Young Love…

Maybe it’s just that I find things other people find normal to be funny for some reason (which might be a good trait for a publisher), but I found the following “cheat sheet” for writing young adult novels to be both amusing (mostly because it actually exists) and useful:

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/writing-young-adult-fiction-for-dummies-cheat-shee.html

That’s right – there is a “For Dummies” book on how to write young adult novels, and most of the information in the cheat sheet actually makes sense. So instead of talking about what makes a good young adult novels this week (the cheat sheet already does that), I want to focus on why certain young adult novels will get rejected by us.

  • Doing the math. Generally we price our young adult novels lower than our general fiction in other genres. For a publisher, this means getting the page count lower, which requires a lower total word counts. A book sent to us with 100,000 words that is pitched as young adult is probably not going to make it past the query letter. In my opinion, the optimal word count for young adult novels is 50,000-60,000 words.
    The other thing I always do is compute the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level. Most teens reading books not assigned as required reading in school are reading for pleasure, and that reading time is competing with all of the other forms of entertainment out there (including texting their friends). Making a book too complex a read for the average teen, while it may challenge readers, is more likely to make them never finish it.
  • Is it a “Twi-book”? I’ve stated this previously, but I’m not looking to publish books using what the large publishers consider to be the correct “format” for a genre – I want to be the one to discover the next “correct” format. So if I’ve read something similar to your story before, especially if it was by a well-known author, I will probably pass on the manuscript.
  • Sarah’s elephant. I want to start with an admission – I’m a prude. Yes, I put that in bold so it will stand out. In our last blog, guest editor Sarah Welsh asked a question about the “elephant in the room” – how much sex is too much for a romance novel. For young adult novels, my answer is simple: in my opinion, any sex in a young adult novel is too much. This is not to say there can’t be romance. In Tony Russo’s upcoming book Darkest Hour, there is a love triangle between Briley, the girl fighter pilot, the pirate she captures who later flies as her wingman, and the son of an aristocrat who initially makes fun of Briley’s poor upbringing but later comes to respect her when she helps her training class graduate flight school. In Jenna-Lynn Duncan’s Hurricane, there is a love triangle between the heroine and the two brothers who kidnap her in an attempt to save her from killers. In Hope Gillette’s Journey Through Travelers’ Tower, while there is no overt romance between any of the characters, there is enough tension to wind a spring. Finally, in Darren Simon’s Guardian’s Nightmare, the two main teen characters are both females, and there are no romantic themes at all. It’s simply a book about a girl whose destiny is to save her world and ours. All of these books have one thing in common – they are great books that didn’t need to use sex as a prop. In short, a young adult novel with a clever and unique plot does not need to rely on sex to create an interesting story.

For young adult authors, I sometimes suggest looking at what we’ve published and currently have under contract to get an idea of what we will publish. I’m even willing to send a sample copy (the first 20%) for free to authors who are wondering if they should query us (alternatively you can use “Look Inside” on Amazon to see the eBook interiors). But authors who don’t keep the above items in mind often find they receive a rejection letter fairly quickly.

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A Little Romance…

The story you are about to read is true. As I’ve stated in previous blogs, I do the final review for every manuscript being considered by Divertir Publishing. Two years ago I had a business trip to a casino. Because I don’t gamble, I brought a copy of Sarah Welsh’s A Chosen Village with me on my Kindle to review. I spent my evenings sitting in the lounge reading her manuscript.

Several patrons asked what I was reading, and when I told them it was a book we were considering for publication most asked to read a few pages. The reactions were amusing in their consistency. From reading only a few pages, all of the women thought it was one of the greatest books they had ever read, while none of the men understood a single word – it might as well have been written in Latin.

I will be the first person to admit I understand more about cold fusion that I do about woman and relationships. Add the fact that I’m a prude who blushes at the contents of most modern romance novels, and it’s clear I am the last person who should be giving advice on what to write for this genre. Luckily, our own Sarah Welsh has agreed to share her opinions on what makes a good romance novel.

