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Author Archive for Ron Seybold

How to avoid a too-big book

Even an author who’s published multiple books feels the siren call of a big book. One day, they might think, I can get that 150,000-word epic published. I’ve cut a lot, they might say, already 20,000 words. I need to stick to my guns, submit something that big, and not get talked out of it.

Don’t cut. Divide and conquer.

As a novelist who’s finishing a draft likely to be 170,000 words, I can relate. “The I-Like-Big-Books and I Cannot Lie” lure is always in the water for us. We pick up the scent of something like the Karl Marlantes epic about Vietnam, Matterhorn. We say to ourselves, “Somebody had to believe extra hard about a book of that size.” We think, Hey, that somebody could be me.

You’ll need two or three or four other people to believe in that mantra. Most of them have more on the line than you do. As an author, you poured months and years into a book of that size. Now you’ll need an agent to believe, then an editor, then sales and distribution, and finally the influencers and reviewers, that 150K is not all that big.

They all have books smaller to embrace, unless your agent only has you as their client.

Is a sequel a solution?

Why, you must ask yourself, is that Big Book so essential to your story? Be honest about whether what’s creating the bloat is really world-class scenarios that would spice up any narrative. Perhaps these are scenarios that belong in a related book. The second in a series. Volume II. A sequel.

Too-big books surface. But not many survive into readers’ hands here in 2021. Those that survive hail from the genres built for massive books. Fantasy. Science fiction. Historical fiction. Even those books are shaped and tempered by beta readers who are asked one important question by the author:

Where did you start to lose interest when you read it?

Until you’re ready to consider where your sails flagged, you’ll struggle to avoid your too-big book. Flagging sails can lead to flagging sales. That’s a condition that publishers and agents work hard to avoid. Make a couple of books. My own book is really two. I just need to find a better ending to the first half. It might be inspired by the ending to the second half.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Quick Tips to create better query letters

Fly your flag high for your book

The Bookends Literary Agency posts videos to lead authors through the submission process. The agents at Bookends suggest these to-do’s for your query process.

  • Use your book’s title and a word count range
  • Use the right agent’s name; don’t query “Dear Sir” or “To whom it may concern”
  • Create a bio for yourself with an item that relates to your book.
  • Send your own query, not one that’s been written for you by a service. (It’s fine to have your query reviewed by outside eyes.)

There’s an obvious list of query do-nots

  • Don’t query an agent that doesn’t represent your genre
  • Don’t berate an agent or criticize their clients
  • Don’t query without being well-read in your genre

There’s one more crucial item to consider. A query is an essential in any submission. An agent may or may not ask for a synopsis. They might ask for 10 pages of your manuscript. They might request a proposal. But every agent will want to see a query letter.

Parts of a query

A query is a one-page document. Working from the advice of former agent Becka Oliver, now the director of the Writers’ League of Texas, a good query letter is comprised of

A Connection paragraph, showing how you know the agent’s clients, or any mention of how you chose the agent. If there’s an in-person meeting you enjoyed with them, bring it up here.

A Context paragraph, establishing context for your book by referencing a genre, a writing style, a voice, or the specific author or book that your writing is similar to. “For readers of [            ], my book…” is a good way to go. “In the spirit of” is another good phrase. This shows you know your readership and your genre.

A Compel paragraph, or even two, that highlights the most compelling elements of the book. This is not a synopsis, so beware of “and then.. and then.” The compel section should leave the reader wanting more. End it on a note of uncertainty or danger to increase tension.

A Credentials paragraph, which is often a bio of your life’s events and experiences that relate to your book. If you have something unique in your life, it’s worth a mention here, just to give an agent another handle to remember you by. If you’re writing nonfiction, this is a crucial segment of the query.

Use the Ws

Oliver, who has pitched books for an agency and acquired rights for a press, says a query will always contain the Ws of a story:

  • W for Who, the main characters of the story
  • W for What, the journey of the story
  • W for Where, the setting of the story, which can include a time frame
  • W for When, the starting point of the story

Compel paragraphs are the hardest to write. Creating a one-page synopsis of the book makes creating the Compel section flow more easily. Expect to write many drafts of your Compel section.

How to pitch, and why

Pitching in person can be exhilarating and scary. You’re really at the conference or event to connect in a personal way, though. If this agent is the right match for your work — meaning they can carry the book into submissions and get a publisher’s offer — you’ll have a good sense after a pitch. You’re more likely to get an agent’s request for pages by pitching than emerging from the Unrequested Submissions (slush) pile in an agent’s inbox.

But an in-person pitch is won’t make it more likely to get a deal any more than a query, according to the agents at Bookends. They still want to see that you can write. That moment — seeing an agent pull out a business card at a pitch event, inviting you to submit after a pitch — is thrilling. Presenting your book, via pitch or query, gives you a hidden benefit. Sometimes pitching or querying helps you discover the theme, structure, or tension that your book still needs. Find a pitch event and help your book get a publisher.

