Sunday, September 03, 2006

Writing the Query: One-hundred-and-some samples from Miss Snark

If you've not formed an acquaintance with Miss Snark, the Literary Agent it's high time you did, especially if you've been slaving over query letters and opening pages. The Divine Miss Snark ran another Crapometer contest, inviting her readers to send in a query and the first page of their novels for her commentary, and from over 450 qualifying entries, she randomly selected just over 100 of them. Hurry over and have a look.

For those who didn't get selected for a thorough snarking, Evil Editor has opened a Lottery Loser Query blog, providing even more examples of what to do and what not to do.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

How NOT to pitch to an editor

This article from the Publisher's Weekly website shows the sales pitch from the other side of the desk -- or funeral, examination table, operating room, and other highly inappropriate places where aspiring but oh-so-clueless authors have pitched their manuscripts to hapless (and sometimes helpless) editors: Weddings and Funerals and Everywhere in Between.

Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

How to get published, part 4: Send it off, start afresh

At last, we reach the final installment of this series. So far we've covered creating an actual piece of work (a factor that a surprising number of would-be writers tend to never get around to doing), editing the work, and finding someone to send your work off to.

Now, it's time to send your work off. But first, you must put it into a format that an agent or an editor wants to look at. You need to format the manuscript, then set about writing the dreaded query, cover letter, and either a synopsis (for novels) or a proposal (for nonfiction).

Manuscript formatting
Your manuscript must be machine-printed, either an old-fashioned typewriter (which I can't recommend personally, but some people are attached to theirs, and is fine so long as the keys are immaculate and the ribbon is crisp and fresh), or a modern word processor with an inkjet or laser printer. No exceptions.

Use a standard serif typeface, such as Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Do NOT use fancy script, gothic, or any other typeface, even for the title. Use size 12 font. Double space. Leave at least 1" margins. Some editors like 1 1/4" margins on the right and left. Yes, it uses more paper, but it leaves more room for marking up the manuscript.

Use only plain white standard paper, the same stuff you put into copy machines. Don't go all out on bright white, glossy, cotton fiber, or heavy 24 lb stuff. It won't help. And do NOT go for any color other than plain white. Color not only won't help, it will hurt.

Put your name, address, phone number, email address, and the URL of your website if you have one (and if it's your author site, not the one with pictures of your dog or your last vacation) on the upper left-hand corner. If appropriate, put an approximate word count on the upper right-hand corner. This is often done with children's books. Space down about 1/3 of the way down the page, and put the title of the book, centered. Often it is done in all caps. Underneath, put "by" and then your name as you want it on the cover of the book. If you plan to publish under a pseudonym, you can put it here, or put, "Daphne Daisyfield (writing as Brick Quartermain)."

On the next page, go down about 1/3 of the way down the page, type "Chapter 1," then go down another two lines and begin your text.

Put in a header that contains the title (or a shortened version), your last name, and the page number. Or the page number can go in a footer at the bottom of the page. Just be sure that every page is numbered and identified as belonging to your book, just in case the editor's assistant drops a stack of manuscripts down the stairs and has to sort everything out again. It happens.

Query Letters
Read the submission guidelines very carefully. Some publishers prefer that you send query letters before you send anything else. Some want a query and sample chapters. Be prepared to send them what they want. Have everything you need prepared ahead of time: query, cover letter, synopsis, and all.

A query letter is a letter inquiring whether the agent or editor would like to read your book. Agents and editors get floods of these every day, so your task is to make your query letter as intriguing as possible without stepping out of the bounds of professionality. Your query letter is your sales pitch. It's your elevator speech: imagine that you just got into an elevator with that very same agent, who turns to you and says, "So you're an author -- tell me about your book." Quick! You have between now and the 20th floor to tell the agent what your book is about! What's THE most important point that the agent should know about your book? That's the substance of your query letter.

The way to learn to write queries is by reading many, many, many examples. Read the blurbs on the backs of books. Read what Miss Snark says about query letters in her Snarkives. Read How to Write a Successful Query Letter on Writing World.com. Read this example on Flogging the Quill. Read this example on Preditors and Editors. Get your mitts on a copy of How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query and Cover Letters by John Wood and How to Write Irresistible Query Letters by Lisa Collier Cool. Study these, then try submitting your query to Evil Editor, if ol' EE is still allowing people to do so, for a thorough rip 'n tear.

Cover Letter
A cover letter is the letter that accompanies your manuscript or sample chapters. If this is the first contact you are making, the cover letter is identical to the query letter. It's a sales pitch. If the agent or editor responded to an earlier query by asking to see your writing, the cover letter thanks the agent or editor for their response to your letter of such-and-such a date and for the opportunity to send the person your work, notes that said requested parts of the work are enclosed along with an SASE for their convenience, thanks them for their time, and says you hope to hear from them soon. Enclosed in the package is exactly what the person asked for, no more, no less, no bribes, no chocolate, no racy pictures.

Synopsis
The most dreaded part of novel writing is the synopsis. In under five pages, single-spaced, present tense, you must summarize your work AND make it sound so fascinating that the agent or editor can't put it down. Sometimes the synopsis must be even shorter. Some agents are so busy they don't want to see an synopsis longer than a page. Find out how long it needs to be and send exactly that. No fair shrinking the font or the margins. Reader can tell, because their eyestrain doubles.

The synopsis is not a place to leave your reader in suspense. Here you reveal all, from the brilliant set-up in chapter 1 to the astonishing twist at the end. The query is a teaser. The synopsis is a spoiler.

As with queries, learning to write a good synopsis requires reading examples and studying the advice of experts. Try Writing the Novel Synopsis by Sheila Kelly, Mastering the Dreaded Synopsis by Lee Masterson, and for examples, Romance Novel Synopsis by Dixie L. Gaspard and Victoria Dark.

For nonfiction, get your hands on Nonfiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write by Elizabeth Lyon. The full proposal is an involved project that requires a good guide, and Ms. Lyon's book is one of the clearest guides on the market.

Putting it in the Mail
For query letters and anything that's no more than three pages, use a standard number 10 envelope. For short manuscripts, such as children's picture books, use a large manilla envelope that will allow you to send the manuscript flat. Your SASE can be another manilla envelope with enough postage to send the manuscript back, or a number 10 for a reply, with instructions in the cover letter to recycle the manuscript. For novels and nonfiction books, get a padded envelope large enough to slide the manuscript into easily without cramming it. Get the self-sealing bubble-wrap kind, not the kind filled with shredded paper that has to be stapled and gets paper fluff all over when the staples tear out. Enclose your manuscript and an SASE for replies. Take the package to the post office to get it properly weighed and to make sure you put on the right amount of postage. Don't take a chance on your package arriving postage due.

It's not an ending, it's a new beginning
Now that your manuscript is in the mail, don't go all neurotic waiting for a reply. Get busy on your next project and get that in the mail as soon as possible. Then the next, and the next, and the next. That's the only way to stay sane while waiting, and the only way to bring about the writing life you've been dreaming of.

Now get writing!

How to get published series

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Movie Cliches

Our household subscription to Netflix brings a regular round of digital video entertainment to suit our eclectic tastes. What, I wonder, can be said about a couple who enjoy Jane Austen movies, samurai movies, film noir, Buster Keaton, and the entire Hercule Poirot series?