* * *

The Art of Romance

By Sarah Welsh

We all like a good love story. Whatever your reason for reading it, be it to fill a void in your own life, or to learn what you do and don’t want from a partner, as in all things with love – it’s complicated. When it comes to the romance genre there are a few key points you need to keep in mind when writing or submitting a manuscript to an editor or publisher that will determine its success or failure. Listed below are some of those points that I feel compelled to address.

  • A good plot goes a long way. The primary focus of romance is typically on the “relationship”. This we all know, but there is something equally as important that sometimes gets not as much attention, pushed to the side, or simply forgotten about, and that is a good, solid, and interesting plot that could stand alone if need be. You never want to be too heavy in either character or plot; that’s a guaranteed recipe for a dull read. A balanced manuscript will catch and hold anyone’s attention.
  • Side characters are your friend. Good side characters are an invaluable resource to writers. Take advantage of them. Give them defining characteristics and relationships of their own and tie them into the main character(s). If the story circles around just the main character you’ll most likely run out of things to say. Look at it like a bowl of gumbo, the side characters being the roux – you can make a decent pot of soup without the roux, but it won’t be as thick or as creamy without it.
  • Get Real. Keep the relationships and the conversation realistic. Not every relationship ends well or the way we intended it to. Nor should they all end with a wedding, pregnancy, or a happy ending. Not to say that I don’t like happy endings – I do very much – but surprise me, keep it exciting and not predictable. Also no one is perfect, therefore your protagonist shouldn’t be either. They should have some sort of character flaw or internal conflict to overcome, something we as imperfect humans can relate to. If I can’t relate to the main character, I’m not going to enjoy the story.
  • The elephant in the room. There’s no ignoring it. It’s in our biology. In fact the survival of our species depends on it. No discussion about the romance genre would be complete without talking about sex. How much is too much? In my opinion it’s always best to keep it tasteful. You can go into detail, but steer clear of grotesque, unnecessary descriptions, incest, and rape if possible. Sometimes in writing the buildup can be better than the act itself, so make sure you’ve built up the story enough and the relationship between the characters to warrant the sex.

I hope you found this information to be informative and insightful. Whether you’re thinking about starting to write a romance novel or have already finished one, check to see if your manuscript is in line with most or all of these points and your chances of snagging that contract will be significantly greater.

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A Good Mystery…

The final step of our review process is that I read every manuscript under consideration. The reason is simple – as the publisher, I am responsible for the quality of the books we bring to market. Because I make the final decisions on what we publish, I wanted to spend a few blogs talking about what I look for in submissions for various genres. This week we’ll discuss mysteries. Here are a few of the things I look for:

  • Start with the mystery. This advice actually brings two TV shows to mind: Columbo and Murder She Wrote. In the first, viewers are introduced to both the criminal and the crime in the beginning of the episode and watch the detective solve a crime where viewers already know “who-done-it.” In the second, the crime but not the identity of the criminal are revealed at the beginning, and viewers try to solve the crime along with the sleuth. The important point is that, in both cases, the story starts with the mystery. In my opinion, manuscripts that start with a large amount of back story and don’t introduce the mystery early will not get readers involved in trying to solve the mystery (or watching the sleuth as they solve the mystery) and draw readers in – which is essential for a mystery.
  • This one’s just right. You don’t want your plot to be too complex – readers who can’t solve the mystery along with your sleuth will not enjoy the manuscript. Similarly, if the book does not start by disclosing the identity of the bad guy and it’s too easy to figure out who the bad guy is, your readers will be wondering why your sleuth is so inept and why it’s taking them so long to solve a mystery that is so obvious. In my opinion what you want to strive for is your sleuth solving the crime right after your readers have been given enough information to solve the crime themselves, assuming the book does not start by disclosing the guilty party. If you start by disclosing the guilty party, you want your readers to be able to follow your sleuth without getting lost.
  • Make your sleuth interesting. In Don Westlake’s The Mercenaries, the sleuth is a gangster forced to solve the murder of a prostitute, who also happened to be the mistress of the police commissioner, in order to take the focus of the entire police force off the crime family. In Chris Rakunas’ The 8th Doll, Alex Guidry is a college professor brought in by a friend to help solve a crime. In our upcoming A Bother of Bodies, Amanda Capper makes the sleuth a former criminal whose past comes back to haunt her. Keeping your characters interesting will keep your readers interested.
  • Don’t kill the main character. This is not to say a book where the main character dies (such as our upcoming Dime Detective by Hal Schick, which has the detective “solving” his own murder, or Dragon’s Teeth by Suzanne Van Rooyen) will not be an entertaining read. Keep in mind, however, that once people find a character they like they are much more likely to continue to follow the exploits of that character. Featuring the same character in a number of books is the best way to build both your brand and your following.

