Crises of Confidence

Summer is coming up, and that means the release for my novel this summer (The Bleeding Crowd) is coming up fast. It also means that right now I have a giant file of edits from my editor sitting in my inbox to go over that I may or may not be avoiding at the moment…

Now, I’m certainly not saying that I am not appreciative for the edits. Even as an editor myself, I am very aware that there are things in my own writing that slip past me that I would catch on the other side of things (the danger of being too close to your own writing). I am in fact very grateful to have someone going over my stories before they’re out there for the whole world to see.

However, that doesn’t make it much easier to open that file and look at your baby all marked up. I’ve talked before about how to best take a critique, and I’ve been through enough to do pretty well on the not taking edits personally front, but that doesn’t always stop another relatively common writer experience, the crisis of confidence.

Now, getting edits/critiques back are a prime time for them to happen, but crises of confidence can come up at any point in the writing process. Perhaps you’re reading your first edit from an editor, perhaps you’re looking over your first draft, perhaps you’re even still in the middle of writing, I think most writers are at least acquainted with that lingering feeling you get as you’re going along and suddenly think, “Man, I’m really not good at this whole writing thing, am I?”

We all go through it, and in the worst cases, it sometimes stops us from writing a story we otherwise were really excited to tell. Afterall, just look at what you wrote. It sucks. Obviously the entire story would suck if you kept writing. What’s the point? Or if you already finished it, look how awful it is in general. Wouldn’t it just be better to forget it somewhere in your room/on your desk/in your computer’s hard drive forever?

Of course there are going to be some stories you give up on/forget about. I have a good share of half-completed story ideas (ranging anywhere from just started to half a book) that I may never get back to. I have at least two earlier novels that I finished but just don’t find it worth the time to actually do anything with them since the seem so bad to me. It’s ok if you run out of steam every once in a while, or just wrote something for the hell of it and now want to forget about it completely. It only becomes a problem if these crises keep you from writing all together.

In many ways, this is the problem NaNoWriMo was created to battle. By forcing a hard deadline (that includes writing nearly 2,000 words a day) participants are forced to “ignore their inner editors” and get the words down on paper, for better or worse. People tend to have their own opinions on the quantity vs. quality debate there, but it’s not a bad solution, in my opinion, when it comes to trying to fight a crisis of confidence. If it’s possible for you to simply ignore that little voice in your head that’s telling you your book sucks and keep writing one way or another, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done sometimes. And so, some tips for getting past the “I’m an awful writer” blues, at all stages of writing:

First things first, you’re your own toughest critic. When you’re having a crisis of confidence, 99 times out of 100, you’re likely going to be harder on yourself than any one else reading your writing. Where you wouldn’t be so hard on someone else you were critiquing (“There’s some telling here, can you try to show?”) you’re probably going to tear into yourself (“what is with all this telling. Your writing is awful. Why do you even try?”) Ignore the urge to give into self-flagellation, and, no matter where you are in the writing/editing process, leave yourself a note and keep working.

While Still Writing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while in the middle of a work-in-progress)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck. Ok, maybe suck is a little harsh, and I’m sure there are some Mozart writers out there (the ones who have stories that come out nearly perfectly first go around) but having problems in your first draft doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer. Maybe the dialogue between your two characters sounds awful right now, but that’s all right, it’s a first draft. As long as you have the basic Point A leads to Point B leads to Point C stuff down, it’s fine. No one is going to be judging your writing skills off of an un-edited first draft. You shouldn’t either.

2. You can always edit later. Here’s the “locking up your inner editor” thing you see so often on the NaNoWriMo forums. The important part when in the writing stages of your Work in Progress (WIP) is to actually write. Maybe you aren’t a quantity over quality person, that’s ok. You don’t have to word vomit (write everything that passes through your head in one go just to get it on the page) as some WriMos are famous for, you just have to give yourself permission to not be perfect. Write as quickly or as slowly as you want, just don’t obsess about one sentence that is giving you problems. Get is good enough for a first draft, and then leave yourself a note to come back to it when you’ve moved on to editing. Don’t rush yourself if you’re not that type of writer, but don’t throw your entire story off the rails just because you’re beating yourself up about one line that just sounds wrong.

3. Jump to a different scene. All right, disclaimer, this one doesn’t always work for everyone. Some people (myself included) write best chronologically. If I don’t write A to B to C, I have a hard time getting everything to line up at the end with the missing scenes. If you have a strong outline, however, or are just fine with writing scenes in varying orders, jumping to some place later in the book can be a good way to get you out of our funk. So what if the entire beginning seems to be a boring info dump? Look at how exciting the climax is. You can always fix things up when you’re feeling better about your writing as a whole.

4. Take a short break. Emphasis on the word short. You don’t want to lose your momentum, but don’t force yourself if you’re in the grandmother of all slumps. Stop trying to force the writing, and perhaps do something more productive than staring at a blank page/computer screen. Do a character drawing, try to plot out how the Main Character’s house looks, or read another book that might inspire you. Just don’t let “not today” turn into “not this week” turn into “not this month” turn into “I once tried writing a novel…”

While self-editing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while attempting to edit/rewrite a draft)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck, second drafts can too. Again, you don’t have to aim for perfection straight out of the gate. If you aren’t a Mozart writer, and don’t have divinely inspired words on the page, expect for there to be multiple rounds of edits before you have something you’ll even remotely think of showing to other people. Just because something seems badnow doesn’t mean you won’t make it great once you’ve finished edits.

2. You don’t have to keep all of it. Is it really just that first scene that isn’t working for you? You can always rework it, rewrite it, or cut it all together. Just because it ended up on the page in your rough draft doesn’t mean that it has to stay in the story for all eternity. Speaking as someone who can word vomit during NaNoWriMo, an entire character from 2010’s novel found themselves cut before the book was even shown to someone else. She just wasn’t working, and wasn’t important enough to save, sadly.

3. See if someone else can give you some pointers. If you get the general feeling that your story is awful, but have no idea how to fix it (and you’re brave enough to let someone else take a look) it can be very helpful to have someone give you some suggestions to help fix things (that will likely be less harsh than your inner critics suggestions of “you suck” and “why do you even try”). One caveat, however: Try to find someone who is also a writer, and editor, or at least a very avid reader. Writers and editors will probably be better at telling you the exact points you can focus on perfecting where casual readers (friends/family/etc.) are more likely to give you less helpful comments such as “I liked it” or “It was ok”.

#3 Tip: If you’re shy about sharing a rough draft that’s probably in pretty, well, rough shape, try finding an online critique forum (such as the NaNoWriMo one here) rather than talking to someone in person. It’s sometimes easier to send a story (or even just a scene from a story) off to another faceless writer than to go up to someone you know in person.

After a critique/edit (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while reading over someone elses edits to your work)

1. Nobody’s perfect. Even if you’ve edited your story thirty times yourself, there are still going to be problems you’ve missed (see the whole being too close to your work comment above). Expect for a sea of red (or at least a lot of comments) to come back on any story. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer, it means the editor/critic had different thoughts about some scenes. In fact, if your critic/editor is any good, you’ll actually hope for a lot of comments/suggestions. Creative writing, like any art, is subjective. The comments are just ways you’ll be able to see what people with other writing styles prefer, and you can decide if they help make your writing better or if they’re just something to think about. A good editor will market everything they think so you can decide what you think is best, not because they’re telling you you’re a bad writer.

