Monthly Archives: August 2011

2nd Grade Horror…

Last week I started talking about some of the common issues we see when reviewing manuscripts that are submitted to Divertir Publishing. This week I wanted to continue that discussion and talk about sentence length.

Our first short story collection, When Nightmares Fall, had terrors in the night as the theme, so we received a lot of submissions in the genre of horror. Something about one of the stories wasn’t working for me. I ran a grade level computation on the story and quickly realized my problem; the story was written at a second grade reading level. For those who are trying to imagine what horror written at a second grade level might sound like, consider the following:

See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane.
Jane has an ax. Worry, Dick, worry.
Jane is chasing Dick with the ax. Run, Dick, run.
Jane is hacking Dick to bits. Scream, Dick, scream.

In computing average grade level, most of the methods consider the number of words with more than two syllables and the average sentence length. Short, simple sentences like the ones in the above example are fine for younger children because children have shorter attention spans and more limited vocabularies. But as we grow older our attention spans increase and our vocabularies mature. For adults, the number of breaks in the above example is actually a distraction which can cause a reader to lose focus, and thus interest.

The same is also true for very long sentences; a reader can lose focus if a sentence is too complex. The result is the reader needing to go back and reread the sentence to get the full meaning. If a reader needs to do this too many times, the reader will quickly lose interest in what you’ve written. In one submission we received a single paragraph contained 2 periods and 8 commas.  The complexity of the sentences made it difficult to understand what point the author was trying to make.

Does this mean you should never use short or long sentences? No. Short sentences can be used for emphasis, while long sentences can show a character deep in thought. But just as variety is the spice of life, varying your sentence lengths is one way you can make your writing less monotonous and more interesting.

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Writer’s Groups…

First, let me apologize for not writing a  blog last week and for this one being late. Today we moved our web hosting to a new service. Amazingly, the web site is up and I seem to have email…

Recently the staff at Divertir Publishing have been discussing what our short story collections will be for next year. One theme I’m interested in trying is a book of local authors. So last week I dared to venture out and attend a local writer’s group meeting. You’ll be happy to know I made it out relatively unharmed and only one person asked “Who are you and why are you here?” As I sat listening to them critique each other’s work, I started thinking about some of the issues I see most often with the manuscripts I review. So for the next few blogs I wanted share my opinion about what these common issues are.

Ambiguous pronouns. If I had to pick the most common issue I see when reviewing manuscripts, this would be it. Consider the following sentence:

Jack and Jill went up the hill to meet Bobby, where she began to hit on him.

So who is Jill hitting on? I think there are two reasons this is such a common problem. First, writers are told it is considered poor writing to repeat the same word too many times. Thus, they will often substitute pronouns for proper names even if it might be ambiguous who the pronoun refers to. Second, because it is clear to the writer who a pronoun refers to, they assume it will also be clear to the reader. Someone might say that, because she went up the hill with Jack, it is implied Jack is the recipient of her affection. But, as a writer, you can’t assume your readers will make that same leap. In fact the above sentence is even more confusing; Bobby can be short for Robert or Barbara, so both “she” and “him” are ambiguous.

Chekhov’s Gun. A complete discussion of Chekhov’s gun can be found here, but the pertinent part of that discussion is “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.” In one manuscript we received where the characters were on their way to a forbidden city, the reader was told about every time the characters played, ate, pooped, and slept. Because the characters were not my cats, seven uneventful pages about the trip became boring. In another manuscript, a husband spent almost an entire chapter discussing how he did not like the doilies and other furniture in the living room. Because he did not use the doilies to set the house ablaze at some point, this too was unnecessary information. In short, unless your character is rescuing someone from the ocean or kills someone with a harpoon gun, your readers probably do not need to read two pages about how the character scuba dives.

By the way – I think writing groups are a great way for authors to get honest and invaluable feedback about their manuscripts. If you don’t belong to one you should. If you’re looking for a group, you can try meetup.com to find a group near you. Because I survived my last trip to a writer’s group, I just might do it again…

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Difficult Emails…

Last week I had to write two emails that were completely different responses to two different authors but that had something in common.

In the first instance, an author sent an email saying that she would not be submitting manuscripts to us because, in addition to a single error on our webpage, she had found two errors in an interview with one of our editors for a blog. What made responding difficult was not that the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style suggested that two of the three things she pointed out as “errors” were in fact correct, or that her email to me complaining about our lax editing standards contained a typo (which, in hindsight, was pretty ironic). Rather, it was that I believe business communications should always strive to be professional, and it took a huge amount of restraint not to start my reply with a less than charitable salutation.

In the second instance, an author had received a rejection letter from us which outlined some changes we thought would improve his manuscript and suggesting he was welcome to resubmit the manuscript for review if he chose to make the changes. Because of the wording, the author mistook the email to say that we would definitely publish the book upon receiving the revisions. Having seen the email that was sent to the author by one of our editors, I can understand how this conclusion was reached and I don’t fault the author for his assumption. Wanting to do the right thing, I took another look at the manuscript to see if there was something we could do. This is when I came to realize the common thread between these two emails:

I was not the right publisher for these two authors.

I understand that there are many reasons why an author might choose not to submit a manuscript to us. It might be because we make it clear on our website that we do not pay advances. It could be that they want their book in brick-and-mortar bookstores, and our reluctance to accept unlimited returns is a barrier to this (we also state this on our website so that authors know our philosophy before they submit to us). It could even be that they feel we don’t have sufficient experience to be successful with their manuscript. I respect any author who decides we are not right for them, in part because it demonstrates that they took the time to learn something about us. I understand that there are many reasons a publisher may not be the right fit for an author, just as an author might not be the right fit for a publisher. I’m ok with this. I’m also honest about it when I feel we’re not a good fit for an author, lest we become just another author mill.

In the case of the second author, I realized my problem was that I was not excited about his book. This is not to say it wasn’t a good book (it was), but rather that I just couldn’t get excited about the topic. In this case, the author would be better off finding a publisher who specializes in books of this genre. This is the best way to guarantee that the publisher will be excited about the work and will be able to develop a successful marketing plan. Wanting to do the right thing, I sent an email to the author explaining that I do not think we are the right publisher for his manuscript but letting the author know that we would make good on our error and offer him a contract should he not be able to find another publisher. This is because, at the end of the day, doing what’s right for an author is also what separates us from the author mills.

As for the first author, I must admit I find the fact she took the time to send an email stating why she would not publish with us to be the epitome of arrogance. Divertir Publishing was recently featured in the article “Keys to Cracking 10 Top Markets” written by Adria Haley for the September 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest (more on this in a future blog), and after two years in business I’m very proud of where we are as a company. People who have received emails or instant messages from me at 3 AM know that I work very hard to assure Divertir Publishing turns out a quality product. They also know I choose not to debate with authors whether or not they should publish with us and that I have very little patience for this type of self-important prattle. In my letter to this author I wished her the best in her writing career, because I am definitely not the right publisher for her…

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