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Monday, March 30, 2009

What’s a Hook? The Art of the Pitch

New York Times Bestselling mystery/thriller author Joe Finder was gracious enough to let us reprint his blog post here on the art of the pitch.

By Joseph Finder

This is the text of my March Writing Tips newsletter, which just went out. If you'd like to subscribe, you can do so here.

My Hollywood agent brought me out to L.A. not long ago to pitch a couple of Big Shot TV producers on an idea for a show they wanted me to create. I figured, why not? I flew out there and got into the meeting with Big Shot Producer #1, wearing my expensive jeans, and started telling him about my idea, the same way I’d tell my editor or my agent.

About five minutes into my spiel he cut me off and said, “Excuse me. No offense, but you’ve never pitched before, have you?”

I confessed I hadn’t, as if I had to say anything. I don’t pitch. I write.

He said, “I can tell. That’s not how you do it. Why don’t you come back in after you meet with the other producers and pitch it again?”

You might think that I’d be embarrassed or annoyed, but the truth is, I appreciated his honesty and respected the guy all the more for it.

Pitching is a specialized skill that has very little to do with whether you can write. But in Hollywood, the pitch is the currency. If you can’t pitch your idea, no one’s buying.

Why should novelists care about the art of the pitch in Hollywood? Because being able to pitch a movie, or a TV show, is the same skill as being able to come up with the “hook,” the “what-if,” the premise of that novel you’re writing. Or that script.

Put it another way: you’re in an elevator with one of the most powerful book agents in New York (or wherever), and you have ten seconds to pitch your novel to her so that she’ll actually want to read it. Can you do it?

Bet you can’t.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Who cares? I’m not going to ever get into an elevator with a powerful agent, and if I did, I’d probably freeze up anyway.” Maybe. But odds are, at some point you will have to e-mail or snail-mail a pitch in the form of a letter or a note.

“So what’s it about?” a friend asks you. You say, um, er, well . . .

Summarizing your story in a sentence or two is one of the hardest things to do, whether you’ve published ten books or none. Don’t forget, we established writers have to pitch our books too, when we’re interviewed on TV or radio. It’s not easy. But it’s essential, and not just to sell a book. I’m convinced that if you can’t “pitch” it in a sentence, you don’t have the story figured out yet. Simple as that.

Years ago, when I was struggling through the first draft of The Moscow Club, I had lunch with an editor. “What’s your ‘What If?’” he asked.

I had no idea. My “What If”? I’d never thought in those terms. But he was right; every book starts with a question that, in the end, it answers. Call it a Hook, call it a donnée, call it a premise. It’s the thing that sucks the reader in and makes him or her want to know what happens next.

Now, a confession: I’ve been writing thrillers for over 20 years, and I still get confused about the difference between a “hook” and a premise. Is a hook the thing that starts the book and grabs you by the lapel and makes you want keep reading? Or is it the concept of the entire book — a definition that veers dangerously into the Hollywood notion of “high concept”?

I’ve done some thinking, and here’s my answer. “High concept” is an unjustly maligned term meaning a story idea that can be easily grasped both by studio execs and by audiences. But a warning: just because you can pitch it in a sentence doesn’t make it High Concept. No — it has to be extremely appealing and commercial, not just succinct. It’s got to have wide, instant commercial appeal.

Yet if a story is all high concept with no follow-through, it’s little more than a gimmick. Take “Snakes On a Plane” — you get what it’s about instantly. You may even want to watch it. But it’s not a good movie. It’s all wind-up, little delivery.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with a “high concept” thriller. In fact, if you have a high concept, that makes it even easier to sell. Take The Bourne Identity, for example. What if a man with amnesia has forgotten he’s the world’s most dangerous assassin? That concept boosted Bob Ludlum’s already large readership hugely, based on the premise alone. And it’s a great one. A couple more great high-concept thrillers: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park: “What if scientists could clone dinosaurs from prehistoric mosquito blood trapped in amber?” Or John Grisham’s The Firm: “What if a high-end law firm turned out to be a Mafia front?

High concept isn’t necessarily cheesy at all — Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, anyone? It’s all about how well it’s executed. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent (prosecutor is accused of the murder of his lover, and he’s the first-person narrator) is high-concept to be sure, but beautifully written and brilliantly plotted.

A hook, on the other hand, is the opening gambit that reels you in -- like a fish-hook. Harlan Coben is a master of the hook. (Dan Brown says so.) Tell No One, for instance — a guy gets an e-mail message from his dead girlfriend, who may or may not be dead. I’m there. The book spirals on from there, but that’s the set-up, the premise that grabs you at the outset.

A fishing hook needs bait and a fisherman, though, and a writing hook needs a story. An unusual situation, however intriguing, is not a story. “A family digs a swimming pool in the backyard, and finds a buried time capsule” is a great premise for a novel – but what happens next? “A family’s discovery of a time capsule buried in their backyard makes them the targets of government agents from every country in the world” — that’s a story hook, because now we know that the time capsule sets a chain of events in motion. (Hey, I just made that up, but I like it!)

So, the moral of the story: if you have a high concept for a novel, great. But you don’t need one. At the very least you want a great “what if,” a hook that grabs the reader in the beginning and makes him or her want to keep reading.

In any case, you do want your story to have a simple, easily expressible premise, and until you know how to articulate it, the odds are you haven’t figured it out yourself.
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Saturday, March 28, 2009

By Anthony S. Policastro

I started a new blog about what every author should know about online marketing and then some called THE DOG IS CHASING GHOSTS. Take a look. I think you will find it entertaining and useful.

Every so often, our labradoodle, Nickie, will confidently stare into a corner of a room with no windows and bark repeately for several minutes."What is the dog barking at?" my wife would ask.

"Ghosts. I think the dog is chasing ghosts." I say.

She raises her eyebrows and her face says, "maybe," and the dog stops barking and we go about doing whatever it was we were doing.

Whether my dog is barking at ghosts or not, something is there, something triggered the keen senses of the my pet whether it was a sound, a smell or a noise.

The Internet is similar in that of all the millions of users out there, you can't see them or touch them, but you know they are there.

Anthony S. Policastro, The Dog is Chasing Ghosts, Mar 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

First Impressions

By Paula Margulies

As a book publicist and an avid reader, my first word of advice to anyone who contacts me regarding my services is to write the best book s/he possibly can. I am sent books by hundreds of people looking for promotional help, but since I only handle two or three clients at a time, I tend to be choosy about who I agree to represent.

