The Rules of Grammar…

Out of all of the items in our publication contract, the one I get asked about most often is “The Publisher may make all corrections of typographical or grammatical errors without the Author’s consent.” Does this mean I will make corrections to a manuscript without consulting an author? Probably not. I find most authors understand the importance of proper grammar. I also know that doing so would make the editing process more stressful for both the author and myself. So why is it in the contract?

Simple. It’s to remind authors that the rules of grammar are not optional.

The rules of grammar exist for a reason – they make text easier to read. Leaving out necessary punctuation can create run-on sentences. Putting periods in the wrong place can create sentence fragments. Incorrect comma usage can create situations where text doesn’t flow properly when read. Leaving out some form of dialogue attribution can leave a reader wondering who is speaking. All of these things will make your manuscript harder for a reader to understand and ultimately enjoy.

What about incorrect grammar in dialogue? After all, not everyone speaks the Queen’s English. Here my rule is simple – everything in moderation. If every one of your characters sounds like an extra from Hee Haw, you’ve probably gone a bit too far trying to make your dialogue sound “realistic.” That said, I expect third-person narrative to be grammatically correct, and even first-person narrative should strive for grammatical accuracy. If you need a good grammar reference that’s easy to follow, I recommend The Blue Book of Grammar and their online web site (http://www.grammarbook.com).

So why did I choose this for the topic of my blog? It’s because I’m finding that I’m having conversations about the importance of grammar more and more with authors, particularly the use of correct grammar in narrative. Recently, I received the following response to the suggestion that an author use correct grammar in his third person narrative:

To get a better feel for 1940s vernacular, you could try reading a book from that era. Then you might notice how authors follow the rules in actual novels.

I found this comment unnecessary. Noir is one of my favorite genres to read, and I can assure you even the most famous authors understand the importance of correct grammar. This author was referred to another section of our contract, which states “If the Work as delivered is determined to be unsatisfactory for any reason by the Publisher, the Publisher is entitled to terminate this Agreement.”

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Catechism and Point of View…

I grew up Episcopalian, and it will probably shock some people I knew in my twenties that I was an altar boy growing up. One thing I had to learn was The General Confession, where we confessed that we had probably sinned by our thoughts, words, and deeds – although on any given week I couldn’t come up with too many ways I had done that, at least until I hit my twenties.

So what does this have to do with publishing?

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with authors lately about point of view, and I find myself using these words in a completely different context than I originally learned them. What I often tell writers is that there are three ways one can convey what a character is feeling: by the character’s thoughts, their words, or their deed. This seems simple enough, until you realize that, depending on the point of view of a section, this is not completely true.

Every story is written from someone’s point of view. In first person narrative it is  written from the point of view of one characters. In third person limited the point of view is still that of a single character, although some stories are written where different sections of the book are written from different character’s points of view – this allows some characters to be present in some scenes and not others. “Call Me Ishmael,” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, clearly establishes Ismael as the point of view character, and different sections of the book are written in either the first person or third person limited from Ishmael’s perspective.

The important point is that, once you establish which character’s perspective a section of a book is written from, you can only know what that character knows. This means you can’t share another character’s thoughts, and doing so is what is often referred to as “head-hopping.” So how do you share what a character who is not the narrator is thinking or feeling? Simple. You share that information by a character’s words and deeds. A character can always share their thoughts and feelings by saying what is on their mind. A character throwing a glass at a wall can be a pretty good indication that the character is angry or frustrated, and may make more of an impression than a character saying, “I’m really angry.”

Some authors feels a quick fix for the problem of head-hopping is to write in the third person omnipotent, but this point of view has its own challenges. In this case, while the narrator all-knowing, the story must be told from the point of view of this all-knowing outside observer. For this reason, you can never have text like

If only I can find a way out of this situation, Harry thought.

because these are not the thoughts of the outside narrator; they are the thoughts of a character. You would need to rewrite this as

Harry realized he needed to find a way out of the situation.

This, in turn creates distance between your characters and your readers, because a character can never directly interact with the reader.

Choosing whose perspective a story will be told from is one of the most important things you will do as an author: think about how different Moby Dick would be if it had been told from the perspective of Captain Ahab…

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Why We Require Queries…

This weekend was spent getting caught up on queries, going back and reading the ones I had placed on my review list. For those who are curious, that means I reviewed close to 150 manuscripts. The reply I received from one author about his rejection letter was interesting. His comments were that 1) queries, in general, lack merit, 2) a better method would be for authors to discuss their platform rather than discuss their book because that would identify serious authors up front and reduce the number of queries a publisher needs to read, and 3) publishers and agents are wrong for not sending critiques with rejections.

Why we require queries

I feel the author was not correct that queries lack merit for two reasons:

  • A query letter tell me if you can express an idea in a way that will make me interested. An uninteresting query letter usually means an uninteresting manuscript. It also tells me if you can write – a query letter with a lot of grammatical errors will usually mean a manuscript with the same lack of attention to detail. As a small press with limited resources, I will pass on a manuscript that need a lot of work even if it is a great idea for a book.
  • A query tells me what you will be like to work with. Authors often send full manuscripts with no other information, saying the manuscript will “speak for itself” if I just read it . What they fail to understand is the book won’t speak for itself because I will never start reading. Asking me to read a full manuscript only to find out it’s in a subject area I don’t publish is showing no respect for my time, and a person with this attitude is showing me they will be difficult to work with.

