Dec 15 2012

Should I hire an agent or self-publish?

Which way should I publish? Should I try for an agent and a contract from a major publisher, or self-publish? I hear with self-publishing, I can get my book out to the public in a lot less time and I get to keep a larger percentage of the profits rather than share it with a publishing company and an agent? — This is a question I’ve received from several clients. I’ve also heard this question in writers’ groups, seen it on blogs, Facebook, and online writer communities. I’ve been down about each of these roads, so here’s my take on it.

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First, I would go in clear-eyed about ‘profits.’ These days, the average debut fiction author with an agent and a publishing contract gets an advance of less than $5000, which is paid out in three or four installments over a one- to two-year period from the point of signing the contract. That, of course, may be after you’ve spent a year or more writing the book and another year or two (or longer) editing, revising, querying agents, and eventually landing an agent, if you’re lucky enough and good enough to get one. Then the agent has to pitch it to publishers. For debut novelists, the agent is often not successful with that first book. The vast majority of debut authors who do land that contract don’t sell enough copies to earn back the meager advance. From the time you are offered a publishing contract, if you ever get that far, it will likely be 18 months to two years before your book is published.

So if you land an agent and a major publishing house contract, maybe you will have earned $1000 a year for your hard work on that novel. Then, if the book’s sales don’t cover the advance, there’s probably no second book deal from any publisher. Why would the publisher, or any other, take a chance on an author whose first book didn’t sell well? They’re looking for the next big thing, and it wasn’t you. So the agent eventually drops you.

The average self-published writer will sell less than 500 copies a year. Depending on pricing and whether it’s an eBook, in print, or both, maybe you earn a $1000 a year in royalties. But you’ll pay for cover design, the cost of any stock photos used on the cover, editing (assuming you hire an editor), formatting and uploading (unless you can do all this yourself), plus the set-up fees and printing costs from companies such as Create Space, Lightning Source or Lulu.

Whether self-pubbed or traditional, you’re going to shoulder all or most of the cost of marketing and promotion. One excellent and successful writer I know spent $10,000 on marketing her debut novel. It sold well and won awards, but she lost a few thousand dollars on it. Of course, her second novel starts at a much higher point with a readership base, benefiting from all the promotion of the first book. So it may pay off in the long run, if you’ve got that kind of cash to invest and can consistently write a new award-winning novel every year.

There are also a wide range of middle ground publishers. These run the gamut from traditional small presses (often aimed at the literary market), to self-publishing assistance (for a fee and/or a percent of profits), to writer co-ops, to small digital publishers and niche publishers of all sorts. And there are still the old-school vanity presses that are always finding new ways to play on the hopes and dreams of naive writers.

Yeah, we all see the Rowlings and the Pattersons and the Meyers, the Stephen Kings and the John Grishams, but for every one of those, there are a few hundred thousand writers trying to break in.

So that’s all the gloom and doom. Now back to the question. If you’re still interested in writing, and you’re still interested in people reading and enjoying the fruits of your passionate labor, you’ll put all that aside and concentrate on the art and craft of writing compelling fiction. Then you’ll research all the various markets and methods to get your work in front of an audience.

You need to figure out which one suits you and your temperament and your knowledge/expertise. No one can answer that question for you, and there isn’t a “this is the best way to get published” response.

Ask yourself, with brutal honesty, if you have a book that agents and major publishing companies will be clamoring for? There are books with strong commercial potential. Agents and major publishers are constantly on the lookout for great stories. Is yours one of them? But remember that most agents sign a tiny fraction of one percent (1 out of 10,000 or less, according to some agents’ blogs) of the query letters they receive from new writers.

Ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a self-published author and handle everything yourself as a writer and publisher and business person and a marketer, and if you can consistently put out top quality products all on your own (plus whatever professional help you have to hire). Do you have the money to invest, knowing it might or might not ever pay off? Sometimes lightning strikes, and a self-published author hits it big or captures the attention of a major publisher. Just remember that these instances are extraordinarily rare. Don’t make that your plan and take out a second mortgage based on that happening.

Would you feel more comfortable with a small press or digital publisher? Is there a niche publisher that fits your book and your potential audience? Do a lot of hard research in this area, and talk to a lot of writers who have used a particular publisher before you sign with one. There are great ones, and there are scam artists galore more than happy to part you from your money. Have an attorney review any contract before you sign anything. Search the Internet for reviews and comments and complaints about any publisher you’re considering.

The bottom line is that you can’t count on a bottom line. There are pros and cons to every possible avenue to publication. Each writer has to sort through it all and find the best fit.

