Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Happy December! Hopefully as everyone starts coming back down from the craziness of NaNoWriMo you’re all enjoying family time, sleep, and all of that sweet, sweet editing.

For anyone who doesn’t already know (hi to the three of you!), I tend to spend a lot of my free computer time hanging around the NaNoWriMo Forums. One of the forums, the Reference Desk, is also a great place for authors to get information they might not be able to easily research online. Need to know what a social worker in Alaska would do in X situation? There very well might be someone whose day job is being an Alaskan social worker hanging around to answer you. It truly is a great resource for any matter of questions, November or no.

So, going through posts on the Reference Desk recently, I came across a post asking about recovery times from a stomach wound. Namely, they had a character they didn’t want to die, but did want to suffer a sword wound going clean through their stomach in a crusades-era setting (doesn’t specify which crusade, but sometime between 1000-1200 A.D. presumably). And so, after outlining what they wanted to happen to the character and asking how long it would take to recover from that wound, the poster ended up with a resounding, “They’re not going to recover” phrased in a number of ways:

“They better have a saint on hand to perform a miracle”

“Magic, time travel, and divine intervention would be the character’s only hopes.”

“From right away to three or four agonizing days. That’s assuming that “heal” and “die” mean the same thing.”

“About nine months, after which your reincarnated body is ejected from the host you are going to have to learn to call ‘mommy’.”

A little snarkier than the NaNo Forums tend to get, but a fair enough point. Finding the responses amusing on my end (my apologies to the Original Poster if they found any of the responses mean, or are upset I found them amusing) I ended up reading a couple out loud to my historian husband. Being him/us this got us into a debate about ancient health care.

Now, since I’ve recently been working on projects that take place in historical fantasy worlds, I’ve gotten very used to hearing about all the little quibbles my husband has with “Hollywood” history (things movies do for plot reasons, or because the writers don’t know any better, that perpetuate things that are widely debunked by historians at this point). For the most part, it’s very helpful to have (I’ve gotten lazy by being able to go “Honey, what kind of guns would they have in the 15th century?” and have him rattle it off without me having to look it up) but this particular debate went something along the lines of this:

Husband: “I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. They helped people with crazy injuries back then. It’s not like they didn’t have any medical knowledge or something.”

Me: “They didn’t have antibiotics.”

Husband: “No, but some battlefield techniques were already highly advanced.”

Me: “People would still die from a wound like that today. It’s not saying ‘Look at those people who don’t know anything’ It’s saying, ‘If you run someone through the stomach with a sword and pull it out to leave all that acid and blood and bile eating away at the guy, he’s most likely going to die.”

Husband: “Painfully.”

Me: “Exactly!”

Husband: “But ‘most likely’. People did survive crazy, crazy injuries now and again…”

And then he trailed off into a number of examples that he of course knew off the top of his head about people surviving being stabbed, bludgeoned, and shot any number of ways while at war, because he somehow keeps a fully-indexed encyclopedia of facts in his head. It really should be studied by science.

Anyway, while, yes, I will fully admit crazier things have happened in real life, this argument got me thinking about the old Mark Twain quote: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

And that, really, is the crux of the original NaNo poster’s problem. While maybe, had this character the author is writing been real, they could have been that one in a billion to survive through some absurd act of god. The chance is so small, however, that writing about someone surviving that wound would shatter just about every reader’s suspension of disbelief. In this case, saving the character would still be an act of god, but only insofar as the author is acting “god” over their story. And so the real difference between the two is that authors are held to a higher standard as far as what is believable. As creator of our story worlds, we can say the sky is green or people can fly or rabbits talk, but only on Tuesdays and as long as that is established, the reader will for the most part go along with it.  When using things based in reality, however, having things so improbable they’re nearly impossible in your story seems as though the author is suddenly using their ability to turn the sky green just because they can. And that’s jarring.

So, sadly, while you generally have god-like powers over the characters in your stories as an author, fiction still sometimes finds itself held to a higher standard than even reality when it comes to the improbable. And so, for our NaNo poster, that character is either going to either have to have a new wound or die for there not to be an outcry.

Toe Tappin’ Copyrights

While bumming around the internet, recently, looking for mentions of my work, I came across review of my book, The Bleeding Crowdon “Books? Yes Please!” (link here). While it’s always nice to find good reviews for your work (good always feels better than bad, after all) what really struck me reading it was the reviewer’s comment that two main characters’ relationship in the story reminding her of song lyrics. Besides getting the song stuck in my head after looking it up (say what you will about Taylor Swift, but some of her songs are darn catchy) the comment got me thinking about the inspiration songs can have on writing.

I’ve mentioned before how song lyrics can make for good writing prompts, and I fully admit I have taken inspiration from songs before for my writing (perhaps I wasn’t thinking of Taylor Swift when I wrote The Bleeding Crowd, but the title was not-so-subtly inspired from a song). If a song or its lyrics inspires someone to write, I fully support writers running with it.

As long as they don’t run afoul of copyright law.

Copyrights, as most things buried in legalese are, are not the easiest things to understand at first glance. What’s public domain, what’s allowed under “fair use”…as writers we have to both love them for protecting our work and curse them for keeping us from using a line of another work that explains a scene perfectly.

While all modern creative works tend to fall under some sort of copyright (which means using anybody else’s words from a work after the early 1920s can get you in legal hot water) song lyrics can be a special sort of mine field. While sometimes you can get away with using a small percentage of something as “fair use” songs tend to be so short even a line or two might put you into enforceable copyright territory–and record labels are notorious for litigating anything they think is close to infringement.

For this reason, the most common advice you’ll get about using song lyrics in your writing is simply don’t.

Now, anyone who has read fan fiction sites might be familiar with “song fics” (stories that are built around/interspersed with transcribed song lyrics the author feels inspired/captures the scene they are writing). While these might be a staple of the fan fiction community, publishing any of these scenes with the intent to sell them would be a legal nightmare (and not just because fan fiction tends to use other writer’s characters which is also a copyright no-no). Since most fan fiction is written for the enjoyment of other fans/are posted with no intent for the writer to make money of their story, fan fiction as a whole tends to fly under the radar of people who might otherwise start suing. Once that story you wrote about Percy Jackson dancing with Sailor Moon to Taylor Swift’s “22” starts hitting the presses for you to sell, the legal departments of those publishers/studios/labels start whirring to life. And that is a fight no writer really wants to get into.

So what are your choices if you want to have your characters listen to a popular song in your story?

1. Mention it by title and move on.

While the lyrics of a song can be (and most often are) copyrighted, titles cannot (otherwise how could you have multiple books/songs sharing the same title?) You are more than free to write a scene which includes, “Joe turned on the radio and Tool’s ‘Lateralus’ came blasting over the speakers.” Or, “Sam groaned, this had to be the third time the club had played ‘Blurred Lines’ already tonight.” Mentioning the song titles and moving on allows you to attach a song you want to your writing while staying on the non-sue-able side of publishing.

2. Get permission from the artist/studio.

If you really want to use the actual lyrics for a song, rather than just mentioning it by name, you can also write to whoever owns the copyright for a song and respectfully request permission to use the lyrics in a book you are writing. Sometimes you may get lucky and they’ll say “sure, go for it” but even to get a ‘yes’ it’s recommended you give yourself 4 to 6 months advance time to get everything sorted away before trying to publish. You also have to accept you might also get a ‘sure, but pay us $X for using it’ (see this article on how much $X can be) or just a straight ‘no’ when you contact them–meaning you’ll need to write that part out before you publish all the same.

Note: Just attributing the lyrics to someone as you would a quote in a school essay does not mean you don’t also need permission to use the lyrics in the first place. Citing=/=permission.

