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In the past I have had many readers critique my children’s book manuscript.  Most of these have been fellow writers — either chapter-by-chapter in a critique group or as a whole by beta readers or critique partners.  Sprinkled in there were a handful of professional critiques won in contests, on just my query or the first few pages of my manuscript.

The difference between professional critiques and those by fellow writers sharing the trenches with you are important.  Fellow writers in groups or with whom you swap chapters or manuscripts are often motivated by the promise of receiving a critique in return.  The natural state of most writers is to want to receive feedback on their own writing rather than give feedback on someone else’s.  For most writers, giving feedback is the cost you pay to get feedback. Which means that most of the feedback you get from fellow writers could be tainted by the expectation of something in return.

Not so with an editor you pay.  An editor already knows they’re going to get paid before they begin reading.  They don’t have to impress you with how much they like your book to get something.  Editors don’t have an agenda. They’re professionals doing a job.

Also, finding a fellow writer who is willing to read and give detailed feedback on your entire manuscript is hard. Which means you’re often forced to settle for whoever offers. Which means you get a lot of readers who don’t really know your genre or your audience. If they don’t read books similar to yours, they’re not going to recognize the common tropes or get the jokes.  They won’t know when you’ve broken the standard conventions of the genre, or strayed too close to something already written.

Professional editors, however, are different.  They make their living by understanding the market.  In some cases, they specialize, in which case they know even more about the genres they represent.  Also, depending on the editor, you can pay for specific types of editorial services.  Typically, these include Proofreading, Copy Editing, and Developmental Editing.

  • PROOFREADING looks for formatting, spelling, and grammar issues, as well as typos and missing words, but does not usually focus on the big picture.
  • COPY EDITING focuses on awkward sentences, rough transitions, repetition and clarity.  Sometimes this type of editing will include fact-checking and overall consistency.
  • DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING includes overall feedback on plot, structure, character, pacing, dialogue, world-building and writing style, in an overall critique letter.  This type of editing will not catch typos or grammar mistakes.

Some editors may offer all of these or individual packages.  Which means that prices will vary.  Read the fine print.  There are editors for pretty much every price range.  I’ve gotten quotes from under $200 to close to $2,000.  With more expensive editors you usually get more of a commitment — more back-and-forth, multiple passes, all levels of editing. A relationship.  With the least expensive editors, you get a single pass, one type of editing.

As with any service you pay for, do your research.  Ask questions.  Look for testimonials (or complaints). Stalk them on Twitter. If they freelance, find out what their day job is.  Their level of experience.  If they are worth their salt, they will take a cursory look at your manuscript and consult with you before charging you a dime; tell if they are a good fit.

I did all of these things when I hired my editor.  Next week I’ll discuss the reasons I chose the editor I chose and how the consultation went.

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A common superstition among modern humans is that if two good things happen in rapid succession, a third is sure to follow.  Equally popular is the belief that this works for bad things, as well.

I’m going to focus on the good for today’s post.

For the better part of two years I have been convinced that I could never afford to purchase the services of a professional editor to improve my daughter’s and my middle grade manuscript to the point where an agent will fall in love with it.  It is certainly true that our family budget has no room for $600-$1,000 or more to be spent on what is, at this stage, only a hobby with no discernible future.  I have not purchased myself a new laptop to write on for the exact same reason.  And this fact is what has motivated us to doggedly enter as many Twitter pitch contests as we can, in the hopes that 1) we will gain some insight into the querying process, 2) network with agents, editors, and fellow writers, and 3) just maybe win a free session with a professional editor.  Over the course of the last two years we’ve gotten our fair share of #1 and #2, but so far the Twitter gods or the fates or the muses or whomever have neglected to kick down that #3 and fulfill the sacred trifecta.

And then the other day, in the regular course of Twitter writerly business, I got a new follower — an editorial service run by two professional editors who’s day jobs are editing manuscripts for a children’s book publisher.  They have a deal where they will do a full-manuscript developmental critique for under $200.  I gleefully sent our manuscript and the down payment. Finally, we’re getting a professional editor to read and critique our manuscript, and offer industry-savvy advice for making it sellable.

Okay, that’s One.