Figure out which is the best way for you to build a readership audience and reach people with your books rather than trying to figure out which way will provide the largest profit.

It’s perfectly fine to dream big, but act with optimistic yet cautious realism, and spend more energy writing your next novel than calculating your potential profits.

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Nov 12 2012

Cart? Horse? When to hire an editor

Here’s some unsolicited advice from an editor to writers. I’ll start with a message I receive way too frequently (a composite paraphrase of multiple emails here):”Dear Robb, I found your website (or were referred to you). I have spent the past 6 months (or year, or 5 years) writing my first novel. It is a 150,000-word epic saga, the first of a planned trilogy. I have decided to self-publish, and have set a launch date, have a book-signing event set up, ads on Facebook promoting the upcoming debut, and the cover art designed. The launch date is set for the first of next month. Would you be able to edit my manuscript by next week?”

Um. No. Cart? Horse?

If you spend six months or six years writing a novel, plan for the editing and revision process too. Make sure you have completed the editing and revisions, and that you’ve had a thorough final proofread done and complete before you announce a launch date or start submitting to agents and publishers. If you’re self-publishing, you’re setting your own deadlines. Why set it up so that you don’t have adequate time for revisions and editing?

An editor may be booked up with work for weeks in advance. So you’re out scrambling to find an editor who happens to have an opening next week. Hmmm. An editor with no work on his schedule? It happens to all of us at times, but any editor who has been doing it for a while and has a good track record probably isn’t sitting around hoping a new customer walks in the door because they have no project scheduled for next week.

Once the editor begins works on your manuscript, how rushed do you want him or her to be? Or do you want your editor to take his time and be thorough? Allow your editor at least a month to spend on it. At 150,000 words, maybe two months.

When the edits have been completed, how much time do you think you should spend going through those edits? A day? A day and a half? Maybe you should plan on at least another month to make the edits and revisions. Maybe you’ll have questions for your editor and will need to have conversations back and forth to figure out the best solution for a particular issue. Maybe you need to plan for more than one edit of your manuscript with a series of revisions to be made.

Why the rush? You’ve spent hours and weeks and months and maybe years to craft your story. Take your time with the editing process and put out a product you will be proud of and readers will enjoy.
There’s no benefit to publishing it a month or two earlier rather than a month or two later, especially if your book is considerably better a month or two (or six) later.Take a breath. Horse. Cart.

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Jun 10 2012

Using flashbacks

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I’m wrestling with flashbacks. Do they confuse the reader (as they often do in films)? Do they interrupt the narrative flow and annoy the reader? Do writers only do it because it can be fun? Is it best to avoid flashbacks? —Anonymous

I like flashbacks—as a reader—if done well. But there are lots of ways to go wrong with them.

A flashback is when the main story stops, the new scene starts from an earlier time (the day before or fifty years earlier, doesn’t matter), and a ‘live action scene’ is shown from that previous time.

The advantage flashbacks have is you can start the story where it needs to start, not at the very beginning, but in the middle of things. Dive right in. You can fill in the back story gradually.

Flashbacks are one way to fill in back story. Filling in back story gradually can be better than beginning the story at a much earlier point and going forward for several chapters to fill in the back story in a chronological fashion until things eventually get interesting.

Some of the problems I see with flashbacks in editing (and I’ve done all of these at one time or another, often more than once):
— Too many flashbacks. Like anything, use sparingly.
— Too long flashbacks. Shorter is usually better. Drop into a flashback and stay there too long, and readers can lose the main narrative. That means you can lose the readers.
— Unclear flashbacks, going in or coming out. Add signals so the reader knows when the story slips into a flashback and a clear signal when the story returns to the main story timeframe. Don’t confuse your reader.
— Flashbacks that reveal nothing important to the story. Flashbacks need serve a specific purpose. They exist to drive the main story, fill a story gap, reveal character motivation, or something relevant to the main story. Don’t throw in a flashback because you think, “Here’s a really interesting scene I thought up about something the character did twenty years earlier.” The main test here is the question: If this flashback wasn’t in the story, would readers even notice? Is the main story incomplete without it?
— Flashbacks at the wrong time. Use a flashback at precisely the point where readers need to know about that earlier event. That doesn’t always mean immediately adjacent to some important, related event. You might want the back story info planted in the reader’s mind earlier, so when an event happens later, the back story is already known. You might want to reveal the back story at a later point, after the related event happens to give readers that ‘ah ha!’ moment. But make sure the flashback blends with the scenes immediately preceding and following. Otherwise, it can have a jerky feel, and can seem like the writer is telling the reader, ‘Okay, I’m stopping the story here to take you back in time to show you a scene from the past for no particular reason,’ even if the reason becomes apparent later.