3. Tempt fate.

So you want to use the lyrics, but don’t want to waste the time asking for permission. You can always go ahead and tempt fate and see if you get away with it (but really DON’T, it’s not worth it).

4. Just don’t.

Does your story really, really, really need those lyrics in it to be perfect? 99 times out of 100, probably not. In fact, naming a certain song/using a specific song in a scene will tend to only date your story. Unless you want your story to specifically be “[State] in 2007”, don’t have your characters listening to “Fergalicious” at a club. Songs rise and fall so quickly that what is extremely hot one year will drop off and become “oh yeah, that song” soon enough. If you’re going for a generic “present day” time period for your story, naming specific songs is a bad idea. If you are writing a certain year, but don’t have a character really in to pop culture, naming a song is generally unnecessary. Leave your characters at listening to “[genre] music” and use the specific song that inspired you as just that–inspiration.


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Eh, It’s Not My Style

Comments on Hemmingway

One of my favorite things a high school writing teacher ever told me was that English classes in school are to teach you all the rules of the language so you’ll know which ones to break when you start writing creatively. Now, there are some “rules” you can’t get around using without sounding like you don’t speak English very well, but starting sentences with conjunctions, ending with prepositions, and split infinitives are all “rules” English classes teach that become less than important when writing a poem, short story, or a novel. As an editor, I know the correct use of who and whom, but if an author is writing dialogue for a character who doesn’t, I’m hardly going to force a “whom” into their mouths. In such cases, the overall style of the writing is more important than each and every (sometimes arbitrary) writing rule.

Now, this fact should not be taken as carte blanche to write however you want with the argument that it’s your style and therefore good writing. Style is about making conscious choices about how a character would speak (for example, it might be appropriate to have malapropisms for a character who’s trying to sound smarter than they are) not about excusing poor writing (if you have made an unintended malapropism, it’s probably for the best someone catches that before you start sending your manuscript out).

Note: It is also important to state that even if you have made an intentional style choice, it doesn’t necessarily make that style “good” writing. A stylistic choice is more subjective as to if it’s good or bad, but you can still have “bad” writing when you’ve made a conscious choice.

So, you’ve made it through your manuscript and consciously chosen which writing rules you want to use for each character and which ones you don’t.  Sarah’s character is exceedingly proper and uses every arbitrary grammar rule on the books. Her best friend, Jane, is much more colloquial. Awesome. You have some great characterization starting with just that jumping off point. But what about all those little writing rules you have never quite gotten an answer about? Will adding an extra ‘s’ in James’s look out of place with all of Sarah’s ‘whom’s and ‘am I not’s? Does James’ mean there’s more than one James? Has anyone actually given us an answer on that?

In fact, not really. Unlike being able to mark “he am” as an improper conjugation, all of the following “problems” don’t have one correct answer. So what should you do when it comes to some object belonging to a James? The trick is to simply be consistent. If you use James’ five times, don’t use James’s on the sixth.

Since consistency is the real issue here, groups that deal with a number of different writers/authors (such as newspapers or publishers) tend to follow one of a number of “style guides”. Instead of keeping a record of what is correct and incorrect grammatically, these style guides help writers remain consistent from one person to the next. So while there isn’t really a “right” answer when it comes to any of the following problems, there are some style guides writers can choose to follow in the hope of remaining consistent within their industry. While academic papers often use APA or MLA style guides, and journalists tend to use AP Style, most publishers I’ve come across use Chicago Manual Style (CMS) when combating all of these “style” issues. So, if you’re a creative writer and wish to follow a style guide, CMS is your best bet.

And so, here are some tips on what to do about some of the most common “I’ve heard it both ways” writing issues out there:

1. Serial Comma. Also called the Oxford or Harvard comma, serial commas come into play when you’re listing multiple items.

For example: I went to the store to get apples, oranges, peaches, and grapes. Now, if you can’t tell, that last comma in the list is bolded. Why? Because people can’t agree if that comma needs to be there or not. Personally, I use the serial comma (which is what CMS suggests, so most novels use them as well) but, grammatically, you don’t have to have a comma there. “I went to the store to get apples, oranges, peaches and grapes” is still just as grammatically correct.

Of course, serial commas can save you some trouble, as this internet meme shows us. For those not wanting to click off the site, it’s the classic: “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” example. With the comma, you have a list, without the comma, it possibly sounds like the strippers are JFK and Stalin. Just a little difference. Of course, it would be possible to clear that up with changing the sentence slightly rather than using a serial comma (We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers), but personally I, and CMS, prefer not getting into that mess to start with.

What CMS Says: Use serial commas.

2. Periods in Abbreviations. Most recently, my friends and I got into a debate as to whether Los Angeles should be abbreviated “LA” or “L.A.” As with everything else on this list, both are “correct” (nobody is going to see LA or L.A. and immediately shake their head at what a poor editor your book must have had.

What CMS Says: Put a period after every abbreviated word (abbrev., Rev.) unless it is a technical abbreviation (cm for centimeters, etc.) and a period between each letter in an abbreviation that is comprised of multiple words (U.S.A. rather than USA and L.A. instead of LA)

3. Possessives ending with ‘s’. Always the quintessential “What should we do…?” question, the ‘s being singular and s’ being plural doesn’t quite work when you have a name that already ends with ‘s’. Most people tend to go with whichever they find less confusing/sounds better to them. In this case, it’s more important that you’re consistent between words rather than as a whole (you could have James’s and then Atlantis’ if you like, just don’t have James’s and then James’).

What CMS Says: Use ‘s if monosyllabic (James’s, Burns’s) but only an apostrophe if more than one syllable (Artemis’, Jesus’)
[UPDATE (9/13/14): CMS now says all singular possessives should have ‘s, so it would now be James’s and Artemis’s]

4. Writing out numbers. Numbers like making things so difficult. They come in English words (one, two, three…) and Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…), and that’s not even mentioning other systems such as Roman numerals (I, II, III…). So are we supposed to write them out, use the Arabic numbers, or do something else entirely. It’s up to you and your style guide. Personally I tend to write numbers out when writing, but I see plenty of people use the Arabic numbers. (I haven’t seen anyone use Roman numerals in their writing [other than chapter headings] but that might just be a difficulty thing).

What CMS Says: Write out numbers 1 – 99 (one through ninety-nine) and then use Arabic numbers for anything larger than two digits (100, 4500, 5,430,458,302). Note: There are special rules for percentages and other special uses of numbers. Refer to your style guide if you aren’t sure one way or the other.


5. British vs. American Spellings. When it comes to picking British or American spellings of words (colour vs color; programme vs. program) it’s generally best to stick to what you’re used to. Did you grow up in a country that taught “British English”? Then stick to that. Are you more comfortable with American spellings? Use those. The more you try to force yourself to use spellings that you aren’t used to, the more likely you are to start flopping between the two. And it’s correct to use either, even if your characters are British when you’re American, or American when you’re British. The main thing  to take away here, as always, is to be consistent. People worked to standardize spellings for a reason. It makes things easier/less distracting to read.

What CMS Says: Being an American-made guide (the “Chicago” in the name isn’t there by random chance) CMS suggests the American spelling of words (behavior, jeweled, etc.) however most publishers have an “in-house” style guide that will take precedence in this case. If they have no problem with whatever spelling you have used, they’ll leave it alone. If they do, their editors will change it. As long as you are consistent one way or the other, it won’t affect your submission chances.

6. Italicizing vs. Underlining. When it comes to emphasizing a word, people tend to either italicize it or underline it. Both obviously are ways of setting one word apart from the others in a sentence. Most style guides (including CMS) prefer italics to underlines when it comes to added emphasis (as they are less intrusive on a page while still adding emphasis when read) but I have met more than one publisher that prefers underlines, at least in manuscripts. Feel free to use whichever you prefer (I personally default to italics per CMS), just be careful if a publisher specifically asks for one over the other in a submission.

