A couple months ago, my buddy Andy Meisenheimer stopped in to talk about one of his pet peeves: the overuse of novelists turning all thoughts into italics in their manuscripts. Andy is an editor at Zondervan, and his post caused much debate and hand-wringing with some writers. Never being one to avoid a good controversy, I asked him if he’d come back.
Chip: So your last visit to my site created a stir, Andy. You ready to face this again?
Andy: Yeah, my last guest blog might have come across as Andy’s Vindictive Rant About Certain Arbitrary Rules of Style. People assuring me they’d never, ever, use thought italics, and people offering condolences to the poor writers who have to obey my every whim (and Mike Snyder, constantly calling to let me know his progress in eliminating thought italics from his current manuscript). Instead of a discourse, it became an ultimatum. Instead of "okay" and "better," it became "wrong" and "right."
My intention for that post, and any time I speak up about words, is to encourage writers toward better writing. They aren’t rants about my personal hot-button issues. They aren’t indirect ways of editing my current authors (please, Mike — stop calling). If your editors says to take out all semicolons, I encourage you to say, "Puh-leeze. You got somethin’ to back that up? The market isn’t buying books with semicolons?"
Chip: So would you say an editor’s job is to continue the conventions? Or to help an author break them successfully?
Andy: An editor’s job is to help the author discern what’s working. A good editor must appeal only to conventions of the craft and the effect upon the intended reader to justify editorial comment. And convention and effect are fluid things, open to change and dialogue and debate. Not that they are subjective; there are conventions, and there are effects upon readers, and their equivocation does not
A grab-bag of questions about publishing and writing today…
Mary-Lynn wrote to ask, "What do I need to know about creating a proposal for an agent? Is it like filling out a form, or do I create the story for them to see?"
I guess you could say that creating a proposal is a bit like filling out a form, in that there are certain elements you really need to include: title, subtitle, author bio and sales history, notes on the manuscript (word count, when it will be completed), genre and audience notes, overview of the book, table of contents or story synopsis, comparable titles, sample chapters, and marketing information. If you’re a first-time novelist, you are doubtless going to have to show the agent the entire manuscript, whereas with a nonfiction book you can still sell it based on a great proposal and some sample writings. If this is a non-fiction book, you want to show an agent what the need is for this book, why you’re writing it, and what your qualifications are for writing the book. Those are fairly universal. If it’s a novel, you want to reveal a brilliant story, interesting characters, and snappy writing. An agent isn’t usually going to agree to represent your book based solely on the idea. He or she will also want to know that you’re a fine writer, that you have other ideas, that you’re willing to help with the sale and marketing of the book, and that you’re a person who is easy to get along with. (This part doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. An agent/author relationship is similar to both a creative friendship and a business partnership — so you need to be a match, or neither party is going to be happy.) If you’d like to see some sample proposals, I keep both a fiction and a non-fiction proposal on my business web
Danny wrote to say, "You’ve offered some basic ideas for those of us trying to make the move from part-time to full-time. What else do we need to know?"
I can think of several things that might be important…
First, invest in a separate business phone line. You can write it off as a business expense, and it’ll help you separate your private life from your professional life.
Second, invest in the technology you need. Let’s face it, if you plan to do any serious internet research, you need a fast computer and high-speed internet. (This may sound obvious to most of you, but I was speaking at a conference recently where nearly every writer in the class claimed to have dial-up. Yikes! I wondered if they were also listening to 8-track players and watching black-and-white TV.) The fact is, you’re paying for what you need and don’t have. So if you’re trying to get by with a cheap-o computer, you’re making a mistake. (And here I’ll offer an unsolicited commercial: I finally went to an Apple MacBook a year-and-a-half ago. In that time, it hasn’t crashed once. Just so you know.) The same goes for software, a printer, and whatever bells and whistles your particular type of writing requires. Organizational theory teaches us that things don’t get less complicated over time; they get more complicated. So educate yourself on the complications, then spend the money to bring your office up to date.
Third, invest in a great web site. People used to think of web sites more or less as freeway road signs — something you passed by on the way to your destination. Now we understand web sites are interactive places where we can get information, ask questions, and make comments. If you want to build a readership, think about spending some serious cash to create a dynamite site.