There are other methods to fill in back story, so don’t just rely on flashbacks. The back story event can be filtered into the main, live story without dropping back in time and re-creating the full scene. A character might stumble upon a letter from her grandmother stuffed in a box in the attic (the letter was stuffed in a box, not the grandmother). In the live scene, the character sits in the attic with the box and reads the letter, but the scene never leaves the character in the attic.

Back story can be filtered into the main story as a character remembers an earlier time, reads a newspaper clipping, reminisces with a friend, or countless other ways. But an occasional, well-done flashback can be a great way to make these ‘previous moments’ more dynamic.

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Jun 5 2012

Desert short story trilogy released

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The Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest is a place of extremes and contrasts, of beauty and death, of independent spirits and lost souls, of fresh starts and exiles.

SONORAN DREAMS: Three Short Stories from Exile, published June 2012 by fiction writer Robb Grindstaff of Phoenix, Arizona, is a collection of stories in three different genres, all set in the Arizona desert, each featuring characters in exile of one form or another.

Available now in all e-book formats, currently on Amazon for Kindle SmashwordsBarnes & Noble for the Nook, Kobo, and soon on Apple iBooks.

 The trilogy features the award-winning horror story, Desert Rain, selected by readers and editors of Horror Bound magazine for its ‘Best of 2008-2012′ collection.

 

SYNOPSES
Cordelia lives alone in a shack miles from civilization, somewhere no one can find her except for a very determined suitor. Raymond shows up every twelve years to consummate his marriage to the bride he’d claimed at her birth. Every twelve years, Cordelia fends off his unwanted advances—by killing him. The smell of death precedes his arrival each time, unless the sweet scent of a freshly fallen DESERT RAIN masks his approach.

Denny has lost everything in the recession. His business. His Scottsdale home on the side of a mountain with swimming pool and four-car garage. His ambition. His wife. With nothing left to lose but his sanity, his life, or maybe his injured foot, he heads out on a hundred-mile DESERT WALK in search of Hope.

When the sun goes down and the scorching heat cools to an uncomfortable swelter, bored teenagers gather to spend the DESERT NIGHTS out by the power lines, drinking beer, hooking up, arguing over the best rock bands of all time. Maybe shoot at some rattlesnakes and jackrabbits. Nothing could possibly go wrong here.

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“Robb Grindstaff is a master storyteller!” —Maria Grazia, editor, Horror Bound Magazine

“I don’t think there is any genre Robb Grindstaff can’t conquer. Some writers excel at characterization, others at plot, and still others are best known for their unique prose style. Robb is a triple threat, and any book with his name on it is bound to be a great read. —S.P. Miskowski, author of Knock Knock

Robb Grindstaff has a wicked sense of humor, a keen eye on the human psyche, and impeccable timing. His prose crackles and doesn’t waste a syllable. These stories turn the desert Southwest of Cormac McCarthy into a carnival funhouse.” —Pete Morin, author, Diary of a Small Fish

“Robb’s talent for creating real-life characters and bringing us into their lives is extraordinary, but what marks him apart from so many others writing today is how American his voice is—Robb’s writing amuses, charms and yet, when you least expect it, can still challenge and shock.” —Alexander McNabb, author, Olives: A Violent Romance

“Robb Grindstaff’s seamlessly written stories are full of strong characters, rendered with wit and subtlety. Stories unfold gently, judgments are never made, and the reader is left with a story that resonates long after the book is closed. His writing reminds me of John Irving (The World According to Garp; A Prayer for Owen Meany). ” —Phillipa Fioretti, author, The Book of Love

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After a career in newspaper journalism and management took him from Arizona to North Carolina, Texas to Washington, D.C., plus five years in Asia and around the world, Grindstaff returned to the desert, where he now writes and edits fiction full-time.

He has two completed novels in preparation for publication while writing his third and fourth. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies, print magazines and e-zines. His articles on the craft of writing fiction have published in magazines and websites in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

His editing clients include traditionally published, agented, and high quality indie authors from the U.S., Europe, Australia, and the Middle East.

For more information, to request a review copy or an interview, or to inquire about book editing services, email robb@robbgrindstaff.com.


Mar 30 2012

Narrative arc: What the heck is it?

Have you ever had an agent, editor, or a reviewer say something like this about your novel?