Judging writing is a subjective art, and I try to be fair with every book I receive. Instead of asking whether or not I love the book (something I've heard a few agents say they must feel before they take on a client), I ask myself, Can I sell it? This is a bit of a different question - my concern is not whether the book is great fiction or non-fiction, but more whether booksellers, reporters, and media producers will be interested in it when I call to give them a pitch.

Even so, if a book is poorly written or riddled with typos and grammatical errors, it isn't likely that I'll be able to place it anywhere, even if it has a great topic. Likewise if the title is off-putting or the cover art is somehow wrong for the book or its audience. A young adult novel, for example, with a Goth title and violent cover art may fly with the kids it’s designed to reach, but it won’t get past librarians or teachers who are the gatekeepers that decide whether or not a YA author can appear at a library or school.

Every writer should have multiple pairs of eyes on a book before it goes to an agent, editor, or publicist. Best case, authors should revise and rewrite with a high-caliber writing group. After rounds of testing with other authors, the book should then go through a good edit, hopefully with a professional editor, but if that's not possible, then with a trusted friend or another experienced writer or teacher who can help spot typos, grammatical issues, and flaws in the storyline.

I'm seeing more self-published work lately and many of those books, though interesting and decently written, have not had an agent or editor to help with the conceptual issues and editorial corrections that most books need. Although it's tough to get an agent these days, and even tougher to be published by a larger press, the value those entities bring to an author’s work is immeasurable. I know this from experience - my first agent worked with me for four months on my debut novel before shopping it to publishing houses, offering input on what was missing and urging me to write seven new scenes for the book. Some agents give thorough critiques and mark-ups of manuscripts; others will work with authors for months, or even years, making certain that a book is the best it can be before it reaches an editor at a publishing house.

And editors, despite being over-worked and beleaguered by cut-backs and mergers, will put their own spin on a text. Some do more than others but, in most cases, a book will have gone through many rounds of revision and polishing before it hits the market if published by a larger house or even a diligent small press.

Can an author with a self-published book get the same quality end product without an agent and editor? Certainly, although the onus will be on the author to provide editorial and packaging resources for himself, which can be expensive and/or time-consuming. Many authors, in their hurry to get their books out, forego these steps and, sadly, the books don’t sell.

The bottom line is that self-published or not, if you want your book to be well-received by booksellers and the media, you must take the time to carefully edit, polish, and package it well.
__________
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her website at www.paulamargulies.com.
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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Editors: The New Disenfranchised

By Richard Curtis

Many of the pieces published in this column originally appeared in the 1980s or 1990s but have undergone revision to make them timely for today's reader. When I selected this 23-year-old essay I considered updating it, but as I reread it I was struck by its relevance to today's conditions. I've therefore decided to present it as originally published.

Just one background note. Up until the mid-1980s, hardcover publishers usually sold reprint rights to outside paperback publishers. But when both hardcover and paperback houses realized the advantages of merging the two formats under one roof, there was a spate of mergers and acquisitions, laying the foundation for the "hard-soft" publication deal that is the backbone of almost all book acquisitions today.
RC


I've always liked editors but I never used to feel sorry for them. That changed when the acquisition of Doubleday was announced.

Until then, whenever I heard that a publisher had been acquired by some sprawling conglomerate, or merged with another publisher, or had simply given up the ghost and shut its doors, my first thought had always been, This is bad for authors. The displacement, the disruption, the disarray caused by these corporate earthquakes have been nothing short of calamitous. The publishing landscape of the past thirty-five years is littered with ruined books beyond counting and haunted by the shades of authors whose careers have been maimed and prematurely terminated.

But in the tumultuous last week of September 1986, when deals were concluded for the acquisition of Doubleday and New American Library, my first thought was, How terrible this all must be for editors. I spoke to a great many of them after the deals were announced, and I can assure you that few were not anxious and disturbed, if not downright scared. It had finally dawned on editors everywhere that there was no longer any such thing as job security at a publishing company.

What happened to Doubleday was a harbinger of things to come, for, as long as most publishing people could remember, the firm had symbolized bedrock stability— - a fortress impervious to the corporate wars that left almost none of her sister-houses unaltered. If anything, Doubleday had bolstered its foundations some years before with the acquisition of Dell Publishing Company, a major paperback house. After the acquisition, the shadow of change darkened the desks of everyone who worked in publishing, and anxiety lurked in every corridor. "Every time my boss buzzes," one editor told me, "I say to myself, 'That's it. They're letting my department go.'" This constant knot in the stomach exists for workers in every area of publishing, including sales, marketing, accounting, publicity, and art.

That the deals were good for the buyers and sellers, few observers question, although there are some aspects that could tarnish the splendor of the prizes. Doubleday's book division had been losing money for some years, owing in good measure (in my opinion at least) to its failure to adjust to the revolutionary change in the nature of our business that made the so-called hard-soft publishers the predominant beasts in the jungle. Indeed, one of the few divisions of Doubleday that was operating in the black, other than the New York Mets baseball team (which they subsequently shed), was Delacorte Press, which had always acquired hardcover and paperback rights together. At the time of the acquisition, Doubleday seldom, if ever, acquired books for its Dell paperback line. Nor did it bend in its rigid refusal to give authors a greater share of paperback reprint revenue than the traditional fifty-fifty split, something that other hardcover houses had yielded to in order to gain competitive parity when bidding for properties against hard-soft houses.

Bertelsmann, the German publishing group that acquired Doubleday, also owns Bantam Books, which controls the largest share of the paperback market of any American publisher. The addition of Dell potentially eliminated one competitor from the already shrunken list of paperback firms, and swelled Bantam's market share to a size that some observers thought might attract the attention of Justice Department trustbusters. It didn't, however: monopoly in publishing doesn't yet seem to be very interesting to our government. But a lot of Dell editors braced for pink slips. "I've got my résumés out," one editor told me. "When the other shoe drops, I'll be ready."

If you stood back and simply admired the deal, Viking Penguin's acquisition of New American Library was an excellent one all around. A few years before, Viking had united with England's paperback giant Penguin in order to give both companies stronger hard-soft capability in the United States. But Penguin lacked entry into the critical wholesale paperback market. And so, New American Library, which had been bought by an investment group a few years earlier, was seen as a perfect place for Penguin to enter that market. And Viking would, it was thought, be able to play hard-soft ball in the major leagues.