Then this afternoon I discovered that I had four Twitter notifications.  I occasionally get one or two in a week, when I tweet a link to this blog or participate in a contest.  But four at once is practically a riot.  It turns out we had won a contest I’d forgot I had even entered.  This one is called Mentees Helping Mentees (#menteeshelpingmentees), and consists of a group of past PitchWars winners offering to critique the query and first 10 pages of PitchWars 2017 hopefuls. We somehow made it into the tiny handful of Middle Grade entries chosen.  Which means that in the next couple of weeks we will receive detailed feedback and advice on how to fine-tune our submission package.

That makes Two.

I guess all there is to do now is wait and see what Three is going to turn out to be….

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If, like me, you stalk the manuscript wish lists of various agents (here and here), then you may begin to see that certain patterns emerge.

One of them is, of course, diversity in all things (not just color, but sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic background, and disabilities — both physical and mental).  If you write from the perspective of your diverse character (#ownvoices), then you have a leg up, because this is the clarion call right now. Unfortunately for me, as a middle-class, middle-age, healthy white male, there is no special market for “my” voice.  Which means I have to focus on another trend I see.

A couple of months ago I wrote about the explosion of new genres and sub-genres in speculative fiction, these days.  Gone are the days of simply Westerns, Romances, Science Fiction, and Mainstream.  Science Fiction alone has fractured into Horror, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi.  And within those are dozens of sub-genres, each with their own rules and audience: Paranormal Romance, Steampunk, Space Opera, Military Futurism, Dystopian, Historical Fantasy, Fairy-tale Retelling, and on and on.  The trend I’m seeing in agent’s wish lists is to recombine and create something new.  Find the literary equivalent of a chocolate bar stuck in a jar of peanut butter, yielding the next great taste sensation.

sddefaultA retelling of Cinderella, but with androids! Romeo and Juliet, but set during the Civil War.  You get the idea.  Waterworld was basically Mad Max but in the ocean instead of the desert.

If you can find that perfect but untried combination — and pitch it correctly — you have an enormous advantage over your competition in the slush pile.

 

 

James-West-Wild-Wild-West-Robert-Conrad-dI’m working on my own one of these.  Steampunk has taken on a life of its own.  It actually goes back to the days of Jules Verne and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  And do you remember Wild Wild West, and all of the futuristic gadgets they had up their sleeves … and in their boots and on their train?  Steampunk + Western? That show was before its time, but it would fit right in today.

Steampunk is based on Verne’s worlds of Victorian England, but with modern devices cobbled together out of the technology of the day.  Like Doc Brown’s ice maker in 1885, from Back to the Future III.  However modern movies, television, and literature have taken the original idea of Steampunk and found a dozen new ways to define it: Cyberpunk (computers), Dieselpunk (1930’s, engines), Biopunk (biological experimentation), Mythpunk (post-modernized folklore and fairy tales), Stonepunk (think The Flintstones), and several others.

I have an idea for a world which is different from any of these, but still in the tradition of the original Steampunk idea.  And its for kids.  If I can find a way to define it and name it, I just may have a hook when I pitch it.  I’d rather not go into details just yet.  Not until I have a handle on it and flesh it out a bit more. Oh, and of course, I have to answer the most important question of all:

?????punk.

Unstrung Harp

From The Unstrung Harp, or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey (©1999):

On November 18th of alternate years Mr Earbrass begins writing ‘his new novel.’ Weeks ago he chose its title at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book. It being tea-time of the 17th, he is alarmed not to have thought of a plot to which The Unstrung Harp might apply, but his mind will keep reverting to the last biscuit on the plate.

I’m only one guy, and I’ve never even published a book, but I’m gonna suggest that the best way to begin writing a novel is not this way.  I don’t know.  You do you.

Personally I use a completely different arbitrary and stupid method: I try to come up with the perfect first sentence.  For weeks I have been devoting drive time, shower time, time between hitting the snooze button, and break time to composing the line that will make kids everywhere beg their parents to buy my book.  The problem is I haven’t really developed the plot structure, yet, or even fully established the world where it takes place and all of the rules, so….