This is not to say that a manuscript that does not fit this format will be rejected automatically. However, because I like mysteries that start with the crime, books that start differently will need to catch my attention in a different way.

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Series Killers…

I need to start this blog with a confession: I did not make it all the way to book fourteen of the Wheel of Time series. I believe I stopped at book eight. I wanted to share my views on series with authors so that authors will know what we will consider and, more importantly, what we won’t and why.

I want to start by mentioning a few series that I really like for comparison: Midnight at the Well of Souls, by Jack Chalker, was book one in the Saga of the Well World series. I’m also a fan of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Childs. Then there is our own Chris Rakunas, who is writing the Alex Guidry series of mysteries. These books all have one thing in common: Each book is a self-contained manuscript – you don’t need to wait for the second or third book in the series to know the full story. Compare that to The Wheel of Times series, which was fourteen books that spanned 23 years (1990 to 2013). Each book required you to have read the previous book in order to follow the plot. Writing books that require a reader to have read the previous manuscripts creates several issues:

  • Authors should not assume readers will read their books in order. The first Jack Reacher book I read was Persuader, which was book seven in the series. Because the book was written to be a separate story from the others, with back story lightly dispersed throughout the manuscript to fill in information I would need from previous books, I was able to enjoy the book even though I had not read the previous books in the series. The same is true for Chris’s Alex Guidry series; you can read The 8th Doll and Eye of Siam out of order and enjoy both manuscripts.
    I know some writers are saying it is much harder to write self-contained manuscripts for their genres than for mysteries. The Saga of the Well World series is an example of why this is not the case. Midnight at the Well of Souls is a self-contained book, with no plot arcs left unresolved at the end. However, because Nathan Brazil is left alone in his ship at the end, it leaves the door open for him (and other characters from the book) to have new adventures as part of the series. In fact, the Nathan Brazil character is not seen again until book four in the series.
  • Too much back story is required in books that rely on “cliff hangers” in the previous books. Each book in The Wheel of Time series had several cliff hangers – plot arcs left open at the end that required a reader to buy the next book to find out what happened. But because you can’t assume readers will buy your books in order, authors need to “fill in the blanks” in the current book with regards to what happened in the previous books. This usually results in the beginning of subsequent books in a series containing large amounts of back story, leaving the last chapters of the book for all of the actual action and throwing off the pacing.
  • Readers are left unsatisfied if a book ends with too many “cliff hangers.” I know what most authors are thinking – having a book end with a cliff hanger will make readers want to purchase the next book. However, if authors leave too many open plot arcs at the end of a novel, forcing readers to buy the next book to find out what happens will in fact turn off some readers. Most people like the stories they read to have the beginning and ending in the same book. In the case of The Wheel of Time, readers had to wait 23 years to find out what happened, and your average reader does not have a 23 year attention span.

In short, I’m not looking to publish the next 14 book epic in any genre. As I review submissions, I’m finding many of the authors who submit manuscripts are writing them as part of a series. This is actually a good idea, because once a reader becomes invested in a character they will continue to purchase books about that character. I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t leave one or two unresolved plot arc in your book to entice readers to buy the next book – Journey Through Travelers’ Tower by Hope Gillette and Guardian’s Nightmare by Darren Simon both have one plot twist at the end that is a perfect setup for the next book in the series. But authors need to keep in mind that, if readers need to wait too long to find out what happens to a character, they will lose interest as their attention moves on to other characters whose exploits are easier to follow.