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“This story has a weak (or non-existent) narrative arc.”
“While the characters are strong, the narrative arc did not maintain my interest.”
“The writing is solid, but the narrative arc is unclear and inconsistent.”

I have. And on many occasions, I’ve had to be the editor to say something along that line.

It’s easy to say that a story doesn’t have a strong narrative arc. It isn’t so easy to define and describe a narrative arc. It’s even harder to write a story with a strong narrative arc. I know how difficult it can be from my own experience as a writer.

Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Act one, the beginning, introduces the characters and sets the stage—the current situation. Then an inciting event sets the story into motion.

In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.

That decision leads to act three and results in two things: the climax to the story (the peak of the curve), and the character is profoundly changed in some way. The character finds the strength within and a method to overcome the conflict. The story questions are resolved and the character has changed from the person she was at the beginning of the story. Or, the character is defeated, fails to accomplish the goal, dies, or some other tragic ending, but even then, the character has changed is some way, for the better or worse.

A slightly more complex outline is the eight-point narrative arc, described by Nigel Watts in his book, Write a Novel and Get It Published. Merging these eight points with the three-act play formula would look something like this:

ACT ONE
1. Stasis – the current situation and characters in everyday life
2. Trigger – the inciting event that sets the plot in motion

ACT TWO
3. The quest – the trigger results in the character needing to accomplish some goal
4. Surprise – a series of events presents obstacles that make achieving the goal more difficult
5. Critical choice – the character must choose a particular path to confront the obstacles
6. Climax – the critical choice results in the climax of the story, the highest peak of tension

ACT THREE
7. Reversal – the consequences of the critical choice changes the status of the character
8. Resolution – the story ends at a new point of stasis, and the character is changed is some way

Note that the ‘typical’ three-act play structure in a novel does not usually break down neatly into equal sections of one-third each. Act one may be a single chapter or two. It can be longer, of course, but it may be contained in the first few pages. Likewise, act three might be fully contained in one or two chapters at the end.

Act two is the giant middle in which the story takes place. This is the toughest slog for any writer to execute, and this is where the narrative arc can fall apart. Does each scene add to the story: raise the stakes, increase tension, create obstacles, or show the character overcoming (or failing to overcome) an obstacle? Does the scene further a sub-plot that is inextricably tied to the main plot (a love interest, a personal or family issue that the character must deal with while also trying to save the world from aliens or her family farm from the tax collectors)?

Or, are new sub-plot elements created, new obstacles raised, or new characters introduced that have nothing to do with the main storyline? Does the main plot disappear for chapters at a time? Does the character go here and do something, go there and do something else, then go somewhere else and something completely different happens? Do all these events create a disjointed storyline that bounces hither and yon with no coherent narrative arc?

Each scene should lead to the next in a logical, coherent manner that advances the story. This proceeds until the obstacles and the conflict are overwhelming and it appears the character may fail unless she makes the right choice in her critical decision. Instead of ‘this happens, then that happens, then something else happens,’ the narrative arc will look like ‘this happens, which leads to that happening, which causes something else to happen.’

This doesn’t mean every scene has to be more dramatic than the one before it. Pacing in a novel is important. Readers need a slower, more sedate scene periodically to catch their breath. The character needs time between obstacles to review her journey and think about how to proceed, time for romantic interludes, times where things seem to be going right for the character just before BAM the next big thing happens. If you chart the scenes in a novel, it might look like a rising stock market over a period of time with a series of ups and downs, but on an overall rising path until the climax and the slow curve down during resolution and denouement.

If you think (or have been told) that your narrative arc is weak, try writing out a scene-by-scene outline of your current draft. See if the outline makes sense, if each scene advances the story in a logical way, or if there are scenes that veer off course and distract from the main storyline.

Your narrative arc should look like a bell curve, not a map of a suburban neighborhood full of circle drives, cul-de-sacs, and dead end roads.

For more resources:

Nigel Watt’s book, Write a Novel and Get It Published

Alan Rinzler, a renowned book editor, blogs about narrative arc.

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. talks about the shapes of stories here in a wonderful four-minute video.


Mar 26 2012

A POV question

I read the POV article on your site and I have a question. I am currently writing a novel in the first person POV. There is a conversation between my main character’s sister and his girlfriend toward the end of the story. I NEED the reader to know this information before my main character does. The reader needs to witness this conversation, if you will. How can I do this without switching POV to third since the entire novel is first person. It seems off to all of a sudden have a chapter that’s in the third person. Any help would be greatly appreciated.Michael Harrison Tennessee

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My first, instinctive reaction is that you may need to find a different way to approach the information. A sudden, unexpected shift in the voice from first person to third, and a shift to a new POV, this late in the story would most likely feel very jarring and yank the reader right out of the carefully crafted first-person narrative that you’ve created over the course of an entire novel. It might feel to readers as if the author wrote himself into a corner and had to resort to a different voice to get out of it.