Yet in movie after movie, the same cliches turn up with tiresome regularity. Maybe it's just the storyteller formula showing up. But I'm sure you all recognize these movie cliches, and can list more that I've missed:

  1. Spaceships are always fully-armed, make a rumbling noise in space as they travel, and their weaponry causes audible explosions.
  2. A thousand bad guys, armed to the teeth, firing rapid-fire automatic weapons at the good guy, can't hit him even though he's running across a mile of open ground, dressed in street clothes or formal attire. However, the good guy can hit any bad guy he chooses, even while running in formal attire across open ground with a thousand bad guys firing at him.
  3. When the villain runs out of bullets in his revolver, he will click the trigger three times, then throw the revolver.
  4. When running away from a speeding car, rolling giant boulder, or similar oncoming danger, people always run directly in front of it instead of darting to the side to get away.
  5. Even in nylons, a dress, and high-heels, the heroine can outrun the bad guys, and can usually out-gun them.
  6. At the point of death, the dying person always has breath enough to gasp a coherent conversation, then collapses peacefully. If about to name his or her attacker, the dying person collapses mid-sentence. The hero/heroine then gently closes the person's eyes.
  7. A highly-competent detective can't solve the biggest crime of his career until his boss fires him for obsessing over it -- then he goes all-out to hunt down the villain.
  8. Only bad-guys play cruel tricks on people, shoot innocent people, or use booby-traps -- and good guys only do those things to bad guys.
  9. In a mystery, the non-main-character who claims to know who the murderer is, but has a few more facts to check before announcing the name, will die in the next scene.
  10. Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and similar indigenous groups in modern movies are always wise, possess mystic powers, and can commune with nature. In modern movies, they are as invariably the good guys as in old films the are invariably either the bad guys or the comic relief.
  11. In family films, men are clownish, women are much smarter than men, and children are much smarter than either parent, as well as being smart-mouthed and highly technologically competent.
  12. Plain girls always wear their hair in a bun and wear glasses. As soon as they take off their glasses and let their hair down, they're gorgeous.
  13. In a scary movie, whenever there is a door that should not be opened, a room that should not be entered, or a cave, cellar, or tomb emitting odd noises that would cause rational persons to turn away, a minor character will always enter, and will be killed.
  14. Cars involved in accidents explode violently -- except in comic action movies, where car chase scenes involve smashing dozens of cars, but without a single fatality.
  15. A main character, when pursued by villains, will all too often go up some tall structure, where he is forced to fight the bad guys at dizzying heights. Was he expecting to out-climb them? Or to find an escape route at the top?
  16. If there is some huge, whirring, grinding machine in an action film, someone will end up falling into it -- and if the villain deliberately feeds an innocent victim into the machine early in the movie, he will surely die the same way by the end.
  17. When main characters defuse a bomb, it will always have a digital timer that will always stop at the last possible second.
  18. Computers are always operated by typing on a keyboard, which always makes a clacking sound. Hollywood does not seem to have heard of the mouse.
  19. Characters who announce they are looking forward to retirement, their 50th anniversary, or similar long-awaited celebration will either die or have the celebration disrupted.
  20. No meal that the main characters sit down to is never finished.
  21. When the villain captures the hero, rather than simply shoot him in the head and get it over with, the villain admits his guilt, tells the whole story, then sets in motion an elaborate device to kill the hero, and walks away, allowing the hero time to escape and time for any of the hero's allies to arrive.
  22. People in all cultures speak English. If the movie is a period piece, they speak English with one or more British accents. All except henchmen, who speak in some vague accent that could be Russian, Arabic, or a blend of both.
  23. Ventilation shafts are always large enough to accommodate adult humans, are clean, and always go where the hero needs to go.
  24. A blow to the head with a heavy object knocks a main character out, yet they always recover with no skull fracture and no brain damage. Not even a concussion. If the person knocked over the head is an unnamed guard, they will always fall unconscious for any length of time convenient for the hero.
  25. If a lead man and lead woman fight and bicker in the first half hour of the movie, they will fall in love or fall in bed (not necessarily in that order) before the end.
  26. All evil villains have henchmen who obey their every command without question. Most of the henchmen don't have names or speaking parts.
  27. In action movies, the hero and villain will meet face-to-face for hand-to-hand combat.
  28. A female character, when being chased, will keep looking over her shoulder to see how close the bad guys are, even though it obviously slows her down.
  29. No matter how far the good guy falls, no matter how hard of a blow he takes, no matter how hard he is kicked, he'll still won't die soon after from massive internal bleeding. If the fight is late in the movie, he will rise up, and find the strength to pummel his opponents into the dust.
  30. When the villain cuts the phone line, cutting off the hero or heroine who is calling for help, the telephone will more often than not emit a dial tone. And of course the character doesn't carry a cell phone.
  31. Regardless of what damage the hero does to public places and no matter how many traffic laws and laws about discharge of firearms he breaks, he will never be arrested for these. If he is arrested, it will be on trumped-up charges arranged by the villain.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Friday Finds

A few cool writing finds from across the web:

  • Language is a Virus: Some cool word scramblers and random word generators. Fun n' games for chronic procrastinators.
  • Common Errrors in English Usage: Finally a quick, online reference to solve the that/which and who/whom questions.
  • Booktrust: A U.K. charity that supports literacy, and gets books into the hands of kids. What writer wouldn't want to support a program that creates more readers?
  • Absolute Write: Not a new find, but one that all writers should know about.
  • Writerisms and Other Sins: On the SFWA site, a concise article about line-editing your prose.
Keep writing.

New look

Were you tired of reading white text on a black background? Black does make a statement, but white on black makes your eyes cross, doesn't it? Tan looked okay, but was a bit dark and didn't fit the color scheme. Let's try deep blue for a while, shall we?

A Publisher from Hell

Authors for this small press:

Better Be Write

recently received this charming email from the publisher:


What the hell is wrong with some of you? First of all, those of you that have books out are acting like you are on a damn vacation. You came to me wanting a career in writing. Was it all a farce? You just wanted to see your one book in print and I, the sucker, fell for it? Everyone of you told me what you were going to do to promote your books, to push your books, how you were going to be on TV and radio, and how you wanted your books to be in the top ten. What happened to that?

I have to put our brochure out and some of you have not done your next book; some do not want to write any more books, using me as the excuse; some are just throwing crap at me for me to publish, as if you have no time to do it. If I, who is very ill, can keep going and trying to get you to the top, how dare you give up? How dare you put me to the background of your life? Do you not realize that you will be giving up your careers as I have to see anything that you want to publish so your careers can be shot to hell??? I want to know WHY YOU ARE BLOWING YOUR CAREERS AS AUTHORS!!!!! You owe me that! One of you wants to quit when their book has the highest ranking of all of you!!

I just do not understand. You do not want to be authors. You are G_damned liars! No guts! Did you think that this was going to be easy?? I might as well have taken that $100,000 and gone to Europe! If you are serious about being an author, then get your asses in gear NOW! If not, I will sell your contracts and your books to another publisher who will probably be a POD publisher and you will never be able to get that label off your back with any real publishers. If you think I am kidding, I am not! That was my savings account to open this company and I chose you people. What a freakin let down. You all have one month to do what you are supposed to be doing, and I want proof or so help me God I will recoup some of my money through a POD publisher.


Just makes you want to jump up and mail in your next submission to this company that claims to be very author-centric.

