and fist pump that hopefully no one saw. By this point, you've already foregone basic nutrition for snacks, food pyramid be damned, because you are starting to feel the groove of this thing and what it might become. At this point, you truly feel like you can call it a work-in-progress, because you are indeed progressing. The relationship to your story is becoming more serious and intense, far more than a courtship, and you're definitely feeling like you can commit to this, but you can still turn back. You may go back at this point and read all you've written and one of two things will usually happen here. Either you will pat yourself on the back and think this is an absolute effing work of genius and press on, buoyed by little more than your own over-confidence that you've written the next New York Times Bestseller, or you will start to crumble inward, thinking that you have spent the last 100 pages (translate into weeks/months/years of your life) deluding yourself that this was any good and that you're a real writer. Many relationships with one's stories end and fizzle in a blaze of glory right here.

But . . . for those that brave forward, who know in their heart that the first draft is allowed to be utterly craptastic and they just need to get the story out, they plunge forward toward the murky middle. This is, without a doubt, the toughest part of the novel for most writers. It's where all the meat of your story truly lies, and it's also the easiest place to get bogged down with details, have too little action and find your characters treading water and ultimately lose your reader. Don't give up hope!! Because if you can make it through the murky middle, your relationship will have proven the test of time, and you will have reached a tipping point. Because after you've reached the middle, it's all downhill sailing to the end. That doesn't mean there doesn't need to be action, characterization, plot and the tying together of threads, but it means you are less likely to give up on your story because that light at the end of the tunnel, though maybe only a small yellow dot at this point, is first starting to become visible.

For me, moving my way past what I project to be the midpoint of my novel makes me breathe an audible sigh of relief, because I start to feel like I might actually be able to do this. Honestly, it's not until then that I feel absolutely confident and committed that this story is going to find its way to completion because up until then, it's simply too easy for that self doubt to settle in the cracks.

And the end. The glorious, bittersweet end. The part where you know what you have left to say, and you get to race downhill and let it all come together. By that point, this book has become so much a part of your soul that you get the necessary surge of adrenaline you need to do whatever needs to be done, hours in the day be damned. You feel like a marathon runner , summoning all your reserves to make it across the finish line. And when you do, it is pure exhilaration.

You did this. There were days when you doubted you could, where the words wouldn't come, where you wondered if this is truly what you were supposed to be doing. But at the end of the day, you can't have that dream come true unless you hold true to the dream and work every day to make it your reality. No one else can write the story that's inside of you, so don't give up. Whether you write 50 words or 5,000 words on any given day, just write. Sometimes a first date an turn into a great love, and you'd never know if you didn't keep dating. So it is with your writing. See it through, and give yourself the permission to write pure and utter crap with the simple promise that you'll see it through and revise it later. I, personally, find it much easier to work from and be inspired by the words I've already written on the page than that blank, blinking cursor. And once in a while, I'm rewarded with reading something I've written that's really great and all my own and remember that I do this because it fills my soul.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Hey! Isn't That MY Story?" What You Need To Know About Copyright Law

There is absolutely nothing more frustrating than working night and day to pump out what you believed was an original novel, only to discover that something awfully similar exists. It can easily happen, right? There are only so many original plot lines out there and it's just your spin and take on it that will make yours unique. But after all that work, you certainly wouldn't want the author of the similar book to come after you and claim you plagiarized their work, even though you clearly didn't. But . . . there are people that do. Crazy right? Which makes you scratch your head and think about all those contest entries you've sent out, all those crit partners who have read your work, and pretty much anyone and everyone you've ever let take a look at your novel along the way. Exactly how protected are you?

The good news is - in an age of computers, there is an actual record of when you created your document. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, your work is protected "the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." Note: their words, not mine. :) However, if you want this to effectively stand up in a court of law if you find some schmo really has taken the liberty of making your words his or her own, you need to actually register it with the copyright office for a nominal fee. I've heard authors say that you don't actually need to do this step because a publisher will do it for you if they want to publish your book, since it will likely be in a different form once they're ready to do so than how you might have registered it in the first place. If you have already registered it, no problem. Just extra protection, and you are allowed to amend that copyright by updating it with a future draft if it has changed substantially. Make sure when you send your work in, you send it with some form of proof of submission, because that will serve as your evidence, should it be required, as the copyright office is so backlogged it is not uncommon for it to take over a year to get the actual certificate in hand. However, you can always contact them and they can verify receipt of your work even if you have not yet received the certificate.

