The Multiple Book Deal - It should Only Happen to You! (Or Should It?) - Part 2

By Richard Curtis

The big multiple-book deals that make front-page headlines incorporate all of the factors I described in Part 1 of this article, plus very big front-money. These deals are designed to nail down a bestselling author for as long as possible, and in many cases there is little or no description of the books because nobody including the author knows what they're going to be about. Indeed, the publisher may not even care what they're about as long as it's guaranteed he'll get his mitts on them.

The publicity value of a multiple-book deal may outweigh its actual monetary value. The pages of publishing trade publications and writers' newsletters are filled with references to deals that make author and publisher look good but do not necessarily stand up to intense scrutiny. A "five-figure deal" might be for $99,000 or it might only be for $10,000. Or you may read about deals that "could bring the author $850,000 per book." They could, yes, if they sell like hotcakes, get picked up by major book clubs, go on the best-seller list for two years, and are made into major motion pictures. The actual guaranteed money in such deals might be quite modest, but the built-in escalators, bonuses, and similar features enable the publishers to wring the most publicity out of them.

And of course, deals that may seem relatively small to the public at large can be most impressive in the author's "hometown" - that is, the genre in which he writes. A three-book deal for a $75,000 advance might be sneezed at by the New York Times, but if the books are science fiction, romance, westerns, or some other genre, the writers and editors who read about such exploits in the trade papers will sit up and take notice.

Big deals or little, the underlying accounting principles are the same. Let's examine them.
There are several ways in which the accounting may be set up in a multiple-book contract. The first is to fix the advance for each title in the contract and to keep the royalty accounting for each book separate from that for the other books in the package. Thus you might have a three-book, $30,000 advance contract, with the advance per book pegged at $10,000. When book number one is published and earns more than $10,000 in royalties, you will collect the overage in royalties even though the second book, say, has not yet earned back its $10,000 and the third book has not even been published.

The other way to structure a multiple-book deal is to "jointly account" the advances on each book. Joint accounting (also known as "basket accounting" and "cross-collateralization") creates a common royalty pool for the earnings of all books in the contract. This means that royalties earned over and above the advance on one book in the contract will not necessarily be paid to the author but will instead be applied to the unearned advances on other books in the contract. Until the total of advances in that contract has been earned out by royalties from any or all books in that contract, the author will not receive additional royalties. For instance, suppose we have that $30,000 advance deal for three books, but with joint accounting. Book number one is published and earns $15,000. Does the author receive royalties? No, because the three-book combination must earn a total of $30,000. Suppose, further, that the second book earns $14,000 too. Does the author now receive royalties? Again, no, because the two books have earned, together, no more than the $30,000 originally advanced to the author. Now book number three is published and earns $4,500 in royalties. Does the author now get anything? Yes, he gets $4,500, for the total royalties earned by the three books is $33,500, or $3,500 more than was originally advanced. Of course, it can work the other way around too. Suppose the first book in the package was a wild success and earned $35,000. The author would then collect $5,000 royalties on his three-book contract even though the second and third books weren't yet published or even written. And when those books were published, all royalties they earned from the very first dollar would go to the author, because his $30,000 advance was earned out on the first book.

There are pitfalls for both author and publisher in multiple-book deals, for such deals are like long-term commodity investments. If you bet that a commodity will be worth X dollars one year from now, and between now and then the value soars far beyond what you estimated it would be, you will be left holding a considerably undervalued contract. Apply this to the case of an author who grabs a three-book contract for a $30,000 advance. The advance is paid in four equal installments of $7,500 apiece, the first on signing and the next three on delivery of each book. The first book is published and becomes a wild success: book club, reprint, movie, the whole bit. Now he delivers the second book and what does he get? - a mere $7,500. He may be mad at himself (to say nothing of his agent) for tying himself up for so long for so little. Of course, the difference between an author and a pork belly (and perhaps the only difference) is that the author at least has the opportunity to make up in royalties for the inadequate advance he negotiated two or three books ago when he was just another lowly writer in the crowd. Thus he may only collect $7,500 when he delivers book number two, but a few months later he may collect $50,000 in royalties earned on book one.

Bear in mind that by the same token the publisher stands to lose if the commodity - the author, his books, and the market - go short, that is, drop below what the publisher projected when he tied the author up for all those books. If a publisher signs you up for that four-novel peanut-plantation saga, and just around the time you're delivering the first one the market for plantation sagas collapses and your publisher can't give them away - well, there's going to be much rending of garments (and maybe of jobs) at that publisher's office.

