Working with new novelists is one part of my job as a freelance editor that can bring the highest highs and the lowest lows. I am privileged to work with many authors who have never been published, much less edited, and plowing this new territory together is hard work for both of us, but also rewarding.
What I most admire about writers is their courage. It takes someone with fortitude to sit down and write a novel. I recall one author friend saying to me, “Why don’t you write a book, Natalie, you’d be so good at it.” I told her that, unlike her, I don’t have people in my head telling me their life stories. I am not creative in this way. The complexity of novel writing, character building, storytelling…it’s hard work—and it’s an artform.
My creativity shows itself, though, when writing editorial letters. I consider writing editorial letters its own artform, as they, too, have their highs and lows, and if an editor is worth her salt, she’s been strategic with how she’s ordered the letter and diplomatic with her wording.
In this post I want to share some tips addressing the mistakes I most often see from new novelists. By paying attention to these mechanics, your writing will be tighter and your presentation more polished. Writing and revising will still be hard work, but by applying these tips, you and your editor will be able to examine your story at a deeper level because these errors won’t be clouding the language.
Be concise: say what you have to say in as few words as possible. For example, “After giving his mom an update…” can be shortened to “After updating his mom…”
Don’t repeat a word in a sentence. These word echoes happen more often than you might think. Many times this happens when the same word is used as two different parts of speech. “I suggested setting a different temperature setting.”
Attributions are important in dialog, but use them sparingly. If there are two characters talking, you don’t need to have an attribution after each character speaks. Another way to reduce attribution usage is to give your characters unique styles of speaking so that readers know automatically who is talking.
Here’s a trick I use sometimes. Instead of writing: “I know it’s a lot to ask,” Madison said, checking her teeth in the mirror. Write it this way: “I know it’s a lot to ask.” Madison checked her teeth in the mirror. It’s a small adjustment but it makes it clear who is speaking without tagging on an attribution.
Just use “said.” When you use attributions, unlike in nonfiction, don’t try to use a variety of words for “said” like “noted”; “spoke”; or “commented.” Fiction readers are reading fast and words like “said” don’t register in their minds. But if you use another word instead of “said,” it creates a little speedbump and they must slow down to actually read the word. Let’s do whatever we can to avoid slowing readers down!
Sometimes authors share what’s about to happen right before it happens. For example: Rosemary was about to let him have it. “What do you mean you didn’t pick any up for me?” You don’t need that first sentence. Just show Rosemary letting him have it! This will tighten up the scene and increase the pacing.
Beware of using certain words too often. Authors commonly repeat words such as: chuckled; smiled; or looked. Do a search in your current WIP and see how many times you used the word “laugh.” (Don’t worry, we won’t make you tell us.) I find that each writer has their own pet words they tend to overuse.
Help the reader keep track of time by adding periodic mentions of the day of the week/month, etc., especially in stories where the timing is important. For example, if the protagonist and hero only have a week together, don’t just let each day run into the next. Related to this, I usually suggest authors write out the timeline of their book. They can put a comment in the manuscript document whenever a new day begins, and if the book doesn’t span many days, then note if it’s morning, lunchtime, afternoon, or evening. You’d be shocked by how many errors an author can avoid or correct by having a written timeline.
Don’t rehash an event the reader has already experienced. Authors may be tempted to put a conversation on-stage where one character is filling in another character about something that happened, but don’t make the reader sit through it a second time. Instead, have the character summarize what happened. For example: Helen told Michael what happened at the beach.
Don’t use the words “very” or “really.” Strengthen your adjectives and verbs instead.
Have you worked with an editor? What do you think are your own editorial trouble spots?
Natalie Hanemannis an award-winning editor who has worked for more than fifteen years in book publishing. In 2012, she left her position as an in-house editor at a book publisher to stay home with her four children and began her freelance editing business.
I want to say a little something here that nobody seems to be saying. Or if they are, I haven’t heard it. Here it is:
It can be more painful to publish a book that nobody buys… than to never have published a book at all.
Do you agree with me?
If you’ve published a book, you have the excitement of holding it in your hand, seeing your name on the cover. You’ll see it for sale at online retailers and have it on your shelf at home, and you’ll have the satisfaction of attaining a goal. But if the book doesn’t sell—if the publisher cancels it after a year, if you never get a royalty check beyond your advance—it can be distressing.
This is a good reason for you to WANT to build a platform. Why would you go to all that trouble of writing a book, spending months or years of your life, only to have hardly anyone read it?