2. It’s just one more chance to make your writing even better. Until the second your book is on the shelves and you can’t get them back, you constantly have chances to make your writing better. Perhaps you’re still beating yourself up about how awful one scene is, especially now that your critic/editor has agreed how awful it is. But you have the story back, you can make it better. And now you have someone to work with to make it better. I promise, not all is lost.

And, for my final general tip: Cut yourself some slack. Some people might naturally seem to be better authors than others, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll never live up to that. Even the best author out there didn’t pop out into the world as a brilliant writer (they at least would have to learn to write first after all), and even then, they had editors, and publishers, and a whole team of people behind them to make their writing sparkle just that much more. You will grow as an author, you will get better with edits, it isn’t fair to yourself to try to measure your WIP against someone else. Give yourself a break, and just write. Enjoy.

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Method Writing

It’s been a stressful few days here in DC, between putting in an offer on a house, planning a move, and a bad, bad stomach flu, it’s been interesting. With what little time I’ve had for my own writing, though, it has led me to discover a phenomenon that I’m sure I’m not the only one to experience: As soon as I’m not feeling well, at least one of my characters doesn’t feel well.

There have been a few earlier times I have experienced this, earlier this year I had a bad fall that left me with a banged-up knee. While that injury was a little more conducive to writing (stuck in bed and mentally wide awake) than a stomach flu, suddenly I couldn’t quite bring myself to make my characters kneel. Perhaps it wasn’t going to be painful to the characters, with their young, non-banged-up knees, but I still couldn’t bring myself to think of it while I personally couldn’t kneel.

Honestly, it seems completely understandable when it comes to how I write. I physically imagine myself doing what they are to think about how the scene is set up. Is one character going to swing their arm? Then I’m imagining swinging my arm for the motion (if not actually swinging my arm around…) and thus them kneeling made me think of me kneeling. And me not feeling like doing much moving at all while sick, made them not feel like doing much.

And so, perhaps there is another name for it, but I have thus dubbed this writing style Method Writing. Even if you aren’t a theatre/movie person, I’m betting that most readers out there have heard of Method Acting. For those who haven’t, Method Acting is a style of acting in which the actor attempts to become their character (or have their character become them) by truly feeling/experiencing what the character does in the hopes of showing more authentic reactions, rather than attempting to play someone else. When there are stories of actors remaining “in character” throughout a film shoot (acting as the character they’re playing would even while off stage) or living in a cave for months in preparation for character who does likewise, they’re generally method acting. (Cracked.com actually has some great examples of over-the-top Method Acting here.)

While doing that for writing might be a little more difficult than for acting (an actor’s playing one person, an author’s writing (probably) at least dozens) Method Writing has the same sort of idea behind it, we, the author, experience what our characters are feeling to make their reactions more realistic.

But is it a good way to write? I believe the answer simply is, if it works for you. Personally, I’d find it really hard to write without trying to feel how my characters are feeling (why I have been known to sit crying at the keyboard on occasion while writing an upsetting scene or make really angry faces during a fight…I’ve been told I’m interesting to watch…) but writing is very personal, what works for one writer doesn’t work for another.

So, if you’re still developing your writing style, or are looking for some other writing strategies and are interested in trying something like Method Writing here are some of the pros and cons.

Pro: It’s easy to understand how your character feels. Perhaps the main reason why you would consider “Method Writing” By making yourself feel what the character does (or having the character feel how you are feeling) it becomes simple trying to work out their reaction to a certain situation obstacle. When you can physically feel how your character does (heartbroken, elated, enraged) it’s easier to decide what they’re going to do next.

Con: It’s easy to get over-invested. If you didn’t pop over to the Cracked.com article up above, there are some pretty crazy examples of Method Acting over there, notably:

In the film [Oldboy], Choi’s character uses a piece of hot wire to count off the years he has spent in prison on his own body. Not content with the fact that this could be done with makeup and special effects, Choi actually performed the act on himself multiple times, on camera. That’s right, that’s his actual flesh being burnt in the movie.”

While I’ve never quite gotten to the point of self-mutilation to understand a character, I can tell you that it’s relatively simple to get yourself in the same sort of [emotional] situation when Method Writing. You’re so invested in a scene you’re writing, that you physically feel as though you’ve been in a fight, or you end up feeling depressed for hours after because you made yourself truly experience how a character’s death affects everyone else in the story. If you aren’t willing to put yourself through that (or know you’re going to be especially awful to your characters) perhaps reconsider.

Pro: There are some simple ways to get in the right frame of mind. In the vein of sick me = sick characters, Method Writing also allows for some pretty easy ways to get in the right mindset for a scene. Are your characters somewhere that’s really hot? Go sit in a hot car for a little bit while writing. It’s pretty simple to get your characters feeling hot that way. Is your character really hungry? Wait to write the scene until you’re really ready for lunch. I wouldn’t suggest going to extremes (getting to the point of heat stroke or not eating for days to get the exact feeling down) but the little things make it easier to understand the character and, in my experience, easier to write the scenes.

Con: It can be limiting. While sitting in a hot car might easily get me in the right frame of mind for a desert scene, a hot summer can also make it really difficult to write a story taking place during the winter. I have actually set stories aside waiting for the proper season to hurry up and get here before. Walking home when it’s 90-degrees out may give me a lot of inspiration for a summer story, but it makes it difficult to write about characters being caught in a blizzard…

Pro: It makes you want to finish the story. One big problem a lot of authors find when trying to write a novel is stopping before actually getting to the end. It’s understandable. Most novels tend to be around 80,000-120,000 words. Just in the typing/writing alone, that’s a lot of time. And far too often planning a novel is more fun than actually sitting down and writing one (there’s a reason you get a lot of people talking about novel ideas they have and they never actually even start writing…) Halfway into one story, you suddenly have a brilliant idea for an even better story, stop what you’re doing, and then start the next. Then halfway in to that brilliant idea, the same thing happens (or even you just get bored with it). When you feel emotionally connected to your characters, you actually want to get them to the end of the story. Sometimes it’s the added little push you need when hitting a mid-story slump.

Con: It can  make you care a little too much. While you should always care about your characters, putting too much of yourself into a character can be limiting–and can be the start of a Mary Sue problem. Suddenly, you care so much about your Main Character, you can’t take any criticism without feeling personally attacked and the entire fabric of your story starts morphing around that “you” character–not a good thing.

I’m sure there are many other pros and cons people who are likewise Method Writers (knowingly or unknowingly) have experienced, but those are the biggest for me personally. I’d love to hear any other thoughts on Method Writing or other writing styles if you have them (feel free to comment, contact me on Twitter [@JessicaDall] or email me at jesskdall(a)gmail.com). And so, blog readers, are you Method Writers?

Googled Questions

One of the things I have to say I love about WordPress (the host for this blog, if you missed that in the URL) is that they give you a stats page about your blog. It might be a little more addicting than it should be (I really want someone from Russia to read this blog one of these days to get that country filled in on the “where your readers are” map) but it’s very handy when it comes to seeing how you’re reaching your readers, and what posts are the most popular.

What can be interesting about the stat page, though, is that it will sometimes show you search terms that brought people to your page. For example, if someone searched “Jessica Dall” and then clicked over here from Bing or Google or another search engine, it might show “Jessica Dall” as a search term on my stats page. Of course the page isn’t going to let me know who’s doing the searching (or even what country they’re in) since I’m sure that’s some sort of privacy violation, but it is interesting to see what people are trying to find out when they make it to this blog.