So, it's a bit of a crapshoot both ways, and if you feel your books are going to be worth far more than the per-book advance you've been offered in a multiple-book deal, then turn that deal down. If your publisher doesn't agree with your appraisal of your future value, then they'll turn the deal down. Sometimes you can forge a compromise. If your publisher feels that the individual value of the books in a three-book deal is $10,000, and you feel it's $15,000, you can split the difference by structuring advances of $10,000 on the first book, $12,500 on the second, and $15,000 on the third. If the deal is jointly accounted, you'd simply add these advances up for a total advance of $37,500, but when you negotiate the next contract your price per book starts at $15,000, the value of the third book in your previous contract.

Once a publisher has a good writer in his stable, it may be willing to pay high, even to overpay, to keep him or her there for a long, long time. I remember negotiating with a publisher for an author he coveted, and I fixed a price of $225,000 for a three book contract. He winced. "That's awfully high."

"What can I tell you?" I said with a shrug. "That's what I think he's worth, or will be by the time he writes his third book."

"Who knows how much he'll be worth two years from now?" the publisher sighed philosophically. "We could all be dead two years from now."

"That's true," I replied. "So why don't we just make a deal for one book and see how that one goes?"

The man sat bolt upright in his chair, a stricken look on his face. "Don't do me any favors." Alarmed at the prospect of having this rising young author for only one more book, the publisher quickly met my terms.

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.

- Richard Curtis

Critique Groups - Getting Them On Their Feet - Part 3

By Chris Stewart

Part 1

Part 2

So now you've found the group that meets the criteria we've discussed, or started one, and you're ready to go. How do you run it? What are its rules of conduct? How do you convey your comments and suggestions to your fellow writers and poets in a respectful and helpful way so they don’t rip your head off?

Running the Group

It’s fairly simple. You:

a) Agree to meet at one neutral, easily accessed location for each meeting OR rotate houses so everyone in the group hosts.

b) Each week a different person in the group facilitates (the host if you are rotating houses). This means keeping time, keeping people on task, and keeping the peace. The latter means asking someone to be clearer and offer examples that illustrate their comment, or rephrasing what they’ve said in a nicer way and asking them if that’s what they mean. It usually doesn't mean breaking up a fight or trying to coax a crying writer out of the bathroom, but I've seen both. Brush up on your yogic breathing, you might need it.

c) Start on time and end on time. If you need to run over, ask if everyone in the group is okay with that. If someone has to leave on time, make sure you critique their piece before they leave.

d) Choose criteria to go over appropriate to whatever form you all work in. If poetry, choose line breaks, imagery, form, rhythm, sound, language – etc. For fiction, perhaps, voice, tone, plot, structure, characters, dialogue. The facilitator prints this list out for everyone to have in front of them. Use it to guide the session.

e) Two main questions to ask for each piece: “What works?” and “What could be made stronger/better?” Start with “What works?” first.

f) The writer/poet should not talk until after the group has critiqued the work. It inhibits people and detours the discussion. Once the comments are finished, ask the writer/poet if they have questions, want to bring up anything the group missed, or wish to clarify something. If they get defensive, gently interrupt them (and perhaps cut off the wine).

People who strike out on following these guidelines 3 times should be asked to leave. Pick the person who will do this with the most compassion and who has a thick skin!

How to Comment

As for commenting, this is similar to navigating an argument, only instead of using “I” phrases in place of “You” phrases (as in “I feel that we aren’t right for each other anymore,” instead of “You’re such a $%@#*&%^$!!! Lose my number!”), you reverse it and use “You” instead of “I” (as in “Your character development where the wife is concerned really works, particularly the part where she….” OR “Your character development could be stronger for the wife in this story, for example….” OR “You really know how to use metaphors. The most effective ones were (give examples)”).

Even better, leave off the ‘you’ altogether and speak in neutral terms. I’ll show you what I mean in a moment.

Once you say “I” you make it personal. And you can bet the writer will be more likely to take your comments personally. The focus should be on the piece, not on you. The first habit you need to break in order to move into this direction and style of critiquing is to stop saying “I like” or “I don’t like.” This is completely useless information as it:

a) Makes it personal, as stated above.

b) Doesn’t give the writer anything to go on in terms of WHY you liked or didn’t like it.

c) Isn’t really relevant. It’s nice to know, but in the scheme of things, not important.

