A Time to Celebrate…

No, I did not hot the Powerball – but the thing I am celebrating is just as good. On September 17th of this year, Divertir Publishing will have been in business for five years.

When I started the company in 2009, I knew there was a chance I would not be writing this blog. That year, based on the number of request for ISBN blocks from new companies, Bowker estimated that approximately 80,000 new publishers went into business. That same year a statistic came out that 95% of new publishers fail in the first two years, while 98% were no longer publishing books after five years. So I’m personally quite proud to be able to say that, at our five year anniversary, we have seventeen books in print and another fourteen under contract.

In my next few blog I will cover some of the things I feel we have accomplished, some things that still need to be done, and what we have planned for the coming year (such as the fact that our new website will debut within the next two weeks). In this blog I think it’s important to take time to thank some people who made this anniversary possible.

Beth Harvey was out first Acquisitions Editor, in addition to being the editor for two of our short story collections and several of our full-length manuscripts. Beth and I met at the karaoke show of a mutual friend – yes, I meet writers at the strangest places. Beth has moved on to start Insomnia Publishing, and I wish her all the best with this new endeavor.

I met Lisa Keele on Deviant Art – she ran the Daily Lit Deviation group. Lisa started as an editor with us, editing one of our first short story collections and several of our novels. She then served for a brief period as our Senior Editor. Lisa has moved on to other pursuits not directly involved with writing, and again I wish her the best.

Elisa Nuckle and Mel Ngai both worked as editors for us in our early years. Elisa has returned to school to finish her degree, while Mel is now working with Beth at Insomnia Publishing.

Jen Corkill-Hunt has been our Acquisitions Editor since the beginning of the year. Jen started as a reviewer for us, moved into editing after taking the Kobayashi Maru of all editing tests (which I have since stopped using because of the ban on cruel and unusual punishment), and now runs the editing side of Divertir Publishing. I consider Jen to be both my “partner-in-crime” and a close friend, and she is responsible for several of the new ideas we’ve implemented this year.

Jayde Gilmore started with us as a reviewer, while Laura Jamison started as an intern. Both now review and edit manuscripts for us. In addition, Laura is responsible for designing the incredible cover for Repeat Offenders by Bill Bonvie and is the girl on the cover of Guardian’s Nightmare. Without the dedication both have shown to Divertir Publishing our backlog would be a lot larger than it is.

The people responsible for wading through the queries to identify books that might be of interest to us are our reviewers, and without them we would have much less time to actually publish manuscripts. Our current reviewers are Michael Gilmore, Sam Tower, Ben Lyles, Lylah Caldwell, and Marie Wagner. In addition Sarah Welsh, one of our authors, reviews romance novels for us.

Finally, and most importantly, I would like to thank our authors. Each of them put there trust in a small startup publishing company, and without their trust, hard work, and continued input on how to improve things at Divertir Publishing we would not be where we are today – celebrating our fifth anniversary.

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Brave New Worlds…

For the past few blogs I’ve been writing about what we look for when reviewing manuscripts for various genres. This weeks I want to tackle Science Fiction and Fantasy. I’m putting them together in the same blog because, while the genres are very different, often what I look for is not.

  • Make your worlds interesting. Often when writing science fiction and fantasy you are creating a new world (the exceptions being urban and paranormal fantasy, which is more about mythical creatures living in our world in the present or past). Does the reader know all the details they need to about the spaceship your characters are traveling in and the planet they are visiting? Can the reader visualize the creatures (mythical or not) in you work? Can the reader get a sense of how scary the “badlands” in your fantasy novels are from the description you’ve given? A world that has not adequately described to your readers will be uninteresting.
  • Have fun with characters. What I really mean here is that you can have a lot of fun when developing your characters because they don’t need to be human or possess standard human traits. In The King’s Tournament, a fantasy novel by John Yeo currently under contract with Divertir, “Balor the Barbarian” speaks about himself in the third person, throws a cow through the Duke’s window to pay his taxes, and proves he not a complete ass when he tells one character how to beat another in battle. A Twist of Fate by Mark Johnson relies heavily on the use of magic in a world where several of the characters are demigods. Some authors overlook developing their characters in as much detail as their worlds when writing science fiction and fantasy. This is a mistake, because two-dimensional characters make uninteresting books.
  • Have fun with science. What color would the skin of a creature be if it lived in a predominantly methane atmosphere where the respiration of oxygen did not occur? You can have a lot of fun with science, even if your book is a fantasy novel. In Kindar’s Cure, by Michelle Hauck, the main character is afflicted with a rare disease and finding a new source of a metal ore is the secret to saving the kingdom. Michelle’s book also relies heavily on magic, which some would claim is just science we have not discovered yet. In one of our upcoming book, Harold and the Purple Wormhole by Richard Mellinger, the “wizard” is a man from the future who creates items he claims to be magical.
  • The basic laws of physics must still apply. An object falling towards a large mass (like a planet) will ultimately crash into it because of gravity unless the object is diverted. An object cannot travel faster than the speed of light without either finding a way to turn it into pure energy and back (which would still only allow travel at the speed of light), finding a way to shield the object so it is not converted into pure energy when it hits the speed of light, or creating a “fold” in the space-time continuum that can be used to “shorten” the distance between two locations. Having things happen in your manuscript that readers know can’t happen (or more precisely that readers can’t believe are possible) is the fastest way to lose a readers in either of these genres.

Whether you are writing science fiction or fantasy, the details you provide readers really are critical and could be the difference between an exciting book and one that never finds a publisher.

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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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