Fourth, invest in great business cards, stationery, and brochures.
I’m not really in the state of confusion. I’m in the state of Washington. But the two apparently border each other. A week in the mountains with no cel service, no internet, no emails — and no chance to update my blog. Sorry! I’m back at it.
Dianne wrote to ask, "If I really wanted to move from being a part-timer toward being a full-time writer, what advice would you have? What are the steps I need to take in order to make the transition?"
I can think of a long list of things you should consider…
1. Find a place. Make this your writing space and designate it as your office. (If you’re serious about this, make that your official home office and start looking into the tax deduction you can get from the IRS for establishing a home office.)
2. Establish a writing time. Having a block of time dedicated to your writing is probably the first step every professional writer takes on their way to a writing career. You want to have a protected chunk when you’re not checking emails, answering phone calls, or meeting people for coffee to bitch about how little writing time you have. For many authors, it’s simply "morning." When I began writing full time, I set aside 6 to 8 every morning to write (I had one job and three small kids, so I couldn’t do it later in the day). I would get up and write every morning before going to the office… which was amazing, since I’m really not a morning person. But it was the discipline of sitting and writing for two hours every morning that really helped me flip the switch in my head and get me going on a writing career.
3. Create a filing system. All it takes is one office box and a set of files. You can arrange it alphabetically by topic, and create
Fiona wrote to ask, "What happens when you have a good proposal, a finished manuscript that people want to read, and you know the market — but you can’t get anyone in the publishing industry to read the darn thing? Do you self-publish? This is an exhausting process, I must say."
My dear, welcome to the world of publishing. While I sympathize with your frustration over creating something you think is good but not having the connections to get it read, you should know that’s a fairly common problem. You need to seek publishing relationships. Go to a writing conference and show your work to editors. Introduce yourself to agents. Enter some contests. Be part of a critique group to make connections. Become friends with other writers and begin to get plugged in to the industry.
Of course, if no one is willing to seriously review your work, the possibility exists that you’re being a bit too generous in your self-praise. I’ll admit I could be wrong here, but I’ve often had wannabe authors say to me something like, "Everybody on the planet has reviewed this and told me it was awful, but I’m sure I’m a genius…maybe I should self-publish." Just something to consider. I’ve covered self-publishing in other posts, but my basic argument is that you should only self-pub if you know exactly how you’re going to market and sell your own work.
As for this being an exhausting process, I’d submit that it is…but that it’s no more exhausting than making a living at any other art form. If you put together a band and write some songs, you may think your work is brilliant — but you’ve got to go play some gigs at local pubs, meet producers, and get some experience under your belt before you can expect to sign that record deal. You may think your paintings are genius, but you’ve got to sell
Tammy wrote in to ask, "When an editor at a newspaper or magazine hands you a topic and tells you to write a story, where do you begin?" The is closely related to Dave’s question: "When writing a book, where do you begin to find your information?’
The easiest way, of course, is to simply make them up. Specifically, create a name and a bunch of quotes. Make sure the name sounds vaguely academic ("V. Pennington Longbottom" works better than "Dan Smith.") Stick in some phony facts, making sure to use "actual" numbers (saying "9482 people believe Hillary Clinton is really Ted Kennedy in a wig" is much more believable than saying "nearly ten thousand people believe…") If anyone questions your sources, immediately attack them as heretics.
Another thing that works well is to generalize: "EVERYBODY KNOWS that literary agents are more trustworthy than publishers." The goal is to try and make people who disagree feel stupid.
In a pinch, citing Bible verses also helps. For example, you can say, "As the prophet Fiorello says in Formica 2:2, ‘Only the good die young.’" (Note to Biblicists: You can also simply misquote a verse, like the people in CBA who use "Publish Glad Tidings" on their stationery, as though it were a reference to publishing books in 21st Century America. That sort of establishes a link between you and God in the minds of the readers. Trust me on this.)