So what do you say and how do you say it?

Tone is easy. If it’s positive – be positive! Be enthusiastic! Smile!

If it’s a negative comment – be positive! Be enthusiastic! Smile!

In both cases – you must show that you care, that you are offering both the positive and negative suggestions as a means of helping the piece be better. I don’t mean giving a gag-inducing, saccharine sweet performance. I mean being pleasant. No frowning or smirking or laughing or pointing, ok? Remember, this same group is going to be discussing your work in a few minutes and you’ll get yours then, so this is definitely a case of “Do unto others….”

So phrase your comments like this:

NO: “I can’t understand the plot. It makes no sense. Everyone is so boring! They don’t do anything so I don’t care about them.” (I’ve heard worse, with expletives (!), but this will do as an example.)

YES: “The character of _________ appears too passive. She reacts instead of acts most of the time. For example (give example). Perhaps instead she could (give suggestion), to add more energy and show the reader her feelings instead of telling. On page (insert page) you do have her taking action about ___________, and it really works. It tells us that she’s ____________.”

Make a pact as a group to help each other stick to this way of commenting. In my classes we sometimes create a word that we use to indicate the person commenting has crossed the line. Make that word whatever you want – make it silly so everyone laughs. Or throw M&Ms at each other as a warning (make sure there are no pets around to get sick off of so much chocolate!).

It takes time and practice to learn how to do this. But you can see the difference. The writer will hear that you took the time to absorb their piece and find ways to make it stronger. This is excellent practice for you as well. It will train you to see flaws in your own writing, and construct better stories, poems, etc.

The best groups are those that grow together. That work hard to provide balanced critiques and are cheerleaders for each other. I wish for you a group like this!

Next time: the last installment. How do you know when it’s time to break up with or end the group? And how do you do it?

Chris Stewart is the program director for arts in education, literature, and children's events with the Maryland State Arts Council. Her website is www.therealwriter.com

The Multiple Book Deal - It should Only Happen to You! (Or Should It?) - Part 1

By Richard Curtis

For many writers the term "multiple-book deal" conjures images of byzantine negotiations conducted in a crowded conference room by a battery of literary agents, lawyers, accountants, and publishing executives, of telephone-number advances and thick contracts replete with state-of-the-art jargon about best-seller escalators, book club passthroughs, and topping privileges. The tyro author who would be overjoyed to get even a one-book contract must view such deals as relevant only to the gods in some literary Valhalla. What pertinence do these John Grishamian, Dan Brownian, Nora Robertsian transactions have to the humble and brutish lives of nickel-a-word galley slaves?

The truth is that many more multiple-book contracts are proffered to writers than most people imagine, and most of them are no more complicated than one-book contracts. And their terms are substantially lower than those generally associated with Olympic-sized swimming pools on the grounds of Beverly Hills estates. In fact, if you write in any of the traditional genres the chances are that sooner or later you'll be offered a multiple-book contract. Whether your specialty is science fiction, mysteries, westerns, romances, male adventure, or even popular nonfiction, it is likely that a publisher will be interested in signing you up for more than one book at a time. You may have created a character in a novel whose exploits you or your publisher would like to extend to further books. Or your publisher may like your work well enough to ask you to write books in a series created "in the house," as it were. You would do well to understand the features of such deals, if for no other reason than that, after longing to have one offered to you, you might ultimately decide that they're not that hot after all and you'd be better off selling one book at a time.

When you think about it, a multiple-book deal is simply an elaborate extension of your option clause. In a traditional contract, the publisher usually gets an option on your next book at terms to be negotiated. In a multiple-book contract, the publisher makes a commitment to more than one book and specifies the terms and conditions for the acquisition of those books.

The nature of those books is usually described in detail: "Books number 4, 5, and 6 in the adult western series featuring the hero Buckyball Jones," or "Four saga-length works of fiction set on and around a Savannah, Georgia, peanut farm during the American Civil War." The general terms - "boilerplate" - that characterize a contract for one book now cover two or three or more at a time. The warranties you agree to on book number one are identical to those on numbers two and three, for instance. A few boilerplate items may be altered to adjust for the multiplicity of books in the contract. The termination clause will have the phrase "on each work" in it or something along those lines in order to account for the probability that each book in the contract will go out of print at a different time.

