Prior Works

Submitting a novel can be a nerve-wracking experience. You’re putting your baby out there into the world, and knowing that it’s most likely going to be shot down over and over again. It can be especially bad for first-time novelists, especially when it comes to that part in the submission guidelines where agnets/publishers want to see a list of past works. This is your first novel, you don’t have any past works. What are you supposed to do? Do you have to have already been published to get published.

Short answer, no, whether you have never been published or a dozen times, a book still has to stand for itself. If you’ve written a good book, people will look at it.

So what do you do when people want a list of prior works? Or what do you put into that last paragraph in a query letter that’s supposed to be about you? There are a couple of different options:

1. Leave it out. If you don’t write that you have any prior works, most publishers/agents are going to assume you don’t have any and leave it at that.

2. Give other relevant credentials. Do you have an English degree? Feel free to throw that in to a query letter where you’d be listing works if you had them. Did you with an award for writing something unpublished? Put that in. Did you write a book about a farm? Maybe put in that you’ve worked on a farm all your life. You can fill in that empty spot with things that show you are qualified to write the book you have written instead of a list of prior novels you’ve had published.

But what if you don’t want to leave it out or don’t have any relevant credentials? What to do then?

Well, to start off, I’d like to strongly urge first time submitters to go with one of the above options. For those who will go with another choice, however, I at least offer some don’ts.

1. Don’t give credentials that aren’t relevant. Ok, you don’t have anything relevant to say in that last paragraph in a query letter, but you don’t want to tell the agent/publisher nothing about you. So let’s throw in that you were a computer science major in college, live with your three dogs on Long Island, really enjoy writing… It’s better than leaving the space blank, right? Actually, not really. Coming from working submissions, you never seem to be caught up. There’s a reason query letters should be kept to one page. Short and to the point is good. When you start cluttering put a letter with things that don’t show either a) You’re most likely a good writer or b) You’re qualified in some way to cover the books topic, it’s just more to wade through. Dogs, family, irrelevant hobbies, those should all be kept out of a query letter if you want to stay on the good side of a slush pile reader.

2. Don’t say this is your first novel. As I said above, by not saying anything about other novels, agents/publishers are 9 times out of 10 going to assume you haven’t published anything before. There is no reason to draw attention to your inexperience. Especially stay away from “This is my first novel, but…” statements (“This is my first novel, but I’ve been writing since I was three” “This is my first novel, but I’ve always loved science fiction” etc.) When you do that, you’re not only highlighting your inexperience, but sounding inexperienced and like someone who has something to prove. Not a good combination when trying to find someone easy to work with. You could have the best novel in the world and still get passed over if an agent/publisher doesn’t like your attitude in your query letter. Afterall, they know they’re going to be working with you for as long as the contract lasts.

3. Don’t talk up your self-published/vanity-published book. At least don’t if it isn’t wildly popular. If you self published a novel and it ended up on the best seller chart, but all means, mention it. If you self published a novel and your friends have read it, it’s at best a sign that you like writing, at worst, a sign you think you’re a much better writer than you actually are (a type of author people in submissions are loath to pass off to their editors). Vanity-published books are no better. The reason agents/publishers like to see prior publishing credits is because it tells them something about you are a writer. Someone else has read your stuff and at least thinks it’s good enough to publish, they’ve vetted/vouched for you. Perhaps have even shown how profitable you are. If you’ve paid someone to publish your book, that endorsement is moot. It’s no better than if you had self-published the book.

Trying to act like the vanity publisher is a reputable press is even worse. Working in publishing, you know the names of the big vanity publishers, thus having a book from one of them is discounted as basically self-published right away, and when I was in submissions, I’d check out any publishers I wasn’t familiar with. Indie presses I always liked to get to know, and vanity presses I liked to add to the list. (This is one more reason going through a vanity press really isn’t worth it. You aren’t “self published” but you’ve paid a ton of money for a name that means nothing along with editing/lay out services you could get cheaper from a freelancer). Trying to talk up a vanity-published novel is also a red flag to people in submissions as someone who possibly has something to prove and thus are not going to be fun to work with.

Long story short, it is best to not point out your inexperience, but not try to pretend to be something you aren’t either. After all, agents and publishers are looking for good, profitable stories and authors who won’t be a headache to work with.

So take a deep breath, and get those submissions out there. First, third, or fifteenth novel.

