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.
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
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 email@example.com, or visit her website at www.paulamargulies.com.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Guest workshop leaders include author Robert Bausch and literary agent Paige Wheeler.
The cost of $865.00 includes a private room and two meals per day. All attendees stay in cottages on the scenic Potomac River.
More information can be found at http://algonkianconferences.com
As we said last week, every society creates rules to prevent anarchy, and the society of author-publisher-agent is no exception. Of course, the more civilized the society, the subtler its rules and the more sophisticated its sanctions for reinforcing them. The publishing business certainly fits the description of a civilized society, comprised as it is of well-educated, literate individuals operating in highly organized (sometimes, anyway) corporate entities and dealing in the extremely sophisticated activity of translating ideas into merchandise.
The rules governing this behavior are codified into a system of protocols and etiquette called "courtesy." Courtesy is not always easy to define because editors, authors, and agents each have their own code and the three don't always harmonize. Authors who are unsure about the rules are advised to proceed cautiously.
In the first part of this article we discussed five vitally important rules. Three of the them were, Keep your big mouth shut.
Here are the other five.
6. Report everything to your agent. In due time you may have direct contact with your editor and other staff members of your publisher concerning a variety of matters. Your editors might feel there's no point in bothering your agent about small stuff, so they will contact you directly. In most cases the business at hand will be routine, and requests will be innocent. But they can develop into problems if the author isn't alert or fails to discuss developments with his agent. Those routine queries about your manuscript by your copyeditor can develop into a request for a rewrite. The nice young lady who calls asking you to name some dates when you're free for promotional appearances may end up bullying you to accept a time that is inconvenient to you. I'm not saying it will happen every time, but it has happened in the past, and it can happen to you if you don't keep your agent au courant.
7. Keep your big mouth shut. When you're out with an editor, don't contradict your agent or question his handling of your work. And don't tolerate your editor's questioning of your agent's handling of your work. Publishers often have a vested interest in dividing authors and agents, and anything you inadvertently do to help them promote such divisions can only redound to your discredit and disadvantage.
8. Don't play your agent and editor off against each other. In your eagerness to please everybody, you may end up defeating yourself. On many occasions, for instance, an author and editor may have a friendship that long predates the relationship between author and literary agent. The introduction of the agent into that bond creates instabilities that may result in jealousy, tension, and even hostility, and the author sometimes fosters these emotions without realizing it, for it is, let's face it, highly gratifying to have two people fighting over you. How often has a client said to me, "That dirty rat Joe down at Feemster House has been taking advantage of our friendship for years, so on that next contract I want you to wring every dollar out of him that you can." Then, a moment later, he'll add, "But go easy on the guy, okay? I mean, he and I are old friends."
Experienced agents are sensitive to the dynamics of friendships between authors and editors and don't barge into the middle of them like crazed water buffaloes. If, however, your agent does feel he has to be firm or tough with your old buddy, don't interfere. That, after all, is what you hired him for.
9. Keep your big mouth shut. Don't spread rumors or gossip, however knowledgeable it makes you look. For, in the long run, it makes you look like, well, a gossip. Because this is a gossipy industry, discretion is a highly prized virtue, and one that far outlasts the pleasures of spreading the Hot Scoop about somebody. And because this is also a small industry, gossip has a way of turning on its disseminators. As in any small town, you never know who is a friend, ally, relative, or business associate of whom. Rumors are traced to their sources with far more ease than you would imagine. Don't be a source: You don't need enemies.
10. And finally (all together now) - Keep your big mouth shut. When in doubt, err on the side of silence. Let your work and your agent speak for you. Whenever you feel that impulse to say something that you suspect may be out of line, consider that you really have only two choices: count to ten and call your agent, or count to twenty and call your agent.
Don't make your agent's job harder by putting him or her into the position of having to apologize for you or explain away some indiscreet things you may have said. "God!" an agent friend of mine once burst out. "My job would be so easy if it weren't for authors!"
Although we tend to lose sight of the fact, writing is still a profession. Behave professionally. As a wise person once said, the best way to save face is to keep the bottom half of it closed.
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.
Actually, if you step far enough away from the sophistication of the publishing process you will see that it still boils down to a matter of seller, buyer, and broker struggling primitively with one another for dominance. Anyone who has lived in or studied the publishing anthill for any length of time can testify that there is as much plundering, treachery, rapine, and bopping on the head as may be found in the most aboriginal of civilizations. The only difference is that we prefer not to call these things by their names, as it sullies our self-image. I remember an editor's description of the dapper, distinguished head of one of our most illustrious publishing companies: "Oh, he stabs you in the back like everyone else - it just takes you two weeks to realize you're dead."
In publishing, the rules governing behavior are codified into a system of protocol and etiquette called "courtesy." Courtesy is not always easy to define because editors, authors, and agents each have their own code and the three don't always harmonize. For instance, some agents feel there is nothing wrong with not telling an editor they are submitting the same manuscript to other publishers. From an editor's viewpoint, however, that may be perceived as discourteous, for if an editor knows he is one of several considering a submission he will behave differently than he will if he thinks he is the exclusive recipient of the manuscript.
Editors may balk at discovering that an author has taken on a project for another publisher while under contract with them. Even though the author may not be breaching his contract (some contracts prohibit authors from working on any other book until the contracted book is completed), and even though the author completes the first book satisfactorily and on time, and even though the author took on the second project because the advance on the first was inadequate for him to live on while writing it, the editor may nevertheless feel that the author has discourteously affronted the monogamous spirit of the author-editor relationship.