Ten years later, Penguin's parent company, Pearson Ltd., acquired the Putnam and Berkley groups, and though (at this writing) the various imprints are functioning separately from one another, anyone who has worked in publishing in the last decades of the twentieth century has seen what happens when corporate executives look at their holdings and ask, "Why do we need four companies competing for the same books? Let's eliminate some of them." And poof! Another competitor gone, and more editors canned while the Justice Department sleeps.

Job anxiety had infected the thinking of editors throughout the history of postwar publishing. But because many of you may be too young to have lived through the turmoil of acquisitions, mergers, overhaulings, phaseouts, reorganizations, disassemblies, and absorptions, or for those in the publishing business who are too close to daily affairs to step back and see the carnage through a panoramic lens, let me recite a partial roll call of companies that are no more, or are now just divisions or imprints of the companies that consumed them.

Appleton-Century-Crofts (a division of Prentice-Hall)
Prentice-Hall (acquired by Simon & Schuster)
Simon & Schuster (acquired by Viacom Corporation)
Atheneum (acquired by Charles Scribner)
Charles Scribner (acquired by Macmillan)
Macmillan (acquired by Simon & Schuster)
Little, Brown (acquired by Time Inc.)
Warner Paperback (merged with Little, Brown)
Avon Books (acquired by the Hearst Corporation)
Arbor House (acquired by the Hearst Corporation)
Fawcett Books (acquired by Ballantine Books)
Ballantine Books (acquired by Random House)
Times Books (acquired by Random House)
Pantheon Press (acquired by Random House)
Alfred A. Knopf (acquired by Random House)
Random House (acquired from RCA by the Newhouse
organization)*
Bantam Books (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Doubleday (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Dell Books (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Basic Books (acquired by Harper & Row, then deacquisitioned)
Crowell (acquired by Harper & Row)
Abelard-Schuman (acquired by Harper & Row)
Harper & Row (acquired by Rupert Murdoch's NewsAmerica
Corporation)
Playboy Press (acquired by Berkley Books)
Ace Books (acquired by Grosset & Dunlap)
Grosset & Dunlap (acquired by Berkley Books)
Berkley Books (acquired by G. P. Putnam's)
G. P. Putnam's (acquired by MCA, sold to Matsushita, then to
Seagram, then to Pearson Ltd.)
Pyramid Books (acquired by Harcourt Brace, renamed Jove)
Jove (acquired by Berkley)
Coward-McCann-Geoghegan (acquired by Putnam, then dissolved)
Dial Press (acquired by Dell, sold to Dutton)
Dutton (acquired by Elsevier, sold to JSD, sold to NAL)
NAL (sold by Times-Mirror to Odyssey Group, resold to Viking,
merged with Penguin)
Rawson, Wade (acquired by Macmillan)
Silhouette Books (acquired by Harlequin from Simon & Schuster)

This partial list is drawn from a thumb-through of Literary Market Place, the publishing industry's directory, and I could certainly go on and on. Taken as a whole, the list represents a pattern of seismic instability so severe that if I were an editor today I would strap myself into my chair just to get some work done.

Publishing is a social enterprise that calls for a large degree of organization, hierarchy, and interdependency, and so, by the very nature of what they do, editors are corporate creatures. It stands to reason, then, that the more attention an editor must devote to matters corporate instead of editorial, the weaker will be his or her attachment to books and authors. The emergence of the superpublisher in our century, a corporate entity whose goals only incidentally have anything to do with the quality of literature and the well-being of authors, has impinged to a greater and greater extent on the time, energy, thought, and care that editors are able to give over to books and those who write them, and as you will infer from the list above, the last couple of decades have raised the level of distraction to critical mass.

The most obvious, as well as detrimental, manifestation of this shift of editors' attention is job-hopping. As their love of books and authors is battered by all the firings and hirings, reorganizations, streamlinings, office politics, shuffling of responsibilities, and the buying and selling of the companies they work for, editors feel fewer compunctions about accepting job offers from other publishers. It's hard to feel company loyalty when corporate logos change with the frequency of automobile styles. Low wages have always prevailed in the editorial profession, but higher pay is not in itself a compelling lure for an editor contemplating a move to another company, unless it is coupled with a promise of greater job satisfaction. But if an editor is not getting such satisfaction, he's going to think a lot about his salary. It behooves us to think about how a $35,000 a year editor must feel when he listens to the complaints of authors making many times that amount. "Few of my authors make less money than I do," an editor told me, "and none makes less than my assistant."

The vicious cycle is accelerated as more and more editors, looking out for Number One, jump to other publishers or leave publishing altogether for more lucrative, satisfying, and stable jobs. Even those remaining in publishing find themselves burdened with corporate responsibilities that take them away from what they love most dearly to do - acquire and edit books. Thus, the industry eventually becomes bereft of dedicated editors, and the vacuum is too often filled by people who are more adept at playing corporate games than at developing writers.

In turn, such people place more and more emphasis on buying winners instead of breeding them: acquisition without cultivation. Less and less attention is paid to developing writers; instead, everyone asks how much it will cost to buy and sell them. The publisher that proves itself most capable of acquiring will become the most successful. But the price is dear: When authors are deprived of the time to grow, creativity will be snuffed out. It's as true of literature as it is of agriculture or forestry.

The cycle spins yet faster and higher as other publishers try to emulate the successful ones. Abandoning the philosophy, the tradition, the taste and judgment, and the people that got them where they were, these houses join the chase to try to capture frontlist hits. Even when they snag them, however, they lose a little bit more of their character if not their soul.

The soul of a publishing company is its editors, and when a publishing company alters its fundamental attitudes about books and authors, the sensibilities of its editors must, of necessity, change as well. With promotions and increased corporate responsibilities comes loss of contact with the intimate places in an author's heart where literature is born.

The rest of the editorial staff, as well as the staffs of the other departments that fuel publishing companies, carry on as best they can in the midst of this furious turbulence, but they do so in a constant state of apprehension. How difficult it must be to concentrate, to plan, to pay attention to the work at hand, when upheaval is only one announcement (or even one rumor) away.
Editors today have more in common with authors than they do with the publishing companies that employ them. Both are disenfranchised, and both have become fodder for the relentless march of the takeover.

Post-script: In 1998, as I was reviewing the proofs for the book in which this essay appeared, it was announced that Bertelsmann, owner of Bantam-Doubleday-Dell, had acquired Random House, a company that embraces Alfred A. Knopf, Ballantine Books, Crown Publishers, Del Rey Books, Fawcett Books, Pantheon Press, Schocken Books, Times Books, Villard House and several other publishers.

That was over ten years ago, and the list of mergers and acquisitions since then is easily as long as the one above. And so is the list of the disenfranchised.