Now, we know there is only so much that’s in your control. Building a platform involves many elements outside your circle of influence. And even if you have a strong platform, it doesn’t guarantee your book will sell. But you’ll probably feel better if you at least did your due diligence—you worked on your platform and your did your best to get your book in front of people. You wouldn’t want to wonder if maybe your book would have done better if you’d taken everybody’s advice and worked a little harder at finding your following and growing your tribe.
Buyers have so many options, it’s mind-boggling. You’re a book buyer, so you know this. You can’t possibly buy all the books that interest you! And there are so many books you’ve never even heard of that would probably interest you if you knew about them.
But, if you hear a speaker at your women’s retreat and you love her message, you might want to buy her book. If your favorite weekly newspaper columnist had a book out, you might buy it. If your favorite podcaster published a book, you might buy it. That’s the idea behind platform. How are you going to bring buyers to the checkout stand?
I believe there are few things more disappointing than actually getting that book deal, only to have the whole thing tank. Adding insult to injury, this can also make it difficult to get future publishing deals) You probably want to do everything in YOUR power to try and keep that from happening.
And what’s within your power, besides writing a good book? Building the strongest platform you can.
What do you think? Does it make you any more eager to build a platform?
So, I happened across a Facebook group for writers and there was a discussion about finding an agent. One of the writers mentioned that an agent to whom she’d submitted had requested a book proposal for her non-fiction book. Her question was:
What is a book proposal?
Perfectly good question. But it shows this writer needs to get schooled on the basics of getting published. (If you’re writing non-fiction, an agent can’t sell your book to a publisher without a book proposal—that’s one of the basics.)
You’re ready for an agent when you’re ready to approach publishing as a business, even if it’s not your “day job.” Spend some time learning how it works. Take a little time to explore the business of publishing, craft a killer query and a knock-your-socks-off book proposal. THEN come knocking.
One of the most common reasons for agent rejections is that the writer simply isn’t ready: they haven’t spent quite enough time mastering the craft of writing or learning about the business—or both. If you’re seeking publication, here are a few things you might want to do first:
If you’re writing fiction, then you need to write a complete manuscript. If you’re writing non-fiction, research the market and make sure there’s a desire or need for your idea, and begin crafting your proposal along with a few sample chapters.
Sometime during that process, you may want to attend a writers’ conference so you can start learning about the business as well as meeting other authors along with editors and agents.
Edit, rewrite and polish your book or proposal. Get critiques if you can. Trade manuscripts with writing friends and get some feedback. Read books about writing and make sure you’ve done everything possible to make your book the best it can be. You may even consider hiring a freelance editor.
Research the marketplace and decide what kind of publisher is right for you, and by extension, what kind of agent will be right for you. Gather a list of names, your “target” list of agents and editors to whom you will submit. One way to do this is to spend some time in a bookstore, find books similar to yours, and find out who published them and who agented them. You can also use the Guide to Literary Agents or the Writers Market.
Spend time creating a winning query letter. Then begin sending your queries. Send a few at a time and see if you get any responses or useful feedback in case you need to revise the query. Then continue sending batches every week or two. You’ll get an idea of whether anyone is finding your query interesting.
Now it’s your turn. Tell us what steps YOU’VE found necessary so far on your road to publication. Maybe I’ll learn something!
The writing and publishing life can be hard on the equilibrium. It’s full of ups and downs, hopes deferred, dreams dashed, dreams realized, ego strokes and debilitating criticism.
We wonder if we’ll ever reach our goals. We swing between high-on-life optimism and crushing pessimism. We decry that this path shouldn’t be so difficult. We rail against systems. We wonder how to write a good book. We despair of ever reaching our readers.
But there is another way to think about it. Many of you have probably read Good to Great by Jim Collins, a classic book for business and leadership. In it, he explains what he calls the Stockdale Paradox, a way of thinking that can get anyone through the most harrowing of circumstances.
You can click here for a short audio clip of Jim Collins discussing the Stockdale Paradox, or Google the phrase to learn more about Admiral Jim Stockdale, a United States military officer held captive and tortured for eight years during the Vietnam War, for whom Collins named this Paradox. Admiral Stockdale had a unique way of looking at his brutal situation that allowed him to survive, and go on to thrive later in life.
As a writer, here’s how you can apply the Stockdale Paradox to immediately change your thinking:
1. Instead of wondering whether you’ll ever find success as a writer:
DECIDE that you will find success one way or another, regardless of the obstacles.
2. Instead of bemoaning the difficulties of the writing path:
EMBRACE your current challenges. Know that they will help you become the best person — and the best writer — you can be.
3. Instead of being optimistic and “looking on the bright side,” assuming publication will eventually be your due:
FACE your current situation realistically, acknowledging every downside, every hardship, every difficulty. And be willing to ceaselessly take action to overcome these obstacles and find publishing success.