So, for anyone who’s Googled something and haven’t found the answer they wanted here, I’ll do my best at answering some of those questions. (Questions edited for spelling mistakes/coherency)

Q. Is 300,000 words a long book?
A. Yes, it is, but hardly the longest out there.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Why it’s harder to get longer books published , or tips on cutting down word count.

Q. When writing in third person, can you say what several characters are feeling?
A. It depends. There are two different ways of writing third person: Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient. In the first (currently more popular) narrative, you are telling a story through the point of view (POV) of a character, just describing them as he/she/it rather than I. In third Person Limited you should stay in the head of your POV character (thus you can only say what they feel/what they observe. If they don’t know Character B is upset because she had a little sister POV Character’s age, the narrative can’t explain that while still in POV Character’s head). In Third Person Omniscient, the story is being told by an all-knowing narrator. It is generally uncommon to find true Third Person Omniscient stories at the moment (the style seems to have been most popular in the 19th century) but if the story is being told by a narrator who knows everything it is possible for that narrator to say how all the characters a feeling (just make sure you aren’t writing in Third Person Limited and then decided you’re going to call it Third Person Omniscient randomly just so you can jump back and forth with how characters are feeling).
Likely article(s) they were interested in: Head Jumping

Q. Should you use contractions in query letter?
A. Sure. I’m not sure there is a set protocol for it (I never knew one when I worked in submissions) but I don’t believe there’s any reason to sound overly formal in a query letter and (at least to me) you sound more natural as a writer if you use contractions, which is a good thing in my humble opinion.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: I don’t think there’s one directly related, but I do touch on why you should use contractions in creative writing here.

Q. How much narration do I need in a novel?
A. Depends on your novel. There are reasons to use narration some places and dialogue others. It’s about weighing the pros and cons to each. The big thing is not to worry too much about having a perfect ratio of narration to dialogue in your novel, it’s to make sure you’re telling the story the best way it can be told.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Pros and Cons to dialogue and narrative in Too Much Dialogue

Q. What’s the poison thing vampires have?
A. I don’t know, Googler, I don’t know… Apparently rather than turning someone into a vampire by feeding them your vampire blood (a la Anne Rice) in some books it’s “vampire poison” ( though I suppose it would be “vampire venom” if you’re going to be technical on the poison vs. venom thing) that turns a human into a vampire (the bite infects them or what not and if they don’t die the poison/venom changes them into vampires). Of course, it’s fantasy, so your guess is as good as mine.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: One of the many where I talk about writing problems where Twilight just happens to pop up…

Q. Is it ok to use song lyrics for writing prompts?
A. Absolutely. I’ve used a couple of different songs as the original inspiration for characters, plots, or even entire stories that have now been published. What you don’t want to do, however, is quote the song lyrics in your story (you can get into a whole host of problems with copyright infringement then).
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Writing Prompts

Q. What’s the shortest word count a publisher will accept?
A. It depends on the publisher (look at their submission guidelines as to what they accept before sending a query). It also will depend on if the publisher only publishes novels (generally considered to be over 50,000 words, but many publishers put novels in the 70,000+ words range) or if they also publish novellas and short stories. Of course, word counts are generally guidelines. One novel I have coming out this summer is around 51,000 words and the publisher generally doesn’t publish things that short, they just liked mine and made an exception. If nothing else, and you have an awkward word count, try searching for a publisher on a site like Duotrope which will let you search based one word counts accepted rather than just “novel/novella/short story”
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Word Limits

Q. Why do people say “dahlin'”?
A. Regional accents (in this case Southern US more than likely). If I remember my history of language class, that exact morphing of “darling” come from the fact that a US “Southern” accent is actually closer to an old English accent than many other US accents (supposedly Shakespeare would have sounded sort of Southern to us?) and thus it shares the same ‘h’ sounding ‘r’ as a British accent today (“dahling”). As to spelling it like that in a novel, “dahlin'” might be one you can get away with for phonetic spelling of accents (people generally will know what the word is without struggling) but as always, I’d be wary of trying to go overboard with “fonetik” spellings.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

Q. When are info dumps necessary?
A. Never. Ok, ok, probably not never, there’s always an exception to all writing advice and times you can do things that aren’t suggested amazingly, but as a general rule? Stay away from info dumps unless you’re parodying a Bond villain. There are almost always better ways to get information into a story than info dumping.
– Likely articles(s) they were interested in: Tips on how to get information in without info dumps in Info Dumps

Q. Is J. K. Rowling a bad writer/J. K. Rowling bad writing examples/examples of awful writing in Harry Potter/[and the list goes on]?
A. It’s interesting to see just how many different people are looking for examples of what makes J. K. Rowling a bad writer. Honestly, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series as some light reading as a teen, but no writer is faultless, so for those looking for some of J.K.’s weaknesses:
Over uses adverbs
– Clichéd plots/characters/etc
Flat Prose
Contrived Plot Points
And I’m sure there are more that people will point out (believe me, if you were a best seller, people would be picking apart every little problem you have in your novel too) but those are some major ones. Just remember, no author is infallible.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: But They Did It… about why best sellers aren’t always the best role models.

Q. Some real stories on why you shouldn’t use i cant believe it’s not butter?
A. All right, not really a question, and I don’t have an answer for it, but some how it linked someone to my blog. I really have no clue how. Still amuses me enough I felt the need to end with it. If someone has some sites with stories on why you shouldn’t use “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (other than that meaningless “margarine’s a molecule away from being plastic” myth) please let me know, since obviously a search engine thinks I can help people with that.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: …um…I really have no clue…

“Craigslist Agents”

Note: Another short story of mine has been published, for those interested in reading it. You can find it online at http://20minutetales.com/ , or, if you happen to live in the DC Metro area, you can look for a paper copy of the new, local lit paper.

Note 2: Thank you Thomas Halvë (Writing with Water blogger) for the link on your site as a favorite blog (and thank you to all my new followers as a whole).

Now, on to the actual blog!

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Every once in a while I come across ads on Craigslist similar to this one today:

I’m looking for a reputable book/literary agent. I have two book manuscripts that I believe are gold (but I’m also the writer). I need an agent who has experience working with the top publishing companies in the country and knows how to pitch and markert it well.”

Now, the first thing I always want to say to these posters is, “A reputable agent isn’t going to be looking for clients on Craigslist” let alone one who has experience working with top publishing companies (especially the big six: Hachette, HaperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster). In all honesty, any agent worth their salt more than likely isn’t going to be looking/advertising for clients at all.

Having worked as both an author and a publisher (or at least as an employee at a publishers) I can speak first hand as to what a disadvantage authors are at when it comes to getting published traditionally. Part of this comes down to the relatively common complaint I hear from people who work on the editing/publishing side of creative writing, “Everyone thinks they’re a writer.” Now, I talked earlier about my problem with people trying to separate novelists into writers and “real” writers, but I can understand the general sentiment for “Everyone thinks they’re a writer.” It takes a lot of work, but as a whole, it isn’t that hard to write a novel. Most people who have gone through grade school are capable of writing a generally understandable sentence in their native language (and perhaps non-native languages if they took those sorts of classes), so it’s just a matter of coming up with some idea for a plot and writing a bunch of those sentences over and over again, and sticking with it until you have a novel. The trick isn’t being able to write a novel, it’s about being able to write a good novel.