This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in This Business of Publishing: An Insider's View of Current Trends and Tactics Copyright © 1998 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Post Your Book on Amazon's Kindle, but Promote It

By Anthony S. Policastro


If you have written a book, you can now post it on Amazon's Kindle eBook reader for free. A simple four-step process is all it takes and within 12 to 72 hours your book will be on the Kindle right next to James Patterson, John Grisham, and other literary luminaries.


Amazon's Digital Text Platform allows anyone to post a book if you have never published before with or without an ISBN number. Amazon will assign your book its own tracking number called an ASIN number.


The best part of listing your book with the Kindle is that you are free to set your own price and Amazon will give you 35 percent of your sale price even if they discount the price on their site. I listed my thriller,Dark End of the Spectrum, for $5.99 and Amazon discounted it to $4.79. Amazon will still pay me 35 percent of the $5.99.


The other great feature is that your book can be found globally on Amazon.com. Just put in your name or title in the search field and your book will come up just as if you searched for Nicholas Sparks or War and Peace.


While Amazon has not released the number of Kindle owners, another advantage to listing is that people who purchased the $359 Kindle are avid readers so you have a devoted, captive audience. But don't get excited yet, the hard part is promoting your book.


With more than 240,000 titles on the Kindle and growing every hour, your book might as well be a grain of sand on the California coast. The Kindle does not list new releases as a separate category and ranks books by their sales on Kindle. When you go to the book list the current best sellers come up first. I listed my book in the suspense and thrillers category and soon learned my title was among 2,420 listed there. The other disadvantage is that you cannot go to the last page of the listing on the Kindle nor can you see titles listed by publication date.


You can search Kindle books on Amazon.com by category, price, publication date, customer reviews and bestsellers, but you will not find your book easily. I searched my title by category and publication date – the most common search metrics among readers looking for a new book and found the dates out of sequence and a large number of advanced releases in front of my publication date.


The other search method is by the search tags you assign your book, but this too is daunting since the search will pull up thousands of titles with the same tags. The best thing to do is put your name in as a search tag. This will filter out just your books.

Despite these drawbacks, it is better to list your book on the Kindle format. I've had some sales with little or not promotion. So get the word out.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Digital Publishing - the Next Emerging Trend

Have you considered ebooks in your promotional efforts? Has your publisher? We found the following post from Book Business magazine a harbinger of the future of the publishing industry.

Navigating the Digital Landscape: The Society of New Communications Research's Senior Fellow Danny O. Snow on the Impact of New Digital Formats and Technologies on Publishing

By Melissa Ward

As the recession trudges on, you may have noticed that the bookstore you pass every morning on your way to work has hung the dreaded “Going Out of Business” sign in the front window. Even larger book-selling chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, have reported declining sales, despite their large inventories, events and in-store cafés. Sales are moving online, and e-books and e-readers are growing increasingly popular. What does this mean for the future of traditional book publishers and the print books they produce?

To answer this question, Book Business Extra spoke with Danny O. Snow, senior fellow of The Society for New Communications Research—a nonprofit think tank dedicated to the advanced study of the latest developments in new media and communications—to talk about the impact that new technologies are having on the publishing industry. Snow also will present a related session “Book Publishing in 2009's Digital Landscape,” at this year's Publishing Business Conference & Expo, March 23-25, in New York City.

Book Business Extra: What are some of the first steps smaller and mid-size publishers can take who haven't yet invested heavily in new technologies?
Danny O. Snow: First, recognize that online book-selling is the wave of the future, even if you are still printing and distributing books the traditional way. Consumers are buying more and more books online, while “brick-and-mortar” bookstores struggle. This trend is virtually certain to accelerate in a time of economic crisis and high fuel prices. Why should consumers drive to bookstores when they can browse online from the comfort of their homes or offices—saving time, money and natural resources?

If you are sending PDF files to your printer, you’re already in the e-book business, whether you know it or not. Send the same PDF files to Google [Book Search], and your content can soon start generating revenues in digital form. Find a DAD [digital asset distributor] and your PDFs can be rapidly re-formatted for electronic publication on a variety of platforms with a minimum of investment or technical hassle, wringing more revenue from the work already completed getting the print edition published. Don’t fall prey to the illusion that e-books will erode sales of printed books; that isn’t going to happen for another decade or two.

[Lastly], unless you’re fortunate enough to publish nothing but brisk sellers, look very carefully at print-on-demand [POD] as a way to keep your backlist in print, and revive out-of-print titles. POD also affords publishers a better way to “incubate” new books and test their actual public appeal before the publisher invests more heavily in bulk printing, trade distribution and promotion.

Extra: If a publisher only has the time and resources to invest in one or two new areas, which ones should it take advantage of?
Snow: POD … . [Also look into] methods for selling books beyond conventional publishing trade channels (bookstores and libraries) that are more closely related to the subject matter. For example, a travel guide may sell more briskly at a travel agency than a bookstore. Books are now sold almost everywhere: in supermarkets, truck stops, doctors’ offices, etc. A landmark study by the Book Industry Study Group in 2005, titled “Under the Radar,” documents that these “non-traditional” outlets now represent an annual market of at least $11.5 billion. Savvy publishers will increasingly move more books through specialty and niche marketing channels.

Extra: Which technology or technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on the publishing industry this year?
Snow: Watch for widespread bookstore closures in 2009, with a greater share of book sales moving online, especially through non-traditional outlets. Technologies that promote e-commerce for publishers will flourish as a result.

Extra: What do you think the Google Book Search settlement will mean for publishers and authors?
Snow: Out-of-print and backlist titles will return with a vengeance, capturing a greater share of total book sales. And this revival may not just be online, but also in print because it seems likely that Google will be smart enough to find a way to make millions of older books available in print as POD books in addition to their digital counterparts.

Extra: In your opinion, how will the future of e-books impact the future of print books?
Snow: The importance of e-books is growing. But as predicted in “The Myth of the Paperless Office” (Harper and Sellen, MIT Press, 2001), it’s unlikely that e-books will supplant tree books anytime soon. Instead, watch for a gradual migration from print to digital formats, most likely on open-platform, multi-purpose devices rather than dedicated e-book readers. POD is the bridge technology in the interim, combining many of the benefits of digital distribution with the comfort and economy of print for readers. Everyday people still prefer “real” books, and according to a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts, titled “Reading on the Rise,” the audience for “literary” material is growing rather than shrinking, with 112 million readers in the United States alone. These factors suggest that foresighted publishers will position themselves for increasing digital distribution in the future, while finding better ways to reach readers in print in today’s market.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Back to Basics

By Richard Curtis

As the stakes continue to rise in the publishing business, writers are adopting a wide range of strategies to advance themselves out of the midlist and onto better-selling plateaus. I myself have recommended a number of such strategies. Recently, however, as I respond again and again to the question of what one can do to escape midlist oblivion, it's begun to dawn on me that many writers have been ignoring the most obvious answer: write better. The truth is that if all other things are equal, the author with better writing skills is the one who will rise out of the pack.