What CMS Says: Italicize when going for emphasis, but do so sparingly.

7. Double Spaces After Periods. Oh the flame wars about whether or not you need double spaces after periods. There have been a number of articles about whether or not people should keep doing so. Many older typists had the necessity of hitting the space bar twice after the end of each sentence drilled into them with no mercy. Some teachers still teach this. The fact is, while hitting space twice on a typewriter might have been useful, most word processing systems have an algorithm that makes for a little extra space after an end of a sentence anyway. Hitting the space bar twice only serves to make too large of a gap at the end of each sentence. Is it incorrect to add double spaces at the end of a sentence? Technically no. Is it unnecessary (or possibly hazardous) when typing on anything but a typewriter? It can be.

What CMS Says:  Their official line is, “There is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work.” They further go on to state their reasons as to saying “no” to double spaces: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically [watch for] an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents; and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.


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Wishlists and Trends

Last week, agents (and publishers) from all over posted to Twitter with types of stories they were currently looking for using the hashtag “#MSWL” (Manuscript Wishlist). A great (and very helpful) idea to help authors try to connect with agents/publishers who might be interested in the type of story they had written, it also turned out to be rather disheartening for authors who scrolled through not finding a single agent looking anything like their novels. Some accounts even went so far as to post things along the lines of, “I’m swamped with X, NO MORE STORIES WITH X.”

Pretty much there’s no way to react to that other than, “Ouch, harsh.”

So what do you do if you’re grouped in with the great “X” no agent seems to want? Scrap the novel you spent however long on and start on something it seems agents actually want? No and no.

The first thing all authors have to remember is publishing is a business. Our novels are our babies. Something creative that we see (most of the time) as great/worthy of being read. Publishers, sadly, don’t look at manuscripts with an eye towards what they think the world should read, they look at manuscripts trying to find something that will make them money. If that means thirty-thousand vampire novels or the same generic love story over and over again, that’s what they are going to pick up. Since agents only get paid when they sell your story to a publisher (or at least should only get paid when they sell your manuscript, if not get a new agent) they need to look for things they think publishers will think are going to sell. This is not to say publishers are some faceless, greedy, corrupt organizations–most people get into publishing because they love books–it’s simply if they can’t sell what they publish, everyone’s paycheck is going to bounce and they’ll soon be out of a job.

And so agents/publishers often end up buying on trends. A couple years back vampires were hot. Judging on new books I know are coming out/what many agents seemed to mention in #MSWL, time travel is the next thing on the rise (as far as fantasy goes).  Obviously these aren’t the only kind of stories that will be published during the life of the trend, but if they are what publishers are finding sell, they’re going to be easier to get published.

So you should set your other novel aside and get to work on a time travel novel, right?

Again…no. The tricky thing with trends is that they’re fleeting. They don’t all last the same amount of time, but each one always hits a point where it starts dying off and publishers stop buying them as much (if at all, depending on how saturated the market gets). And publishing takes time. First you have to write the book. Then you have to edit it. Then you have to make sure it’s polished. Then you have to submit it. An agent might take a couple of months to get back to you and ask for a full manuscript. Then they might take another month to let you know if they decide to take it. Then they may want to work with you to polish it even more. Even if you get through all of this and get to start shopping your manuscript while still at the height of a trend…you’re already too late. It’s taken you several months at this point after however long it took you to write the darn book in the first place, and it will take at least another year for it to come out (the publisher will send it through several rounds of edits, it has to go to layout, a cover has to be designed, you have to pre-market…publishing is a slow, slow beast). If publishers only start looking at your manuscript at the peak of the trend, they will probably assume the trend will be dying by the time your book gets out, and will be just as likely to pass on it as any other book at that point. Following the trend hasn’t given you quite the edge you were looking for.

So the only way to capitalize on a trend is to already have a completed book ready to shop when a trend hits. And since there’s no way to know when a trend is going to hit, what good does that do you? It just seems like dumb luck whether or not you have written a book that ends up being “on trend”.

And yes, yes it is. Like much else in publishing, hitting a trend or not is mostly just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

So why even bring this up? Just to be more depressing?

No, to make the simple point: Don’t force yourself to write a story just because it fits whatever’s big at the moment. Maybe you want to write a time travel story. Great, then go for it. If it’s a plot that interests you, you might do something amazing with it. If you’re only trying to capitalize on a trend, however, you’re likely to be disappointed. You forced yourself to write something you only sort of wanted just because it would sell–and now no one wants it because you’re too late to the party. Trying to find an agent and publisher can be frustrating enough as it is. No need to add to that frustration by making yourself miserable during the fun part (actually writing the thing).

And so, I think a tip @KMWeiland posted earlier today on Twitter fits the moral of the story perfectly:

“Don’t worry about what the world considers the perfect novel. Write your perfect novel, and let the world come to you.”

Who knows? Maybe by the time you’re finished, you just might catch the next trend.


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Character Flaws

A little while back, I wrote a post about Mary Sues. For those who are not yet aware of this term, TV Tropes gives a pretty good definition:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

“She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series. (See Common Mary Sue Traits for more detail on any of these cliches.)

Mary Sues as a whole are dreaded in writing communities. There are litmus tests all over the place for people to test whether or not their character is one, people debate whether or not characters X and Y are Mary Sues (or their male equivalent, the Gary Stu or Marty Stu), and I don’t believe that’s going to go away any time soon.

You see, one of the reasons Mary Sue/Gary Stu are so dreaded by writers is because they are just so common. I have jokingly called being an author “multiple-personalities for control freaks” Perhaps we authors don’t actually have multiple personalities, but we do have complete control over a world when we’re writing. And that can go to your head a little sometimes. Especially when you’re just starting out.

Of course, building well-developed, non-Sue characters is something that you learn to do as you get better at writing (writing is a skill, after all, the more you do it, the better you get). But there is one way I often see authors (especially new authors) trying to stay away from Mary Sues that I don’t believe works 99 times out of 100. The “traits and flaws” list.

Before, I talked about how often times Mary Sues become Mary Sues because of how the world reacts around them. To be interesting, characters as a whole should react in ways that are realistic to realistic situations happening around them. The world should not bend its rules for them (anybody else would be expelled for this, but you’re special, so…on your way) and other characters shouldn’t change dramatically in response to them (Well, I’ve been an evil, misogynistic bas***d this entire book, but you are so special, and logical, and sweet, and [X characteristic] you have melted my heart in one well-done diatribe and I now see the error of my ways!) The world shaping itself around the character is part of what makes Sues so annoying.

Another part is how perfect Sues tend to be.

Everybody has flaws. It’s part of what makes us human. When you have a character that doesn’t, it makes them naturally unrealistic, and generally unlikable (especially when they then spend half the book complaining about things that aren’t flaws being awful for them: “I wish I weren’t so much prettier and more popular than the other girls…it’s so hard being me…”) So, you’re worried you have a Mary Sue (or someone told you they’re Sue-ish) what’s the logical thing to do? Give them flaws of course.

And so more than once, I’ve come across posts like this:

Is my character a Mary Sue?

She is intelligent/clever, funny, witty, friendly, adventurous yet responsible, free-spirited, optimistic, talkative, creative/artistic, and basically talented. For faults, she’s a non-domestic woman in the time where a  woman’s job was to be at home, and maybe she is intolerant towards people who are slower than her in brain power.