Beginning Writer Problems

Publishing Update: The contract for my new novel, The Bleeding Crowd, has been signed. Look for more updates as its August release date gets closer.

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As a freelance editor, I spend a good amount of time with other people’s not-quite finished masterpieces. Though I have edited for all manner of writers (from the first-time novelist to multiply-published) my three most recent jobs have been for either completely new novelists, or ones with only a little experience under their belts.

None have been especially bad (there are some novels I have gotten freelance which, I admit, have made me cringe) but I have seen some problems that seem to be a common theme. For all those aspiring novelists out there, here are a few things I’d suggest keeping an eye on.

1. “Very” abuse. I can understand it, the music at the club your characters have gone to isn’t just loud. Having gone to clubs, I know the particular level of loud club music is. “The music was very loud” is a “very” weak sentence though. Not only because of the “to be” verb (was) but because “very”, for the most part, just clutters up a sentence. There are such stronger words to use. “The music was deafening” or “my/his/her ears rang, the music shaking the walls” are both stronger (and more interesting).

2. Contractions. People speak with contractions. One of the easiest ways to make someone sounds stuffy/formal/like a non-native English speaker is to have them speak without contractions. Think about the people you talk to on a regular basis. Now think about which of these sounds more like what they would say: a) “I am going to go. He cannot now, so he will come when he is able.”  of b) “I’m going to go. He can’t now, so he’ll come when he’s able.”

3. If people are saying things, use dialogue. As with all of these suggestions, there are exceptions, but dialogue is one of the easiest ways to make your writing quick and engaging. Of course it has to be good dialogue, but even bad dialogue tends to be more interesting than, “he was telling me/him/her about this, and this, and this.”

4. You don’t need to account for every minute. It’s possible to skip time/stop when the interesting part of the scene is done. If you start every scene by a character waking up and end with them going to sleep (and it isn’t a conscious stylistic choice) take a closer look at the scene. Do you really just need the two main characters to meet? You can have “they looked at each other in the coffee shop” as the first line of the scene. It doesn’t have to be “she woke up, took a shower, thought about having breakfast, but then decided to just get a bagel at the coffee shop on the corner.” If it isn’t important/interesting, you can skip to the fun parts.

5. “To Be” verbs. I touched on this a bit before, but “to be” verbs (am, is, was, were…) are weak. Don’t worry about taking out every “to be” verb in your writing, but if it doesn’t need to be there, don’t use it. For example, it doesn’t have to be “The ball was falling.” “The ball fell” is better.

6. Adverbs. I’m hardly one of those editors who is against adverbs of any kind. If you’ve read any of my writing, you know I’m not against adverbs. Just like “very” abuse, the main problems with abusing adverbs is that often they’re used when a stronger word could be. It’s especially bad when coupled with “very” abuse. “He said very quietly.” What’s wrong with “He whispered.”? If you can say something in fewer words, it’s generally stronger.

7. Telling, not showing. Yeah, this saying is overused quite a big, but it does has its uses. It’s just not interesting reading “He was angry.” How is “he” feeling? Or if he isn’t the narrator, how does the narrator see “he” is mad? Is his pulse rising? Is his face turning red? Is he clenching his fists?

8. Vary sentence structure. If every sentence starts with the same word (generally “I” in first person or “He/She/[Character’s Name]” in third person, try to change up some sentences. Not everything has to be filtered though a character (to use an above example, it doesn’t have to be “I/He/She/[Character Name] saw the ball fall” it can just be “The ball fell.”) It’s also possible to change up complex sentences (“She started to walk down the dark street, her foot steps echoing on the walls.” can become “Her foot steps echoed on the wall as she…”)

9. Switching tenses. Something to just watch for, I see it far too often. You can write in present or past tense (there are plenty of debates over which is better, and past is more common, but it’s your choice). Just keep consistent. Few things seem more awkward than when you start a sentence in past tense and finish it in present.

As with anything else in creative writing, take what I say with a grain of salt. There’s a time and place for almost everything. It’s when you do things without thinking, without a reason for them, that it makes someone seem like a novice. All of the above are little things, easily correctable (I’m sure I did more than one of them when I was just starting to write). Writing, like anything else, is a skill. If it isn’t perfect to start, just keep practicing.

Even if something is the best thing you’ve ever written, it only is because you haven’t had the chance to write something even better.