And one big problem in the writing community is the inability for authors to objectively judge their own novels. You put so much work into writing one, it’s your baby. Of course it’s amazing. You can see this in the Craigslist ad: “I have two book manuscripts that I believe are gold (but I’m also the writer).” I don’t blame the author at all for thinking that (lord knows I have some early manuscripts that are awful by my standards now that I thought were brilliant when I wrote them at sixteen), and hey, it’s even possible that they are amazing, even as a first novel (My former editing client, Allyson Marrs [@allymarrs] just recently got her first request for a full manuscript from an agent on her first novel, that’s further than my first novel ever got). It’s just really, really hard to judge your own work.

And so, there is a surplus of novels out there. Even taking out novels that I believe slush pile readers have every right to stop reading after a paragraph (my first novel, cough) authors still put out far more novels a year than even all the big and indie publishers combined could ever print. And thus, as authors, we are on the bum end of a supply vs. demand equation. Working in submissions, you can reject novels for a plot you aren’t interested in, typos, a writing style you don’t like, or even just because the author sounds like a diva in their cover letter. You don’t need more of a reason than any one of those. For every novel you reject there are three more that just landed in your inbox.

Now, that certainly doesn’t mean that you should just not try or bend over backwards for the first publisher or agent that sounds interested in your book. It does, however, mean that it’s important to understand where, as an author, you fall into the publishing hierarchy. You are the one who is going to be shopping your manuscript around. You are the one who is going to have to prove that your novel is better than the other hundred novels the agent/publisher got at the same time as yours. And that’s why you aren’t going to be able to advertise for an agent or publisher–at least not for one that’s any good. Sadly, authors are the ones applying for a job, not the ones hiring.

And so, for anyone just starting to look into trying to find an agent and/or publisher, here are some quick tips.

1. Don’t advertise for an agent/publisher. It might be tempting to save some time and have someone contact you rather than having to go around querying, but as I’ve stated above, reputable publishers and agents can have hundreds (if not thousands) of submissions each month from writers looking to be published/represented. There is no need for one of them to be browsing Craigslist or similar sites looking for clients. Advertising like that simply opens you up to getting contacted by people running vanity presses, people who are running scams, and “agents” with no experience/contacts in publishing.

1b. Not all agents are created equal. Simply having someone representing you isn’t a work around for a good lit agent. Working in submissions, every once in a while I would see a submission made by the author’s friend “working as their lit agent” who obviously had no more idea what they were doing than the author. “Agent” isn’t a magic word to get your submission ranked higher than other author-submitted manuscripts. If you aren’t working with an agent that is at least somewhat established, known to the press, or at least obviously is a professional with some experience in publishing, your submission is going into the slush pile with all the other submissions “agent” or not.

2. Be wary of “top agents” who are looking for clients on sites such as Craigslist. Now, there are some reputable agents/publishers who will let authors know they have an open submission period or are “actively growing their client base” (or something along those line). You don’t have to write someone off just because they have a post up saying they are accepting queries. What you should be wary of is agents who are looking for clients on general classified sites, especially ones that seem willing to accept any client (double points for any client without any sort of querying process).

3. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. If someone’s promising you something that seems too good to be true, be careful. No agent should promise they can get you published. Even top agents who do have a working relationship with the big six publishers can’t promise that those publishers will want your book. Sad fact is, even if you get an agent, it doesn’t necessarily mean your book is going to get published. It just means you have a much better chance than some other people in the slush pile. Pie in the sky promises should be a big red flag.

4. Always do your research. Big, well-established lit agencies are a good place to start when looking for a reputable agent. Also, agents which have a posted client list (especially one that lists books that have sold) are generally better than ones that have no track record of client sales. If something seems fishy about an agent’s website, be cautious. When in doubt, you can always look at sites such as Preditors and Editors which will list if the agent has any verified sales to publishers, if they are a member of a respected organization, and if other authors have not recommended them with a list of reasons (poor contract, unrealistic promises, etc.)

5. NEVER PAY SOMEONE TO REPRESENT/PUBLISH YOU. And, of course, the big one. Remember the general rule in publishing is money flows to the author, not from. Yes, authors are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding an agent/publisher, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have to start shelling out big money to get one. No reputable agent will ask for money. They make their money by selling your story (generally around 15% of the final amount they get you from the publisher [e.g. $150 of a $1000 advance, etc.]) Likewise, reputable agents and publishers won’t ask for a “reading fee” (money to cover their time considering your query).

As author Holly Lisle puts it:

Here is the unspoken translation to the agent’s reason for requiring a reading fee. ‘I absolutely suck as an agent. I cannot make as much money off of my sales of books for my clients as I can by ripping off naive writers who don’t know that my job as an agent should be to sell books and make money for my clients, and that my search for new clients should be part of my cost for doing business, just as the writer’s investment of time, talent, office supplies and postage is part of his. Furthermore, I have the ethics of the scum you scrape off the underside of a dead tree, and I’ve found that P.T. Barnum was right: There is a sucker born every minute. I’m out to milk my share of them’.”

You Don’t Say…

Now, anyone who’s ever read my work knows I’m big fan of dialogue. As I’ve pointed out before, I’ve even gotten letters from my editors claiming some of my short stories to be 95% dialogue. While I’m not sure that’s completely fair, I am completely willing to admit you can often find my short stories in an anthology by flipping through it until you find one that has a huge chunk of dialogue in the middle of a page.

Now, is that a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I seem to have made it work for me. And I’d think it’s a good things too since dialogue is what I find easiest to write. My narrative may have been less than stellar with my first couple of novels (Mary Sues, wordiness, and info dumps abound, I promise) but going back now the dialogue’s actually not that bad.

For some people, though, I know dialogue is the hardest part. On the NaNoWriMo Forums we find:

I always have a hard time writting dialogue so If someone could help me It would be appreciated.”

I think good dialogue is very hard to write. So I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it will require extra effort when it’s time to rewrite and revise… ”

I’m about 1,000 words into my NaNo and for some reason I”m stuck on dialogue.  When I wrote out the beginning of this conversation it sounded fine in my head, however, on paper/screen, it looks horrendous.”

Struggling with narrative and struggling with dialogue are both bad things (they make for stilted/unnatural reading) but for right now I will focus on some tips for writing better dialogue.

1. Listen. Just like people develop an ear for notes when they’re musicians (my French Horn-playing brother can pick out a flat note from a mile away) writers tend to develop an ear for language. Some people are better at it naturally than others, but if someone writes well, somehow or another they’ve figured out what sounds right.  Developing that ear is part of what makes writing get better over time (practice makes perfect after all) and while reading good writing can definitely help with that, when working on writing better dialogue, simply sitting down and listening can be one of your greatest tools.

In acquisitions, you see people put down all sorts of credits on their query letters (past publications, degrees, having worked as a journalist/technical writer, etc.) and you learn very quickly which credits mean something. The reason spending 20 years as a technical writer for a company doesn’t mean much on a query letter is that creative writing is very different from formal writing. Being a technical writer means that (hopefully) you have good spelling and grammar, but it doesn’t say you can write a good novel. People talk in fragments, they use poor grammar, they use slang. Where you’d never (again hopefully) find a piece of business writing that says, “Me and my guys…” You may very well find a character in a novel saying it, and making it work.

The more you listen to those speaking around you, the more you will be able to write dialogue naturally.