Now, always the answer to “Is my character a Mary Sue” almost always is ,”depends how you use her.” But in this situation, my Mary Sue sensors are seriously going. For one, look at how many positive traits there are (intelligent, funny, optimistic…). Then look at the “faults”. One basically boils down to “free-spirited and people are down on her for it” (not a character flaw as much as a situation). The other could be a flaw, but prefaced by “maybe” it does not seem overly likely this flaw will be general, but just pop out as a token “flaw” to prove that the character isn’t perfect. It’s much like making a character’s flaw be “clumsiness” tends to boil down to, “Look, she isn’t perfect! She just tripped and…awww, look how cute she is with all her clumsiness. It just makes people love her more!”

And so writing out “Good Traits” vs. “Flaws” lists don’t do much to help you with a building a well-rounded character. A character, like a person, is a personality that is made up of a bunch of traits, but is not only those traits. It is not important to balance “one good trait for one bad trait” in each of your characters, it’s important to really think about their traits as one larger personality. As one of the best pieces of advice I have seen in the NaNoWriMo forums lately  puts it:

Usually, a person’s negative traits are the flip-side of their positives. For example, A person who’s unflinchingly honest may be tactless and over-blunt. A person who’s super dependable, who sees every task through to completion, may also be a person who doesn’t know how to admit he’s in over his head on some overambitious project.

“Your character is free-spirited and creative, among other things. What is the flip-side of that? Might your character tend to be impractical or a bit idealistic (naive) at times? And (this is a really important point) what are the consequences of being impractical, idealistic, or naive? How does this affect her actions, the other characters, and the development of the plot?

“If you can relate your character’s imperfections to her good qualities, and if  you can make her imperfections matter in some meaningful way, you will be well on your way to avoiding a Mary Sue.

So, don’t worry yourself with “Good trait, bad trait” lists. Consider the character’s personality, and what that means to how they relate to the world (rather than how the world relates to them) you’ll be much better off than trying to decide whether or not your character is well-balanced by “here are her good traits, here are her flaws.”

You can’t write that!

News Alert: The Bleeding Crowd is coming out August 27th, for those interested, from Melange Books. In the mean time, you can find my short story, In a Handbasket, available for free here through Boxfire Press. Please enjoy!


A common theme I have been seeing on my favorite haunt, the NaNoWriMo forums, lately, are questions about what you are and are not allowed to write. The first time I saw this question, I was a little surprised, but now that I’ve seen it more than once, I figured I would take the chance to cover it here.

While the NaNoWriMo site came down for repairs before I could find the original thread (literally asking what you are and are not allowed to write), but today’s post which sparked this post includes this line:

But since a character in my novel is a rapist (and yes, this is essential to the plot and the ending) there are some rape scenes…I heard that you can’t actually show the act happening (I think that’s a bit weird, considering how other acts of violence are considered totally fine) but whatever, it’s not that important.”

Ok, rape is a touchy subject, I don’t think anyone is going to argue it isn’t (especially not after all of the news stories out in the past couple of days). There are many, many people who have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lives (men and women) and there are several more who don’t care to read about things such as rape in their novels/short stories/etc. But does that mean you can’t write about it.

Honestly, my first reaction when reading that post was, “Where did you hear that you can’t write/show a rape happening in your story?” Part of me just really wanted to know if it was a passing comment the poster had picked up and internalized, or if someone in a creative writing class was teaching there are certain things that you can and can’t write about. Because honestly, when it comes to creative writing, there is very little you can’t write about.

This advice might be a little different in countries that are known to censor writing (there are a few out there where less-than-complementary writing about the government can end up with the writer in prison, I believe) but at least in the United States (and any other country with no state-sponsored censorship), the list of what you can’t write is pretty short:

1. You can’t plagiarise. That is, if someone has written something before you, you can’t take it word-for-word and call it your own. At least not without getting sued (same goes for things under copyright you haven’t gotten permission to use, even with proper credit given).

2. Libel. You can’t present something detrimental to someone’s character/life as true that is not. (This is more relevant in journalistic writing, but basically don’t write that your neighbor likes to kill people in his spare time and act like it’s true when it’s not [if it is true, you can write it, but please, call the police first]).

3. Child Pornography (if you’re in Australia or Canada). Both countries have laws banning cartoon, manga, or written child pornography. Outside of those countries, it isn’t illegal (though it is still rather icky, just saying).

And, well, that’s about it. There are a couple more things that aren’t protected under freedom of speech/the press that the Supreme Court has ruled on, but if you’re writing fiction, it more than likely doesn’t apply to you.

The long and the short of it is, there is no morality police who is going to swoop down on you for writing something that could be offensive. We don’t live in a police state. There is no Hays Code that prohibits, rape, drug use, swearing, graphic sex, blasphemy, or any other topic from being put into print. If you are ok writing it, you’re more than allowed to put it down on paper.

This does not mean, however, that people are required to give you a platform to distribute it. While you are allowed to write about something many people might find offensive/disgusting/reprehensible, publishers/distributors are more than allowed to not publish/distribute it on their site.

For example, for romance/erotica publishers, you will often find notices such as this on their submission page: “We  do not accept: scatological stories, incest/twincest, sexual content  involving anyone under the age of eighteen, snuff, rape or bestiality.

You are more that allowed to write something incestual, you may even be incredible popular with it in your story (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin), but that doesn’t mean you can demand that someone publish your book just because you wrote it.

Far too often, I come across someone who has had a post removed from a forum online, and they start railing about how the site is violating their First Amendment rights. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again, A private company/person/other private entity cannot infringe on any of your constitutional rights. The Bill of Rights protects you from the government. The government isn’t allowed to take down your blog. Someone hosting it for you, however, can. It’s their site, they can choose what they’d like to put out there. (Note that I don’t just say publishers, but distributors. Many right remember some controversy over pulling books and banning authors from selling on their site. If you violate their content guidelines, even as a self-published author, they have the right to remove you. You can read more about that here.)

So, can you write about touchy subjects? Sure. Should you? That’s a little trickier. Like everything with writing, it’s about trade offs. Think about what your goals are. Do you want to market to a wide audience/be able to pitch it to every publisher in your genre? Maybe you should second guess how detailed you’re going to be about that scene. You know the one I’m talking about. Are you writing a gritty, adult novel that will most likely find a home in a niche market? Have at it. If you’re willing to write it, no one is going to stop you.

And so, write what your story needs. Most likely the only thing limiting your writing is you.

Less is More

Note: As I’ve had a couple of people asking about it, I’m going to start posting guest blogs whenever people are interested. Please email me at jesskdall(a) if you’re interested in speaking more about it.



Being an editor can make reading hard. Ever since I had my internship with a press back in college, I’ve done my best to put away the red pen while “off the clock” but that doesn’t stop the fact that I still will mentally try to rewrite sentences when I find one that bothers me. And one thing I can never seem to get past is when I find melodramatic writing.

Now, telling is bad. It’s so common a piece of writing advice that “show, don’t tell” has become nearly cliché when it comes to tips you’re likely to find. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to be on a witch hunt for “to be” verbs (a common symptom of telling), if you can help it “He gritted his teeth” is a much better way of showing anger than “He was upset”

What can be just as bad as telling, however, (at least in my opinion) is melodrama. A bit like “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome, melodrama often comes when authors try too hard to show during emotional scenes.

Now don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to leave an emotional scene with something like “I was really sad” and then move on, but you don’t want it to turn out like this either (1:27 in the video). Angst and melodrama are no more fun to read than “I was sad. I felt like crying.”

So what make something melodramatic rather than showing? Like everything with writing, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer. Where a line can work well in one situation, it can seem completely out of place in another.

So, how then, do you know if you’re heading towards melodrama? Short answer is, it’s something you learn. Writing is a skill, the more you write, and read, and listen to critiques, the better you get at it. It just takes trial and error.