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What We Look For…

In my last blog I talked about the journey your manuscript takes as it moves through our review process. Just like the characters in your manuscripts, your submission will face several hurdles and challenges as it moves through the review process. I touched on one of those hurdles last week – the decision on whether to forward a manuscript to a reviewer is often based solely on the query letter, and the sample chapters are usually not read until the manuscript is assigned to a reviewer. Thus, a strong query letter that clearly describes your work and why a publisher should be interested in considering it is essential. In this blog I want to focus on some of the questions we ask as we consider your manuscript for publication.

Is the manuscript original? A BISAC code is what tells a bookstore whether a book is a fantasy, a mystery, or something else. I’m sure there isn’t a BISAC code for this genre, but we are currently working on the edits for a Christian young adult novel. Why would we take the chance on a book whose genre can’t easily be described using a BISAC code? For the same reason we are taking a chance on a book about a young girl becoming a Spitfire pilot during World War II – they are both well-written manuscripts that are unique. This is not to say you should come up with some crazy genre for your manuscript to make it sound unique if it doesn’t accurately describe the work – if the Acquisitions Editor can’t tell what the manuscript is about from the genre you include in your query letter, it is likely that the manuscript will never see a reviewer. What this is saying is I’m more willing to take a chance on a manuscript that is unique than on one with a plot line I’ve seen a dozen times before. This is also not to say I don’t enjoy a good vampire book (we will be publishing one this fall). What it does say is the vampire had better not sparkle.

Is the word count in line with the genre? I’ve written two blogs on word count in the past (A Word on Word Count and Biblical Word Counts) that you can refer to for specifics about our guidelines, but my advice here is simple. We are much more likely to consider an 80,000 word manuscript from an unpublished author than a 150,000 word manuscript. Also, authors should keep the genre of their manuscript in mind when writing, as the genre often dictates what a reader expects in terms of length.

Is the dialog interesting? I’ve written a blog in the past about dialog. In short, several pages of dialog with no character actions (what are your characters doing while they are speaking) are very two-dimensional and uninteresting. When dialog is broken up with actions it is easier to follow who is speaking.

Is the story realistic? Even for Sci-Fi and Fantasy, your story needs to have a level of realism – unless there is a good reason for it, 400 years after a war you should not still be scavenging for food and water.

Is there a social message? I’ve previously blogged that we set a pretty high bar for publishing memoirs, but we have published them in the past. In Tears for the Mountain Chris Rakunas recounts his trip to Haiti to deliver medical supplies after the earthquake. A book currently under contract by Sharia Mayfield examines whether mass surveillance and the use of material witness warrants to force suspects to testify in front of grand juries are a violation of our fourth and fifth Amendment rights, and tells the story of a man who had these new tools in the “War on Terror” used against him after a botched fingerprint match resulted in him being accused of a horrible crime. In short, a manuscript with an important social message will always catch my attention.

Does the beginning of the manuscript make a reader want more? For the manuscripts we reject, the most common criticisms I get from reviewers are that the sample chapters either just didn’t make them want to read more, or they left the reviewer wondering what the book was about. In most of those cases, the issue was too much back story in the beginning of the manuscript. In an age when a person can download the first 10-20% of your manuscript for free as a sample before they purchase it, a book where the beginning doesn’t completely grab a reader’s attention and make them want more is not going to sell, no matter how much the vampire sparkles.

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Your Manuscript’s Journey…

In my last blog I mentioned a book by Tony Russo that, although several editors the author had pitched the manuscript to did not consider the manuscript to have “shelf appeal,” I really liked. You’ll be happy to know we have gone to contract on “Call of the Kestrel” and are looking at Tony’s other works.

This does raise an interesting question. If we’re not necessarily looking for books that editors from the major publishers would consider to have “shelf appeal” or books that fit a predefined format for a genre, what are we looking for? To answer this question, I want to give you a glimpse into the journey your manuscript takes after you submit it to Divertir Publishing. This week I will talk about our review process in general. In the upcoming weeks I will talk about specific things we look for. I hope that, by understanding the decisions we make at each point in the process, author will have a better feel for what we will publish and how to navigate the process successfully.