One of the reasons publishers like multiple-book contracts, then, is simply that they are convenient. They enable publishers to prepare one contract for several books whose terms are pretty much identical. This may seem like insufficient reason to offer such deals to authors, and in truth it is. But when you realize how much time and labor goes into the preparation of even a routine book contract, you might feel less inclined to criticize publishers for wanting to speed up the flow of paperwork, which after all benefits authors too.

The principal object of multiple-book deals is security. Ideally, they should make publishers and authors feel equally secure (agents don't mind a little security either, by the way), but things don't always turn out that way, as we shall see.

The security comes in because all parties know where they stand with each other for the duration of the contract. The publisher knows that his author is not going to leave him after the next book or the book after that. The publisher also knows he won't be hit for a high price one or two books from now if the author gets hot tomorrow, because the prices for those future books will have been fixed at the outset, when the multiple-book contract was signed. The author, by the same token, knows there will be a home waiting for his next two or three books, and can count on a specific sum of money to be paid him when he delivers them. Even if the market for his kind of books collapses, his publisher is still contractually obligated to pay him for each delivered book, whereas if the author made contracts with his publisher on a book-by-book basis, the publisher could drop him as soon it became apparent that there was no more market for his stuff.

Another important factor is scheduling dependability. Where series or other related books are involved, success rests heavily on the timing of release of the books, and that timing can be set with certainty only if the publisher can absolutely count on reliable delivery of three or four or six books. By tying the author up for that many, the publisher knows (or at least hopes) that the author won't accept contracts with other publishers that will interfere with the delivery and publication rhythm of the series.

In the second part of this article we'll take up structuring and negotiating multi-book deals.

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.

- Richard Curtis



By Richard Curtis

If one were to compose a Bill of Rights for authors, ownership of copyright to their works would certainly be close to the top of the list. We hold self-evident the truth that if a person produces an original book-length work, he or she is entitled to proprietorship under the law, and to full benefit of its commercial exploitation.

Yet, it has not always been so. The piracy of literature by printers, publishers, and booksellers has been common practice throughout the world from the dawn of the printed word, and was prevalent in this country until well into the present century. Until the establishment of the first International Copyright Convention in 1891 and its refinement after World War II, respect for the sanctity of copyright was largely a matter of gentleman's agreements based strictly on self-interest—don't steal from me and I won't steal from you. There are still vast areas of our globe where publishers think nothing of stealing and distributing works of literature from authors and publishers of law-abiding countries, and the emergence of electronic and online media have made it a big business. Piracy of books, videotapes, music, and other intellectual property in some foreign countries is tolerated, condoned or even sponsored and supported by their governments.

Lest you become too smug that such barbarities cannot happen here, I am compelled to report my observation that the appropriation of authors' copyrights by publishers and book packagers seems to be on the upswing. Nothing so gross as piracy, mind you. More, I would say, like extortion. But the effect is the same: the deprivation of authors' rights to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The fruits of an author's labors include such bounties as royalties on copies of books sold, participation in reprint income, and revenue deriving from the exploitation of serial, translation, dramatization, electronic, and other subsidiary rights. Not everyone shares the conviction that the enjoyment of these monies is a natural and God-given right, however. Indeed, not everybody behaves as if the enjoyment of these monies is protected by statutory law.

The engagement of writers for flat fees falls into a category of employment known as "work-for-hire." Work-for-hire is a doctrine defining the relationship between a copyright owner and a writer. Note that the owner may or may not be an author; he, she, they, or it may be a corporation (like a movie studio or television production company), a syndicate of investors, or an individual who is not a writer. These entities hire writers to perform a service in pretty much the same way a homeowner hires a cabinetmaker, a painter, or a gardener, except that in this case the task is writing a text for the "boss"—the creator or owner of the idea. The owner is then free to exploit the text in any way he desires with no further obligation to the author.

Some provisions of the 1976 Copyright Act attempt to define the work-for-hire concept, but they do not do so very clearly and have left the door open to unfair exploitation of authors.

I hasten to make clear that all work-for-hire is by no means exploitive. Authors sometimes voluntarily sell all rights to their copyrighted work. And there are numerous situations in which work-for-hire may be considered reasonable and acceptable by normal ethical standards; for instance, the engagement of writers to do articles for an encyclopedia. The copyright holder of the total work is the publisher, and because it would be impractical and uneconomical to pay a royalty to each contributor, the normal arrangement is a one-time fee. As long as the fee pays for the time and effort, the author is usually content, particularly if he or she gets byline credit, for a contribution to an encyclopedia bears great prestige that helps the author endure the low wages.