Honestly, the way I joke you tell if something is melodramatic is if, when you read the line in your head, it sounds completely natural when using an over-theatrical voice (like Calculon in this clip from Futurama)

Let’s do a quick test:

1) “He clenched his fists.” Ok, you can get away with the Calculon voice, but it doesn’t sound like it was written to be said that way. Passes the no-melodrama test.

2) “I found myself caught in a shrieking trance of irrationality.” Hmm, first part of the sentence is ok, but “shrieking trance of irrationality” totally sounds like it’s meant for that voice. Sounds melodramatic.

3) “I was sad.” You could make it over dramatic, but it would really be stretching things (“I was SADDDDDDDDD”) Not melodramatic (but definitely telling).

4) “A dark visitor to her soul had captured her .” On the fence with the Calculon voice, but I’d err on the side of caution unless there’s literally someone in the story capturing souls (I’m sure there are a couple of fantasy/horror stories out there with that happening).

Now, some of you might be scoffing (“shrieking trance of irrationality? I would never write that”) but there are also likely some people out there wincing. Personally, my early writing tended towards “He was sad” more than “shrieking trance” but they are both very common writer growing pains. We all have to work with our styles before we actually come to something that feels like it works. Even after we’ve got that, it’s common to still have some problems (I admit it, my writing isn’t perfect…It’s what editors are for). And, when trying to rein “He was sad” or “shrieking trance” in, it’s really easy to swing from on to the other. They’re on opposite ends of the same spectrum, and finding the perfect balance in the middle can be hard.

So, what can you do to stop melodrama from sneaking into your writing? Here are just a few tips:

1. Gage how much drama is in a scene before you start writing. All right, you’ve been writing for months and months (or days and days if you’re a really quick writer), you’ve carefully plotted your way along, built up your characters, had a couple of struggles, and you’re finally here, the climax of your story. Time to let it all out and make this the most dramatic piece of writing ever, right? Depending on your book, maybe, but interestingly enough, the more dramatic the scene is naturally, the less dramatic you need to make the writing. Again, you don’t want to end up writing something like “He shot the guy and the guy died” but a man dying is powerful itself. If you pile dramatic language on on top of the inherent drama in the scene, you’re going to be pushing dangerously close to being overdramatic. Show the bullet hitting, show the man falling to the ground, don’t detail each drop of blood and how it’s spraying out with copious mounts of adjectives. Try to balance the drama in scene and the drama in your writing accordingly.

2. Don’t feel the need to make your writing “powerful”. This is where melodrama and “Hey look! I’m a writer!” syndrome can match up. While a new writer that has a problem with making scenes melodramatic may not have the same need to make all of their writing flowery and poetic to seem like a better writer, they get to a powerful scene and suddenly worry that by not using overly dramatic language, the scene won’t have any effect. Proper word choice is always important, of course, it’s what being a good writer is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that overly dramatic language is proper for a dramatic scene. As I said above, it often just makes the entire scene overdone. Focus on the scene itself, and write what sounds natural. Trying to force “powerful” language in will make it simply sound, well, forced.

3. Understand the difference between emotion and angst. Melodrama can run rampant in emotional scenes, and once again it’s a balancing act. Emotional writing is good (if it’s a sad scene, and you can actually bring your readers to tears [that aren’t related to having to read the writing] that’s a very good thing) angst, however, is bad, even if just because it gets really annoying to read really quickly. This is another case of taking a step back, and sizing up what is appropriate for a scene. Is the character devastated by the death of their mother? Ok, show that, but first think about how the character would realistically react. Are they the type to literally rip their hair out? Ok, go with that. Most people, however, are likely just going to cry, or want to hit something, or go catatonic. Just because a character is only crying and not cursing the heavens doesn’t make the scene any less powerful, it just makes it more realistic.

Also do your best to refrain from repeatedly coming back to an “emotional” point–especially if you’re going for a ripping-out-hair example. As they say, “Time heals all wounds” As your story goes on, your character should be slowly overcoming things, not sitting around thinking the same thing over and over ad nauseam. When nothing happens, reading becomes boring. When the language is overdone on top of that, it becomes annoying.

3. Remember, less really is more. Sometimes at least. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but then every little in writing is. Most of the time, however, you don’t want to take a page to say what you can say in a sentence. Even in slowly moving stories, there has to be some sense of progress. When you’re filling up page after page of flowery, emotional, or “powerful” langauge over one event, you have just stopped the story from moving whatsoever. By talking about a powerful topic, and then moving on before the reader is sick of it, you tend to leave people with a much stronger image. It also makes sure that your audience will read all of what you have written. When progress stalls, more than a few people will jump to the next thing that seems to move the story along, further weakening a scene (we may not get to the screaming at the heavens part if we’re still stuck at how each tear is falling like a snaking river…)

4. When all else fails, try try again. Is your writing still coming out melodramatic? Is trying to fix it keeping you from writing? Let it go. You can always fix things in editing. The most important thing is to get the thoughts down on paper (no matter how well done it is). You can’t get better if you don’t write. Once the story is done, you can always come back and edit, and rewrite, and edit, and edit, and rewrite again. Good writing takes practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Related Articles: War on Was , “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome , All of a sudden, he was suddenly there , The Unneeded Words


Why You Need to Pay Your Ghostwriter

Nearly happy fourth of July to all my readers out there who celebrate it (I’ll do my best to get a post up tomorrow as well as I have the day off).

Now, as most of the people who read this (I believe) are writers themselves, this might not be relevant. I’ll do my best to write something more interesting for you very soon. For those who have ideas, but don’t necessarily feel like they’ve got what it takes to write a story, this might be a little more enlightening.

As it will say at the end of this post, my top suggestion is just to try. Your first novel might suck, it very likely will suck. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, my first novel was awful. Writing is a skill. Some people are naturally better at it right off the bat than others, but you will get better when you actually sit down and force yourself to practice. You can always edit that novel within an inch of its life once you’ve finished. You can join writing groups, hire and editor, completely rewrite, it’s just important to actually start putting words down on paper.

That said, if you are still convinced that you have a story that needs to be written, but you aren’t the one to write it, it’s always possible to hire a ghostwriter.

Right off the bat, I’m a little conflicted about ghostwriting. On one side, it pays well, being a ghostwriter. I’ve done some work as one (generally for non-fiction) and I can’t say I don’t like getting a paycheck. Hiring a ghost writer for a work of fiction, however, doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps your idea might turn into a best seller, but between paying a ghostwriter and getting the book edited, finding an agent, finding a publisher, and getting your book out there, it will be a while before you make your money back. If you ever do.

Of course, some people think they can get around that little problem by offering their ghostwriter a percentage of their sales. Often I come across these sorts of ads on Craigslist. Earlier, I touched on the idea of why you definitely shouldn’t look for an agent on Craigslist, today I’m going to answer this ad (edited [some] for punctuation/grammar):

“I have writers block, and I believe that the reason is because I am not a writer, but i have a good, actually a few good ideas (stories) and I believe they are good, and the people that I have shared the stories with believe so too. My problem is that I can tell you the whole story with details, but when it comes down to writing it I just don’t know where or how to begin. So here is the catch, I don’t have much money. How about if we in fill some paperwork before I share my stories, then I relate them to you… If you want to venture with me on this, then you will have 50% of whatever the book makes of it… If you are looking to get paid along the way while we write the manuscript then don’t reply to this ad .

Some points to start:

1) “My friends think my story/story idea is good” is always a bad way of judging your writing/ideas. Non-writers/people not in publishing don’t generally know what sells/how original/good something is. My friends loved my first novel. Actual writers would rip it completely to shreds.
2) I’m not sure writer’s block describes not starting a story. I’ve always heard it meaning you’ve hit a point where you can’t continue writing a story. Anyone who has thoughts about how we should use that term, I’m happy to hear it.