The person who aired this letter to friends, and the place in which it was aired, will remain anonymous.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

English Lessons

If you haven't seen this bit of internet lore, that used to be photocopy lore, that used to be ditto sheet lore, here again in all its glory:

Rules for Writing
  1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
  4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat)
  6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
  7. Be more or less specific.
  8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
  9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
  10. No sentence fragments.
  11. Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
  12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
  14. One should NEVER generalize.
  15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  16. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  17. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
  18. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  19. The passive voice is to be ignored.
  20. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
  21. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
  22. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
  23. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.
  24. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
  25. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
  26. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
  27. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  28. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  29. Who needs rhetorical questions?
  30. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  31. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy 4th of July

Today, U.S. citizens gather to celebrate the day that these men:

gathered to sign this document:


which proclaimed the radical liberal notion that all people are equal in the sight of God and should have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that governments should uphold and not take away said rights, and not become a burden to those governed.

If you've never read this document (and if you're a U.S. citizen, you should have), here is the text:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred. to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Monday, July 03, 2006

How to get published, part 3: Finding an agent or publisher without getting burned

So you followed step one. You wrote something. Then step two: you polished your writing to a high gloss. Now you're ready to send it out, right?

Okay, fine, you probably are. But hold on to your horses, cowboy, because there are a whole lot of bad guys out there who'd like nothing better than to hold up your literary stagecoach and take all of your cash. But they won't do it with guns and evil sneers, no. They'll smile and coo and tell you what a wonderful author you are, and how they are just dying to publish your masterpiece for only... and they name a sum in the hundreds or thousands of dollars.

These people are called vanity publishers. They call themselves POD publishers, but POD (Publish on Demand) is a technology, not a type of publisher. Stay away from them. If you want to know why, read my earlier posts:


Also see this article:


And these sites:


Okay, convinced yet that this isn't just one author singing a sour grapes song? That the publishing industry in general has a low opinion of vanity presses, and for good reason?

We're not talking about self-publishing here. If you want to know all about self-publishing and how to do it right without getting ripped off, see the Books Just Books website for tons of free information. They know all the details about self-publishing. I don't. So go there if you want to know about how to publish your book yourself. It's a great site.

So, assuming that by "getting published" you mean that you want publishing rights to your book to be purchased by a traditional publisher who will pay you an advance and royalties, let us proceed in that direction.

Finding an agent

In some genres, you can still do very well without an agent. The children's market, much of the how-to market, paperback romances, mysteries, and similar markets still have plenty of publishers who will accept queries or manuscripts from us ordinary mortals. But in other areas, such as literary fiction, an agent is almost a necessity. And the markets in all fields are getting tighter, so agents are becoming more and more valuable to all sorts of writers who have been doing well without. If you know your market well, you'll know if you need an agent or not.

Agents can open doors that writers cannot open for themselves. Good agents know editors well, know their tastes, and know what kinds of books they can sell to which editors. Agents know how to negotiate deals and get the best contract. Good agents work hard for their percent take of the total, and are worth every penny. What agents can't do for you is sell unsellable work. Nor will an agent take a manuscript that's already been shopped around to forty different publishing houses. Nor are they likely to take a book that's been published by a vanity press and sell it to a traditional publisher. They're agents, not miracle workers.

Bad agents are worse than no agent at all. How do you spot a bad agent? The most obvious red flag is that they charge upfront fees, such as reading fees. The best place to check out an agent's reputation is the Preditors and Editors website. Having a well-known bad agent's name on your submission is the kiss of death. Don't let an agent with a bad reputation bamboozle you.

And where do you find a good one? Frankly, marketing to agents is as hard as, if not harder than, marketing the manuscript yourself. You check sources such as the Writer's Market (look for a current issue in your library or bookstore). You ask agented writerly friends who know you and know your writing if they think their agents would be interested in your work (but you do not ask writers you don't know well to recommend their agents, because if they did, that would imply that they endorse your work, and they may not be willing to do that). You check out the Association of Author Representatives and search for agents who represent work that is like yours. You join writers' association, such as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America or the Romance Writers of America or the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to get access to their lists of agents.

Make a list of possible agents that you want to contact.

Finding a publisher

So you want to go it alone? Fine. Plenty of authors do. If you're selling articles and short stories to magazines, you will probably have to go it alone, since agents usually don't take on small jobs like that. Unless you're selling regularly to the New Yorker or Vanity Fair, magazines don't pay enough to make the commission worthwhile to an agent.

So how to you find a publisher? What you don't do is answer one of those ads in writer's magazines that say, "We want to publish your book!" Most of those are the vanity presses -- especially the ones with full-page ads (smaller, less glowing, more honest ads may be those of legitimate book printing services). If you're not sure if a publisher is a vanity or not, look the company up on Preditors and Editors.

One way to find a publisher is to get a copy of the latest Writer's Market. Some genres have their own market guide, such as the Children's Writers and Illustrators Market. Make sure you have the most up-to-date copy. Peruse the listings for publishers that publish works that are like yours. Go online and check out their websites so that you can see exactly what they publish. Just because you've written a science book for kids doesn't mean it's suitable for every publisher that says they publish science books. Each publisher has its own flavor, its own style.

Another way to find a publisher is to stroll through the library or bookstore looking for books that are similar to yours. Check out who publishes them. Write down the name and website of the publisher, and again see what kinds of books the publisher already wants.

There's no use in sending your manuscript to a publisher that doesn't already produce books similar to yours. There's no deadlier phrase in a query than, "I know you don't usually publish books like this, but..." Don't argue with the publisher. Don't try to tell them why they should publish your manuscript when it isn't anything like what they publish. They know their business. You don't.

Make a list of possible publishers that you want to contact.

And now send the manuscript off, right?

Almost. You're almost there. You still need to have the manuscript formatted correctly. You probably need a query letter and perhaps a synopsis or outline. And you need to know exactly what the publisher or agent wants, so you can deliver exactly that. Those are subjects for the next installment.

How to get published series

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How to get published, part 2: Self-editing "Re-Vision"

In part 1 of this series (How to get published, part 1: You must write something) I stated what ought to be obvious: you have to write something to get published. What's more, you have to write something that is publishable.

Now and then a discussion comes up on writer's boards about whether one should write for one's own pleasure and damn the consequences, or if one should write for the market. Those who opt for the former category refer to the latter as "hack writing." Those who opt for the latter sometimes refer to those in the former as "idealistic" and "unrealistic."

The truth is that most writers fall somewhere between the two camps, and shift positions with each and every project. One writer may pound out the novel that she's been carefully plotting for twenty years or more, pouring her heart and soul into the project, but the next day dash out a piece for a magazine or take on a work-for-hire project with no other objective than to pay the bills.

Question: Which is better?

Answer: Whichever suits your goals at the moment.

Better answer: Who cares?

Whether you write for your own fulfillment or whether you write solely for filthy lucre, your writing must shine if it is to get published. Those who write for their own spiritual needs but still want their work to be published need to accept the fact that editors will rip and tear their heart's work to pieces in order to whip it into shape for publication. Or, these days, the more likely scenario is that the editor or agent will expect the author to do the bloody deed herself. Editors have far less time to actually edit than they did a generation or so back.

Revising your own work involves a whole lot more than proofreading. It requires re-vision -- that is, seeing your work with fresh eyes. It may mean major surgery, moving one scene several chapters forward or back, eliminating extraneous characters, chopping away the back material in that lovingly constructed preface AND foreword, and simply starting with Gnormious the Barbarian hacking his way through the Imperial Guard, waiting until later to tell how he got there.