2. Don’t be too formal. As I said up above, people don’t talk in completely proper English (some seem to barely speak it at all). One of the most common problems I see in novels I’m editing with stilted dialogue is that, for some reason, the author has gotten rid of most of their contractions. Perhaps it comes from years of teachers trying to get us not to use contractions in formal essays (I know my teachers did) but creative writing is a completely different animal from formal/technical writing (it’s why writing “This is my first novel, but I’ve been a technical writer for X years” isn’t so helpful on your query letters, FYI). Taking contractions out of your dialogue makes your character sound awkward. It’s actually, I’ve found, one of the best ways to make your character sound like a non-native speaker. People use slang, people use improper grammar, people slur words. Don’t over do it, but embrace it for more natural dialogue.

2b. Don’t use stereotypes/slang you don’t know. Side note to the last two sentences of number 2, people use slang/improper grammar, but they aren’t stereotypes. Don’t try to force in slang you aren’t familiar with to try to make a [enter ethnicity/nationality/age here] character sound “natural” A little might be ok, but making a character say “wicked” or “dawg” every other sentence will sound just as unnatural as overly proper dialogue (and has the added bonus of often coming off rather insulting).

3. Don’t be long-winded. Unless your character is supposed to be a blowhard (or a Bond villain) keep dialogue short and to the point. Contractions, nicknames, abbreviations, people tend take just about any short cut they can use to cut down on the length of what they’re saying. Long monologues with a lot of unnecessary words comes off as unnatural.

4. Use punctuation properly. One of the biggest problems with written dialogue is that you just have the words, not the intonation/cadence you have in actual speech. “Why did you do that” can be said a million different ways, but how it’s read is dependent on your reader. Use commas properly to show small pauses, Periods to show full stops, and if you need to use italics (sparingly) to show emphasis (“Why did you do that?”) Don’t worry if using a period every once in a while ends up with a sentence fragment (re: people don’t speak in proper English). If something is an afterthought, a period might best suit the sentence. For example:

“I really want a dog or a cat.”

reads differently than:

“I really want a dog, or a cat.”

reads differently than:

“I really want a dog. Or a cat.”

4b. Don’t overuse punctuation. My old editor used to joke that every book she edited was only allowed five exclamation marks (well half-joked). Overusing punctuation can be just as bad as under-using it.

“I don’t know!” Works, the person is upset.

“I don’t know!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Makes it look like either the character is crazy or (at least to me) like it should be on a preteen’s MySpace page (do people still use MySpace?)

Punctuation is a fine balance, don’t be afraid to use it, but don’t go crazy with it (and please, please, please, DoN’t WrItE LiKe ThIs to show someone is drunk. Yes, I have seen that in a manuscript before. It was quickly edited out for “he slurred” and actions which showed he was drunk).

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Plot Holes (Part III)

With everyone buzzing around Plot Hole articles (Parts I and II) it was pointed out that I missed a comment from Secretly_Samus, author of Shannon on Writing and Rewriting, on Part I. Secretly_Samus writes:

This [Plot Holes Part I] makes me…ponder the question, how do you know when you have a plot hole?”

I apologise for the delay, but to help everyone who wonders if they have a plot hole, “The Pesky Plot Hole Questionnaire” can be a lot of help.

So don’t stress yourself too much over it, but if you’re worried about possibly having a plot hole on your hands, try asking yourself some of these questions (both from the original questionnaire on Freelance and Fiction and some I’ve added myself):

  1. Do your characters overlook obvious solutions to their problems? (e.g. the heroine forgets to use her incredible knowledge of karate when she’s attacked.)
  2. Do your villains conveniently overlook or pooh-pooh the one flaw that could let the hero escape?
  3. Does the cavalry arrive more quickly than is physically possible? (Your character took three days to cross the mountains. She gets thrown in jail. Her sidekick, who didn’t start the journey until learning of her predicament, is there springing her out the next day.)
  4. Are people a little too willing to help the heroes? (Or a little too unwilling?)
  5. Do you tell reader that the hero’s plan was brilliant but refuse to actually reveal how he/she pulled it off? (Skipping past the daring action can be a huge cop-out.)
  6. Do your heroes recover from physical trauma much too quickly? (Recovery times may vary greatly due to fantasy potions and sci-fi gadgets, but those elements need to be set up well in advance.)
  7. Do your heroes recover from emotional trauma too quickly? (We want to empathize with the     protagonists, and that can be hard when we’re still grieving over a killed-off character and the hero is running around like nothing happened.)
  8. Does the hero/heroine go ALONE to the one place where the villain will surely find him/her?
  9. Does a problem arise out of nowhere just to spur the plot along?
  10. Have you broken the rules of your universe to get out of a dead-end/move the plot along? (Ok, so people in your fantasy novel can fly, but not higher than 300 ft….except your Main Character when they need to…)

If anyone can think of others, please feel free to comment below/message me to add them.

Plot Holes (Part II)

Since writing my first blog post about Plot Holes, I have gotten a few requests from people to point out some plot holes in famous stories. As I am not one to disappoint my readers, I have compiled some examples of plot holes I know, and that have been pointed out on other fun sites, for your reading pleasure. (So, while trying to edit out your own plot holes, at least take comfort in the fact you’re not alone).

Note: Should perhaps be obvious but, hey, spoilers ahead.

Harry Potter

1) The first thing people always have to point to when talking about plot holes it seems–the Time-Turner. For those that haven’t read the Harry Potter Series, or anything about them, or seen the movies, etc. “The Time-Turner was a device capable of time travel. The Time-Turner resembled an hourglass on a necklace. The number of times one turns the hourglass corresponds to the number of hours one travels back in time. It is extremely important that the user of a Time-Turner not be seen by past or future versions of themselves unless, of course, said versions are aware of their usage of a Time-Turner. A possible scenario is a wizard or witch killing their past or future selves by mistake” (Harry Potter Wiki). In Prisoner of Azkaban, brainiac Hermione Granger is using a Time-Turner to take several classes that happen at the same time of day, and it comes into play at the climax of the story.

Now time travel is a can of worms for any story, but the main point here is…If the wizards in Harry Potter are able to use time travel, why didn’t they just all go back to before the trouble started and keep it from happening?

There have been several arguments as to how this plot hole could be covered , but still it is a problem. Perhaps they all are destroyed in Book 5, but why didn’t they do it in the first four books (or before the series even started)? Perhaps within the realm of Harry Potter time travel you can only jump back, not move forward (making it so your future self doesn’t want to go too far back and not be able to catch back up to the “present”) but why then not find someone who doesn’t want to be in the present anyway, offer them a lot of money and have them go live a couple decades ago? All in all, it’s a problem J. K. Rowling opened up in Prisoner of Azkaban, and never could fully patch.

2) Wands changing ownership. “According to the seventh book, Harry disarmed Malfoy. Malfoy was the true owner of the Elder Wand, and so Harry became the true owner. If disarming was a suitable method for gaining ownership of a wand, then everyone in the DA would own each other’s wands.”

3) Horcruxes. “In COS [Chamber of Secrets], the horcrux in Harry should have died when the basilisk pierced him? Even though Fawkes healed him a few minutes later, the diary was destroyed in seconds when it was pierced, why should it take longer for the “Harry horcrux” to die.”

Twilight

All right, I’ll try not to pick on Twilight too much (lord knows I’d like to), but just some points that really bother me (not counting factual errors like the whole “west coast” of Brazil thing [here’s a map of South America if you don’t get why that’s eye-rolling).