The last book I wrote I began by the seat of my pants, and it wasn’t until I was 4-5 chapters in that I was forced to stop and create an outline for the plot structure.  Then when I had finished the book, most of those first chapters got deleted, rewritten, or both.  Very little of that seat-of-the-pants stuff remains.  But it was good exercise and gave me lots of background material that helped flesh out the characters in later drafts.

For the sequel (currently in progress), I already knew most of the characters — certainly the main one — and I started with a complex plot outline before I even thought about writing the first chapter.

With the new book, though … I’m eager to get started and reluctant to build the foundation.  That’s bad, right?

Imma gonna have to get on that outline and background before I go any further, for sure.  But it’s fantastic to feel the enthusiasm and passion again.

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Wisdom can come at the oddest moments and from the most unlikely places. This notion ocured to me today as I was making myself a sandwich for lunch.

I happen to be a fan of mustard on my turkey and avocado sandwich, so I always have a bottle handy. Usually something with a little kick, like a good horseradish mustard. If you yourself enjoy a mustard other than the standard plain yellow variety, then you will be familiar with what happens if you squeeze mustard from a bottle that has sat idle.

You get runny mustard. It explodes from the bottle in a watery mess that soaks into the bread, making it soggy and unappetizing and ruining your lunch. So what you learn to remember is that before you squeeze, you have to shake your mustard vigorously, or you’ll be sorry.

This is also true of writing, and in particular query letters. You don’t ever want to just squeeze out a quick query to a prospective agent by using a boilerplate letter you wrote months ago. You need to shake things up by getting to know the agent first — on their agency page, on Twitter, on the Mauscript Wish List page, and by searching for interviews they may have done in the last few years. If you don’t, you’ll ruin your one shot with that agent by presenting them with something watery and unappetizing.

Agents get hundreds of blind queries a month, and like anything endlessly repetitive, certain trends begin to stand out that turn an agent off. You can read all about these by following the Twitter hashtags #100queries and #500queries. Agents want to feel like they were chosen, not picked randomly out of a hat. They like it when a query is personalized — not just with their name at the top (spelled correctly!) — but with reasons why the author choose them. They like to be shown how your manuscript might be a good fit for them.

This doesn’t have to be a lengthy process. It only takes a few minutes to discover whether or not an agent is after what you’ve got, and to drop a few words to that effect into your query. You only get one shot at an agent, and this little extra bit of effort can make the difference between a perfect turkey and avocado sandwich and a soggy, unappetizing mess.

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There are several different approaches to querying agents:

  1. Send them out in batches of 5 or more. Pro: wide coverage. Con: lots of research.
  2. Send them out 1 at a time, as you discover new agents. Pro: little research. Con: minimal coverage.
  3. John Berkowitz’s Patented Query Slow-Burn. Pros: wide coverage with little research. Cons: you need to commit.

But what is this amazing Query Slow-Burn? I hear you cry.  Glad you asked, because I am here today, standing in front of you in the hot sun, to elucidate on that very topic. (Imagine I have a handlebar mustache and that I am now twirling it. I am also brandishing a bottle of elixir. There may or may not be a soapbox.)

The main problem, for me, with the “wide net” process, is that you have to research and find five or more agents, then research all of them, write five personalized queries, and put together five submission packages, each following a unique set of submission guidelines. This can take quite a while, and if you are pressed for time, you run the risk of mixing something up. On the other hand, if you take the opposite tack and submit to one agent at a time as you discover them, giving each one your full attention to detail, it will take a long time to reach a decent quantity of subs.

Last summer I adapted a writing exercise to my querying process. The exercise was to write at least one sentence every day on your manuscript, and to see how long of a “chain” you could forge (one link for every consecutive day). By using the Twitter hashtag #MSWL (manuscript wishlist), and the new and improved official MSWL website, www.manuscriptwishlist.com, I am able to filter for agents seeking my genre and age group with ease. And finding a single agent seeking one or more of the elements featured in my book doesn’t take much time. I can locate a likely agent, stalk research their Twitter feed and blog posts, find agent interviews, and read about them on their agency’s website in 10-20 minutes.  With this info at hand, personalizing a query and submission package is a snap, and I can manage the whole thing in under 30 minutes. The key is to do this EVERY DAY.