Instead of reviewing what's selling these days and who is buying it, I thought it might be worth reminding you about some of the most common and flagrant writing transgressions to be found in a typical harvest of fiction works that fetches up on my desk. I hasten to point out that the perpetrators are by no means mere amateurs, but professional writers as well, so let those who are without sin skip this article.

I have to confess at the outset that as I was preparing my list, I realized that nobody has ever come up with a better formula for analyzing problem manuscripts than the boss I had in my apprentice days, Scott Meredith. Meredith created the "Plot Skeleton," which goes something like this: A sympathetic hero or heroine confronts an obstacle or antagonist, creating a conflict that must be credibly overcome through the protagonist's efforts. These efforts result in a triumphant resolution that is satisfying to the reader.

Unsympathetic protagonists, inconsequential conflicts, and uninspired resolutions are the characteristics of most of the fiction that agents thrust into stamped, self-addressed envelopes and return to senders. I have made notes, however, on some other fundamental failures that personally turn me off, and I've boiled these deadly "sins" down to seven. I should add that the problems listed here are the kind that jump out at me so quickly that I can usually make a determination about a book containing them after only a few minutes of reading.

1. The Sin of Lousy Dialogue. Many writers try to carry their books on narrative alone, leaving me hungry for some conversation. Often, when at last I do encounter dialogue, it's of a trivial "Hello, how are you?" "Fine, thank you" variety. By fanning a manuscript like a deck of cards, a professional agent or editor can instantly perceive a paucity of quotation marks. Or, if you like your torture slow, you can read page by page waiting for somebody to talk to somebody else. Dialogue is an invaluable fictional device, yet many writers believe they can tell a story with a minimum of it. A playwright once said that a good line of dialogue reveals something about the speaker, the person spoken to, and the person spoken about. Without dialogue, a work of fiction becomes a tract.

A rapid scan of a manuscript often discloses the opposite problem, a book so replete with dialogue that it reads like a screenplay. In such books, the dialogue reveals little about anybody, because it's mostly talk, and you have to listen to endless conversations in the hope of seizing some nuggets of genuine story. It should be remembered that dialogue is not only a character-revealing device, it is also a form of action, but an excess of it will have the opposite effect. Those guilty of this particular shortcoming should ask themselves in what way a dialogue scene moves the story forward. If too slowly, or not at all, you're doing something wrong.

Writers sometimes forget what dialogue sounds like when actually spoken, and they should therefore try speaking it aloud or performing it with another person. That way, they might avoid one of my all-time pet peeves, which might be described as, "What did you say your name was, dear?

"John, we've been married for fifty years and you haven't given me flowers for the last thirty."
"Gosh, Mary, I hadn't realized it."
"It's true, John."
"Well, Mary, I'll just have to do something about that.
"I hope you will, John." etc.

2. The Sin of Inaction. I hate this one because it takes me so long to diagnose. I may have to read as much as half of a manuscript before I realize that nothing, in fact, is happening. This is also the most heartbreaking failure in terms of wasted time and talent, particularly when you realize that it is the most avoidable. Most of the time, it's the result of poor outlining or no outlining at all. By synopsizing your work before you begin, you will readily detect soft spots in your story.

A common offshoot of this problem is often found in mystery novels. I call it the "travel fallacy." After a crime is committed, our protagonist picks up a clue and visits a witness or suspect, where he picks up another clue and visits another person or suspect, who leads him to another, and so forth. All that traveling from one place to another gives the illusion of action, but when you analyze it you realize that the only thing that has happened is the protagonist has gotten into a car or boarded a plane, boat, or bus and gone somewhere. But travel is not to be confused with action.

3. The Sin of Skimpy Detail. Many fiction writers believe that the best way to improve their craft is to study other fiction writers. Certainly one can benefit from reading the work of others. But if your spare time is limited you might benefit more by reading nonfiction. And not just history and biography but esoteric stuff like costumes of eighteenth-century France, Florentine church architecture, Samurai swords, and modern glassmaking. This will help to cure one of the surest signs of amateurism in fiction, the generalized description: "On the Czarina's desk lay a Fabergé egg." Don't you think a reader would rather read something like, "On the Czarina's inlaid walnut and ormolu escritoire a gorgeous gold Fabergé egg stood on a tripod of wrought gold. The egg was segmented with translucent green enamel trellising and inlaid with ceremonial scenes, miniature portraits of her children, and a particularly handsome portrait of Nicholas resplendent in blue uniform and gold epaulettes . . ." etc.

Though books about furniture-making or Russian enamels may not be as entertaining as the latest novel by your favorite writer, reading the former will ultimately pay bigger rewards in the rich texture of your writing.

4. The Sin of Unimaginativeness. Not only do writers fail to describe the real world in sufficient detail, often they portray imaginary worlds in inadequate detail as well. If that world is not thoroughly thought out, readers will know it and eventually lose attention. I find this to be particularly true of fantasy and science fiction, where it is all too easy to think readers will buy into a writer's world simply because it is alien. A planet warmed by binary suns may be a good premise, but if the writer does not describe in detail how these twin stars affect this world's ecology, culture or customs, the strangeness of the premise will soon wear off and the reader will be left in the equivalent of Akron, Ohio, in space. Worlds that never were possess as much detail as those that are or used to be, and the writer's task is to research those worlds as assiduously as a scholar might research ancient Thebes or Alexandria.

5. The Sin of Weak Characterization. A similar criticism applies to characterization: many writers simply do not "research" their characters in adequate depth. Making up character details as one goes along may work well for a rare few, but I get the impression that many writers have not "investigated" or "interviewed" their characters at length. The result is trite people.

The way to investigate your characters is to create dossiers on them that can later be reviewed as though one were a reporter going through diaries and scrapbooks. When and where was your character born and raised? Who were his parents, his grandparents? What events, friendships, circumstances affected his upbringing? What schools did he go to, jobs did he take, romances did he have? Whether or not you actually use all of the material you enter into your file or database, your intimacy with your characters will come through to your reader and they will feel you know more about the people in your book than you have revealed.