1) Edward is undead, his skin is ice-cold, doesn’t have blood circulating, but he’s still able to be, ahem, intimate and produce a child. Of course, as this blogger puts it, “Then again, he’s taken twelfth grade chemistry like a hundred years in a row; maybe he’s developed a new form of Viagra or something.”

2) Even after all her research in Twilight, Bella has no idea they sparkle instead of burn in the sunlight. In New Moon, Edward goes to get himself killed by revealing he’s a vampire by what this forum poster calls a “sparklefest”. As they put it, “did he not think of the fact that NOBODY KNOWS SPARKLING = VAMPIRE? Seriously, if they did see him in the sun, I bet they’d all just go, ‘Dude, it’s St Marcus’ Day, not Mardi Gras. God, you’re such a twat’.”

3) Alice’s visions. So many to choose from here (such as her visions only happening when convenient to the plot) but the big one I’ve seen pointed out goes against the rule Meyers has given her visions (that they can be changed based on people making different choices: “In Midnight Sun, Alice claims to have seen a vision of Bella as a vampire – implying that Bella has made the decision to become a vampire. At this stage, Bella doesn’t even know that the Cullens are vampires. How, then, was Alice able to see something based on a decision that it would have been completely impossible for Bella to make?”

4) And we’ll leave it at one more: “In Breaking Dawn, when Bella wakes up for the first time as a vampire, she describes being able to…hear all the way to the freeway. Sensory overload aside (even though such a high level of assault on the senses would probably have extremely damaging impacts), how is it that she is able to hear everything down to the freeway, yet Alice and Jasper were unable to hear her on the phone to James in the next room?”

The Da Vinci Code

1) Paternity Testing.  “Ok let’s admit that the body is Mary Magdalen and you can do a DNA on the surving Magdalen descendant, you still don’t have Jesus’ DNA.  So, how are you going to prove that the child is Jesus’ and Magdalen’s and not Magdalen’s and some other Joe Schmo.”

2) Clues to the killer. At the beginning the dying man leaves a message with clues to get the main characters started on their quest. He adds in the Fibonacci sequence to make sure his granddaughter is brought onto the case. Was there any reason he didn’t just write down who killed him and why? It seems he would have had plenty of time to.

Wicked/Wizard of Oz

1) Why didn’t Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West)’s parents ever bathe her in water? As one forum poster here puts it, “I know she had an inhuman aversion to it even as an infant, but why wouldn’t her folks wash her in it anyway?” It’s a pretty good question in my opinion. Of course, this plot hole would be relatively easy to explain away by saying people tend to wash with something else if that’s what Maguire wanted to do.

The Sound of Thunder

The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury is “all about these guys that use a time machine to go back in time and hunt dinosaurs.  When they arrive in the past, there’s a levitating walkway that they’re allowed to walk on, but they CANNOT step off of it.  The idea is that if you alter anything from the past, it could change the way EVERYTHING happens in the future.  Long story short, one of the guys steps off the platform, accidently kills a butterfly, and when he comes back to the future, all the signs say the same thing, but are spelled differently.

“The biggest hole here is the fact that stepping off the walkway can ruin things, but killing a dinosaur, thus making it fall over, onto land that it never would have originally fallen on, also obviously antagonizing the dinosaur, which would change its course of direction from what it naturally would have been, doesn’t matter.  Why does one butterfly from the human make a difference, but the butterflies that the dinosaurs fall onto, or the fact that dinosaurs are dying unnaturally soon makes no difference?” (Duncan) Personally, I would also like to add to Duncan’s plot hole…there’s a moving walkway in the [insert appropriate paleolithic era here]. How did someone build it/get power to it/etc. without changing anything?

Yet another time travel problem.

And, since I have family in town and blog posts may be few and far between for a week or so more, something to entertain yourself in my absence: Name the Movie by the Plot Hole: http://www.sporcle.com/games/Igon/plotholes_movies_cool (I’m sad I only got 9 of 12…)

The Unneeded Words

Recently, I talked about how long novels (generally over 120,000 words) can have problems getting published.

Beyond all of the generally valid reasons publishers may have for saying away from long novels for business reasons, there is the added fact that many long novels could do with a harsh editing before publishing–something the publishers likely don’t want to spend their time doing.

As I said before, if a story demands for a long book, and the 200,000+ length is nearly entirely action-packed or, at least, interesting, there’s no problem with it. If the story drags, however, you have more of a problem. Even if the writing isn’t quite up to purple prose levels, there are very few reasons to be wordy in most forms of creative writing.

And so, if you’re trying to cut down on your word count, keep some of these things in mind:

1. Unnecessary Scenes. Not every scene you write is necessary to your plot. There might be a cute date night or someone running into an old friend that gives you some fun banter, but while reading the story…it does nothing to advance the plot. Unless a scene serves a purpose, it sadly might be better to cut it–especially in a long book.

– Is the scene necessary to the plot?
– Does it show us something about a character that hasn’t been shown before?
– Does it have necessary background information that has to come out now (hopefully not in an info dump [see below])?

If not, seriously consider cutting it. If you can’t bear to see the conversation go, you can always save it elsewhere (I have folders for each project on my laptop with outlines, manuscripts, and a document with all the cut scenes that had to go but I still love–most just because the dialogue amuses me).

This likewise goes for laundry lists of actions. It’s perfectly allowable to have time jumps in novels. The characters get in their car, and then, scene break, they pull up to their destination. You don’t need pages of them talking about nothing in the car, playing the license plate game, explaining how they’re changing their clothes, brushing their teeth somewhere…unless it’s somehow important, you can time jump.

2. Info Dumps. For those not wanting to click over to Wikipedia, an info dump is a long section of text that gives a bunch of back story all at once. Worst thing about info dumps? They’re often unneeded (or at least parts of it are). While we authors do (or at least should) know the entire history of a character (where they grew up, how long they’ve been in a job, who their parents are, why they don’t like so-and-so) it may or may not be important to the plot. An info dump slows down the action (Oh no! It’s the villain! Looks like the Main Character’s (MC) is really going to have to run for it…oh, five pages about how the villain became a villain and how he doesn’t like the MC…what was going on again?) and more than likely, it isn’t necessary.

Pick out the important bits (do we need to know the villain was abused as a child? Does that come up later? Do we need to know he went to Villain University?) and then find a way to weave that information in later. While hopefully your weaving it in doesn’t surface as an “As you know, Bob” even that is preferrable, in my personal opinion, to an info dump. “As you know, Bob”s will likely take up less space (with the unnecessary parts already clipped) and keep the action moving.

3. Too much description. Now, description is good. As I’ve said before, it’s a sad fact, but readers don’t see what’s happening in our heads while we’re writing. Without description it’s either just a bunch of people moving around empty spaces, or worse, floating dialogue. What you don’t need is every last detail in a room (see my comment about skipping those three pages of description about that tree in Return of the King).

Like everything in writing, how much description to use is a fine balance. Tell me the MC is in a classroom. You can say there’s a whiteboard, tables, a podium…whatever you see. You don’t, however, need to spend a page giving every last detail, especially if it’s not important. Is the exact pattern of the carpet going to come up later? Do we need to know how many posters are up and what each is of? If not, consider cutting back a bit–or at least not doing it all at once.