Each element of a query has a purpose. The query letter introduces me to both the author and their manuscript. I can tell from a query letter if a manuscript is something I would consider publishing. I can also tell something about the author’s professionalism and attention to detail. The synopsis tells me about the book in more detail. No one will buy a book if they don’t know what it’s about, unless they are family or friends, which is why all published books have a blurb on the back cover. Your synopsis is your blurb, showing me why I should be interested in your manuscript. Finally, the sample chapters give me a first look at the manuscript itself and an author’s writing style. Here I’m a bit more flexible; I do not automatically reject a query if it includes the full manuscript.

Platforms do not matter

The author has made two incorrect assumptions regarding why sending an author’s platform in lieu of a query letter would be more useful:

  • An author’s platform does not matter if their manuscript is something I would not publish because of the subject. I’ve received memoirs from former stars, and I’ve rejected them even though the person has a built-in platform because we do not publish memoirs. I would much rather read a manuscript, decide if I like it enough to publish it, and then help an author create a platform. In fact, I never discuss an author’s platform with them until after they are under contract.
  • Having authors send their platform first would not reduce the number of queries I need to read. Authors would just create “platforms” before they query me, which still tells me nothing about the book. This means I would need to request the same material I’m requesting now to see if the book is something of interest, so I’ve just added a step to the query process. In short, I’ve just created more work for myself.
Sending critiques

When I started Divertir Publishing, I would reply to every query with a critique of the manuscript, feeling this would help authors. These good intentions were rewarded by authors sending me emails telling me how I “lack the vision to realize their genius” and calling me a “tool of the publishing elite”. For those who would argue I let a few bad apples spoil the bunch, I assure you it was not a few emails – at the end of the day people don’t want to hear that their children, or their books, are not perfect. Given the large number of less-than-charitable emails we received in reply to these good intentions, we no longer give critiques.

In short, the query system does work. It gives authors a means to tell me about their books while allowing me to quickly evaluate the large number of queries I receive every year and quickly find the ones I’m interested in. Having to read the full manuscript for every query I receive would guarantee one thing – I would never have time to actually publish a book…

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The Politics of Publishing…

As a publisher, I feel it’s important to remain politically neutral when selecting books for publication. A well-written manuscript on any topic is still a well-written manuscript, regardless of my views on the topic. The essays in Repeat Offenders, by Bill Bonvie, definitely lean far more to the left than I do – the book also contains many clever and funny essays I thought deserved publication. Invisible Society Fables, by Phil Canalin, is a book of “fables” dealing with homelessness, which I feel is an important topic to discuss regardless of one’s political leanings. Finally, Improbable Cause, by Brandon and Sharia Mayfield, is about Brandon’s wrongful arrest after the 2004 Madrid train bombing. It’s a story that reminds us that taking liberties with civil liberties, even in the name of public safety, can have lasting consequences, and it was a story I felt needed to be told.

So why won’t I consider the many manuscripts I’ve received about the last election?

Perhaps it’s just that I’m burned out on politics. Living in New Hampshire, every four years I get the privilege of participating in the first primary for President of the United States. The down side of this is that, at least for the past two primaries, when the Republican and Democrat clown cars rolled into my state a full year before the primary, they were full of clowns. In 2016 there were 31 people on the New Hampshire Republican ballot for president. One percent of the final Republican primary vote went to Write-ins, meaning that write-ins had more votes as a group than 21 of the other candidates. Sadly, the Democrat clown car was just as full.

More likely, it’s that the books are predicable. About a year prior to a presidential election, I start receiving “dystopian election outcome” queries from both sides claiming that, if the “other side” wins the election, the result will be the destruction of the world. After a presidential election, I start receiving the “sour grapes and roses” submissions, which fall into three categories: 1) I told you things would be horrible if you elected them, 2) I told you things would be wonderful if you elected them, and 3) they stole the election. Manuscripts in all of these categories tend to be one-sided with very little supporting evidence and don’t make very good reading. So sadly, I will also be passing on manuscripts in these categories four years from now, because I’m just not the right publisher for one-sided essays light on facts and long on rhetoric.

While I could tell you how I ended up voting in the past few primaries, I think that’s a personal thing. I will tell you that, in the past two Republican primaries, after careful consideration I couldn’t really support any of the choices I was given. I suppose I could write a book about my voting quandary, but I’m just not convinced I would be the right publisher for the manuscript…

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Being Social…

As I stated in my last blog about #Pit2Pub, I’m not a big user of social media. In part it’s because I have a pretty busy life and find social media to be a distraction – anyone I want to know what I’m doing already knows without my posting it. But as the owner of a small business that relies on getting the word out about our products, it surprises most people I’m not more active on Facebook and our blog. The reason is very simple:

I’ve found it doesn’t really help to sell books.

Others have written about why Facebook is not a good place to market books, and I won’t rehash those arguments here. For Divertir Publishing the reason these are not good marketing platforms is much simpler: most people who follow our blog and Facebook page are not consumers of our products – they are not readers. Instead, most people following us are authors hoping to get published. Thus, I’ve always believed that posting on these forums hasn’t really been helping our business, and thus it has not been a priority.

Recent emails from from both a current and prospective author has me rethinking this attitude. The email from our author simply stated that he missed our blog and found the inside information on how publishing works to be useful. The prospective author asked if we were still in business, given that we have not started our online magazine (mostly due to lack of submission) and that I hadn’t blogged recently. Interestingly, since my last blog post, we have published two books and have another coming out this week. However, the prospective author didn’t see the new books that have been published (in part because we don’t list the publication date on our web site). All he saw was that there were no recent blog posts.

What this lesson has taught me is that being social is very import – not because it helps us sell books, but because it reminds people we are still actively publishing manuscript.

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