6. The Sin of Clichéd Story. The boredom factor is higher among agents and editors than it is among average readers, and a good thing it is, too. Writers don't always realize that stories that may seem unique to them are trite in the eyes of agents and editors. For every plot you write, we may see dozens of similar submissions. I freely confess to being easily bored, and I've stopped castigating myself for it, for I realize boredom is a critical symptom that a manuscript has gone wrong. I try to monitor the moment at which I started to lose my concentration and involvement, then to analyze precisely what it was that turned me off.

Much of the time, it's a story I've heard before. I am weary of coups against the President of the United States (the Vice-President is behind it every time), former-CIA vs. former-KGB cat-and-mouse games, Arab-Israeli terrorist machinations, female journalists turned detective, and Colombian drug lords doing just about anything. Not that these stories cannot be rendered fresh: indeed, that is precisely the point. I demand, I beg, that they be rendered fresh. But if I start to nod off, I know that the author has failed to approach a familiar story from an unfamiliar angle, and that's it for me.

7. The Sin of Triviality. In order for a book to feel big, it should deal with, or at least allude to, issues that go beyond the day-to-day concerns of its characters. Yet, many authors fail to give their story weight or dimension, and the result is often a book that feels trivial and inconsequential. Take a simple love story: boy meets girl and they fall in love. They have a jealous quarrel and break up, but they are eventually reconciled and end up getting married. Such a story is the stuff of a romance, and that's probably where it will end up.

Now let's retell the story. It is December 7, 1941. Boy and girl have met and fallen in love, but on that fateful day the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the world is plunged into war. Boy enlists and is shipped overseas to fight. In war-torn Europe he falls in love with a beautiful French girl, while at home girl has fallen in love with an older man in the munitions factory where she works. Boy and girl break up, marry their lovers. Years go by, both marriages go bad. Boy and girl look each other up, discover they still carry the torch for each other, and are reunited.

The difference between these two love stories is vast, but what is the essential difference? It's that in the second one, history, destiny, and war play a part in the story as if they themselves were characters. The war has taken a silly love story out of the realm of triviality and invested it with a dimension that approaches the tragic. It is not difficult for writers to add such dimension to their work but not all of them do so, and if it is missing, I quickly lose attention.

A team that is struggling is often told by its coach to go back to basics. That's not bad advice for struggling writers, either.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Minister Brews Successful Mix of Horror Writing and Sermons


Today we have an interview with Rev. Dr. Steve Burt, a.k.a. The Sinister Minister, who is not only an award-winning horror/mystery writer, but also a Christian minister. He has won the Bram Stoker, Ray Bradbury, and Benjamin Franklin Awards for his fiction.

In addition to horror and mystery/suspense, he writes church leadership books, inspirational books, devotional material, and has published hundreds of pieces in such venues as Reader’s Digest, Writer’s Digest, Yankee, Family Circle, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.


He’s the father of writing authority Wendy Burt-Thomas (Writer’s Digest Guide to Writing Query Letters released in January) and grandfather to Ben and Gracie.


In February 2009 he was profiled in Connecticut Magazine as “The Sinister Minister” and the name has stuck. His book EVEN ODDER was a runner-up to Harry Potter for the 2003 Bram Stoker Award, and his ODDEST YET won the award in 2004 in the Young Reader category.


ODDEST YET is the first self-published book to win the Bram Stoker Award.


WE: I hear they call you "the Sinister Minister." What's THAT all about? Do people get upset?


I was unintentionally but luckily “branded” during an interview on WCAX TV Channel 3 in Burlington, VT when I won horror’s top writing prize, the Bram Stoker Award (Young Readers category). The news anchor focused on my being both a liberal/progressive pastor (known for church leadership books) and a top-drawer horror writer, a unique combination.

Everybody in creation must have been watching that night, because folks started coming up to me at fairs, saying, “I saw you on TV. You’re The Sinister Minister.” Good lucky branding, and I’ve had fun with it.

In fact, Connecticut Magazine just profiled me in February using “The Sinister Minister” as the title. Occasionally fundamentalist Christians will give me a hard time at signings, but I just ask if they’ve read my material (No!) and if they’ve read their Bible (Of course!). Then I tell them there’s more blood and guts, demon possession, and rising from the dead in the Bible than there

 is in my books. (Or I tell them God told me to write horror. How do you argue that?)

I believe writers should write what they’re called to write, or what they like

reading or writing. I’ve also written poetry, cartoon captions, a canoeing book, devotional material, church leadership books, and inspirational stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul. Nobody questions a minister writing that stuff. But there’s always been a connection between theological issues and horror literature (Frankenstein is about Man Playing God, Dracula is about drinking blood and the cost of eternal life). More to the point, I always liked Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt as a kid, so I write it now.


WE: How did you get started as a writer? What were your influences?


My second-grade teacher got the high school newspaper to print a one-paragraph story of mine. The third-grade teacher encouraged rhymed poems and limericks. The fifth-grade teacher read

aloud to us, and I wrote stories using the read-aloud stories as inspiration. But my sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Youngs kept me after school for being a chatterbox; and instead of making me clean the erasers or write “I will not talk in class” until my hand fell off, she had me write stories, and then she’d critique them.

I wrote fiction in college, edited the literary magazine and, discouraged there was no money in writing, went into the ministry. There I got to write articles, practiced the discipl

ine of writing a sermon every week (the equivalent of a short story in length), and cranked out a few hundred devotionals, articles, poems, and a dozen books. Eventually I decided to write fiction again even if there was no money in it (since I had my pastoral job as an anchor).

From early on I loved

Poe, DeMaupassant, Saki, Twain, Keats & Shelley & Wordsworth, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. And before I hit my teens I gobbled up Homer, Virgil, and the stories of the Norse gods. The last thirty years I’ve really enjoyed the short stories of my old neighbor Stephen King, and Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books, Tony Hillerman, John Sandford, Sue Grafton, and Thomas Perry.


WE: Your stories sometimes fall under horror, but they're not gory. How would you describe them?


Lite horror since they’re in the Young Adult category, some supernatural adventure, and a few paranormal mysteries like my Devaney and Hoag stories. While it appeals to a large adult audience, and because my readers are mostly young adults I lay off the gore, preferring instead Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock off-camera approaches, and character-driven stories over plot-driven ones. There’s far less dependence on shock and special effects.