It’s a paradox because it involves holding two seemingly opposing things in your mind at once: a certainty of success, and an honest assessment of the obstacles. There is no unnecessary pessimism or defeatist thinking; nor is there any sugarcoating or unwarranted optimism.
Decide. Embrace. Face.
Do you need to change your thinking? How can you apply this paradigm to your own situation?
Standard wisdom used to be that authors, both fiction and non-fiction, should build relationships with readers through blogs.As social media and online marketing have evolved, my thoughts on blogging have changed.
The proliferation of blogs in the last ten years has made it increasingly difficult to stand out in the crowd. Many authors are blogging faithfully but it doesn’t seem to be increasing readership of their books; in fact most of their readers are other writers. One good indicator blogging might not be for you is if you have a hard time figuring out what you should write about.
So, how do you decide if you should have a blog?
Have a blog if:
1. You have something important to say and it seems people want to hear it.
2. You understand that blogging is about offering something of value, NOT about promoting yourself and your books.
3. You enjoy blogging (for the most part, anyway).
4. You find blogging contributes to your creativity and enthusiasm for writing your books, rather than sucking all the energy out of you.
5. You can find the time for blogging without it completely stressing you out.
6. Your books have a highly defined target audience, making it easy to target your blog.
7. Your books are topical (especially non-fiction), so that you have a clear and obvious theme for your blog.
Don’t have a blog if:
1. You keep asking yourself and others, “But what should I blog about?”
2. You only want to blog to promote your books and/or because you think you “have to.”
3. The whole idea stresses you out.
4. You honestly don’t have the time in your schedule to blog regularly.
5. You’ve been blogging for a year or more, and haven’t built up to a traffic level that seems worth it.
Here are some alternatives to blogging when it comes to online networking and promotion.
joining a group blog
sending email newsletters
using Facebook effectively
leveraging the various ways Goodreads offers for promoting books
attracting a readership through Pinterest and/or Instagram
having an effective LinkedIn profile page
If you don’t want to blog or be engaged in online promotion, should you self-publish instead of seeking a publisher?
I get this question from writers frequently, and my answer is: What would be the point of self-publishing a book, if you have no intention of promoting it? Who will buy it? With millions of books available for sale at any given time, what’s your plan for letting people know that yours exists?
Blogging and other means of online promotion aren’t just hoops that publishers want you to jump through. They’re real and necessary methods of letting people know about your book. So if you have no intention of letting anyone know about your book, through a sustained, long-term promotional plan of online engagement, then think carefully about whether you want to write a book for publication. If you build it: they will NOT come. You must promote it.
Do you blog? If so, how’s it going? If not, why not? Comment below, or by clicking: HERE.TWEETABLES
Sometimes when I open up my email and find the queries exploding all over the place, or I go to a party and random strangers find out I’m an agent and begin pitching me, it makes me get all philosophical.
I begin to wonder: Why do so many people want to be published?
I think about how storytelling has been part of human interaction since the beginning of time. And I think about how everyone just needs to be heard. And I think about our celebrity-driven culture and I assume some people want to be published because they want to be famous.
Let’s talk about the opening line of your book. The first thing to know about “first lines” is that they are not going to make or break you. Sure, it’s a lot of fun coming up with great ones. But as long as the first line makes someone want to read the second line, and that line makes you want to read the third… you’re on the right track.
The second thing to know is that the opening line might be the very last thing you write before your book is finished.
That said… don’t you just love a great opening line?
The fun thing about writing a book is that you get to choose what kind of opening line you want, what type of sentence appropriately sets up your book. You can choose to set a stage or create a setting. You can reveal a character. You can drop the reader into the middle of a scene. You can introduce conflict. You can have your character speak a line of dialogue. There’s no one right way to do it.
Today I looked at some of my favorite first lines from novels, and asked myself why I liked them. I found each one appealed to me for a different reason. It might have:
brought an immediate smile (or stab) of recognition
struck me as poignant
painted a really cool word picture
set up an intriguing mystery
introduced a character I want to know better
made me laugh
drawn me into an unfamiliar world
used words in a beautiful way
The one thing they all have in common is they make me want to read more. They immediately draw me into the universe of the novel by the unique voice that first line begins to establish.
One of the trends lately is to come up with stunningly clever first lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But not every novel requires one of those. Some need a more understated approach.
Some say the best first lines introduce conflict right away. I believe that can be true, but it’s not the only way to write a first line. Most of my favorites give a small hint that something is going to go wrong, or something already has gone wrong.
There’s no formula for a first line. It should elicit interest, pique something in the reader, speak to their heart or their intellect or their funny bone. It just has to work. Some of the best opening lines stand remarkably well on their own, having enough meat to allow you to chew on it awhile.