Another application of the work-for-hire concept that most of us accept unquestioningly is ghostwriting. Authorities or celebrities who cannot write well or are too busy to write their own books engage writers to draft books for them. Although the principal author may agree to share some of the proceeds of the book with his ghost, the principal is the sole signatory of the contract with the publisher, thus making him the copyright owner. He then signs a separate agreement with the ghost, removing that person from claim to copyright and direct participation in revenue generated by publication of the book. Occasionally, what may have seemed a fair fee at the time it was negotiated with the ghostwriter may not seem so if the work demanded of him turns out to be excessive, or if the book becomes a runaway best-seller. Under ordinary circumstances, however, the ghostwriter accepts his lot as a worker-for-hire, and may at least secure more work for himself by telling publishers, "That book was actually written by me."

If all this seems a bit remote to you, let me point out that many garden variety authors employ other writers on a work-for-hire basis. Take the creator of a popular fictional series who, growing bored with his characters or too busy with other projects to turn out new books in his series, farms them out to other authors. He signs contracts with his publisher, then negotiates separate agreements with ghostwriters to produce first drafts or even final ones for him, which he passes off as his own. In some instances the publisher is aware of the existence of these subcontractors, in others it is not. But seldom is the subcontractor a signatory to the publication contract, and though he may receive a piece of the action as part of his deal with the principal author, it is not strictly a royalty in the sense we usually understand it, and of course the ghost forfeits any claim to copyright ownership.

Although I'm not at liberty to detail the many instances I know of authors who farm their work out, fans of those authors might be shocked to learn that their favorite books are produced, as it were, in a shop. There is in particular one best-selling male action-adventure series whose creator, to my knowledge, no longer writes his own books at all. In conjunction with his publisher, he puts the production of his books on an assembly line basis. A series "bible" describing the characters and general story line of the series is issued to writers, who submit plots for the approval of the creator and/or the publisher. Upon approval, a contract is issued to the writers. At first glance it looks like a typical publishing contract, but closer scrutiny reveals that the copyright is owned by a corporate entity; the advance is not called an advance (it's simply called a "sum"); and the royalty is not called a royalty (it's called a "bonus payment") and is expressed in cents rather than as a percentage of the list price of the book, presumably to further remove the writer-for-hire's labor from any association with creation of the work. I estimate the payments to the writer-for-hire to be approximately one-fourth to one-third of the traditional royalty that might normally accrue to him if he were the original creator of the book. I assume that the balance of the royalty is shared between the originator and the publisher.

In the above example, the originator of the series is in effect a packager. Packagers, as I have stated elsewhere, are sui generis. They are not exactly authors even though they frequently create the ideas and story lines for books; they are not exactly agents even though they take a kind of commission for their roles as go-betweens among authors and publishers; and they are not exactly publishers even though they buy the services of authors.

I've never been comfortable with packagers either in theory or in practice. Packagers are both buyers and sellers at the same time (so that "broker" might be the most apposite synonym), and there is inherent in their function the potential for mischief, abuse, and downright dishonesty. Some book packagers are as honest, open in their business dealings, and caring about authors as is possible under the circumstances. But a number are little short of rapacious, hiring authors for the smallest fees they can get away with and paying them no royalty or participation in subsidiary rights revenue whatsoever, while selling their books to publishers for very large multiples of what they pay the writers for them.

Furthermore, while these packagers manage to sell publishers on the concepts of books or series, they often contribute little or nothing by way of editorial input or guidance. An author is given the most general ideas ("How about a Dirty Dozen set in Bosnia!"), then is required to create characters, situations, and plots—create, in short, the entire series. The packager's argument is that were it not for his initiative in creating an idea and selling it to a publisher, writers would have no work and no pay. As the level of pay is all too frequently subsistence, the cause for heartfelt gratitude frequently escapes the writer-for-hire.

Because many publishers don't particularly care where their product comes from as long as it is good, is delivered on time, and is not too expensive, they provide fertile ground in which packagers can flourish. That is one key reason for my concern that the packaging phenomenon, with all the implications of author exploitation that it represents, is on the rise. The other reason is that some publishers are taking their cues from packagers and doing the same thing. They cook up series ideas in their offices, produce a series bible, then hire writers to write books in the series under a house pseudonym. Because such publishers maintain that they created the series, they have been scaling back advances, royalties, and author participation in subsidiary rights for those books, and their contracts are, in fact if not in actual language, work-for-hire agreements. In many instances, the publishers offer flat fees to authors interested in writing books for publisher-originated series, take it or leave it.