Myself, I’m sorry horror literature took the turn toward splatterpunk and gore in the early seventies with movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street, because it de-emphasized good writing. That may be why I read a lot of what my Brit colleagues call “weird fiction,” the high quality stuff you get from Ash Tree Press and The Ghost Story Society.


WE: I’ve read that you're the first person in history to win what is arguably horror’s top prize, the Bram Stoker, for a self-published book. Is that true?


I’ve heard that, too, and it’s apparently true, at least for the

Young Reader category. It’s pretty certain I’m the only ordained minister to win one. But your question points up to an interesting issue about self-publishing today.

It’s lucky the Stokers are awarded for “superior achievement” and not “superior achievement with a traditional publisher,” because even the open-minded Horror Writers Association (HWA), which sponsors and awards the Stokers, has a bias built into its membership strata requirements (even though many horror writers are self-published or publish with small presses).

Here’s what I mean: based on dollar sales for my work, I’m a pretty successful horror writer, one who made a full-time living at it for four years, but despite all the money and the awards, I’m still not an Active (read: Full Voting) Member of HWA - only an Affiliate Member - because I haven’t sold a novel to a publisher (other than my own publishing house) or sold the required number of short stories (I think it’s three) at such-and-such a minimum price t

o magazines. The bias is, I think, a holdover from the old days when all self-publishing was equated with “vanity” publishing and meant little or no editing, maybe not even any proofreading. But to its credit the HWA is striving to have “pro” standards (accepted by and edited by someone other than the author) as a requirement for Full Member status, and at this point it still translates into “other-than-self-published.”

But publishing has changed (I own and operate an award-winning publishing house that publishes only my work due to limited funds), yet HWA’s membership guidelines don’t account for that shift. It depends on “professional-level” sales, but doesn’t consider self-publishers’ sales “professional.” That said, I still belong to, support, and enjoy HWA as an Affiliate Member, and I haven’t pressed to change the rules.


WE: Have you always self-published? If not, what made you decide to do it?


No, I wrote church leadership books for traditional publishers like Judson Press and Alban Institute. But making 3% to 6% on a $10-$13 book that has a first run of 2,000-3,000 books isn’t very rewarding monetarily. They changed my titles, insisted on covers I didn’t like, and—in one case—had a three-year delay before the book came out. And I had to do all the PR myself anyway.

I’d rather run 2,000 of my own books (from final ms to published book is three months) for $2 to $5 cost apiece, and sell them at fairs and public readings for $15 a book. Other than Amazon.com, I don’t even bother with bookstores or distributors. When I had a distributor, I sold fewer than 1% of my books through bookstores, and the store and distributor made all the money. I mean, do the math; by producing books myself, meeting my audience face-to-face (young readers), and selling direct to my market (teens, parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians), how many copies do I have to sell per year to beat the money offered by those “real” publishers? I owe this realistic approach to self-publishing guru Dan Poynter, whose book I read (The Self Publishing Manual) and whose weekend course I took. Thanks, Dan.


WE: How do you juggle time between the church and writing?


I intentionally contracted with my church giving them two thirds of my time so I’d have time to write and tend to my bookselling business. I spend about two to three hours a day actually writing, but only between January and end of April, which easily gets me a 144-page book. From June through early December I don’t write, but instead spend most Saturdays selling and autographing at arts & crafts fairs. I also spend weekdays on school visits at middle and high schools, do read-aloud programs of my short stories for different groups (camps, schools, youth groups, senior centers, cemetery associations, civic groups, libraries), and sell a few books in other ways. There’s usually an honorarium to cover travel and expenses. So between church work and the writing business, I stay pretty busy.


WE: Can you talk about your writing process a bit?


After finishing my church work and writing an eight to ten page sermon each week, if I can squeeze out three good hours a day for fiction (say, five days of the week), I’m happy. It’s usually in the afternoon or evening, but on days off I may do a morning. Each writing session will produce three to five pages of a manuscript, but heck, that’s fifteen to twenty-five pages a week—and even over my limited four-month Jan-Apr writing season--that could total 240 to 400 pages, easily enough to sugar off to a 144 page collection.

Just a side story about writing process. After ODD LOT won a Ben Franklin silver for Best Mystery/Suspense Book in 2001, I felt the pressure to beat that with my next collection. So I wrote and rewrote the first lines, first paragraphs, and first pages of the opening story for EVEN ODDER.

Writer’s block! Dead end! Finally my writing-authority/editor/daughter Wendy Burt-Thomas advised me to free myself up by shifting from the write/edit side of the brain to the storytelling side. I got a mini-cassette tape recorder with headset mouthpiece and from scratch orally created a story every day while on an hour’s walk with my dog. At the end of 43 days I had 43 stories, some very bad. But I transcribed the best fifteen to word processing, edited on-screen, and published EVEN ODDER (a runner-up to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” for the 2003 Bram Stoker Award for Young Readers). I didn’t write the book, I told it.


WE: Do you have any funny stories?


Yes. My next book, ODDEST YET, won the 2004 Bram Stoker by beating Dean Koontz and tying Clive Barker. I didn’t attend the black-tie event in Burbank, figuring I had no chance against the big names (besides, I couldn’t afford the airfare and I had to preach in my church the next morning). So my agent from nearby L.A. attended, capitalized on photo ops of her schmoozing with the big names, and phoned me at 2 a.m. to say I’d won the Stoker. I was still pretty much asleep, muttered “Shit” and went back to bed.

The Stoker Committee UPS’d me my oh-so-lovely Stoker trophy that week (a haunted mansion modeled after Poe’s House of Usher) which I placed above the fireplace. Then, after two weeks of bowing down to it every night, I noticed the little door in front and opened it. It had Clive Barker’s name inscribed there for Abarat. He’d walked off the Burbank Hilton stage with my Stoker! So the Stoker Committee and UPS had to mediate a hostage exchange. Barker was gracious and the mistake was righted. After I told my daughter, she said, “Dad, you should have kept Clive Barker’s. It’s worth a lot more than your own on eBay.” Kids are here to keep us humble, right?


WE: What advice do you have for new writers?


Read, read, read - for enjoyment and to learn. Write, write, write anything you can - sermons, newsletter articles, jokes, anecdotes, devotional material, poems, cartoon captions, recipes, anything, but especially stories short and long. Write what you like. Submit stuff. Publish even if sometimes there’s no money but only a contributor’s copy.