Here are a few popular opening lines from famous novels:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
~ Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (my favorite first line ever)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
~ Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
~ J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
~ Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
~ William Gibson, Neuromancer
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
~ Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
All this happened, more or less.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
~ Anita Brookner, The Debut
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
~ C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
~ Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
How Do I Decide? is a concise, definitive resource that will guide you through the decision, allowing you to ignore the noise and hype and focus on the right path for YOU. This is a fair and balanced approach that avoids favoring one choice over the other—and instead shows you how to determine which best fits your own situation.
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• Additional resources with links to further information
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I get mail! My inbox is always filled with questions. Today I’m answering some I’ve received on the topic of Query Letters.
You’ve said on your blog, “don’t pitch a novel unless it’s complete.” Do you feel the same about query letters? Do we only query completed works, or are ideas fair game?
If you are sending a query to an agent, only pitch projects that are ready to go. If it’s a novel and you are not previously published with a mainstream commercial publisher, this means a completed manuscript. For non-fiction, a complete book proposal and two sample chapters will do. (But the more you’ve written, the better.) Think about it: If I read your query and I like it, the first thing you’ll hear from me is, “Please send a book proposal and sample chapters.” If that looks good and I’m seriously considering representation, I’m going to ask you for everything you’ve got. I can’t sell to a publisher without the whole shebang (unless you are multi-published and a proven commodity). You can’t query an idea, because ideas have no value without execution.
What about sending in a synopsis instead of a query?
Don’t do it. Some people send a synopsis and nothing else, not even a salutation or a closing. IMHO, it’s rude and unprofessional. In fact, I received one today. Just a one paragraph synopsis. Nothing about the author. Just a line saying, “Email me if you’re interested in seeing more.” I wasn’t interested, so I deleted it without responding.
I’m curious to know if there are any cliché phrases that you’ve found in query letters that writers absolutely, positively should avoid.
The thing about clichés is that in a few cases, when used correctly, they can be perfect in a query, especially if they make the reader laugh. In most cases, however, since your query is a writing sample, your best bet is to avoid sounding hackneyed or derivative. The best advice I can give about clichés is another cliché: When in doubt, leave it out.
I’ve heard about authors who strayed from standard guidelines and got picked up by a publisher or agent. Some people encourage us to do the same. We’re told to follow guidelines, then we’re told to stand out. I realize our writing will determine if we stand out or not, but what kind of things that stray from the guidelines would catch your attention in a good way?
I don’t expect you to be slaves to guidelines, I just try to offer tips to help you put your best writing forward. With all guidelines (on writing, pitching, querying, etc.) try to see behind the specific advice and get to the basic truth. With a query, the basic truth is that you need the agent/editor to want to see more, or you’re sunk. It’s up to you to figure out how to accomplish that goal. Use guidelines to help learn the craft of writing and the business of publishing… let them go when you don’t need them anymore. I can’t say “what kind of things that stray from the guidelines would catch my attention” because that’s as individual as the person.
Do you accept query letters for books that have been self-published? I ask this because I have one, but I’ve been seriously considering having it edited by a professional, rewriting it and then seeking representation for it.
Yes… no… maybe. It’s a common question these days but there are too many variables. The most important consideration will always be how good your book is, and how well it has the potential to sell. Most agents prefer you query with your next book, not the one that was self-published. But if you really want to give it a shot, I suggest a normal query to agents, including the self-pub information (release date, sales figures). You’ll find out soon enough if it’s catching anyone’s attention.
I know the importance of addressing the letter to a specific person, not just Sir or Madam or Dear Agent, however, even though I feel as if I know you from reading the blog, Dear Rachelle seems far too informal. Is Ms. So and So acceptable to most women who are agents?
Interestingly, I recently read some heated debate on another blog about the “Ms.” salutation. I was stunned to find that a few women seem to resent or dislike the term. Nevertheless, the correct salutation is Ms. Gardner or Mr. Smith. Once you’ve corresponded with the person, you can take your cue from how they sign their emails. I’m always just Rachelle and I’m okay being addressed that way. Personally, I don’t object to people querying with my first name rather than “Ms.” because I go to great lengths to be approachable by writing my blog.
Could you please provide the pronunciation of the word “query” that won’t make agents/editors wince? Does it rhyme with PRAIRIE or EERIE?
Leave it to an English teacher! Potayto, Potahto. Tomayto, tomahto. Your choice. Just make sure you use the preferred pronunciation of the editor/agent you’re talking to. (tee hee) As for me, I couldn’t care less how you say it. As long as you SPELL it right.
Questions, thoughts or comments about query letters?