If I have to gin up half a dozen queries at a time, I often find myself putting it off until I can clear several hours from my schedule (which are hard to find).  On the other hand, I can manage a single quality query on my lunch hour at work, using the Slow-Burn method (patent pending). It doesn’t seem like much, but at the end of a month you’ll have 30 queries out there, and with any luck you’ll already start to see responses to your early subs coming in.

If you really want to do it up right, use a spreadsheet to keep a record of your progress. I keep mine in Microsoft’s OneNote, and my fields are Agent, Date Sent, Reply, Request Sent, Response, and Notes.

Give it a try, and let me know if this method works for you.

 

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If you’re committed to being a published writer, then you eagerly seek feedback on your writing. And if you aren’t swimming in money, then you seek to get it wherever and from whoever you can (because paying a professional editor is typically expensive). And if you spend any amount of time looking for people to read and critique your stuff, you will eventually discover pitch contests.

These are a great way to meet fellow writers in your age category and genre, and can supply an endless pool of potential beta readers and critique partners. Plus, you get to interact with and learn from agents, published authors, and professional editors, and in some cases “win” free advice or critiques on some of your work.

But here’s the thing about that. Most of these contests focus on the small stuff — your 35-word pitch, your query, the first page of your manuscript. There is no doubt it is vitally important to get those right, but competition if fierce and only a very few can “win” those contests.  Which means that more likely than not, if you enter one of these contests, you will not win. For many of us, this means you just try again. And again. This is the process, this is what you’re supposed to do. But by doing this, you tend to become a bit myopic about the small stuff.

The fact is, not every book has a perfect first 250 words. Not even the best books. Not every successful author got published with a flawless query letter.  I’m not suggesting you don’t focus on these things. You should. They will help you succeed. That’s why the contests are about those things in the first place. But whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Remember, nobody gets your book better than you do. Not getting chosen out of 200 entries for a contest does not mean there is anything wrong with your query or first 250. Same thing is true if you don’t get chosen for 20 contests.

Prepping for and following contests is intense and often rewarding. But don’t lose sight of the other 99% of your book. Or the next book. Keep perspective  on the whole picture. And don’t sweat the small stuff.

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In the past, when I’d finished a revision and adjusted my query to reflect any plot changes or important new points of focus, I’d eagerly send it off to a fresh batch of agents, certain that these latest changes would make my manuscript irresistible.

That has thus far proved untrue.  And each time I send out another batch of queries, the total list of agents to which I can submit dwindles. It has made me more cautious.  The rule of the industry is that once an agent has rejected a manuscript, they will not look at it again — revised or otherwise.

You know the expression, “Youth is wasted on the young?” It is also true that querying is wasted on the inexperienced. The longer you query and revise based on feedback, the fewer agents are left to query. You start to get very careful.

It has been 10 months since I last queried an agent.  And since then I have done two complete revisions, including cutting 4,000 words. But I’m not the eager, fresh-faced writer I was, itching to blanket the world with queries. I have to be deliberate, selective, confident … careful. I am going to get as much free feedback as possible and polish any rough patches before I risk crossing any more agents off my list.

I’m taking the slow but steady path of the tortoise. I’m playing it safe.