My first horror stories went for no pay and low-pay, but I gave away only one-time rights, then later collected them into ODD LOT (almost all reprints of mag stories) that won awards and eventually made a lot of money. That’s contrary to most writers’ advice columnists who are selling nonfiction and advise you not to ever let it go unless you get paid for it.

I also say, read and learn from writing-related magazines and books. Learn from rejections (I had a thousand before an acceptance) and submit again and again. Publish your own stuff if you have to, but make sure you know your audience (for me it’s teens), your market their parents and grandparents and teachers, and how you can get it to the buyers. As my old neighbor Stephen King said, writer’s write, wannabes wannabe.


WE: What are some of your favorite books?


Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Shane, Jaws, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s short stories, and books by J.K. Rowling, James Lee Burke, John Sandford, Tony Hillerman, Thomas Perry, Stephen King (some), Dean Koontz (some), and Sue Grafton.


WE: What books do you recommend that fiction writers read?


Everything in their favorite fields or genres, then beyond that. I gobbled up hundreds of romances over three years, trying to see if I wanted to write the more formulaic stuff. But several romance-writer friends gave me a reality check when they said they were trying to write a book in 6 weeks and produce two to five a year under several names. They loved it, and more power to them for doing what they love, but it wasn’t for me. Still, I learned a lot about character development and plotting from romances. There are two absolute essential non-fiction primers every fiction writer should read: Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work and Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.


WE: Most of your stories - like the Devaney and Haug mysteries - are set in New England. Why?


It’s what I know. I’ve lived most of my life in different parts of New England, so I know the dialects and accents, the common words and colloquialisms New Englanders use. My fourth collection in the Stories to Chill the Heart series is titled WICKED ODD, a northern New England phrase that has spread (Wicked Good Chowdah, wicked cold, wicked funny).

I know the places, the back woods, the small towns, and the weather. It’s second nature to me to write my characters into these settings. And every year when I read the stories aloud on radio across the country (horror in October, inspirational holiday stories in December), I allow my characters to speak in the Down East Maine dialect and with the New Hampsha accent. Plus, using New England gives me four seasons to consider, which means I can have a body rotting and bloating in the summer sun or on ice and preserved in the (pardon the pun) dead of wintah.


WE: What are you working on now?


A fun new novel for young adults. It’s going very nicely and the pages are piling up. I hope to have it ready for July 4th release on Cape Cod, where my fans line up for the newest book.


WE: What's the best part and worst part of being a writer?


The worst? You always want to spend more time at the writing, but there’s the other job that pays most of the bills. And there’s the countless time you have to put into promotion and publicity. And the small paycheck for most writers.

The best? Finding yourself “in the zone” and losing track of time and place while writing. The other day I started in my writing room (midnight blue walls with fluorescent stars that glow after the lights go out) in the afternoon and looked up at the end of a chapter to see it was not only pitch-black outside, but in the rest of the house. Only my computer screen and desk lamp shed any light at all. I had missed supper by an hour. Also, finishing a story you know is good, that’s worth a lot. And holding the first copy of the new book that comes out of the case - wow (even if it’s the 15th book you’ve written). Oh, and the fact that you can write anywhere. My friend Dan Poynter is on jets all the time and yet writes every day and night there or in hotel rooms. Writing is a portable profession.


WE: Where can people buy your books? Are they in most stores? On Amazon? On your Web site?


I don't bother with bookstores since they're just warehouses you have to drive your customers to. I sell direct at arts & crafts shows, on Amazon.com, and on my own website, www.burtcreations.com

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Query Letter - As Important as Your Manuscript


Today we have a Q & A with Wendy Burt-Thomas. She is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and copywriter with more than 1,000 published pieces.

Her third book, "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" is in bookstores. To learn more about Wendy or her three books, visit GuideToQueryLetters.com. If you have a writing-related question, you can also post it on http://AskWendy.wordpress.com. - Anthony


Q: Can you tell us about your book?

The book was a great fit for me because I'd been teaching "Breaking Into Freelance Writing" for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I'm a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn't require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as "good" examples in the book. I wrote all the "bad" examples myself because I didn't dare ask for contributions that I knew I'd be ripping apart!

In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.

It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer's Digest let me keep all the humor.

Q: Why are query letters so important?

Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious "in" of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor. Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they'll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don't like your query letter, you've got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query. Make it count!

I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you've blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript. It could be the next bestseller, but they'll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it's not fabulous, don't send it until it is.

Q: You're also a magazine editor. What is your biggest gripe regarding queries?

Queries that show that the writer obviously hasn't read our publication. I'll admit that I did this when I was a new writer too – submitted blindly to any publication whose name sounded even remotely related to my topic. One of the examples I use was when I submitted a parenting article to a magazine for senior citizens. Oops! A well-written query pitching an article that's not a match for the magazine isn't going to get you any further than a poorly written query.

Q: There's an entire chapter in the book about agents. Do you think all new writers should get agents?

Probably 99% of new writers should get an agent. There are lots of reasons, but my top three are: 1) Many of the larger publishing houses won't even look at unagented submissions now; 2) Agents can negotiate better rights and more money on your behalf; 3) Agents know the industry trends, changes and staff better than you ever could.

Q: You've been a mentor, coach or editor for many writers. What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don't get published?

Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy, to market their work. They think their job is done when the write "the end" but writing is only half of the process. I've always told people who took my class that there are tons of great writers in the world who will never get published. I'd rather be a good writer who eats lobster than a great writer who eats hot dogs. I make a living as a writer because I spend as much time marketing as I do writing.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that writers have about getting a book deal?

That they'll be rich overnight, that they don't need to promote their book once it's published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport. Still, you can make great money as an author if you're prepared to put in the effort. If it wasn't possible, there wouldn't be so many full-time writers.

Q: What must-read books do you recommend to new writers?

Christina Katz (author of "Writer Mama") has a new book out called "Get Known Before the Book Deal" - which is fabulous. Also, Stephen King's "On Writing" and David Morrell's "Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing." Anything by Anne Lamott or my Dad, Steve Burt.

Q: What's the biggest lesson you've learned as a full-time writer?

Seize every opportunity - especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, "Wow. You have the best luck!" I thought, "Luck has nothing to do with it! I've worked hard to get where I am." Later that week I read this great quote: "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." It's absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you're prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you'll be successful.

Q: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Writing the "bad" query letters. I've read – and written! – so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?

Q: What do you want readers to learn from your book?

I want them to understand that while writing a good query letter is important, it doesn't have to be overwhelming. You can break it down into parts, learn from any first-round rejections, and read other good queries to help understand what works. I also want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don't bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.
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