So before deciding to switch to a different voice and POV, I’d look for other options. Is is absolutely critical for the reader to know the info before the main character? Is there a way that the MC can hear the info (so the reader hears it too) but the MC misunderstands it or doesn’t realize its significance, but readers will understand (the unreliable narrator approach)?

It’s tough to make any sensible recommendations without knowing the whole story, of course, so I’m pretty much shooting in the dark here. But the general idea of introducing a new POV and switching out of a first-person narrative late in the novel might, I’m afraid, feel like a cheap trick to readers. Introducing new information to the reader–which the first-person narrator doesn’t know–might feel a bit too much like the deus ex machina twist that makes readers feel cheated at the end.

I wish I could give a more positive recommendation or suggestion, but without knowing the whole story, I’m just not able to do more than suggest you avoid the late POV and voice switch.

Any readers out there have more suggestions?


Mar 11 2012

Never use an adverb!

If you’ve been writing fiction for more than a day, and have ever read a writers’ magazine, visited a writing website or blog, attended a writing critique group, or taken a college course in creative writing, you’ve probably heard this rule.

Here’s a good piece of advice: Anytime someone says ‘Always do this’ or ‘Never do that’ when it comes to writing, that’s a good time to tune them out. The only hard and fast rule to writing fiction: Never bore your reader.

But like many of these alleged rules and regulations for writers, there is a kernel of truth packed away underneath the prose fascist’s pronouncement.

Most of the time, these never-rules have morphed over time through misinterpretation, like the children’s game of gossip or telephone. What started as good advice to help keep novice writers from falling into the most common novice writer mistakes has transformed into dictatorial fiat by the literazis.

Adverbs are an easy place for novice, or even more experienced, writers to slip into lazy writing habits.

The problem is obvious in many beginning writers’ manuscripts. The problem isn’t that they’ve used an adverb. The problem is that they’ve never met an adverb they didn’t like. If a sentence feels flat—add an adverb! If one adverb is good, two must be better! There’s no adverb in this sentence—get one!

Adverbs aren’t wrong. They’re just weak. There is usually a better verb that conveys the image the writer wants to show, a verb that doesn’t need an adverb tacked on in an attempt to make a boring verb interesting. It’s like dressing a Chihuahua in doll clothes. Just get a more interesting dog, like a Basset hound or a Siberian husky or an Australian shepherd.

“I quickly ran home.”

Boring. Maybe “I sprinted home.” Or “I dashed home.” You’ve got dozens of choices more interesting than ‘ran’ that don’t need to be shoved into an adverb like Panchita into a Cabbage Patch dress.

One of the most common offenders of the ugly adverb syndrome is the dialog tag (he pontificated wisely). Dialog tags will be the subject of a blog post all to themselves in the near future, but if you’re adding an adverb onto your ‘said’ or ‘asked’ more than, oh, let’s say twice in a 100,000-word novel, you’re probably overdoing it. It sounds amateurish. Really, it does. Get over it.

“Wh-wh-what do you mean by that?” he stammered haltingly.

Is there any other way to stammer other than haltingly? In fact, why do you need to say ‘stammered’ since the dialog clearly shows th-th-the character stammering? You don’t. Lose it.

So when can you use an adverb? That’s easy.

When it’s right. When the adverbly verbed combination says exactly what you want to say, you’ve got the adverb in the right place for the right emphasis, and you’ve used them sparingly throughout your story. Adverbs, like adjectives, are a pungent spice. A little goes a long way. You can use them more than never, but less than distractingly, irritatingly, obnoxiously frequent.

And now a quick note on adverb placement for when you do use them—say, zero to twenty times per novel (okay, twenty-five if you’re writing an epic historical saga trilogy, or ninety-seven if you’re writing category romance or erotica). As a general rule, place the adverb closest to the word it modifies. This is especially true if it’s a complex sentence with two or more verbs or a prepositional phrase. Otherwise, you can change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these two sentences:

I nearly lost all of my money.

I lost nearly all of my money.

Example number one, nearly modifies lost. Something happened in which I came very close to losing all of my money, but thank goodness I didn’t lose it. I still have all of my money.