Books, books, and more books exist to help authors through the process of revising their work. I have several posted in the sidebar that I think are particularly helpful. In general, though, the process usually works by taking a broad view, then going down on a finer and finer level.

Broad view

For fiction, is the story working? Are the characters realistic? Are there plotholes big enough to drive a coach-and-four and two footmen through, or have all the loose ends been tied up well before "The End"? Does the plot have a solid structure, or does it weave all over the place like a gigantic toddler? Looking at the broad view may require putting the manuscript aside for a few weeks. It may require finding helpful and objective people to read it through and comment on it (critique groups are a good place to turn -- friends and relatives may not have the objectivity you need, unless you've had book discussions with them before and you know they can do the old rip n' tear). Tell your critiquers specifically that you want to know if the plot is working, and ask them to point out parts where they became confused.

For nonfiction, is the organization working? Does one topic lead logically to the next, or are you bouncing between unrelated topics just because they sounded interesting at the time? Even nonfiction needs a storyline to hold it together. We are all storytellers, whether we're writing fiction, nonfiction, a scientific paper for an academic journal, or a recipe for the newspaper. Every bit of writing should have a running theme or storyline that holds it all together.

Narrowing down

Chapter by chapter, scene by scene, topic by topic, whether fiction or nonfiction, the narrative needs to keep moving to keep the reader engaged. That doesn't mean that Gnormious needs to be chopping his way through the Imperial Guard on every other page. The time he spends reflecting on the Barbarian Way or pondering the charms of the lovely Ethelberta the Impaler can be as engaging as his swordplay -- or his swordplay can be as dull as a Farm Products Amalgamated Annual Report if your writing isn't keeping pace.

If you typed your manuscript on 5x7" cards, would there be something interesting and engaging on each card?

That's what you need to hold the reader's attention. In a small-size paperback books, each page should contain something interesting: action, a striking visual image, humor, a smouldering love scene, something. Not pages and pages of description that the reader will flip through. Not a discussion between Gnormious and his advisors that rivals the Council of Elrond in length. Something interesting or striking on every page.

And are you showing what's happening instead of just telling about it? This is a difficult distinction for many beginning writers to make. The "showing" voice is part of the traditional storyteller voice, and it shows up in many fairy tales and folktales: "
Once upon a time, there was an elderly couple who lived alone. They had no children, which made them very sad. The one day...
To show this, one might begin a story thus:
Old Hannah stood by the well, her wrinkled hand hovering over her water jug, as she watched a plump young woman stroll by with five -- five -- children in tow. Hannah turned away, pressing a hand to her eyes, which had grown moist. "Five," she mumured. "Five. Some women have all the luck, while others..." She sighed, piked up her jug, and turned wearily back home, wondering what it must be like to hear a pair of small lips whisper, "Mama!"
Yes, it does take much longer to show than to tell. Sometimes one must do a bit of telling to keep the pace of a story moving, so the rule "show, don't tell," is not a hard and fast one. But whenever possible, show. Showing involves the reader in the story. Telling forces the reader to only observe it from a distance.

Line by line

Only after you've hacked and slashed your way through the larger questions do you finally get down to the line editing. Here is where you get right to to word-by-word examination of your text, looking for:
  • spelling errors: don't expect the spell checker to catch them all.
  • misuse of words: know the difference between "cue" and "queue," between "peaked," "peeked," and "piqued," between "bear" and "bare" (it's "bear with me," not "bare with me," unless you're talking about a game of strip poker), between "affect" and "effect," (the first is usually a verb, the second usually a noun, the exceptions being mostly in academic writing), when to use "few" and when to use "less," and that the proper phrase is "I should have," not "I should of."
  • Misplaced modifiers: "Twinkling in the blue-black sky, I gazed at the far-off stars." Wait -- who is twinkling in the blue-black sky? In this case, the narrator, not the stars.
  • Piling on the adjectives: writing teachers who don't actually write themselves are prone to encouraging their students to pump their prose full of adjectives, resulting in travesties such as, "The small, brunette, adorable, perky, little girl skipped down the long, lumpy, cracked sidewalk," when "A tiny girl with chocolate-brown hair skipped down the sidewalk, heedless of the potholes" would do better. Use specific nouns instead of lists of adjectives. Why say, "The pretty, bright, red flower..." when you can say, "The red geranium..."
  • Weak verbs: as with nouns and adjectives, avoid using adverbs too pump up weak verbs. Don't risk pulling a Tom Swiftie ("Get in the back of the boat," Tom said, sternly). Use strong verbs instead of trying to pump up a weak verb with an adverb.
  • He said, she said: Using "said" is fine, unless it's overused. Don't comb your thesaurus trying to come up with synonyms for "said." You can have Tom whisper, Betty yelp, Che-Hao holler, Honoria command, Sita sigh, but don't overdo it. You can also replace a dialogue tag with an action: Tom pointed toward the boat. "Get in."
  • Purple prose: "Tihn stepped boldly, recklessly, into a miasmic night as menacingly dark and wildly stormy as his pain-wracked memories of that lurid night in the tattered, shabby hovel..." -- yeah. You get the idea. Don't do it. Use style, yes, but also keep your writing clean so that you reader gets lost in the story. Drawing excessive attention to your writing puts a barrier between the reader and the story.
Read it aloud

Read your work aloud to yourself, or have someone else attempt to read it to you. Mac users have a built-in computer voice that will read the words in a synthesized voice (In TextEdit, which comes with the machine, it's the "Speech" item under the Edit menu), and the near monotone is excellent, because the words must work without a reader reading in the excitement of Gnormious' battle scene. By hearing the words read aloud, you'll be able to spot any clunkers that just don't read well.

Put it through the typewriter again

In the old days of writing on typewriters, authors would type out a first draft, mark it up, then retype the whole thing. This was called "putting it through the typewriter again." Invariably, the writer finds on doing so that there are lots of things to touch up. This sentence could really be eliminated, this other one needs a stronger verb, this one really belongs elsewhere. As painful as retyping the whole 100,000+ words sounds, it's an extremely useful exercise.

This only touches on the basics of self-editing. For more ideas, get a good book on editing (such as the selections at the right), or see these articles:
How to get published series

Saturday, June 24, 2006

How to get published, part 1: You must write something

Once people around you know that you're a writer and that you've been published, inevitably the question comes up, "So how do you get published?" Or the variants: "How much does it cost?" (answer: nothing) "Is it hard to get published?" (answer: Depends. Usually it's easier than unicycling across Siberia in the dead of winter, but not always.) "I've always wanted to write a book." (answer: polite smile -- there are dozens of snarky answers to this, but it's best to be civil and refrain).

So in the spirit of helpfulness to those who would like to be authors, I am writing a series of articles presenting the basics of getting published. I will keep the discussion general, so as to be applicable to all the various forms of book writing, from literary novels to "How to crochet socks for your cat," and everything in between. I've never delved into Hollywood nor into Broadway, so I cannot speak to screenwriting and playwriting, but books and magazines I do know reasonably well.

Let us begin at the beginning, with the writing itself.

Do you want to write, or do you want to have written?

I am assuming in writing this that my readers enjoy writing and want to see their works published; that is, that the reader wants to write, rather than wants to have written. Do you see the difference? A writer is one who writes, and writes regularly, eventually producing publishable material. Many people I've met who dream of getting published, thinking it must be a very glamorous thing, will never get there because they aren't regular writers. The bulk of their writing is a personal essay or two written during a writing workshop they attend once a year, if that. Though they fancy themselves writers, they do not write except under special circumstances, when there is a charismatic coach to prod them on, and others around to watch them do it. But when they leave, they are untouched by the experience, unable to keep up the momentum, unable to make time at the keyboard or to put pen to paper.