queryswap

Query Swap Twitter event
Coming June 1, 2017
Your hook is your selling point. It has to be perfect. But getting good feedback can often be difficult or expensive. That’s why M.L. Keller—The Manuscript Shredder—is organizing the #QuerySwap Twitter party, an all-day event for people seeking critique partners to participate in feedback exchanges on query letters or back cover blurbs. The query swap Twitter party is designed to help writers connect with other writers. And since this is an exchange, both parties will benefit.
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Query Swap is happening from 8am-8pm EST on June 1, 2017.
Query Swap isn’t a contest. It’s an opportunity for writers to help other writers. There won’t be mentors, or agents. This is for writers only. Each participant will have the opportunity to find a new critique partner and exchange feedback on queries. Everyone gets feedback. Everyone’s query improves. Everyone wins.
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How to participate:
  1. Tweet a brief pitch about your MS with the tag #QuerySwap include genre and age category hashtags. (They might look familiar; they are the same as #Pitmad) No need to tweet multiple times since you can search the feed and look for a match too.
  2. Watch the feed and find someone with an MS in a similar genre, category, and tone
  3. Ask him/her to swap
  4. Exchange queries
  5. Give constructive feedback to your new Critique Partner.
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Can I just recycle my #pitmad pitch?
Maybe, but it might need tweaking. In this swap, genre, category, and overall MS tone will be more important than plot in finding a good match. Someone with a snarky sensibility might be less suited to selling your Anne of Green Gables retelling, so make sure you look for a person who writes in a similar style.
example pitches:
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#LGBT historic retelling of Frog Prince set in Polynesia also dragons #YA #F #R #QuerySwap
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or
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Dark portal fantasy with family drama and talking cats #MG #F #DIS #QuerySwap
Obviously, these won’t work for #pitmad, but they convey the necessary information for this event.
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Hashtags … (These are the same as #pitmad)
Age Categories:
#PB = Picture Book
#C = Children’s
#CB = Chapter Book
#CL = Children’s Lit
#MG = Middle Grade
#YA = Young Adult
#NA = New Adult
#A = Adult
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Genres/Sub-genres:
#AA = African American
#AD = Adventure
#CF = Christian Fiction
#CON = Contemporary
#CR = Contemporary Romance
#DIS = Disabilities
#DV = Diversity
#E = Erotica
#ER = Erotic Romance
#ES = Erotica Suspense
#F = Fantasy
#H = Horror
#HA = Humor
#HF = Historical Fiction
#HR = Historical Romance
#INSP = Inspirational
#IRMC = Interracial/Multicultural
#MR = Magical Realism
#M = Mystery
#Mem = Memoir
#LGBT
#LF = Literary Fiction
#NF = Non-fiction
#R = Romance
#P = Paranormal
#PR = Paranormal Romance
#RS = Romantic Suspense
#S = Suspense
#SF = SciFi
#SPF = Speculative Fiction
#T = Thriller
#UF = Urban Fantasy
#W = Westerns
#WF = Woman’s Fiction
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Some tips:
  1. Don’t flood the feed with pitches for the same book. Pitching multiple books is ok
  2. Pitch only books you are querying
  3. Don’t just wait for someone to ask you first. Be proactive.
  4. Use the hashtags to simplify your search.
  5. Be polite.
  6. Remember this is a swap. Both parties must give feedback
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Want to help #QuerySwap succeed? Please share via social media or reblog this post.
Questions or concerns, please leave a comment.

Crash Diet

Posted: May 4, 2017 in Writing
Tags: , , ,

body of man between fat and thin

I reached my goal!  I actually managed to cut 19 pages out of the first 50 of my daughter’s and my manuscript. That’s over 5,000 words.

That’s huge.

In the past I have compared cutting scenes and major revisions to brain surgery — you have to make sure all of the nerves are properly connected or the basic motor functions fall apart…. You get the analogy. But this was like a tummy tuck. I scooped out a whole bunch of filler then stitched the loose edges together, and without much else in the way of “maintenance” I was done.

Why was this revision different? Well, the key is that I didn’t have 357 threads to reconnect. The very fact that I could remove those pages without much affecting the rest of the book is a dead giveaway that they were unneeded pages. Naturally, there are things on those pages that I revisited later in the book, but not one of them was irreplaceable. I either introduced the missing concept a bit later, or removed all future references to it.  For the amount of fat that got cut, it was surprisingly easy.

I encourage you to try the same thing, but they key to success is clearly identifying those elements that are not explicitly vital to the rest of the book. This does not include scenes you “like” or set-ups for later punchlines. If you can cut the joke in chapter without hurting your story, then you can cut the scene in chapter two that sets up the joke — and does nothing else. In my case I had constructed a whole series of cascading motivations just to justify my main character sneaking into the garage at night and finding something. I realized I could just have someone give the thing to her, and all of that stuff became irrelevant.  So I yanked it.

And now I have a much leaner, more focused and better paced opening. The inciting incident, which didn’t take place until page 30, now happens on page 10.

I kind of feel like celebrating by writing a decadent, sugary scene, but I’m watching my weight.