Of more recent vintage, but a phenomenon that will grow to major proportions as time goes by, is the use of writers-for-hire for electronic and multimedia works, where text is but one element along with still and moving pictures, music, animation, etc. And the exploitation without compensation of electronic versions of stories and articles for magazines has become a source of bitter warfare between writers groups and newspaper and magazine publishers.

You might infer that I refuse to do business with the more exploitative of packagers and publishers, but that is not the case. Some of my clients are hungry, and occasionally some are desperate for any kind of work, and though I may judge certain packagers and publisher-packagers harshly, practically speaking I don't feel it is fair for me to turn down, out of hand, work for clients who might be grateful for a few thousand dollars and a job that gets them through a financial squeeze or crisis. It's easy for an agent to tell an author, "I'd rather see you starve than accept that deal"; it's not so easy for an author to agree with him. If, after a writer has weighed all aspects of a work-for-hire deal, he or she still wants the job, then the only thing an agent can do is negotiate what few safeguards he can, such as making sure the writer is not legally liable for changes or additions to his text rendered by the packager or publisher. The quality of help an agent can render in these cases is the equivalent of telling the tenant of an avaricious landlord, "You have two choices: sign the lease or don't sign the lease."

Because packagers prosper from a supply-and-demand dynamic that is clearly—at this time, anyway—in their favor, there is little that individual authors or agents can do to roll conditions back. It must be done through collective action. Sad to say, authors and literary agents are scarcely closer to effective collective activism than they were when I started advocating it years ago. So if you've been holding your breath, let it out.

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.

Writer's Edge Hard Ball - The Seven Reasons Passionate Writers Fail to Publish

By Michael Neff

Spend several years as an editor and/or workshop leader. Work and talk at length with scores of writers struggling to write and publish fiction, or their first novel. Do this and you will begin to discover why an enormous percentage of these writers are unable to get published. You will begin to see patterns: the same mistaken assumptions, ego problems, and unproductive psychology repeated again and again.

At a conservative estimate, upwards of 50,000+ writers in the U.S. are currently struggling to write and/or publish their first novel. Perhaps .001% of them will be published at some point? Or am I being way too optimistic?

I've sometimes been criticized for being the messenger, but I feel it's vital for writers to know these facts up front so they can adjust and be successful. Below are the top seven reasons why otherwise passionate writers join the 99.99% of writers who will never be published.

If you know of anything I missed, please feel free to comment!

  1. INADEQUATE WRITING SKILLS OR STORYTELLING/ STRUCTURE PROBLEMS. In the case of the former, the writing itself does not display the energy, creativity, and polish necessary to convince an agent to go deeper. This is perhaps the number one cause of failure. Usually, the writer is not aware--or at least, not sufficiently aware to enable productive change. Perhaps this is a first stab at fiction, she or he not realizing that tech or law writing ill prepares one. Also, the writer does not know a good editor or reader, and therefore, has never received truly helpful crit. We also have the "birthed baby" phenomenon: the writer has produced a passage, a character, or scene they can't possibly do away with. It is sacred to them. So it remains, defacing the narrative like a major pothole, jolting agents and publishers alike each time they meet it ... In the case of the storytelling/structure issue, the writer may be very accomplished at connecting the word dots. The agent or publisher gives it a good read then backs off. Why? Well, the story goes nowhere. It is insufficiently interesting, or perhaps even confusing. Just recently a fine writer handed me sample of his ms. His prose skill kept me turning, but finally, I bogged down on characters who spun endlessly in place, who never really took action or engaged in any reaction worth noting.

  2. MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE MARKET. Virtually every time I speak with a writer (especially genre writers) I discover that she or he has not sufficiently researched their market. In other words, they don't have a clue as to what types of first novels are currently being published in their genre. Why is this important? Because the first novels are a better indicator of what the market is looking for. Also, they help steer the writer away from starting a project that will be DOA on arrival due to being way way too deja-vu. Far too many writers make what I call the Dan Brown mistake, i.e., they attempt to emulate a very popular commercial author, falsely believing it will get them published. They don't understand that icons like Brown can get away with horrible crimes and still be published. The writer needs to examine what types of first novels have been published in their genre over the past three years: investigate story types, settings, protagonists, etc. The research always yields productive results.