It is also recommended that when your work is complete, you should mail a copy of it to yourself in a trackable form and keep it, sealed, somewhere safe. Keep in mind, however, this does not substitute for actually registering the work through the proper channels, but simply provides yet another layer of proof.

Works created prior to 1923 may fall into a different set of copyright laws, so keep in mind if you want to use song lyrics or passages of text from other novels or poems in your work, you need to actually secure permission from the publisher or artist to do so. And no, most writers and musicians won't just be so flattered that you want to use them in your great novel that they give these things away for free. Be prepared to pay a fee depending on how little or much of the work you wish to use. For more information on the do's and don'ts of using song lyrics in your writing, check out my earlier blog post specifically on that here.

While copyright protects original literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works, keep in mind it does NOT protect ideas, titles, or facts, so still be careful when pitching an idea that you have yet to commit to paper in some form. It's actually quite shocking the amount of innocent "stealing" that goes on - whether it be a phrase or an entire blog post or in some cases, an entire novel. Know how to protect yourself, and always give credit where credit is due if you are quoting something or someone.

For more information about the specifics of copyright law, check out the U.S. Copyright Office website at www.copyright.gov

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Finding your Unique Story In A Sea Of I've-Seen-This-Before Stories

In the past, I've blogged about the importance of writing the stories we want to write, not just following the trends. I do believe this wholeheartedly, but the reality is, will the stories we want to write sell and be enough to capture the interest of a traditional publishing house in today's competitive market? And how much are we willing to compromise the original story in our head to make it sale-able?

I am ensconced in writing my WIP, which is a light, funny, romantic road trip novel. When I talked about it with my agent, reality set in that although the story may be great, it's on the "soft" side, and therefore not what is likely to catch an editor's eye right now. Therefore, if I want to pursue traditionally publishing this, I need to start to think bigger and more out of the box than I previously had been. My funny, sweet story might actually need to have a little more of a Thelma and Louise-esque infusion to make it stand out. Of course, Thelma and Louise has already been done too. So what is a writer to do?

The best place to start is by researching all that have tread this path before you in the same genre and see what got published, who published it, and what made their stories stand out. As an exercise, literally make a list and write down the key point that singles it out from other similar works. Take all that info and set it aside, and then set to work with the really challenging stuff - finding out what you can add to your book that makes it stand out from every single one of those. When you have found that answer, and only then, move forward with your writing. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for some major frustration and hair-pulling revision down the line when you find all your blood sweat and tears may have produced a lovely story that simply can't sell because it doesn't have something unique.

Unique is key, whether you are aiming for traditional publishing or not. If your work doesn't have that something that makes it stand out, you are simply offering readers a story they've heard before. And chances are, it won't even reach your intended audience because an editor will shoot it down long before it ever gets there.

If you are wholeheartedly committed to writing what you want to write regardless of what traditional publishers want, then self-publishing is definitely an option. So many authors have enjoyed great success telling wonderful stories, undergoing their own marketing campaigns and staying true to their words. But at the end of the day, the choice is yours. Obviously, you reach a much wider market potentially with traditional publishing, but it may force you to stretch as a writer in ways you are not comfortable with as well.

I think any opportunity to try something new with our writing is a great thing, but also keep in mind that readers, especially teen ones, can immediately pick up on something that feels inauthentic, so if you are trying something new, make sure you do your research. Read everything you can and study it. Have beta readers you trust look at it for you. I have a writer friend in a similar boat (you know who you are!) and she told me just yesterday that she had to change up some aspects of her story and tread some writing ground she was unfamiliar with, and it was hard and scary, but in the end she knew and agreed that it made for a much better, stronger book with stronger sales potential.

Good luck!!

Chatting With Fellow Sourcebooks Debut Author Kurt Dinan About The Writing Life and DON'T GET CAUGHT!

One of my favorite parts about the path leading up to the debut of MY KIND OF CRAZY has been becoming friends with the hilarious witty and i...