Anyway, my response:


I don’t generally email people looking for a ghostwriter on commission, but as a writer/editor, I wanted to take the chance to explain a couple of things about the publishing world before you get started. You can feel free to ignore them or use them, it is up to you.

1) Ideas don’t sell books. Ideas are easy, and there are few original ideas out there. Tell someone who reads a lot/sees a lot of movies your idea, and they will most likely have something that sounds similar (It’s so common I wrote a blog post about it. You can also see many new writers complaining about this fact if you go to a writer’s board such as the NaNoWriMo forums []).

2) As ideas don’t sell books, it’s the writing’s that important. Writing the book  is the actual work. If someone weren’t paying me as a ghostwriter, I would maybe give them 5% for an idea. More than likely, they would just end up in the acknowledgements. I’m a writer, I can come up with my own ideas. Most of us have more than a few bouncing around in our own heads. Those who don’t can go look at writing prompts and figure something out without help. There are even entire story plots up for grabs places such as this for free. There is very little reason to fork over 50% of your profits to someone just to ghostwrite for them.

3) As that it’s the writing that’s important, you’re more than likely not going to make any money if you don’t get a good writer. More so, you more than likely aren’t going to find a good writer if you don’t pay them. Professionals don’t work on commission because we know that novels are hard to sell. Just because you have a book doesn’t mean that publishers are ever going to look at it. Having a good writer means you’re more likely to make it through the first cut, but part of getting published is really luck. A publisher has to be A) looking to fill a spot in their publishing line up B) Like the idea C) Like the writing D) Think they can make money off of it. They will also take a large cut. You will likely make 10-30% royalties off the book (depending on the publisher, that’s an estimate). So if your book is selling for $7.99, you are getting probably at most a couple of dollars each copy sold, if you’re then sharing that 50-50, each of you is getting about $1 a book sold. You likely won’t sell enough to make any sort of money off them unless you’re lucky again there/have a publisher who is willing to market the heck out of your book.

4) The only sure way of getting published is self-publishing or a vanity press. Of course, those royalties are based on actually getting published. You may never find a publisher, even with a great idea. In that case, to get the book even available for sale, you’re going to have to self publish or go through a vanity publisher. Self-publishing is a hard road, you probably won’t make a lot unless you have a lot of time to spend promoting it, especially because a lot of places you generally can rely on for some free publicity (like many book reviewers) won’t look at self-published books (as a reviewer, I understand that on some level. You can get really burned by self-published people who think their books are much better than they really are). If you go through a vanity publisher, you’re going to spend thousands out of pocket to get your book published and are truly not likely to make that money back.

Long story short, you aren’t likely to get a good ghostwriter on commission, meaning it’s unlikely your book will sell well, meaning neither of you are going to make money more than likely, if someone is willing to give you a cut for just the idea (I won’t say it’s completely impossible, just unlikely, as anything is possible, but it would be a 1 in 100 [if that] chance in my opinion). Either try writing yourself, then go to a writing group and work on it until it’s polished, offer to pay a ghostwriter, or write it and then hire an editor to polish it for you (again, not on commission, professionals who know what they’re doing won’t work on it for the same reasons listed above making any editing help much less helpful). That’s my advice at least. 

As I said above, you can take that advice or leave it. Just wanted to share.

Good luck,

Related Articles: “Craigslist Agents” , Self, Vanity, Traditional Publishing , How to Get Published

Finding Time to Write

All right, all cards on the table, just writing the title for this blog felt a little hypocritical right now. Obviously I have not had a lot of time to write this blog as of late, and I have written maybe a paragraph of my own writing. Life just sometimes gets in the way. For me, recently, it’s been moving, a nasty bout of tonsilitis, going over edits for books coming out in the next few months, and work, but it really can be anything. Perhaps you really want to write, have a great idea, are ready to go…but your kids need to be taken to karate, and dinner needs to be made, and you just finished a 70-hour work week, and you really should walk the dog… I understand, believe me, I understand. There are hundreds of things in life that take up time, and with less than 170 hours in a week, that hour you spend in traffic each way to and from work can really start adding up.

So what do you when you don’t have the time to go to a writer’s retreat for a week, or even just spend the afternoon somewhere with a pen and paper and no interruptions?

1. Always carry pen and paper. This works best for those writers who like  handwriting over typing, but it works for just about any writer on the go. The last time I had a solid 40 minutes to write, I was sitting at a cafe waiting for a friend who had overslept our brunch date. While waiting for people who are late is never fun, while she was doing her best to get there, I had 40 minutes of finally just sitting and writing, because I had pen and paper in my bag. If you don’t have the ability to carry even a small notebook with you (small Moleskines or similar notepads are godsends for small bags/pockets) at least have a pen. In a scrape you can generally find something to write on, you just need to actually be able to write (after all, many great ideas have started written down on cocktail napkins and toilet paper...)

2. Make writer-friendly choices. With the new move, I have now sadly gone from walking to work every day to actually having to commute into the District. Luckily there are a few different ways I can get to work, the main ones being driving the entire way (about half an hour, depending on traffic) or driving to a Metro stop and metroing the rest of the way in (about forty minutes). While having the added benefit of being a little easier on my wallet, taking the Metro into work means that I have about half an hour on a train to sit and write rather than half an hour focusing on the road.

Now, I know that changing up a commute might not work for everyone. Maybe you live somewhere that doesn’t have available public transit, or you need your car with you, or taking public trans would change your commute from 15 minutes to 50 minutes…you definitely shouldn’t make your life harder while trying to find time to write, but try to fit writing in to times that would otherwise be busy. Maybe, if you drive an hour each way to work, you can get a recorder and dictate a story to yourself. Maybe, if you spend your child’s nap time watching television, you could try to write instead (or write while watching TV if you can multitask). Look at your day, and try to figure out if there are places where you’re just sitting waiting or “killing time”. It’s likely you could get some writing in at those points.

3. Schedule “Writing Time”. Routines can be a good thing when trying to find time for things. It’s sometimes easier to motivate yourself when you’ve gotten “Every Tuesday from 7 to 7:30 is writing time” in your head. It can also help if you’re the type of writer that needs an uninterrupted stretch of time to actually work out a scene (some people don’t work well with interruptions, it’s just what your writing style is like). Try to figure out if there’s a quiet night, or morning, or anything else where you can spend some time writing. Then set the time aside and actually do it. It doesn’t have to be hours on end, just try to give yourself half an hour Sunday morning, or Wednesday night, or whenever else you have the time and get some writing in.

4. Make it a group activity. If you have some writer (or want-to-be writer) friends, and trying to maintain a social life is part of what’s making it hard to find writing time, write-ins might be a great solution to get you some writing time. A NaNoWriMo staple, a write-in is basically what it sounds like, a bunch of writers get together somewhere all carting laptops or pen/paper and then spend however long they can stay alternating between writing and talking (when you need a writing break of course). Having other people around also has the added bonus of giving you a little more motivation to actually write (local cafes are often good places for write-ins, including those in bookstores. Starbucks and [my personal favorite] Panera Bread are also great choices for outlets and free wifi).

5. Remember your outside life is important too. Do you really just not have enough time to write even after all of that? Would you have to stop seeing friends, or doing something else that you love to fit in even a couple of words while on the train to work? Then don’t stress yourself. Writing will always be there, the rest of your life might not be. Allow yourself to take a break, and start writing again after you’ve finished wedding planning, or your kickball team’s season is done, or when that big project at work is done. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you don’t get to have a life.