Initial queries are reviewed by our Acquisitions Editor Jen Corkill. Jen usually makes the decision whether a query will be forwarded to one of our reviewers or rejected based solely on the query letter (she will almost never read the sample chapters), so a strong query letter that clearly describes the manuscript is essential. It is also important that an author clearly identify the genre of the work in the query letter – telling us your young adult romance novel is a mystery could result in it being sent to a reviewer that does not like young adult romance, and your work may get a bad review for all the wrong reasons.

Who are our reviewers? They are people we’ve identified who are not only avid readers but who can articulate the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript. In short they are your target audience, and we take their opinions very seriously. The reviewer will make the decision whether we request a full manuscript or reject a query based on the synopsis and sample chapters. While I will talk about this more in my next blog, the best way to ensure that your full manuscript is requested is a strong opening without a lot of back story. Interestingly, I can usually tell the manuscripts that will make it to the final review stage at this point; if the reviewer behaves like a child in the back seat on a long road trip when asking about your full manuscript (“Is it here yet, is it here yet?”), then I can usually predict how the review of the full manuscript will turn out.

When we request the full manuscript it will always go back to the person who did the initial review if they are available. The reason is we want to see if the same excitement about your work exists the second time the reviewer reads it. For full manuscripts we ask our reviewers to write a brief critique (which we are happy to send to authors if requested), which is then discussed during a weekly meeting where we decide as a group which manuscripts will move forward.

The final step of our review process is that I read every manuscript under consideration. The reason for this is simple – as the publisher, I am responsible for the quality of the books we bring to market. If I disagree with a reviewer on a manuscript it will also be read by Jen. I admit there are some books that don’t grab me (I wanted everyone to die by book eight of the Wheel of Time series), and in those instances it’s best to get another opinion. If we decide a book should go to contract, I will always set up a time to talk with an author before sending the contract. Being published by a small press is not the same as being published by Random House, and I think it’s important I personally explain what an author should expect before I send a contract.

Because I make the final decisions on what we publish, I want to spend my next few blogs talking about what I look for in submissions. The next blog will focus on what I look for in general, while several blogs after that will focus on specific genres. But the short answer to this question is simple and something I stated last week – I want to be the publisher who discovers the next format that has “shelf appeal” and not one who only publishes books that stick to the current formats. A well-written manuscript that is unique will almost always end it’s journey with me setting up a time to talk with the author.

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A Matter of Taste…

Recently author Tony Russo posted a blog about a manuscript he has submitted to Divertir Publishing for review. He had attended a “pitch workshop” for writers where he presented the pitch for his manuscript Vanquish to a panel of New York editors. The editors basically told him that a young adult alternate history novel about a young girl becoming a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain had no “shelf appeal” and that he should completely rewrite the book. The reason? None of the things in his book (like the fact it was set during World War II) would appeal to teen girls, who are the primary readers for this genre. To quote his blog:

So girls and vampires, yes; girl who shoots a bow and arrow in a dystopian future, yep; but a girl flying a Spitfire == no.

After working with the editors on what was “wrong” with his book, the pitch he finally presented was for a very different manuscript than Vanquish. I only have one issue with the advice from the editors who helped Tony rewrite his pitch:

I like the book the way it is.

The plot is very clever, and while I did not like one of the subplots and think the ending needs work, I think overall it’s a well-written manuscript. It could very well be that I’m nothing more than a “Tool of the Publishing Elite” who has no understanding of what gives a book “shelf appeal.” More likely, it’s a matter of taste. I’m not looking to publish the next Twilight – I’m looking for manuscripts that are different than what mainstream publishing has decided is the “format” that works for a particular genre. In short, I want to be the publisher who discovers the next format that has “shelf appeal” and not one who publishes books that stick to the current formats.

This is not to suggest that authors should not think about the “shelf appeal” of their manuscript – a 250 page novel written in Haiku is probably not going to be picked up by any publisher, no matter how clever an idea that might be. Readers of different genres expect certain things in the books they read, and to ignore this is to guarantee that your writing will never develop a readership. But the fact that your manuscript does not fit the “format” for a genre does not mean it’s not a good idea for a book. It just means you might need to work harder to show publishers why it is…

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