Like an info dump for exposition, description dumps aren’t good. Maybe the pattern of the carpet will be important. Can that come up later? Say a little while later the character looks down at their feet because they’re bored. They can start counting how many stars are across the floor? That way you get the pattern in without, “The room was large with X number of tables. Whiteboard took up one wall, there were 7 posters on the others. In the back… The carpet was… Three windows faced east… yada yada yada.”

4. Wordy phrasing. While not everything has to be in its most succinct form, it’s possible to cut down on your word count and make your writing/imagery stronger a lot of the time by rephrasing things. For example:

The sheets were soaked through, made a squishing sound when Sam moved.”

Not awful, and it’s good to get senses involved in a scene (too often people forget smell and sound for sight when writing). But I would edit it like this:

The sheets were soaked, squished when Sam moved.

Squishing would also work, but since squish is an onomatopoeia, “squished” gives me the same sound as “made a squishing sound” You have the same effect, and give a stronger feeling without all the words couching the sound. Now the sentence has gone from 12 words to 8 words. Chopping out 4 words at a time in a 100,000 word novel can add up quickly.

5. Redundancy. Has it been said before? Cut it. No matter how important a fact is, repeating it over and over isn’t just space consuming, it gets annoying.

All the same, she was happy to be there.”
Two paragraphs later.
Happy to be there, she…”
A paragraph later.
She really was happy to be there.”

We get it, we get it, she’s happy to be there. If a point is very important, maybe say it twice, but more likely than not, the reader will get it after one time. That means you can take out at least 11 words there (“Happy to be there” and “She really was…”) Again, that adds up.

This likewise goes with scenes that are redundant. Did your MC already talk about how he really wishes he could go home? Maybe you need to restate that later, but you don’t need to spend multiple scenes with the character talking about the same thing. Especially not if it is something the character is complaining about. A lot of complaining, whining, or angsting gets old quickly. Namely because a character is continuously complaining about something, but doing nothing to fix it. The plot doesn’t move forward and the character seems one-note.

6. Unneeded Words. And, last but not least, what this blog is titled after–all those little words that sneak in that really don’t need to be there. I believe, so far this year, I have yet to return an edited manuscript that isn’t at least 1,000 words shorter than when I got it (even with adding in needed words/sentences). Even without the other things on this list, there always tends to be unnecessary words.

Now there are plenty of words that can be unnecessary depending on context, but the three I find myself deleting the most are “up”, “very”, and “that”.

Now, if you have someone look up, yes you need up, but often I find “She stood up” or “She raised her hand up” For the first, there isn’t much difference between “She stood” and “She stood up” Up is contributing nothing. For the second, raising implies “up” You don’t “raise your hand down” thus you don’t need to specify.

“Very” is a modifier that “very” often gets abuse. I know I use it all the time (you can probably find plenty of “very”s in this blog). Mostly, though, “very”s get cut before adverbs/adjectives in my editing.

He ran very quickly.”
Her singing was very beautiful.”

Very can bog the sentence down, and they change “very” little. It’s still possible to picture someone running quickly or singing beautiful without modifying it with “very”

As for “that” I have a bit of a vendetta, I admit. Lets look at some examples:

I hope that I don’t fall.”
It was comforting knowing that she wasn’t alone.”
He couldn’t believe that he had been there so long.”

There’s nothing technically wrong with those sentences, but let’s get rid of those “that”s:

I hope I don’t fall.”
It was comforting knowing she wasn’t alone.”
He couldn’t believe he had been there so long.”

Have the sentences lost any of their meaning by taking out “that”? Not really.

So, depending on how often you use unneeded “up”s, “very”s, or “that”s in sentences, you can cut your word count down substantially just by taking out words that don’t serve a purpose.

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Word Limits

Today’s post: Word Limits or: Why won’t they publish my 300,000 word novel?

People write some long novels. James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans is 145,469 words long. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead 311,596. And, of course, as the king of long novels, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 587,287. With most novels clocking in around 100,000 words (give or take 20,000), Tolstoy has arguably written six books in one, and Rand a one-book trilogy (with the shorter of her two most famous works).

Word counts can be funny things. Interestingly enough, I seem to have some sort of power over my novels. If I’m aiming for a 80,000 word book, I tend to get one somewhere within that range give or take 5,000. My first NaNoWriMo novel, which had the goal of 50,000 words, wrapped up at around 50,500. Aiming for 80,000 with my latest project The Copper Witch (which has just moved into the submission stage) I finished up around 86,000.

Continuously managing to write a story within a general word count, though (be it through subconscious tinkering, or anything else) , doesn’t seem to be a universal trait amongst writers. And that’s something I completely understand. A story has a natural progression. It’s done when it’s done.

So what is there to be done when how long (or short) your novel is seems to be what’s keeping it from being published? Aren’t the word counts they give generally arbitrary anyway? As one NaNoWriMo Forum poster puts it:

I’ve read somewhere that 120 K is the upper limit for a new fantasy writer, which seems really… short for a fantasy novel…I still can’t believe it’s set as the upper limit.”

Now, first, I’d like to say I’ve never found 120,000 words short. My fantasy novels tend to be around 80,000, but perhaps that’s because I don’t write Tolkien-style epics.

Second, as the earlier books I’ve listed in this blog show, it’s possible to get a book published that is more than 120,000 words. You should never say “can’t” when it comes to publishing. Doing certain things can make it harder to get published, but nothing I have yet seen makes it impossible to get a book published.

But why do publishers even care about word counts? Sure, if the story drags on and on, that’s a problem, but if it’s action-packed and engaging for those 200,000 words, what’s the problem?

Having worked on both sides of publishing–as a writer and as someone working at a publishers–I can only point to one fact that is all to easy to forget as a writer. Your manuscript might be your baby as an author, but as a publisher, the manuscript is a product. Writing might be art to you, but writing is business to a publisher. Unless writing is your only source of income, money is something that might just be an added perk to us writers that coincides with seeing our books in print. To a publisher, however, those books are all business. It’s an added plus sometimes to give a first time novelist a shot at their big break, but if even a book you love isn’t likely to make a profit, it just isn’t something a publisher with a good business plan will take on.

So why does a publisher keep putting out the same generic vampire books? Because they sell. Why doesn’t a publisher put out any more vampire books? Because the market seems oversaturated and they aren’t as likely to sell (or the acquisition editor is sick to death of them).

And word counts come from this same need to mitigate risk and maximize profits. Beyond the fact that it’s likely many long manuscripts could do with a harsh paring down, there are two big problems with books over 120,000-150,000 words:

1. The longer the book is, the more expensive it is to produce. Unless you are going through a vanity publisher (and thus paying the press to put your book out) the general rule is money flows to the author, not from. A reputable publisher will pay for formatting, cover art, editing…and just about every other “start-up” cost there is to putting out a book. Focusing on the editing aspect of that, the longer your book is, the more they’re going to end up paying there editors. After all, there’s a reason I charge more editing a 200,000-word book than a 10,000-word one. The longer the book is, the longer it will take to edit. Especially edit well. If you’re paying an editor per project, you’re going to be paying for them more for a long project. If you’re paying an editor hourly, they’re going to have to take much more time to edit a long book. Even if you’re paying an editor a set salary, they may only be able to get one book done when  they generally would have three ready to go. Since most publishers worried about quality have at least three rounds of edits, that can add up to a lot of extra man-hours.