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Submissions 101

As annoying as it can be to wait the weeks (if not months) it takes to hear back from publishers, one unforeseen bonus of it is the fact that you can still get good news even months after you take a break from submitting. While in the midst of house closings and packing and half a million other things it feels like I’m busy doing right now, I got the good type of letter from a publisher about a short story I submitted back in January. I’m now waiting on a contract and a check for the story to be in an anthology this fall. As always, I’m very happy (always nice to make money off your writing!) but it got me thinking that I’d take a short break from packing to answer some questions about querying that bright new shiny (thoroughly edited) novel/short story of yours.  I’ll start with some general questions, then go to a step-by-step.

Q. I was told you need a literary agent to get published. Aren’t you going to submit to them?

A. It depends what you want to do. Literary agents (good literary agents) can be worth their weight in gold. They will help you with the business side of things and are all but your only shot of having your book published by one of “the big six” For many indie presses, however, you certainly don’t need one, and when submitting short stories I’d personally think of one as overkill.

Q. All of these publishers/agents want a bio with previous writing/relevant experience. This is my first time writing. Am I sunk?

A. It’s like the old job hunting problem, they only want to hire people with experience, but you can’t get experience until you have a job. I think the vast majority of us have been there, and truly it’s annoying as  [expletive deleted]. After all, how are you supposed to get work experience if no one will hire you without it? When people start wanting to see a resume for your writing, it feels like the same thing (I have to have published something to get published…) The good news is, as a writer, all that truly matters is how good your work is. People like seeing a list of credits because it means you (most likely) aren’t a bad writer. Someone else has vouched for you. If your writing is amazing, however, not having a page long list of credits isn’t going to hurt you. A good book is a good book, no matter who’s writing it.

Q. Is there a way I can be sure I’ll be published?

A. Sure, self-publish–or pay a vanity press thousands to publish your book for you. Otherwise, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting published is some combination of talent, perseverance, and luck. Yep, luck.  You have to write a book that someone else thinks is good (which is entirely subjective) while they are looking for new projects (a publisher may generally like your story, but their catalogue is full right now, so not worth sitting on it…) Really, it’s about writing something interesting, and trying until the stars align for traditional publishing. If you aren’t going the self-publishing/vanity publishing route and someone is promising to get you published, be wary. They’re probably selling something…or, you know, scamming.

***Submissions Step-by-Step***

Before you submit:

1. EDIT. First drafts generally have some big problems in them. You fix these during the editing stage. Even if your book is perfect from the get-go (was dictated by some higher power or what not) still go over it. Nothing is quite so off-putting as seeing a dozen typos per page when going through submissions. Either it means you aren’t a very good writer (in which case, why keep reading) or you don’t care enough to actually fix your story up a little (in which case, we generally won’t want to work with you since we will be editing). Put your best foot forward, which means editing until it’s as perfect as you can make it.

2. Consider your goals. What are you looking for in publishing this work? Is it a short story you wrote to just try to get some writing credits? In that case, you still want a reputable publisher, but you don’t have to limit yourself to the top name publishers with giant paychecks. A nice college review would be a great place to look. Do you want your novel published by one of the big six and seen on every bookshelf? You’re probably best off trying for an agent. Do you just want your novel published professionally and to see some royalties? Indie presses might not be a bad idea. It’s all about what you want from your work. There’s no right or wrong answer, just different goals.

3. Do your research. Sadly, with as many want-to-be authors out there writing for the first time, dying to see their books published, there are some disreputable “publishers” out there (I complied a list of some of them at the bottom of this post about publishing contracts earlier. Sadly there are many more). Before submitting somewhere that isn’t well known (not a big name or, perhaps, a university press) try looking at Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write Water Cooler, or even just google [Press you’re interested in] scam, and you should get any complaints that might be. For example, here is a google search for a publisher that is becoming known as a back-door vanity press (using “Press Name Scam” as the search criteria). Note the multiple threads about contract problems, scams, other things you don’t want to see surrounding a press to which you’re submitting. On the other hand, here is a search for a very small, but generally good reputation indie press (again, using “Press Name Scam”). No complaints come up, and better it shows some of their catalogue popping up at Barnes and Noble. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re completely legit, but it’s a very good sign in that direction.

4. Put together a list of agents/presses you are interested in. Once you figure out your goals and know these presses aren’t scams, decided whom you are going to query. Also check if they allow simultaneous submissions (submitting to more than one agent/publisher at the same time). It’s good to stay organized so you don’t get into problems later on (including submitting twice, or even three times, to the same publisher…I’ve sadly seen it happen as a slush pile reader).

What you will need to submit:

Submission guidelines vary from agent to agent (and publisher to publisher) so always be sure to read guidelines on a site before submitting, but in general, you will need:

– A complete, fully edited manuscript. Non-fiction authors may find that they can get a publishing contract with just a book proposal, but I have yet to find an agent or publisher who is willing to take fiction (from non-established authors) without the author having the manuscript completely finished. For Short Stories, you probably will be submitting the full manuscript from the start. For novels, you will generally be submitting the first 3 (or so) chapters with the initial submission. This does not, however, mean you should only have 3 chapters edited. It may say on their website you won’t hear back from an initial query for 4-6 weeks, but always be ready to send a full manuscript the next day, just in case.

– A query letter, basically, your book’s cover letter. It will generally include a “hook”, a short blurb about your book, and a bio/why you are the person to write the book (it’s ok to skimp on the bio if you don’t have any other writing credits. It’s worse to try to fill it in with unhelpful information than leave it blank altogether).

– A synopsis. The full story, from beginning to end. You generally won’t need this for short stories (they have the full story, after all) but since you tend to only send in a bit of your novel as a sample, this lets the acquisitions editor know if they’re interested in how the story turns out. Do NOT try to leave it with a cliff hanger (“leave them wanting more”) outline in about one single-spaced page how your characters go from point A to point B and finally end up at pont C.

– Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). This only comes in to play if you’re mailing in your submission rather than emailing it (some publishers insist one form or the other, but more and more are turning to email-only submissions, in my experience). Still, you may see requests for a SASE on submission guidelines. This is so that the agent/publisher is able to mail you a response simply by sticking it in the envelope you sent and mailing it back to you.

– Anything else the press/agent asks for in their submission guidelines. The above three things will cover most places, but some want you to have written a cover blurb (what would be on the back of your book while it’s sitting on the shelf) a separate author bio (generally what would likewise be on your book [Jessica Dall is the author of… etc.]) a break down of whom you are targeting with this book (children, stay-at-home moms, murder-mystery enthusiasts, etc.) or other things of those nature. Don’t give out sensitive information (bank account info, Social Security Numbers, anything that feels scammy) but be ready for extra requests from some agents/presses.

Putting together your submission:

1. Read the full submission guidelines of the agent/publisher you are querying. Make sure they are currently accepting submissions (some agents/publishers have closed and open submission periods. Make sure you’re only sending your query while they’re reading them or the submission may possibly be deleted without being read), and make sure you have exactly what they want (Query, Synopsis, First Three Chapters? Just Query? Query and Full Manuscript? Query, Synopsis, First Two Chapters, Marketing Plan, Author Bio, Back-Cover Blurb?)

2. Put together your submission. If you are mailing it in, put everything requested in a manila envelope to mail. If emailing (and there are no guidelines as to attachments) it is generally best to have your query letter in the body of the email, and then attach the synopsis and first three chapters in an easy-to-open file format (generally .doc/.docx or .rtf work best). If there are no guidelines as to titling the files, it is generally best to structure them with all the important information up front, for example: LastName.PartofSubmission.Title (e.g. Dall.Synopsis.TheBleedingCrowd). Again, be sure to check guidelines about attachments and file names, some agents/publishers are highly specific.