Example number two, nearly modifies all. Something happened in which I lost most, but not all, of my money.

Does the adverb go before or after the verb? Unless it changes the meaning, it doesn’t matter. Go with the one that sounds best. Putting the adverb first can change the emphasis of the sentence to the adverb.

Go boldly where no man has gone before.

Boldly go where no man has gone before.

Same meaning, different emphasis.

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It is acceptable to occasionally split infinitives.

It is occasionally acceptable to split infinitives.

The first one is the split infinitive, in case you were wondering, because the adverb comes between the two-word verb phrase ‘to split’.

So the next time someone tells you, “Never use an adverb,” remind them that ‘never’ is an adverb and they just used one.


Oct 17 2011

Recycled stories

I have an early reader that was published in 2003 and is still in print. I didn’t sell all rights to it. Can I now resubmit it as a short story to a magazine? - Elizabeth, Michigan

Thanks for the question. The answer is: it depends.
It depends on the new publication’s acceptance policy and what rights the previous publisher retains. Every publication is different.
Some want ‘First Rights,’ which means they only accept stories that have not previously been published.
Others get more specific than that. They may only want stories that have never appeared anywhere, in print or online, even if it was only on your website or Facebook page. Some don’t care if the story has appeared online only, but don’t want it to have appeared in print previously. I’ve seen some magazines specify that the story can’t have appeared in a print publication with more than x,000 circulation or distribution.
Other publications don’t care if it has previously appeared in print. The key here is to make sure the rights to the story have reverted back to you, the author.
If you previously sold/authorized rights to another publication, you’ll need to check to see what rights you sold, if there is a set amount of time that they retain those rights, and if those rights have reverted to you or not. Usually that’s not a long period of time if it was published originally in a magazine. However, you mention that the story is in an ‘early reader’ publication or book that is still in print. That might mean the original publisher still retains some rights to it for a set period of time. You’ll need to check with them or check your original contract when you sold the story.
Some publications will want a credit if you republish the story elsewhere (‘This story first appeared in ‘Title of Publication’ by Such-And-Such Publishers in 2003′). Others don’t care.
So you’ll need to check with the publication to which you want to submit to find out their policies for acceptance and what rights they require, and if they accept previously published works. Then you’ll need to check with whoever first published your story to make sure the rights have reverted to you. If your story is in a book that is still in print, that might make it more difficult. Be upfront with the new publication that the story was previously published, when, and by whom.
A previously published story can reduce your options, but you should still be able to find a publication that accepts previously published stories as long as you retain the rights to that story.

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Or, you could dust off your computer and write a new story. You’re a better writer today than you were eight years ago.
At the very least, go through your previously published story to see how you could improve it.

Sep 27 2011

Genre and market categories

As I research agents, I’ve encountered a lot of terminology that is obscure at best: upmarket, mainstream, literary vs. commercial, character-driven vs. plot-driven, high fantasy, steampunk, etc. One agent says she is looking for “upmarket contemporary mainstream” and the “next crossover novel,” while another agent says she does not accept “cross-genre.” What’s the difference between crossover and cross-genre? Can you shed some light on these terms? Chris Karim, New York

A work of fiction can be described and categorized by different sets of terminology. There are genres, sub-genres, market audience definitions, and style or setting descriptions. Sometimes the same term can be used in different ways. Often a style and market term may be added to the genre category to more narrowly define a work.

So yeah, this can be confusing.

Genre includes the standard categories such as science-fiction, fantasy, romance, historical, young adult, horror, thriller/suspense, crime, mystery, erotica, women’s fiction, commercial, and literary. Then there are sub-genres within genres, e.g., sci-fi space opera, paranormal romance, high fantasy, and chick-lit. Steampunk is a sub-genre that combines historical, sci-fi, and fantasy in unique, anachronistic ways, such as a story set in the Victorian age with high-tech gadgets powered by steam engines.

For a more detailed list and description of genres, go here.

The difference between commercial and literary fiction is a longstanding debate, and I’ll save that discussion for another day. In a very broad-brush stereotype, literary fiction may be more focused on the quality and the art of the writing itself. Literary fiction is often more character-driven, while commercial fiction is usually more plot-driven. And yes, there are thousands of exceptions to any attempt to delineate the two. I’ll also tackle the character- vs. plot-driven story in the later post on literary vs. commercial.