And that's all right, if that is what that they want to do, if that is enough to satisfy.

But if you want to be published, not just once but several times over, to make a career of writing, you must do much more.

Why would-be writers -- don't

I have a brother-in-law who dreams of being a writer. His online screen name and email include the word "writer." He talks about the publishing world, and how he has these great ideas for novels.

"So, BIL," we ask him, "how far have you gotten on your novel? Can we read some of it?"

BIL hedges. Well, he hasn't written much on it as such... he has some ideas... he has some notes... somewhere... if he can find them...

And so it has gone on for a couple of decades. So far as we can tell, BIL has never actually written a paragraph of his novel. The notes, if they exist, vanish, as ephemeral as gum wrappers. BIL is enamored with the glamour of being a writer, but his attention is captured far more by his job, the crisis-du-jour in the ongoing drama of his adult children's lives, television programs, and the pleasures of getting in the car to drive to the nearby convenience store for a giant cup of soda several times a week. Someday, he thinks, someday when things settle down and life is normal, he'll have time to write. He imagines "writing" as having long blocks of uninterrupted time, to sit at the keyboard and let the ideas flow. Prosaic on-the-job problems and crises-du-jour are not part of that fantasy. They take up one's time and drain one's energy. So long as they exist, BIL's imagined writing life never happens, and thus his writing never happens.

You must write something

Despite what you may have heard from someone, somewhere, beginning writers can't simply sell an idea. Never waste an editor's time trying to sell an idea. An editor wants to see actual writing. Nor should you approach an author with the deadly line, "I have this great idea, and if you'll write it, we can split the profits 50-50." First of all, most published authors already have more ideas than they'll ever be able to use. Secondly, an author knows very well that coming up with an idea is the easy part. Executing it into a publishable piece is damned hard. What the author hears when an idea-peddler says, "I have this great idea, you write is..." is, "Look, I want to be published and make a pile of money, but I don't want to do anything like real work. So you do all the hard work and I'll take half of the money that your labor actually earns." Such a deal.

Nope, sorry, you're going to have to do the writing yourself -- assuming you're not famous enough nor notorious enough to be of interest all by yourself so you can hire a ghost writer. That great idea you have is going to have to be told in your own words, by the sweat of your own brow as you strain over the opening line, the dialogue, the charming description. It must be yours from start to finish.

What you write may not be good enough - yet

Writing is an art. It is a craft. It can be learned, but learning to write well takes time. That's something that most people don't understand, which leads people to say things to writers such as, "Oh, I've always wanted to write a novel!" Which is why novelist give them a sort of tight look. Sure, and I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon, doc -- think I could come into your operating room and try it out sometime?

So don't be surprised if the stuff you write when you start out is less than stellar. But don't be discouraged, either. Hemingway, at some point in his life, had to learn that "apple" starts with "a" and had to learn to scrawl his name legibly. Everyone starts somewhere. You may start with straight A's in English and a finely-tuned ear for dialogue. Or you may not even be able to write a grocery list that others can follow. No matter. If you want to be a writer, begin where you are. Write what's in your head now. It may be good or it may be embarrassing. Keep writing. Native talent is all well and good, but talent without actual production is nothing. Write, and the talent will come.

Read about writing. Some writers fear that if they read other people's work, they'll lose their own voice. Or they get overwhelmed by writing instruction books and say, "But I don't want to think about all this! I want my writing to be natural!" All well and good. Your writing should seem natural, just as the circus performers make three double somersaults and a half-backflip in mid-air while juggling two flaming swords and an elephant seem easy. But it's not easy, and it only looks easy after the circus performers (and, presumably, the elephant) have practiced over and over and over.

So you, too, must practice. If the writing books seem overwhelming, pick one thing to concentrate on for a while. Maybe dialogue. Maybe overused words. Maybe cliche phrases. Pick one thing to improve, and work on it. Then pick another.

Keep writing

Keep at it. Write essay after essay, poem after poem, story after story, even novel after novel. It doesn't matter what you write. It doesn't matter if what you write is laughably bad and will never see the light of print. Just keep at it. Prove to yourself that you can carry an idea through to the end of a novel.

How long this writing apprenticeship lasts depends on you: your level of skill, your dedication, the time you have in your life to devote to your writing. Most published writers report that it took anywhere from two to ten years, from the time they start seriously writing, to finally get published. So give yourself time. Write lots of stuff. Out of that stuff will eventually come some material that you think is pretty good.

Is it good? You may rely on your own tastes to tell you. Or you may find a local writing group where you can share writing and get it critiqued. Or you might find an online writing group where you can do the same. Don't simply paste your piece into a discussion board and demand critiques, especially if that's not common practice on the board. But do get some good feedback if you can on your work. You may find that your work isn't quite as polished as you thought. It may need only a tiny tweak or two. Or it may need some major re-thinking. That's all right. It's all part of the apprenticeship.

Finally, something publishable

If you've stuck with me so far without turning away in disgust, thinking, "Oh, but that sounds like work! I don't want to do that! I just want to get published!" and if you've actually written for a good long time and have a piece that you think is worth publishing, you may think you're ready to ship it out there to agents and editors. Hold on for just a second. We'll run the piece through again, with an eye for the final polish, which is the subject for the next article in the series. Then we'll get to the exciting part, where we actually start looking up publishers and agents.

How to get published series

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The most-used word in the English language...

... is "time." Read all about it here:

BBC NEWS | UK | The popularity of 'time' unveiled

Now, overhearing conversations on public transportation, one might be led to believe that the most-used word in spoken English is an entirely different four-letter word. But the Oxford University Press is referring to printed English.

Even still... some of the blogs I've stumbled into...

"Anything you write may be held against you..."

Ah, poor Edwin Kane. On trial, accused of defrauding the government to the tune of about $700,000, Kane attempted to get himself off the hook by presenting as evidence 35 letters written by friends and family members, all saying what a swell guy he was.

But the power of the pen didn't help, as Kane's own pen was about to betray him. Along came the prosecution with some other writing as evidence. Kane's own published writing, as it turns out. A set of how-to manuals on -- guess what? -- how to commit fraud. Oh, and the tasty bit from a book titled "Mastering the Art of Male Supremacy: Training Techniques for the Home Front," which advocates disciplining your wife by spanking her with a rolled-up newspaper. Arf!

Kane and his allies called these books "humor," but the judge didn't see them that way. Kane then went for a First Amendment plea, stating that his self-expression should be protected under the Constitution and not be used against him (there's a bit of the 5th mixed up in that, but all right). The judge wasn't amused by that, either. While the spanking bit may not have been relevant to the case, the "how to commit fraud" bit was. It seems that mastering the "Art of Male Supremacy" includes such useful testosterone-enhancing techniques as faking financial records to qualify for subsidized housing and running a fraudulent mail order scheme that never delivers services paid for. Oh, and for real he-men, a section on how to display pictures of topless women in the office without getting slapped with a sexual harassment suit. Okay, that last probably wasn't relevant to the case, either. But it certainly didn't help Kane's case a bit, contrasting as it did with the character letters from his doting relatives.

Were Kane's books only humorous parody? Or were his how-to books a bit too practical? Kane and his supporters claim his books are old and don't reflect his character. But when you've got a guy who has defrauded the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the same bugger writes how-to fraud manuals, it's hard not to connect the two.