Photo by John Lee from Pexels

How not to behave blindly as an author

Marketing and PR is a dark art. Authors can behave badly when they expect such work as part of a contract. But behaving badly isn’t very accurate. Authors behave blindly. Many expect publishing pros to just do their jobs, somewhere out of the author’s sight, thank you. The authors who take an interest in marketing and PR’s details, as practiced in traditional publishing, often have a book in the wings, or recently released. They are sometimes asking around because the discovery and sale of their books hasn’t been what’s expected. Or they already have a book and know they’re not getting a service that they know will make a difference to discovery.

I’ve worked in publishing all my life, and the lessons don’t vary (in spirit) from what we learned as periodical editors. Connect with your readers. Raise your flag. Pitch everywhere. Build a following.

So, get onto YouTube. Post on Instagram. Whatever you do, keep it short. It’s 2021 and the noise out there is profound.

Making an effort to get explanations, in full, is probably going to mean a professional engagement to extract the wisdom, like the kind a lawyer delivers as an attorney. If you’re already paying a PR and marketing pro on your own, good for you.

Where to go to learn publishing

Do you read the books or attend online classes from former Writers Digest editor Jane Friedman? How about Anne Trubek, publisher at Belt Press? Maybe you’re a reader of an industry veteran like Mike Shatzkin, or others who are selling, even giving away instruction and practices about marketing and PR. David Gaughran gives away so much instruction about building mailing lists. Asking how to do this work for yourself is a wonderful inquiry.

Asking a pro how marketing and PR is done, customarily, delivers the process which the publishing pro practices, or sees the industry applying. You may not get the full range of possibilities if you ask, “So how do you do your marketing job?” Better, consider what the responsibilities of the author are after getting a big contract with a swell agent.

Jamie Brickhouse wrote a memoir, after he went into recovery after living the high life of a publicity pro for the Big Five houses. He led us through the basics of PR in a talk at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors conference. Jamie said, “You should know that you’re the only person in the world who gets up every day and says, “How is my book doing?'” Even with publisher help available for PR, he advised us all to help ourselves, so we could give our books every chance they deserve.

Is it National Doughnut Day?

Marketing companies create national days. We enjoy a Secretaries Day, National Golden Retriever Day, and even a National Take Your Dog to Work Day (make plans to give Sparky a seat in your bedroom office on June 25).

Today is National Donut Day. But is it really spelled and styled that way? The question offers a look at three facets of copyediting: style, house-style, and usage. They all play a part in what that delicious treat looks like on a page of text.

All three also serve one key mission. Copyeditors say, “Don’t confuse the reader.”

On to the doughnuts. Webster’s Seventh has but one entry for the “small, usu. ring-shaped cake fried in fat.” It’s doughnut, using that spelling and style so we don’t mistake the treat with donuts you spin in the snowy parking lot with the car.

Webster’s only reports on language, though, like every dictionary. Language, as written in books and articles, establishes what the dictionary reports. This is how more than one spelling on this national day exists. No matter what Webster’s says, the comprehensive websites use donut for this day.

Webster’s reports on written language as an authorities on usage. Style, in contrast, is a matter of how you apply language to written instances. You spell out numbers at the start of sentences. US is the preferred abbreviation of the United States, but U.S. is permitted.

House-style is a publisher’s rulebook for punctuation and spelling. Anything not commonplace (there’s usage again) needs to be put into a style book. That keeps the expressions consistent, which is the most important element of styling text.

Consistency matters

That last part, the consistency, can be tough. Even the real pros have moments when they must deviate. Doughnut Day isn’t spelled that way at Shipley’s Donuts. However, they also use Donut and Do-Nut interchangeably — mostly because the founder, in the 1930s, exhorted the world to love “do-nuts” in early marketing copy.

Matters of whether to include a hyphen in air-conditioned, or putting an en dash (a little longer than a hyphen) between numerals for a score, all become things to turn to The Chicago Manual of Style to settle. Or other style guides, such as the AP, or the APA, or the MLA.

Making a house-style guide begins with the author, because a book contains proper names whose spellings must be consistent. There’s also keeping characters in line by using the same name in different scenes. It’s a good practice to give your copyeditor a working house-style guide with place and person names. The more time you can save your editor, the better job they’ll do on things that might vex you, like question marks. You use periods instead of question marks when you know the answer to a statement, don’t you. Like that. Or whether you capitalize the word “it” in the headline above. (You don’t, since the line works as a sentence.) Or when to italicize works of art and when to surround them with quote marks.

Go enjoy a doughnut today, or follow more common usage and buy a half-dozen donuts from Dunkin’ or Horton’s. Or if Shipley’s is your jam, take home a few raspberry do-nuts.

Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

Point of View: how many do you need?

Writing stories in first person is a electric thrill for many authors. You have easy access to emotions and sensations, plus the mystery of solving the problems of the plot are intense, too. Sometimes it’s tempting to want to use multiple first person points of view. If you can imagine Silence of the Lambs told in first person by Hannibal Lecter and Clarise Starling, you’re looking at a different book. Plenty challenging to write but maybe worth it.

How you decide to introduce first person POVs, and how many, is a juicy and complex choice as a storyteller. Julie Carrick Dalton even toyed with time, using her heroine’s point of view at age 11 along with the character’s POV three decades later. I began my second novel with a single first person point of view, then added a second as a character took a leading role in the book. Right now it’s just got a single first person narrator, with the rest of the book told in close third person. You don’t need a first person POV to show the heat of a character’s heart. First person gives and takes.

Willing to walk away

The choosing will mean revising and walking away from earlier attempts. Jessica Brody’s fine website Writing Mastery Academy examines many aspects of multiple points of view. As the author of the craft book Save the Cat Writes a Novel, she says you’ll need to decide who your book’s super-hero is if you have more than one protagonist. Each of the first person narrators needs a Beat Sheet, if you’re applying the Save the Cat method of storytelling.

It took her 13 years to write her novel. Dalton says, “The structure of this book gave me fits. In its final form, Waiting for the Night Song is a dual timeline narrative that switches back and forth from Cadie’s point of view at age 11 to Cadie’s POV three decades later. In the early drafts I wrote the story chronologically, including all the stuff in between – high school, college, and beyond.”

Then she reveals that the story’s middle section meant more to her than the reader. “After several drafts, I realized I only wrote the middle part for myself, so I would know who Cadie was and where she had been. I cut out the middle and wove the childhood and adult parts together to tell a single story. It was exasperating, but definitely the right way to tell this particular story.”

Paths to publication

Some authors like publishing. Others just like books. Some just like storytelling. The wide range of publishing paths is mapped in Jane Friedman’s annual report, Key Book Publishing Paths. The 2021 edition contains a new path: hybrid publishing. These are companies that package services authors need in one bundle. Friedman’s report only gets better with each year.

Its wisdom is always close to my keyboard when I consult with an author who’s had an edit. When I do an evaluation edit or a development edit, it includes options for getting the book into the world. The steepest path requires an agent for a traditional deal, including payment in advance and a sales force. The gentlest slope gets a book into the world on the Web, or through social posts, where the primary concern is how professional it looks.

Hybrids sit just about in the middle on Friedman’s chart: Professional work, always with no advances to the author, higher royalties, and marketing that’s almost completely on the author’s shoulders. Many hybrids don’t judge what’s worthy of publishing, while some do vet the books they produce.

I recommend Friedman’s free annual report to every author who brings me a book. It can be hard to judge what you’ve created. Some authors write enough to call the work a manuscript but aren’t even sure if they have a book yet. The path from manuscript pages to publication can succeed if authors know the bends in the road. The steepest path is at the left edge of Friedman’s table. The closer to the left you want to tread, the harder the work.

Remove filters to get your POV closer

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to preserve the showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story. Fiction has several key elements, and none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

In third person, the telling is even more tempting. Make a list of these barrier words and post it next to your computer screen:

saw
looked
watched
noticed
smelled
heard
touched
felt
knew
realized
thought
remembered
reminded
decided
seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you are permitted to do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. (We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.)

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need “watched” and “saw.” Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy filter is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After a while, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.

Know if you’ve got what it takes to be published?

Sometimes, in the course of coaching an author, they ask if they’ve got what it takes to be successful. The harder question is whether their book that we’ve development-edited can be published. Everyone who’s ever written a book has this question, asked every time. Asking it is the way you know you’re serious about your life as an author. When your writing is a hobby, you won’t be asking if you’ve got what it takes.

The answer rides on how much an author will work to improve their book. Multiply that by the number of months you’ll spend developing your book’s market plan. That development is outside of the work to make the book the best one you can write. The best way to give that market plan a chance of helping is to learn about the market and industry you’re trying to crack.

Authors visit the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors conference with varying degrees of love for publishing. They’re locked in on their love of storytelling, plus the wordcraft that makes a book easy to enjoy. The business? Not so much, for some authors. They will leave this to their publisher. Embracing this part of the author’s life is more fun when you have an avid curiosity about how books get sold. The selling of books is the business heartbeat of publishing.

In a nutshell, that’s what it takes to be a success in publishing: curiosity. Learning how to write more clearly, how to craft great characters, how to introduce suspense and write endings that are spoiler-worthy and inevitable — those are simply the Publishing 101. Graduating into making a profit on a book means understanding the industry, driven by curiosity.