In addition you can make your quotes close, even if they aren’t exactly correct. Or even germane. I once read a review of one of the 762 anti-DaVinci Code books that appeared on religious bookstore shelves in recent years, and the reviewer used these words: "As Jesus is claimed to have said, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ If only his modern-day disciples would follow his advice." Ha! Yeah, it’s a cute line. The only problem is
I’m just back from the giant Christian book show (formerly the "Christian Booksellers Association," now the "International Christian Retailers Show"). It was light on books this year, and heavy on Christian Crud (from my point of view). It was also light on people and sales, apparently, so they say big changes are due.
A few years ago, the people who run the show decided to stick all the publishers in the same section, so that it was easy to see who the actual book publishers were and what they were selling. That notion is now out the window, as publishers on the convention floor were dispersed so much it sometimes appeared as though I was at a gift show instead of a convention whose main profits are derived from the printed word. You had to hunt to find actual books this year, buried amidst the ties, jewelry, art, choir robes, and footwear (more on that in a moment).
Word is the publishers are sick of this trend, and are planning to stage their own book show next year — which will be interesting, but may not be successful. If you’re running a small Christian gift shop, do you pay to attend two conventions? Probably not, so you have to decide if you’ll go see books, or keep visiting the old standard convention where you’re sure to run into longtime friends as well as be able to actually handle the clothing and art (since it’s harder to see those on a computer screen). You figure the book reps will still come calling, and the catalogs will still show up in the mail. A tough call.
On top of that, CBA has announced the death of their mid-winter show, which was called "CBA Expo" (also known as "The Frozen Wasteland," since it attracted almost no one but made up for it by offering attendees such fun-filled attractions as "The Frigid, Ice-covered
I happen to be a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few principles for getting the most out of the group. My ten laws for critique groups:
1. Ask yourself why you want a group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got some way to evaluate the benefits to your writing later. Some people basically want to hang out with writers — more or less the same reason they attend writing conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that meets your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after (and, being a reader of this blog, which is aimed more or less at writers, I figure that’s the majority of people reading this little missive), you’re going to need to put a lot more thought into your group.
2. The value of a critique group is based almost entirely on the membership. So look for people who are at your level or maybe just a bit better than you (if your ego can take it), and talk to them about the group. People need to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe twice-a-month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are (that members will actually read the other member’s writings before coming to a meeting), and what the benefit is to them ("You will hear advice for improving your writing").
3. Invite people to participate. Don’t put an announcement in the local newspaper or an invitation in the church bulletin. You’ll get the hangers-on, the wannabes, and, very possibly, members of my family.
Back from soggy Scotland (just missed the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport by a few hours) and hoping to get caught up. Jennifer wrote to ask, "As an agent and a reader, are there writing errors that drive you crazy?"
Yes! Of course! Here’s one! Novelists who use exclamation points as though the period key didn’t work! I hate this! Really!!!
Here’s "another" one: The "author" who feels a "need" to put emphasized words in "quotes," since they apparently think it makes them look more "official." This is particularly tiresome when a "funny" author decides to put his "punchlines" in quotations. (Does anybody remember the episode of Friends where Joey kept putting "finger quotes" around certain "words," even though he didn’t understand how to do it?) Here’s an "idea" — cut the quotation marks in your "epic."
And a third (related) item: People who use an open parenthesis but no close parenthesis. (For example, this kind.
Fourth is the serial comma. Drives me crazy. The rule for using commas is that there should be ONE LESS COMMA THAN THE ITEMS IN YOUR LIST. So if you list five things, you’d use four commas. An example: "Farnsworth visited Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, and Djibouti." Note that there are five countries and four commas — one less than the list. Writers often drop the last comma, in an apparent attempt to make "Ireland and Djibouti" one country. (Similar to Trinidad and Tobaggo, if you’re into geography jokes.) Makes no sense at all.
Fifth is the adverbial ending "ly," which some authors insert regularly in an attemptly to sound scholarly. Note that this paragraph doesn’t start with the word "fifthly." From a strict editorial perspective, "fifth" is an adverb. To add "ly" to the end is to adverbialize an adverb. Why write "firstly" when it is clearer to write "first"? (Besides, if it’s a long list, can you really defend "thirteenthly"?)