3. Proofread  your query letter a final time. It’s just as bad (if not worse) to have typos in your query letter. You want to come off as a good writer at all stages of your submission.

4. Mail/Send your submission to the agent/publisher’s prefered mailing/email address.

What Happens Next?

1. Wait. It’s possible for Agents and Publishers to get hundreds of submissions daily. It’s possible you’ll hear back the next day, or even the same day, if you just happen to send something in while they’re reading submissions, but it’s just as likely you won’t hear back for weeks (or months). Don’t try to read meaning into it, it’s just how long it can take to work through a backlog of submissions.

2. Hear back (maybe…) As much as rejections aren’t fun, it’s better than one alternative–not hearing back at all. While some agents/publishers are really good about getting back to everyone who submits to them, some you won’t hear back from unless they’re interested in seeing more/publishing you.

If you receive a rejection letter:

1. Brush it off. Yeah, rejection always sucks, but it’s part of being an author. Perhaps they’ll let you know why they weren’t interested, more than likely it will just be a form “due to the high number of submissions we receive, we must be highly selective… blah blah blah. We don’t feel this project is right for us at this time.” It’s possible you were rejected because your novel reads like something a second grader would do, but it’s far more likely they don’t feel the genre’s really right for them, they think it could use a little more editing, or simply their catalogue is full and they aren’t looking for anything more for the time being.

2. Move on to the next batch of submissions. If you’re querying one at a time (by choice, or if you are submitting to people who don’t accept simultaneous submissions), go to the next name on your list and prepare your submission following their guidelines. If you’re querying in groups, pick the next few submissions you’re going to send off and send those.

3. Repeat until you get something other than a rejection.

If you don’t hear back:

Like I said, it can take forever to hear back from some agents/publishers for a number of reason (I submitted the story that was just accepted in February I think…) but at some point it can be fair to assume you aren’t going to hear back. There are no hard and fast rules as to when to give up, but:

1. If the publisher has time estimates (you should hear back in 4-6 weeks, three months, etc.) feel free to follow up at the end of that estimate. For example, if it says 4-6 weeks for the initial query, and it’s been six weeks, feel free to write a quick “I emailed this query six weeks ago, I just wanted to make sure you had it” email. Hopefully they’re still working on it. If you still don’t hear anything in the next week or so, start feeling free to move on.

2. If there’s no time estimate as to when you’ll hear back, give the acquisitions editor 6-8 weeks, roughly, before writing them off. You may still hear from a long-lost submission much later on, but if 8 weeks have passed and you still have no answer, personally I find it safe to assume you won’t be hearing from that agent/publisher. And, again in my personal experience, I don’t find even people who don’t allow simultaneous submissions getting upset if they email back months later to find you’ve submitted elsewhere. There may be some, but if they don’t state you will hear back from them, after a few months it’s generally accepted that you aren’t supposed to sit around waiting to hear forever, especially those who know you won’t be submitting elsewhere while waiting for them. (For example, someone accepted a story of mine six months after I submitted to them once, which caused me to have to pull it from another “no simultaneous submissions” publisher. They were very understanding, as it had been long enough that I shouldn’t have reasonably expected a reply from the first press).

3. Submit to the next batch of agents/publishers. Once again, you keep going until you get something other than a rejection or no response.

You get a “we’d like to see more” letter:

1. First, be happy. Speaking from experience, approximately 95 percent of stories/novels (sent to reputable publishers) don’t even get this far in the submissions process. It means that you have a story interesting enough that someone wants to read it, and your writing is actually pretty good (in their opinion). You aren’t getting published yet, but it’s definitely something to be proud about.

2. Follow the guidelines sent to you in the letter or email to submit additional materials. Generally this is going to be the rest of your novel (if you only submitted a sample) but they may ask for other things as well. Make sure to follow their guidelines exactly (what file format, where to send it, what to include) and send off anything else they want as quickly as possible (if you keep them waiting around for a month after they request a full manuscript, you may have lost your chance. It’s possible they’ve signed someone else and their catalogue/client list is now full).

3. Wait. Yes, more waiting. And for possibly longer this time. It takes more time reading and judging a full novel than it does a submission for the most part. You also should not be sending out more queries/submissions at this point. It is good manners to wait to hear back from someone reading your full novel rather than keep submitting to others. If you don’t hear back for a while, feel free to follow up. As “fulls” (full manuscripts) are requested from fewer authors, it’s general practice that youwill hear one way or the other about the agent/publisher’s decision.

You get a “We liked the submission, but we aren’t actually going to publish you after reading the full” letter.

1. Be bummed, but brush it off. It happens. You’re trying to make it from the 5 percent who get fulls requested to the 1 percent that gets published, some times you are in the 4 percent who don’t end up with a publishing contract at the end of it, sadly. It’s a let down, but think of it positively. Someone liked you enough to put you in the top 5 percent. Hopefully you’ll find someone else who likes it just that little bit extra. All signs are pointing positive.

2. Go back and start submitting to the new batch of agents/publishers. If you run out of your first list, do some more research and look for more reputable agents/publishers to submit to.

You get a “We want to publish you” letter:

This can come either right after the initial submission (generally will for short stories, or can possibly happen if you send in your full manuscript to start with), or it can come after submitting a full manuscript. Either way, it is certainly the best type of letter.

1. Be happy. Jump up and down if you’re the type. Smile. Pat yourself on the back. You’ve made it to the 1 percent (and not the 1 percent that will have Occupy Wall Street after you). It’s a big accomplishment. HOWEVER, don’t write back/call everyone you know until you’ve calmed down.

2. Ask to review the contract. This is why you want to calm down some before responding/telling everyone. Publishing is a business. You need to protect your interests. Perhaps where you submitted didn’t come up with any scam reports, but there’s something fishy when you look at the contract. Read it fully, ask questions, and if you can’t work it out, walk away. Yes, it’s painful after all the submitting and work you’ve done to get this far, but it’s a bad idea to sign the first thing people put in front of you just because you want to be published. Make sure you maintain the rights of your work, that you aren’t paying for anything (you don’t pay agents or publishers, they get paid when they sell your book), and the contract terms are favorable. If it’s your first time looking at a publishing/agent contract, perhaps try to talk someone who might know what to look for. Publishing contracts, like any contract, are legally binding. You don’t want to hurt yourself before you even get your book out.

3. Negotiate. Even if you aren’t planning on walking away from the contract, you can always feel free to try to negotiate. Agents/Publishers do tend to have the upper hand (if they don’t publish you, there are another hundred people happy to take  your place) so don’t be demanding/outrageous (I demand a 1 million book initial run with 75 percent royalties!) but you certainly don’t have to be a pushover. Really, if you’re being reasonable, the worst they can say is no. For my two books coming out this summer, one I negotiated slightly higher royalties, the other I negotiated having a print run at the same time as the ebook run, rather than ebook and then print later on. If the publisher/agent likes your book enough to want to print it/represent it, they’ll probably be willing to work with you a little on contract terms. If they aren’t just decide if it’s something you can live with, or if it’s worth trying to find someone else.

4. Sign the contract. Once you have a contract with any changes you’ve agreed upon, sign it and send it off to the agent/publisher. Some groups will accept electronic signatures/scanned signatures. Some want a hard copy/ink signature. The bigger the project, the more likely you’re going to be sending a signed contract in the mail. In that case, the publisher/agent should then likewise sign the contract and send a copy back to you.

5. Celebrate. Now comes the time when you call all your friends and family, taunt those who belittled your writing, whatever you plan on doing to celebrate. You’ll have edits, and covers, and who knows what else in the next few months in preparation of your book launch, but for now, enjoy it. It’s an accomplishment.


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