Monthly Archives: June 2014

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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