As a genre, commercial fiction (sometimes called general or mainstream) might have a wide appeal and sell to a larger audience, and it doesn’t fall into one of the more narrowly defined genres which appeal to a specific group of readers with a particular interest. Think Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) for commercial fiction, although Da Vinci could also be categorized in the thriller/suspense genre. So ‘commercial’ might be the genre description, or it can be used to describe a different genre book that appeals to a wider audience.

Beyond categorizing a book by genre, there are market categories and descriptions. This is where the term ‘upmarket’ has come into play in recent years.

From an audience perspective, upmarket means fiction that will appeal to readers who are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes. Upmarket describes commercial fiction that bumps up against literary fiction, or literary fiction that holds a wider appeal, or a work straddles the two genres.

Upmarket fiction has been described as literary appeal with commercial potential. For examples of upmarket fiction, think John Irving, Jodi Picoult, Amy Tan, Sarah Gruen, Arthur Golden, and Ian McEwan.

Mass market (as opposed to upmarket) usually means those small paperbacks lining the shelves in the grocery store. These might be crime, thriller, romance, detective, or general fiction, but these are the books some readers devour at a rate of one or more a week, or buy a stack to take to the beach on vacation.

Other market categories include Christian, ethnic or multi-cultural, and LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender).

So you can now categorize your book by genre, by sub-genre, and by market audience. On top of that, you can describe it in more detail by the time and place setting.

Contemporary fiction means the story is set in today’s real world, as opposed to historical fiction (e.g., set in England during the Victorian era or in the American Civil War), or the fictional worlds of sci-fi and fantasy (Starship Enterprise or Middle Earth).

‘Crossover’ means a book that, while neatly labeled with one genre or market category (such as women’s fiction), also appeals to other readers (such as men). Or middle-grade/YA (such as Harry Potter) that appeals to adults as well as teens/kids.

‘Cross-genre’ is completely different from crossover. Cross-genre books are a mix of two or more specific genres. When a particular cross-genre gains popularity and has enough books written in that category, it might become its own sub-genre. A romance novel set in the Victorian era falls in the sub-genre/cross-genre of historical romance. A vampire novel aimed at teens might be labeled YA paranormal fantasy, which might be considered a cross-genre, or a sub-genre (paranormal fantasy) aimed at the YA market, or its own sub-genre.

A cross-genre novel can be a difficult sale because, instead of appealing to the two separate audiences, it might disappoint both sets of readers. A sci-fi/romance novel, for example, might not be sci-fi enough for hard-core fans, while the sci-fi aspects turn off romance readers.

The Twilight series is a good example of several of these genre and market descriptions. It’s cross-genre (YA/paranormal fantasy/romance). Its tremendous commercial success is due to the great crossover appeal to adults, primarily women. It would also be described as contemporary because it’s set in today’s real world (other than things like vampires and werewolves, which are the paranormal fantasy part of its genre mix). It probably wouldn’t be described as ‘upmarket’ because it wasn’t written with that intention, and it wasn’t necessarily aimed at an upmarket readership group, even though it appealed to many upmarket readers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe Twilight as literary, but I do know some literary writers who became engrossed in the story even if they groused and quibbled over the quality of the writing.

So Twilight – a YA contemporary paranormal fantasy cross-genre crossover commercial blockbuster success – is the pinnacle of good things that can happen with cross-genre and crossover novels. It appealed to huge audiences – teens, adult women, paranormal fantasy fans, romance readers, etc. That perfect confluence of appeal to various market segments is what causes books like Twilight and Harry Potter to take off into stratospheric sales.

Many more writers have tried blending genres and markets, and wound up with no agent, no publishing contract, or very low sales. Perhaps the story wasn’t strong enough, or the writing wasn’t good enough, or no one knew quite how to market it. Maybe the mishmash of genres appealed to no one. So be careful of trying to straddle or combine genres, and make sure it will appeal to a combined audience rather than alienate both sets of potential readers. Mainly, be sure you have a compelling story, engaging characters, and quality writing.

So what does any of this mean to writers? Everything or nothing at all.

Do you write the book you want to write, the story inside you that has to come out, and deal with the marketing and categorization and ‘shelf-spot’ later? Do you let your agent or someone else deal with that messy stuff? Do you write in a specific genre with a specific target audience in mind? Do you want to expand your potential audience to readers who don’t normally read that genre? Do you intentionally set out to create a story that will appeal to specific market segments so you know how to pitch the novel to agents, editors, publishers, and publicists?

Maybe you’ve decided to write a Christian YA contemporary literary high fantasy detective paranormal romance with crossover appeal to upmarket multi-cultural women and MG boys who love steampunk. Let me know how that works out for you.