The Washington Post has more on the Kane case here: Court: 1st Amendment Doesn't Shield Author.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Happy Father's Day!

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years. ~Mark Twain, "Old Times on the Mississippi" Atlantic Monthly, 1874
To all those who still have dads to talk to, argue with, and get fed up with, please take the time to visit or call today. Wish I could. Give your dad a hug for me.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Wouldn't these make great writing prompt pictures?

Check out this blog post: Seamless Pictures. Shades of Escher, but in color and... well, you just have to see.

I've used pictures from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by the amazing illustrator Christopher van Allsburg (of Jumanji and Polar Express fame) with kids as picture writing prompts. In a summer writing session, we challenged kids to come up with captions for the pictures. Young kids, literal as ever, gave them some very straighforward captions such as, "A nun is sitting an a floating chair." After we read the text that goes with the pictures, a few of them started to get the idea that the caption and the picture together can tell a story.

I can see Seamless Pictures being used in the same way, either to come up with interesting captions (which are in themselves one-line stories), or as prompts to create surreal stories. Give them a try and see what you come up with.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Another Vanity Press Gets Sued

Miss Snark pointed out this interesting lawsuit. It seems that one Leon Koziol, candidate for New York state senate, is suing Amazon.com and it's vanity publishing service, Book Surge, claiming that the book was full of typos and other errors.

I'm of two minds on this issue.

Mind 1: What did you expect? It's a vanity press.

As I've written before, vanity publishing isn't self-publishing. Book Surge is the publisher of this book, not Leon Koziol. Nevertheless, vanity publishers give the authors the impression that they are indeed self-publishing because 1) the author pays for it and 2) the vanity press usually offers little or no editing, unless the author wants to pay extra. Even then, it's up to the author to make the text as clean and sparkling as possible. These days that's true even of traditional publishing.

Koziol complains that the publisher is interested in "quantity over quality." That's the hallmark of the vanity press: to crank out as many books as possible, knowing that they'll be purchased primarily by doting relatives and a few sympathetic friends.

If Koizol wanted different results, he should have educated himself beforehand. Reading a book or two on publishing and on self-publishing would have cleared up his misconceptions regarding what Book Surge could and could not do for him.

Mind 2: Exposing the vanities is a good thing.

Every time I open a copy of Writer's Digest, I cringe. Full-page ads for vanity presses have taken a prominent place in the first few pages of the magazines. I renewed my subscription to the magazine only recently, and I'm ready to drop it again for that reason alone.

Because of advertising programs like these, people with any interest in writing at all are more familiar with vanity presses than they are with traditional publishers. When people think of getting published, often the ad for the vanity is the first thing that springs to mind. I get a lot of people asking me, "How much did it cost you to get published?" and they're surprised when I say, "Nothing. Publishers pay me. That's how the industry is supposed to work."

When cases like this reach the public's attention, I see more queries on the writer's boards from people asking, "I want to get published, but I don't want to get ripped off. What should I do?" Lawsuits against the vanities raise public awareness, which in turn gives writers the opportunity to educate the public about the differences between traditional publishing, self-publishing, and vanity publishing.

So let Koizol have his tantrum. If it saves someone else from an expensive publishing mistake, then it has done some good.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

And now can we get back to real issues, congress?

It's over, for the moment, at least until the would-be theocrats bring it up again in a pathetic effort to get their fellow theocrats to the polls by whipping hatred up to a furious lather.

Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess. Osama bin Laden, the fellow who was really in charge of the 9/11 attacks, is still at large. Military personnel are stretched to the breaking point in every sense. Gasoline prices are skyrocketing, with no end in sight. Bird flu is looming on the horizon. Katrina victims are still homeless, hurricane season is back, and the New Orleans levees still aren't sound. The NSA is listening in on only the gods know what, and the crimes of the current administration continue to mount. Millions of Americans are struggling along without insurance, which often means they're getting by without health care at all.

But heavens to Betsy, let all that fall aside for the only issue worthy of debate in Congress, it seems. Ooh, icky poo, icky poo, those GAYS wanna get married! Ew, ew, ew! Who cares about homeless Katrina victims. Who cares about Marine meltdowns? Who cares about wiretapping, torture, or anything else when there are GAYS running around actually wanting to commit to a lifetime of mutual caring? Ew!

Hmph. With all the wives some of the right-wing leaders and pundits have used and discarded, you'd think someone might be happy that anyone at all is still interested in a lifetime committment.

You'd also think that our national leaders, our elected representatives, would be familiar enough with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to understand that the Bill of Rights is about rights, rights for all citizens, not thou-shalt-nots. The last time that Congress attempted to use the Bill of Rights to limit the rights of the people (it was called "Prohibition," for those of you who don't remember U.S. History class), it failed miserably. Use of the Constitution to impose one groups religious beliefs on another just doesn't work, and that's precisely what the gay marriage amendment attempts to do.

Congress, hands off our rights. We're still using them.

Read more at the Washington Post: Gay Amendment Fails in Senate

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Publishing through Vanities is Not Self-Publishing, Says Kansas Court

It's official now. A vanity publisher that stamps its name on someone's book is the publisher of record. Authors who use the services of vanities and "POD publishers" (note: POD is a technology that many publishers use, not just the vanities) are not legally self-publishing, in spite of advertising claims.

Publishers themselves have known this for a long time. He who buys the ISBN number directly from , and whose imprint the book is published under, is indeed the publisher. When authors self-publish, they buy their own ISBN number, file for copyright on their own behalf, and publish under their own imprint, using a book printer (not a company calling itself a publisher) to bring the book into being.

Writers, however, aren't always cognizant of these finer legal points. And no wonder -- look at the colorful, exclamation-point-laden advertisements of the vanity presses. The majority of them refer to the process as "self-publishing." Or they'll confound a printing process with the act of publishing and call themselves "POD publishers," trying to avoid the stink of the "vanity" label, but they will still market themselves as a service to help authors self-publish.

A court in Kansas, however, ruled otherwise. In a libel case against , the jury ruled that AuthorHouse was, indeed, the publisher of a book that libeled the author's ex-wife, and held the company responsible for damages. AuthorHouse, and not the author himself, was determined by the jury to be the publisher of the book. So much for claims of "self-publishing."

More on the story is available from Publisher's Weekly:

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Early Writerious: Pencil, Pen, and Crayon Years

My mother has been cleaning house and getting a lot of old stuff out of the house. Invariably that means I end up going home with a box of stuff that she no longer wants, but doesn't really want to get rid of, just doesn't want to see again. Sometimes it's things I don't want to get rid of, either. In this latest transfer of unwanted goods was a small brown paper sack with a lot of old letters in it -- letters I'd written to my grandmother when we moved to another state. That was back long, long before email, back before cell phones, back when long distance was an extra charge on your bill but it only cost six cents to mail a letter of heartfelt greeings. So now I will bore you all with my precociousness, beginning with the year 1967, when I was but a tot at age five (I can hear you all doing the math). Yes, I was writing on my own by then. I'd been reading since age three. Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization are as they were in the original. Interesting how the spelling degenerates -- perhaps I was relying on others in the earlier epistles.
Dear Grandma
How Are You? I Am fine. I am Building A Ship Out on The Side of Our House. I am Having Fun Playing in my Ship.

The "ship" in question was a vaguely triangular-shaped junction of rock walls beside the house that reminded me vaguely of the prow of a ship. "Building" the ship consisted of moving a few bits of this and that around and sitting there envisioning it all as a ship.