And then, of course, there’s just the production cost in general. With ebooks it’s changing a little, but as long as print books are popular, the longer a book is the more it will cost to print (ink, paper, etc.) Printing an initial run of 1,000 300,000-word books basically uses the same amount of supplies as 3,000 100,000-word books.

2. The longer a book is, the harder it is to sell. Now, this isn’t a “people don’t like reading long books” point. Obviously people are willing to read books that are longer than “average”. Going back to the fact that the larger a (print) book is, the more paper is needed to print it–the more paper in a book means the more it will cost to ship, and the more shelf space it takes up. Most bookstores prefer to have a range of books out, and thus don’t like taking many thick books, especially ones by unknown authors.

Likewise, with shipping and printing costs quite a bit higher for long books versus short ones, to make money off longer books they need to be priced higher. Now, not only do you have  to sell the story to someone (since not all plots are loved by all people) but you have to find someone who is willing to foot the cost of all that extra time and material. Someone who’s willing to pay for a book at $14.99 might not be so willing to by it at $24.99. There’s a psychology to marketing, and how you’re able to price things is a big part of that.

Add the fact that you have fewer books in general to sell in one run to the fewer buyers, and publishers see a lot of warning lights going off.

With the growing popularity of ebooks, perhaps the word count barriers will start to come down. The cost of pixels doesn’t go up with how long a book is. Even if you can’t decrease editing costs, you at least would be able to save money on printing and be able to price a long book close to a shorter book. But for now, limits on length when it comes to submissions makes complete sense to me.

Limits might be annoying to writers, but publishing isn’t about pleasing writers. You want the authors you work  with to be happy with edits, and cover art, and all of that stuff. But as a publisher, how the book sells dictates whether or not you get a raise, get promoted, or heck, even still have a job next month.

And so, with the surplus of manuscripts floating around out there, publishers can be picky about where they spend their time and money. While anything can happen based on whose desk a manuscript comes across, things that pose a financial risk (too long a book, an unknown author, a plot that doesn’t quite seem to fit any one genre) are often looked at critically.

After all, a book is art to an author, but business to a publisher.

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Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

All right. Be honest, how long did it take you to figure out the title? Did you even bother? All right, if you did, what is easier for you to read, that title or “Why I hate phonetic accents”?

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that the English language makes little sense. It’s a Germanic language that was morphed by Anglo-Saxons, too far away to remember original German, adapted by the French during the Norman Conquest, and then had a thousand years to go through a vowel shift, changes, and added words (it’s reported Shakespeare alone invented 1,700 now common English words). Standardized spellings weren’t common for long after the Elizabethans (after all, Noah Webster decided to standardize “American” spellings in 1780) and many grammatical rules have come and gone, made by people often referred to as “pedantic” (split infinitives were only classified as “wrong” in the 20th century by scholars who more than likely believed English should follow Latin grammatical rules [where it’s quite literally impossible to split infinitives]). So why isn’t “phonetic” spelt “fonetik”? Because it comes from a Greek root, transcribed from the Greek Alphabet as ‘ph’ in the Latin alphabet, and it’s been that way since.

So, all of it is made up. So why can’t we make sure our character’s accents come out properly by having one say “dahlin'” one “dahrling” and one “derlin'”? The same reason people standardized language in the first place. It’s harder to understand. 

Truly, language as a whole is made up, if you want to argue it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s purpose is ultimately to have one person understand another. That vastly increases when you’re a writer. If you want to write something out phonetically as you understand it for your own notes, it doesn’t matter. If you’re expecting people to understand you in a novel/short story/article you’ve written, eet prabalee shudent b ritten liek dis.

Furthermore, how an accent sounds to you and how it sounds to someone else can be two very different things. Think of a British accent. How would someone with a British accent say “Really” to you? Reelee? Realeh? Rehleh?

Does it change if they’re speaking with a Kightsbridge Accent? London Accent? RP Accent? Cockney Accent? So now, not only is the phonetic spelling subjective, it can also be insulting if you don’t actually speak with that accent. Personally, I’d think I [in DC] say “really” something like “reelee” but I don’t speak with British accent. How do I know what sounds correct to someone from [insert place character is from]? After all, I’ve never heard someone say “pip, pip, cheerio” even though that’s supposedly British from what TV tells me. If you suddenly try to make your Irish character sound like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun saying top o’ the mornin’ to ya everywhere, you risk people considering you ignorant and/or insulting.

So is there any reason to write out an accent? In my opinion, no. In a novel I recently edited, there was an Irish character speaking with the thickest phonetically spelled attempted-accent I have ever seen (even sounding it out it didn’t sound Irish to me). Eventually I gave up trying to read what that character was saying (reading shouldn’t be that difficult in my opinion), leaving a note along the lines of “please, please, please don’t do this” but I do still remember one perfect example of the confusion spelling things out phonetically can cause.

“Fairreh”

Any guesses on that one? Perhaps some context, unphoneticized:

“Look, a fairreh!”

What I heard saying it? Fairy. It was a fantasy novel, so I thought, all right, fairies are showing up.

Too bad the author meant “Fire”

Just a small difference in the tone of the scene there.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t throw in small changes like “gonna” or “haveta'” if you feel the need to (e.g. “Tommy! Why haven’t you taken the trash out?” “Ah….I was gonna.”) but I highly, highly suggest staying away from trying to show your character’s accent bi mayking ehveree wurd fonetik.

But then, how do you show someone’s accent if you don’t spell it out?

I’d suggest some less intrusive (easier to read) ways:

1.  “He said with an X accent.” It’s simple, but showing accents in writing might be best suited with simple mentions. There are many ways to get it across in the same way:

“Hi,” he said with an Irish accent.

“Hi.”
She smiled at his lilting accent. It made even “hi” sound magical.

“Hi,” he said.
“Oh, that’s an interesting accent. Where are you from?”
“Ireland.”

“Hi,” he said, noticing how much his accent seemed out-of-place in the new school.

They all let you say he has an accent without  obscuring the actual words and making it hard to read.

2. Use speech patterns to show differences, not phonetics. Again, this is another one you have to be careful about not being insulting, but people from different areas don’t only have different accents, they use different grammar. Where I say, “I was going to go…” My great-uncle in West Virginia says, “I was fixin’ to go…” Where most people I’ve met say, “Turn off the light.” My college roommate from Brooklyn used to say, “Shut the light.” Don’t overdo it with regional slang (especially when you aren’t familiar with the region) since you’ll be in danger of going back to that “insulting” thing, but it tends to be a better way to show accents than, “I whas goeing too goe…” and “I whus fixen ta goh…”

3. If necessary, use phonetic spellings tastefully. As I said above, if your character doesn’t say “going to” properly, it might be all right to put “gonna” It’s a generally well-known version, and “I was gonna go…” would more than likely make sense to the bulk of your readers. Same with fixin’. Putting “fixing” just wouldn’t sound right in my head for “I was fixin'” Without the ‘g’ though, it’s still possible to generally understand what is being said. “I was fixin'” isn’t quite the same as “I whus fixen” The average reader will be able to read small changes like that easily. It’s when you start making people sound out every word that it gets tiring.

Now, can people write out phonetic accents well? I’m sure they can. Should they? In my personal opinion, no. Of course, that’s my personal opinion. As with everything else on this blog, people can take or leave what I say. They are all just suggestions after all. But, as I see it, anything that makes your writing difficult to understand isn’t generally good for it. After all, we standardized the language to be understood. And, as writers, it is our job to use language well.