Sep 20 2011

That word clutter

Instead of someone writing in with a question today, let’s look at an excellent editing tip sent in from Alexander McNabb. Alexander suggested this topic and graciously allowed me to use a few examples from his novel, Olives, pre- and post-editing.

Do you need to tighten up your writing? Need to cut a thousand words from your manuscript and can’t find a single scene you’re willing to eliminate? Maybe you only need to trim 14 words from your short story so it will qualify for a flash fiction contest with a maximum word count, but every single word of your snappy dialog is brilliant. 

That’s how many thats that you can delete

The word ‘that’ is a funny little word. Sometimes you can use it. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it’s optional, and the sentence means exactly the same thing and is grammatically correct either way.

An example from Alexander:

He’s tied into the family that you’re so buddy-buddy with.

In this sentence, the word ‘that’ introduces the relative clause ‘you’re so buddy-buddy with.’ It refers to, or is related to, the first part of the sentence – ‘the family.’ This is a restrictive clause because it describes and defines a specific family to the exclusion of any other families. Which family? That family.

But rewrite the sentence without the word ‘that’:

He’s tied into the family you’re so buddy-buddy with.

That sentence (Which sentence? That sentence!) is perfectly grammatical with or without ‘that.’ ‘That’ is optional.

NOTE: Do not use a comma before ‘that’ in this sentence structure.

Open up your manuscript. Do a search/highlight for the word ‘that.’ Often it can be deleted outright just like Alexander did in the example above.

The key is to see if the sentence is still clear without ‘that.’ Does it read smoothly? Does it maintain the right reading rhythm? If you excise ‘that’ and the sentence is no longer clear and precise, or it sounds awkward without it, then put ‘that’ back. If the word is used in dialog, and it feels more natural to a particular character’s voice to use ‘that,’ by all means keep it. But you may be surprised how many you can eliminate.

You’re probably wondering why you should go to all that effort to get rid of a few optional ‘thats.’

I checked a novel manuscript from one of my clients, a very good writer, as an example. The original, unedited manuscript contains slightly more than 100,000 words. The word ‘that’ appears 1,074 times. Deleting fewer than half of the ‘thats’ eliminated 500 words, about two full pages from a 400-page manuscript. You might be able to get your manuscript down below the 100K threshold an agent or publisher requested without having to eliminate a single riveting scene, breathtakingly vivid description of the sky at dawn, or even one line of your brilliant, pithy dialog. And no one will ever miss those 500 ‘thats.’

Sometimes you can’t just drop the word ‘that,’ but you can make other minor revisions to vary the sentence structure and not rely on ‘that’ so frequently. Even if it doesn’t reduce the word count, it helps reduce what can be an irritating repetition of the same sentence structure.

Here are a few more examples from Alexander:

Did you mean ‘that’ or ‘who’?

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people that fund them.

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people who fund them.

Generally speaking, use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ when referring to people. Use ‘that’ for animals and inanimate objects.

Check your verb tense 

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action that would affirm my right to a choice.

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action to affirm my right to a choice.

Both of these are grammatically correct. The second version is more direct, which fits the tone of the sentence better. It also tightens the sentence by one word. Don’t think tightening a sentence by one word helps? How many sentences in your novel? Take one unnecessary word out of 25 percent of your sentences and see what happens.

General word clutter

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise the fact that it’s over?’

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise it’s over?’

I had a recent client whose writing tic was the phrase ‘the fact of the matter was that.’ Writing tics are those little quirks all writers have, and this one stood out because it was used in both narration and dialog, and by every single character. Repeatedly.

Check for passive sentences

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems that were developed to explore for oil and gas …

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems developed to explore for oil and gas …

If you’ve got the word ‘that’ in a sentence where ‘that’ requires a ‘to be’ verb to go along with it, BONUS! You get to cut two words from your formerly bloated manuscript.

Why bother?

Another writer/client asked me, “Why spend hours doing all this editing to eliminate a single word when readers won’t even notice the difference?”

My response, regardless of the word: “If readers won’t notice it’s missing, what better reason to get rid of it? Why was it there to start with? Don’t waste your readers’ time making them read clutter. Make every word count.”

So that’s that – one easy tip in your search and destroy mission on word clutter. Tighten your manuscript and you might save one of your favorite scenes from the editing room floor when you have to trim a few hundred words from your novel. Edit one or two of your manuscripts for the word ‘that,’ and soon you’ll start catching it in your first draft writing. Eventually, it becomes an ingrained good writing habit and automatically disappears from your writing when it’s not needed.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks.