Monthly Archives: October 2011

Free Advice from Writer Idol…

Sunday my blog discussed a session from the Boston Book Festival, Writer Idol, and I promised that my next blog would share some of the advice from the judges. Then a funny thing happened—an aspiring writer who had attended the session commented on the blog. Realizing that my perspective on the session might be different than that of an author I asked the writer, Judy Mintz, to guest blog about the session for us. What follows are her observations and comments. I would like to thank Judy for putting this together.

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This was the third annual Boston Book Festival. Each year, I have submitted a page at the Writer Idol session hoping to have it read for the judges. My piece has never been chosen. This year, I submitted the first page of my current work-in-progress (WIP), a Young Adult manuscript. I’m sure it can use some tweaking, and I was looking forward to the help. Once again, my page was not chosen. I was disappointed, but I can apply the advice I heard to my own work. Here are some of the things I learned.

Details should only be given when they really matter. This could be why my critique group sometimes says to me, “That’s beautiful, really, but who cares?” I have a sentence in my first paragraph that reads, “Why then, was I in Terminal E at the airport waiting for the doors from Customs to swing open and let out the passengers from Lufthansa flight 424 from Sweden?” Maybe “from Lufthansa flight 424” is an unnecessary detail.

Slash without mercy. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. That was the mantra that underscored most of their criticisms; be brutal and take out unnecessary content. That argues in favor of lopping off “Terminal E” on my next editing pass, too. That would leave, “Why then, was I at the airport waiting for the doors from Customs to swing open and let out the passengers from Sweden?”

Get to the story point quickly. This is another way to present the first bit of advice; avoid using too much detail. One of the agents on the panel this year, Ann Collette, from Rees Literary Agency, represents mystery writers. She said it was particularly important in a mystery to get to the point quickly. Other genres may allow for a little more latitude, but even a non-fiction piece that was read was criticized for not stating its thesis in the first paragraph. The first sentence of my WIP is, “When my mother asked if I thought it would be a good idea to have a foreign exchange student come live with us, I said no.” Guess what this book is about?

It’s important to establish voice right away. See my first sentence above.

Don’t start with back story. Hmm. My first sentence could be considered back story. Are these rules? Do I have to change that because three literary agents said you’re not supposed to start with back story? It’s up to you. Or in this case, it’s up to me. This is advice we’re talking about, and free advice at that.

Avoid wacky titles. One of the panelists, Caroline Zimmerman, who is with Kneerim & Williams, was unrelenting in her disdain for what she considered bad titles. While I tend to put more stock in Ms. Collette’s assertion that it doesn’t matter what the title is because the publisher will change it, I think Ms. Zimmerman was making a good point. A wacky title sounds unprofessional, and if the title is unprofessional she is not going to waste her time reading any of the actual prose. And what are we trying to do if not get the agent or editor to read our work?

There were other bits of advice offered, some I’d heard before, some that seemed like common sense, some that were too subjective for me to take seriously. In the end, the one I found most useful was the panel’s recommendation that we read A reader’s advice to writers, by Laura Miller, a founder of, and writer for, Salon.com. It is interesting to note that the panelists did not refer to the article by name, but rather as a set of “writing rules.”

At the end of the session, the third panelist, agent Sorche Fairbank, read what she considered an excellent first paragraph from Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. It was a good, strong opening with lots of back story. So much for the rules.

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About Judy Mintz

When Judy Mintz was young, she answered a classified ad in the paper (that’s how people used to find jobs before the Internet and networking) that said, “We’ll teach you personal computers so you can help our customers.” That’s how she got into high tech. After a brief stint doing technical support, she moved into marketing where, professionally speaking, she spent her entire adult career.

The downturn in the economy afforded her the opportunity to try writing full time. She is hard at work on her second, unpublished, Young Adult novel. You can read more about her here.

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Writer Idol…

The Boston Book Festival was yesterday, and I wanted to wait until after the event to write this weeks blog. Overall it was an interesting event, although most of the sessions were geared towards fans of specific authors. I must admit that, as a publisher, I found the people I met far more interesting than most of the sessions. There was, however, one session that I found fascinating—Writer Idol.

The concept was pretty simple: You anonymously submit the first page (250 words) of your novel to be read aloud. Three agents were on stage as the judges, and they would raise their hands when they heard something in the first page that would make them stop reading the manuscript if it had been submitted as a query. Only one of the twenty-plus first pages made it to the end without getting ‘rejected’, and some of the comments by the panel about people’s writing were less than charitable (to be fair to the panel, people were warned up front to expect brutally honest comments about their writing).

While the event made for great theatre, one thought kept popping into my head: this is not the way most publishers and agencies review queries. First off, if you’ve behaved in a professional manner, your sample chapters came with a well-written query letter that told me whether your manuscript is about hunky blue-eyed minotaurs, the earthquake in Haiti, or the 2012 election. Thus, I already know whether the subject would be of interest to me. Second, if you’ve included a synopsis or chapter outline I already know the plot (or thesis) of your manuscript, which again will assist me in deciding if your manuscript is of interest. In short, I already know a lot about your manuscript, your voice, and you before I have even decided to read the sample chapters.

This is not to say that your first page isn’t critical; the agents did make some very interesting comments about the importance of your working title and first page that I will share in my next blog. My point is that the other information you send with a query is just as important. If this information doesn’t grab an agent or publisher’s attention, they will likely never read the first page of your manuscript, unless it’s on stage at Writer Idol

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Why We Edit…

Last week I received an email from an authors asking to be let out of his contract for our upcoming noir short story collection. The reason was that the author didn’t like the edits we had made to his story. The fact that an author disagreed with our suggested edits normally would not be news-worthy, but it was his reason that elevated the request to being the topic of this blog:

We had corrected his grammar.

Now I know some of you are reading this saying, “I don’t get the punch line.” Specifically, the author told us that the moments of bad grammar were part of his style and were done to create a certain rhythm. In his reply, the author said, “Your suggestions are certainly valid, just for a style that isn’t my own, and incorporating them would change the style of the story in a way that would make it no longer mine (at least, in my eyes), and thus I must withdraw my story from your anthology. I don’t mean in any way to sound imperious.”

I really wish I could make this stuff up…

Our contract makes it very clear that we will correct grammar and that we do not need to have those types of corrections approved. So in fact we could have gone ahead and published the story as corrected. Nonetheless, I agreed to let the author out of the contract. Personally, I would rather let an author out of a contract than work with someone who is not happy; life is just too short. I suppose I could have agreed to just publish the story as it was submitted, but my reason for deciding to let him out of the contract instead of doing that was summarized in my response:

“The unfortunate truth is that, because we are a small press, when a reader sees grammatical errors in a work they do not assume those errors are an intentional part of the work; the assumption is that the errors were due to poor editing by a small press.”

Everyone makes mistakes, even the large publishers. A recent true crime book said that a famous beach was in the wrong state. But at the end of the day we will be judged more harshly than the large publisher for the mistakes we make, and our mistakes will be used as an example of why people should avoid small presses. Truth be told, we could turn out a lot more books if we were less selective when choosing manuscript and spent less time doing editing. This strategy, however, would make us no better than some of the vanity presses, and our goal is to turn out the highest quality books possible. So I guess writers will just have to put up with our editing their manuscripts.

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