  3. EGO TIMES TEN. The writer is puffed, living in a state of I-know-better. She or he is therefore incapable of successfully editing their work. Friends, relatives, or bad agents have told them their writing is good, and their story interesting . . . Perhaps the writer is a big success in their other career--why shouldn't they also know-it-all when it comes to writing? I once had a successful venture capitalist person hand me their 15 page synopsis and the first few pages of their novel. The synopsis was absurdly long and unable to summarize the story in any interesting way; and the first couple of novel pages needed a good line editing because the prose was inadequate and one tended to speedbump over at least one awkward sentence per paragraph. Of course, these facts were unknown to the venture capitalist. This person presented me the work with a grand TA DAH!, expecting me to corroborate their own findings. Well, of course, irritation set in when I tactfully pointed out shortcomings. This person also did not believe me when I explained that the vast majority of agents would not , repeat NOT, read that 15 page synopsis regardless (and if they did, the novel ms was DOA).

  4. BAD ADVICE. Whether the source is an article, a friend, or a writer's conference, the writer has been told something that steered them wrong, or built a false expectation, or made them believe a man-bites-dog story will happen to them. For example, a writer with a manuscript in need of a good final editing told me, "Not to worry. The publishing house editor or the agent will complete the edit for me." I explained that would not happen--not for a first novelist with zero track record (plus the story was uninspiring and loaded with deja-vu). The writer needed pragmatic advice. Another piece of incredibly bad advice often heard from egoistic writers or agents: "Writers are born, not made." This is simply not true. A clever, determined writer who shelves the ego and seeks to research and learn their craft will succeed.

  5. MORALE LOSS. The most common form of morale loss occurs at such time the writer finally realizes their writing is not nearly as good as they suspected. The writer returns to a favorite slice of writing, seeking to admire, build confidence, only to discover their favorite slice has gone stale and offensive. So what happened? Writers who fail to understand that such realizations are necessary (and they happen to all writers!) indicators of growth, quickly become disillusioned, and quit. The second biggest cause of morale loss results from no success in selling the novel. It's been dragging on for years. The novel ms has been shopped around. No one is buying and feedback is confusing . . . Or perhaps the novel ms is resting like a one ton anchor on your desk (waiting for neck)--eight years later and still not ready despite several restarts and who knows how many total drafts!

  6. IMPATIENCE = LOST OPPORTUNITY. The story is pretty good, fairly original, and the writing likewise, however, the writer is impatient and sends out the ms too soon. Agents and editors will stumble over the prose a few times before reaching for a rejection slip.

  7. NO EDGE. The vast majority of first novel writers have not yet published work in viable short fiction markets. This makes it even more difficult to land a good agent. Many agents will not look twice at a writer whose cover letter does not demonstrate a track record of some type. A publishing record, even a meager one, helps convince publishers and agents that you have what it takes.



Got a Novel That Needs A Fix or Two ... or Twenty? Whose Advice Should You Trust?

By Michael Neff

First of all, should you trust the advice of just any literary agent when it comes to editing or "fixing" your novel-in-progress? Would you trust a mechanic to fix your car if you knew he had never touched an engine in his life and could only quote passages from an instructional manual? Of course not. You would be foolish!

Yet many writers do just that.

Experienced agents with good reputations do understand what makes a novel sell, and their advice on how to prepare a manuscript for the commercial fiction market should be obeyed. However, when it comes to the nuances and process of actual fiction writing and story structuring, most agents can only guess or repeat what they've heard from others. As a writer, you must approach with caution, compare and contrast what you hear from various sources before making a crucial decision that could either save your novel or damn it for eternity.

If you are fortunate enough to have the ear of an agent who also has a solid background in fiction writing (like an Eve Bridburg or a Peter Rubie), then breathe a bit easier. If he or she tells you to rewrite X or Y to get Z, then YOU DO IT!

And btw, whatever you do, DO NOT EXCLUSIVELY RELY on your parents, friends, or writer group for advice. They are amateurs--well meaning, yes, but still amateurs.

Your best advice, on both a macro and micro level, will come from professional writer/editors with years of experience in the literary biz, i.e., individuals who understand the commercial book market, who have actively edited fiction writing, worked one-on-one with fiction writers, as well as created their own fiction--whether in the form of short stories or novels.