(Envelope dated Nov 1967)
Dear Grandmother
How Are you? We Had a Turkey. And pumpkin Pie. Mark has his room in the Basement. We Get Carnation MiLK.

A scintillating narrative of Thanksgiving day. These are the things that are important to a five-year-old.
(Dated 1968)
Dear Gandma
Thank you for all the Lovely clothes. I like Them all Also Thank you so very much for the record and Book. I listen and read it every Day.
Evidently the obligatory thank-you letter, written a couple of weeks after Christmas.
(this one done painstakingly in cursive - envelope dated Feb 1968)
Dear Grandma
I miss you. come see me again. We will come see you soon.
Grandma must have come for Christmas. Ah, yes -- the infamous Hong Kong Flu year, when we all, every one of us, came down with the vile bug, one at a time. Just as one person would be well, the next would fall ill. Marvelous Christmas, it was.
(typewritten -- envelope dated Aug 1968)
HI
I am Righting to see if you are Happy. We ar getting to go to
go on ar trip. We are going for one week. ar you going for one week/? My bunny is going to. When are you comeing home. ar cat is home ar dog is home just we are going and my bunny ar is going. i have a picture of are car and we are in it.
The bunny was a stuffed bunny, of course. If I'd had a live bunny, it would have stayed with the dog and cat.
Dear Grandma
Guess What! We have some turkeys in the courtyard! There is one male and two females. They are Big and fat. Today we learned a new game called 20 Questions. I have a present for you but do not open it until Christmas.
This was accompanied by a drawing labeled "a male turkey." Evidently a letter written under the direction of my first grade teacher, since the spelling is spot on, though capitalization is still shaky.
(Dated January 3, 1969 -- I would be age 6 1/2)
Dear Grandma
Guess What! We Still have Snow out there. I bet it is about 8 inches deep. I Love the Love Bug that you Gave me. I am Going to take it to School for Show and Tell Next friday. I like the Play food that you Gave me. Played with it friday. You Know What happened friday! Ther was No School! Because ther was to much snow on the road. So the bus's did not come. The Boy's (Mark and Kent) are Clening the Drive Way Now. Well I don't have any more to say. By.
The sign-off was to be my standard schtick for a whole series of letters. The Love Bug was a pink furry cylindrical stuffed toy with a goofy face done in felt at one end. I still have it.
(Envelope dated Feb 1969)
Dear Grandma
Did you have a happy Valentines day? I did. We had a valentines parrty at school. and i got a lot of valentines. Geuss What! wear going to Come to your house! We are going to Come on Kent's Brithday. you know what? Noseles wear liveing the Peach house acrosst the street now Donny a littel boy and his famly are liveing in it!
Well i don't have anymore to say, By!
I haven't a clue who or what "Noslels" is -- probably a phonetic spelling of the name of the family that lived in the house prior to the aforementioned Donny.
(Envelope dated 1969)
Dear Grandmother
Happy Easter! (I hope) Oh boy! am I going to have fun on Easter! Can you guess? Well, Instead of hunting Candy eggs, we are going to hunt plasteck eggs with money and srprizes inside! (That money relly Get's me!) I here that you might come up here for Easter. I hope you do,... and you know why Easter is such a special day? Because, Jeuse Rose on Easter! Well, have a happy Easter! By!
A born money-grubber, despite the theological overtones.
(Dated June 11, 1969)
Dear Grandma
HI! What's going on today?! I just got a set of Beads (Small and Big) and thin wier. it's called "indian rings." I realy sent away for some magck tricks, in the Cappy Dick, But I guess they ran Out But, anyway, I'll have fun. Well, no more to say, By!
Not sure what "Cappy Dick" is -- probably something in the comic section of the newspaper where kids could send away for various kits. I do recall getting a magic kit with Kool-ade labels at one point. I never did figure out why I got the bead kit instead of the magic kit I wanted.

Well i don't have anymore to say, By!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Rejected Writer's Rejection (Video)

If you haven't seen this one yet: Black Books - Bernard's Letter have a look. Every writer who has experienced the pain of rejection can sympathize with Bernard's despair -- and his darkly humorous response to the editor who rejected his novel.

The video begins playing when the page opens, so have your headphones ready if you don't want to disturb others in the room.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Want Your Book to Be a Bestseller? Fork Over £50,000

Or in American dollars, that's $94,137.

That's how much it will cost in the U.K. for your publisher to get your books placed prominently in the large chain stores, according to an article by The Times Online, and prices in the U.S. are in the same ballpark. Think those tables of books sitting out in plain view when you walk into Borders were chosen by the staff? Or that the face-out books on the shelves were just to fill space or look aesthetically pleasing, or even to help the customer find books? Or that the staff picks are really, truly staff picks in every case?

Think again.

Most shoppers probably figure that the large cardboard display cases holding the latest Harry Potter installment were the work of a publisher, but few suspect that merely placing a stack of books out on a table where the customers walk it is a privilege bought and sold in huge, costly packages that put the major publishers in the best position to get a shopper's attention.

The practice is nothing new, but it has grown so expensive in recent years that the smaller, independent publishers are feeling the pinch, both in the costs of promotion, and lost sales if they don't promote. Bookstores know that shoppers are attracted to interesting book covers, and are more likely to buy books from table displays and face-out books than they are to choose any particular book that is displayed spine-out. Staff recommendations may make a book more attractive, and in some cases even these are purchased as part of a promotional package. But small publishers are hard-pressed to afford the fees required for prominent placement, 3 for 2 deals, or similar promotions. Publishers belonging to larger media conglomerates often have far more cash for promotion, and the very size of their war chests may be a factor in driving up the price.

The practice, in turn, can limit a shopper's perception of choice. It's easier to find books that are dipsplayed with their covers showing. If you come in looking for a certain book on writing, but spot a different one that is displayed more prominently, the book that was on display may be the book you walk out with.

So what does the average book buyer do about this? Most shoppers are completely unaware that areas of the bookstore carry price tags, so most shoppers will do next to nothing to alter the practice. And since most people buy books by their title or author and care little about who publishes it -- the name of the publisher doesn't carry the same brand name clout as the name of, say, a soft drink -- most shoppers probably don't care. But as an aware shopper, you can make it a habit to seek out the unusual. Bypass the prominent displays and search among the spine-out books for lesser-known publishers to see what they have to offer. Find independent booksellers in your town, who often carry more books from smaller publishers. And if you hear of a good book by a small publisher and your bookseller doesn't carry it, ask them to order it for you.

It's a small gesture, but it means so much to artistic freedom.

Monday, May 29, 2006

In Memoriam

My father, Don J. Lytle (1931-1999), U.S. Air Force, Korea
My uncle, Richard Hiday (1914-1945), U.S. Army, World War II
My grandfather, James W. Lytle (1892-1951), U.S. Army, World War I
My friend, Robert Solonika (1962-1982), U.S. Army

Thanks, guys.

Friday, May 26, 2006

See: Bye-Bye, Barbara--The Play!

Another entry into the "Wish Barbara Bauer luck with some other career" internet extravaganza:

Bye-Bye, Barbara--The Play!

This is, by the way, satire, which is protected by U.S. laws.