Figuring where to learn

You can be reading Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, a good blog like Jane Friedman’s, or a teaching publisher like Anne Trubek; she runs a press in Cleveland and has a terrific book, So You Want to Publish a Book? Mike Shatzkin’s The Book Business is another bible that I savor.

Your query letter offers the easiest early steps to see if you’ve got what it takes to succeed. Part of your query that you can serve you fastest are your comps — the recent books like yours that have succeeded in the market. Or books that succeeded in the market and are sort of like yours, but they left one part out. Your query helps an agent, or a publisher, imagine the success of the book.

Publishers have to make a case to whoever sells their books. That might be a distributor, which is a sales force not working strictly for one press, but for many presses. Or it might be an in-house sales force, if you got to a big enough publisher. Whether your book gets picked up, or doesn’t, is going to be in the hands of the people who sell books. Knowing about their trade makes it easier to know if you’ve got what it takes.

Why hybrid publishing produces your book, without gimmicks or fraud

Some of my editing clients publish through hybrid presses. No skullduggery there; it’s a straight-up hybrid. A hybrid press is another way to purchase a publishing services package. Some hybrids are more open than others, and plenty will tell authors that they’re meeting a higher standard than Everybody Gets Published. It’s true. When you consider how bad a book could be at the moment of submission, it’s a good business move to keep the lowest-caliber books out of a hybrid’s work flow. If you only write the books, hybrids carry you from a final draft to the for-sale moment. $2,400 is not an unusual number for a hybrid quote.

Here’s a good thing to know: if all you write is the book, you’re probably going to see a fraction of the sales if you’d written essays, articles, blog posts, Facebook posts, and even long Instagram captions. Or maybe just a great newsletter. Publishing needs authors to write after the sale. Or, you can get lucky and get a contract where you get some help from a marketing department to write some of that stuff.

I don’t see any problem in publishing through a hybrid, so long as you understand it’s on par with self-publishing done professionally. Belt Publishing, which does great books in traditional agreements, also operates Parafine Press. It’s a hybrid. The profits from Parafine help Belt pay its bills on the traditional book deals where the book doesn’t earn its way to a profit. This drive for profit is one of the things that hammers down advances. Anne Trubek, who heads up Belt, has a wonderful book out, So You Want to Publish a Book. It’s the best $10 you’ll ever spend on your career.

Investments abound

Authors have invested in getting their books published since, oh, the 19th century, maybe earlier. There’s also a process called subvention, where someone invests in the book besides the press. Subventions are more common in academic presses.

Ever since I sat down in an editor’s chair, I’ve known publishing is a for-profit business. That was clear from that first job in 1981. That publisher closed its doors 90 days after I went to work. The losses just got too steep there. If nobody is earning anything from a book, it’s usually not because that was the intention. A vanity publisher is still a publisher, but their gate is as open as your investment makes it.

There’s nothing wrong with vanity publishing. When you get honest about what a traditional deal amounts to, it’s an advance and maybe a sales force and good promotion, plus somebody else to pay for creating and shipping the books. The traditional press grooms you for another book and attaches its influence and connections to its better-known authors. That’s why a traditional deal is prized; some of that is hard for anyone to offer except a traditional press.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers

Beta readers can help your book develop. They’ll need specific guidance, though, or you’ll get a lot of “I thought it was great.” You want to hear that, but the book needs more specifics. It’s good to use beta reading as a backup to a complete development cycle. Craft the book first, then check your choices. A coach or a development editor can get you ready for the beta moment.

  1. Does the manuscript have a strong hook? Does the story start in the right place?
  2. What are the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses? Examine these elements
  • Point of view
  • Scene setting
  • Language and especially tone
  • Showing vs. telling balance
  • Clarity
  • Use of metaphors and similes
  • Length
  1. How is the characterization? Was there any place where you felt you couldn’t follow the motivations of a character, or didn’t buy them?
  2. How is the pacing? Were there any places where it slowed down or felt hurried?
  3. When did you feel the most and least engaged with the text? At what point did you start getting bored or distracted?
  4. Were there any scenes you didn’t get the point of, or felt that they didn’t serve the story as a whole?
  5. Which was your favorite character, and why?
  6. How was the imagery/description? Did the manuscript need more, less—and where?
  7. What were the overall themes of the book? How would you strengthen them?
  8. Did anything in the book seem fake or unrealistic to you?
  9. What concerns do you see readers having with the book?
  10. Was there enough conflict? Did it feel natural to you? Were there any points where it felt contrived or forced?
  11. What was your favorite part, thing, or scene of the book?
  12. What was your least favorite part, thing, or scene of the book?
  13. What is the one problem with the book that you are hesitant to bring up, possibly because you’re not sure how to fix it?