Despite the quaintness of the word, a breach of courtesy can be a grave offense that leads to strained or even ruptured relations between author and publisher or agent and publisher. I recall with a shiver how, as a tyro in the publishing business, I committed such a gaffe against the late and great Macmillan editor Peter Ritner, a blunt and bearish man who brooked no nonsense from callow upstarts. It happened in a swank restaurant at the height of the luncheon hour. I told him I had been speaking to another publisher about his author. "That," Ritner boomed at me in his awesome operatic baritone, "was most discourteous of you, sir." All that night I tossed in bed listening for the stomp on the stairs of Macmillan editorial assistants coming to frog-march me off for interrogation.
Space limitations prohibit me from enumerating all the points of protocol and etiquette that prevail in the editorial world, even if I knew what they were. Many of them are the same rules of the road that regulate other forms of social intercourse. Others are unique to our business. Until you feel completely comfortable in that world, until you know the players and are able to bend or break the rules with impunity, the following ten commandments ought to keep you out of the more serious forms of trouble.
1. Keep your big mouth shut. When speaking to agents and editors, refrain from criticizing other agents and editors. You must never assume that the person you are talking to cherishes the same poor opinion of someone that you do. Many is the time I've listened to prospective clients complaining that this editor was a jerk and that publisher was a fool and this agent was a crowning idiot, and I've found myself thinking, What's wrong with this guy?
If you've had a bad experience, say as little as you can, and if you can't be charitable, perhaps it's best to say nothing at all. Lord knows, people in our business understand when you tell them you toured Chicago and Denver and there were no books in the stores, or your publisher originally promised you a 25,000-copy printing but ended up ordering only 7,500 copies. But for you to say, "My editor just sat there and did nothing, and my agent was too busy going to cocktail parties" may reflect worse on you than on those you so harshly judge, however deserving of criticism they may be.
2. Don't be overly chummy with editors. Whether or not you have an agent, be restrained in your dealings with editors. It is more important for them to respect your work than to like or love you. You must never forget that editors work for corporations dedicated to making a profit, and as often as not that profit is made at the expense of authors. However tight you and your editor may be, the time must inevitably come when you will want something he cannot give you, and he will want something you cannot give him. In the resulting negotiation, the closer your friendship, the harder it will be for you to hold out for the best terms. Your editor may care deeply about you, but his corporation cares deeply about its bottom line, and few editors will stake their job for the sake of an author.
From the viewpoint of an agent, the biggest discourtesy imaginable is for an editor to take advantage of an author's vulnerability. That's why many agents take strenuous measures to keep authors and editors apart and to funnel all communications through their agency. Many agents resist giving out their clients' phone numbers to editors or allowing any direct exposure of authors to publishing personnel. They are acting out of concern that editors may take advantage of authors if given the opportunity.
My own view is that a certain amount of contact is both necessary and desirable, and as long as authors are aware of the pitfalls of such contact, and keep their agents apprised of all developments, things cannot go too far wrong.
3. Keep your big mouth shut. Think before you speak. The things you tell an editor may not have the effect you intended and in fact may have the opposite one. The editor who granted you a nine-month delivery date on your book may not be delighted to learn that you'll be finishing it four months ahead of schedule. He may in fact be appalled that a project as demanding as that one will take so little of your time, upset that you're not doing your research or that you're writing too fast or that the manuscript will come in too short. Better simply to say, "Don't worry, you'll get your book on time." If you do think you're going to finish it early and your editor thinks he would like to get it on an earlier list, you can say you'll try to turn it in sooner.
Volunteer as little information as possible, and try to think things through from an editor's viewpoint. Should you be telling your editor you don't want any more money this year? Should you be telling your editor you weren't terribly happy with the first draft but you're sure the final one will be okay? Should you be telling your editor you had to take on another writing project to make ends meet?
Authors volunteer all sorts of information because they feel the editor is their friend. But if you'll try to project yourself into the mind of your editor, or better yet of his or her boss, you might find yourself biting your tongue a little more often.
4. Go through your agent for everything. If you do have an agent, centralize all dealings through him or her. Contracts, submissions, delivered manuscripts should all be sent to your agent no matter how convenient it is for you simply to send the material directly to your editor. Aside from observing the procedural proprieties by doing things this way, you keep your publishers on notice that you prefer for them to deal with your agent rather than with you.
Even your correspondence with your editor should be sent to your agent for review and forwarding, at least anything more significant than Thank you/You're Welcome. That way your agent may pick up on some things you probably shouldn't be telling. And if that sounds like censorship, it's better than committing a blunder that might injure your relations with your publisher.
5. Keep your big mouth shut. If you have an agent, he or she will brief you before you go into a meeting with an editor. Listen very carefully to what they say. A good agent will background you not merely on your immediate business with your editor but on such things as the state of your publisher ("They're hot right now," or "They're hungry, they haven't had a big book in three seasons"), the position of your editor ("She just joined the firm and he has to bring some good books in fast," or "He has no clout over there"), and other tidbits that will help you get a fix on conditions at your publishing house. Your agent will also tell you what to say and, perhaps more important, what not to say. And if he tells you not to say something, then for crying out loud don't say it, or leave it for your agent to explain. Your agent undoubtedly has good reasons for withholding certain information from your publisher, and those reasons may not always be clear to you. There may be undercurrents in the agent's relationship with your editor that have nothing to do with you, or your agent may know something that you don't. He may be conducting negotiations with your editor for other authors besides you (there are other authors besides you, you know), and his dealings on your book may be part of a larger strategy. If your agent accompanies you to a meeting or luncheon, watch him so he can signal you with his eyes. Or sit beside him so he can signal you with a swift kick in the shins.
Look for five more Courtesy Commandments next week (and don't be surprised if three of them are, Keep your big mouth shut).
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.