It Had to Happen: 20worstagents.com

Scam agent Barbara Bauer has been making trouble. A shrieking rant over the phone got the fabulous site, Absolute Write, shut down in less than an hour, without time for the web owners to retrieve their data, as reported by Teresa Hayden on Making Light. All this for posting a list of the 20 worst agents, of which Bauer was one. Absolute Write, however, is back in business with a newer and less nervous web hosting service. Bauer snarked Making Light itself, and has badgered other sites that have dared to call a fee-charging agent without any legitimate sales to her credit a "scam." But ya know, if it looks like a scam and it quacks like a scam, it's a scam.

As much as she'd like to shut down writers and their sites who have posted the Stinking Twenty on their own sites, Bauer seems to have forgotten that writers are creative sorts, and usually independent sorts who don't like to be pushed around. Someone out there in cyberspace took the obvious step and registered the domain name of http://20worstagents.com for the sole purpose of posting the 20 Worst Agents list -- along with an unflattering animation of The Bauer herself, with her bit yap flapping.

Give them a visit. Let the traffic pour in.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Free Writing Courses at Barnes & Noble University

Barnes & Noble just announced the latest courses from . Among the offerings are:

All these courses are free and take place entirely online. Here's how it works:

You register for the course, and get access to the message board for that course. There is usually a book that you should purchase for the course, which, naturally, Barnes & Noble is happy to help you order. The instructor posts readings on the course message board, and makes assignments. Students respond to the assignment by posting their writing on the board. Instructors and fellow students may comment on the posts.

Most courses last four weeks, with two lessons per week. Following through requires some committment on the part of the student, but four weeks isn't a tremendous amount of time out of most people's lives.

Besides, free is a very good price.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Myth of the Tortured Writer

I've read Anne Lamott's classic tome on writing, Bird by Bird, several times over, and I've listened to her audiotaped lecture, Word by Word. Both contain interesting insights on the writing life. Lamott is entertaining to read and to listen to, and she's brutally honest about her own life and her own writing.

But there is a point at which my opinions about writing differ dramatically from Lamott's. She seems convinced that writers and other creative people are all highly dysfunctional people who are addicted to their need for positive strokes, which the crazily pursue through writing, and are invariably disappointed because getting published doesn't make their lives sparkle with joy, joy, joy.

I'm a writer. I've published multiple books for children. I do have my dysfunctions, my quirks, and my struggles in life. I've had some tough times in the past, endured an insanely dysfunctional first so-called marriage, have attended far too many funerals, and have some annoying health concerns. But I wouldn't call myself tortured, especially when it comes to writing.

First of all, I don't consider writing to be a chore. Writing is difficult, yes. Brain surgery is difficult and takes years to learn, but no one characterizes brain surgeons as tortured geniuses. Good writing, really good writing, the kind I still aspire to, takes no lesser amount of practice and training. But writing, though difficult, is fun. Yes, fun. I'd rather make my living as a writer than just about anything else, short of getting paid to lounge on a beach on Maui (and I'd still be writing even if I got paid for beach-lounging).

Second, when Ms. Lamott says that getting published won't change your life, I say, "Speak for yourself, dear." Getting published did change my life. It's a thrill to see your name printed for the first time on the front cover of a real book printed by a real publisher. Each book that follows gives the same thrill. It's not so much personal validation as it is closure. Writing a book is a huge undertaking that a writer conquers step by step, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. It's a difficult journey, and having that solid book in hand says, "You did it!" It's like crossing the finish line of a marathon. You did it, and no one can take it away from you.

Finally, dysfunctionality is not a prerequisite of genius. It's the tortured genius who gets all the media attention, but for every tortured genius, there are dozens of other highly functional geniuses and hundreds of other highly functional ordinary folks who succeed in writing because they write, write, write, and refuse to give up. Creativity grows with practice. Ideas multiply like bunnies if you give them half a chance. The way to be a writer is by practicing your writing, not by drinking or acquiring psychoses.

Garrison Keillor, on his Prairie Home Companion blog, voices a similar opinion in his essay titled Something he's been meaning to say for years. If a writer with Keillor's charm, smoothness, and skill doesn't have to be neurotic to succeed, neither do the rest of us.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Unfortunate Mr. Handler

Young readers who thrive on dreariness and gobble up the "" books may wonder what a person upon whom the name Lemony Snickett was inflicted might look like. If you haven't combed the web for photos of the elusive author already, a full-face portrait of one Daniel Handler, accused of bearing the nom de plume of Lemony Snickett, can be seen in the Washington Post, accompanied by an article about the Barnes & Noble Summer Reading Program, which Mr. Snickett a.k.a. Mr. Handler is kicking off. And before we commit any of the usual stale "unfortunate" references, let's commend to Barnes & Noble for giving books away to young readers as a reward for filling their summers with literature.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

For Sale: "Free" Expression

If you haven't heard about the current attacks on , maybe your computer has been in at the shop -- and the neighborhood dogs ran off with your newspaper and the television died.

The issue rests on current regulations that prevent big internet providers from deciding what sites you will visit, based on how much those sites can pay. The big providers want to change that, and allow those who pay them more to get their site noticed more. Sounds on the surface like the way in which advertising, or commerce in general, works. But what does it mean for us ordinary mortals of the blogosphere, for small net business owners, for political websites, charity websites, or for informational websites?

It means that if you want your page noticed, you'll no longer have to go through all the trouble of designing a compelling and aesthetically pleasing website, working hard on search engine optimization, writing good content, and providing a good experience for your reader.

You'll just have to pay great, big, humongous bucks.

Why should a writer care? Let's think about it.

  • Suppose I want some music to listen to as I write. I could click on , which is currently my online music supplier of choice. But if Comcast, my cable company, opens up its own (and, with pressure from the music industry, more expensive) music company, they could, under the new law, control my access to and steer me toward their own service. That may sound like only a minor inconvenience, but it is entirely unfair.
  • Suppose I want to continue my blog. In spite of the Google ads at the top, a blog like this makes only a nominal income, certainly far short of the kind of income stream that the big internet bagmen are interested in charging bloggers. Most bloggers would be forced to give up -- and therefore shut up. Now we're seriously treading on First Amendment rights.
  • Suppose I publish with a small company, or I choose to create my own imprint and self-publish. What chance do I have of getting my site and my book noticed? Very little, if I have only a tiny budget and can't shell out the bucks to the internet bagmen. Again, it's put up (with extortion) or shut up.

These aren't just idle suppositions. There are already cases on the books where internet providers have attempted to block access to rival companies and services to promote their own services, and have interfered with their subscribers' rights to hold dissenting opinions. Let's not forget AOL's anti-First-Amendment attempt to block emails having to do with a website that opposed their pay-to-email plan.

The only people who seem to be in favor of scuttling net neutrality are the would-be bagmen: internet providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and AOL Time-Warner. They want to apply their own system of taxation for providing internet content. Read their justifications and you can practically hear the "ka-ching!" as the dollar signs light up in their eyes. Service to customers? Pah! That's so old-fashioned. So reality-based.

If you're concerned -- and any website owner ought to be -- please visit the site. Moby just joined the forces, bringing on board Artists and Musicians for Internet Freedom. How about you?


Save the Internet: Click here

Monday, May 01, 2006

Query Letter Facelifts from Evil Editor

If, like most of us mortals, you have trouble writing a decent query letter, hurry over to and check out the letters that E.E. has been critiquing and editing. Fun, funny, and oh, so useful.

If the world were fair and just, I'd have E.E. for my editor and for my agent. No, I'm not just a glutton for punishment. I fully appreciate people who can give me the straight scoop on my work.