Tag Archives: Editorial policies

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.

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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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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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A Matter of Taste…

Recently author Tony Russo posted a blog about a manuscript he has submitted to Divertir Publishing for review. He had attended a “pitch workshop” for writers where he presented the pitch for his manuscript Vanquish to a panel of New York editors. The editors basically told him that a young adult alternate history novel about a young girl becoming a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain had no “shelf appeal” and that he should completely rewrite the book. The reason? None of the things in his book (like the fact it was set during World War II) would appeal to teen girls, who are the primary readers for this genre. To quote his blog:

So girls and vampires, yes; girl who shoots a bow and arrow in a dystopian future, yep; but a girl flying a Spitfire == no.

After working with the editors on what was “wrong” with his book, the pitch he finally presented was for a very different manuscript than Vanquish. I only have one issue with the advice from the editors who helped Tony rewrite his pitch:

I like the book the way it is.

The plot is very clever, and while I did not like one of the subplots and think the ending needs work, I think overall it’s a well-written manuscript. It could very well be that I’m nothing more than a “Tool of the Publishing Elite” who has no understanding of what gives a book “shelf appeal.” More likely, it’s a matter of taste. I’m not looking to publish the next Twilight – I’m looking for manuscripts that are different than what mainstream publishing has decided is the “format” that works for a particular genre. In short, I want to be the publisher who discovers the next format that has “shelf appeal” and not one who publishes books that stick to the current formats.

This is not to suggest that authors should not think about the “shelf appeal” of their manuscript – a 250 page novel written in Haiku is probably not going to be picked up by any publisher, no matter how clever an idea that might be. Readers of different genres expect certain things in the books they read, and to ignore this is to guarantee that your writing will never develop a readership. But the fact that your manuscript does not fit the “format” for a genre does not mean it’s not a good idea for a book. It just means you might need to work harder to show publishers why it is…

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Evolution…

As every business evolves and grows, there come times when the need for changes in policies is realized. An email I received from an author today made me realize that this is one such time.

When I started Divertir Publishing, doing things differently was important to me. Something I wanted to do differently was how we handled queries. One common complaint from authors is that they often get rejections letters with no indication why a query was rejected. Thus, we made the decision when we started that we would always try to provide some commentary on why a query was rejected.

Last year, we received well over 1,000 queries, and the first evolution of this policy was necessary. Last January we decided that queries that did not make it past the initial query letter review would receive a form rejection letter. For queries and full manuscripts forwarded to a reviewer or editor, the comments from the reviewer would be forwarded if we thought they would be helpful.

Recently we received three manuscripts that I really liked the concepts for but that, in my opinion, were just not ready for publication. Not only did I send each author the reviewer’s comments, but took the time to speak to each authors individually via phone about my interest in the manuscripts and what I thought would bring the manuscripts to where I needed them to be to consider publication. I hope my comments were useful. In one case, the author has continued to make changes to the manuscript and work with us – I’m guessing at some point this will result in a contract. But in the second and third cases, the authors made superficial changes to the manuscripts and went on to explain why they were right to leave things as they were. After three rounds of reviews by multiple people (including myself) for each of these manuscripts the authors were sent rejection letters.

Today I received an email from one of the authors stating that “There’s something you’re not getting here” and “To be honest, I didn’t have a lot of faith in your desire for this book anyway.” Had the email from the author merely thanked me for my time I would not be writing this blog. However, given the amount of time I personally spent on the manuscript, this author’s comments have just reinforced for me that as much as authors say they want to hear why their manuscripts have been rejected often they are unaccepting of the explanation.

The simple truth is that, when you send a manuscript for possible publication, you are in essence asking us to endorse your work. I will not endorse a work I do not like or think has issues, regardless of how much an author believes in that work. Perhaps in those cases I am just not the right publisher for the work. But the recent number of emails we’ve received questioning our rejections has made me decide it is time for another evolution in our policy regarding queries. We are a publisher with a specific idea of what makes a manuscript publishable – not a critique group or writing program – and as such it would be pretentious for us to continue to provide feedback to authors. Thus, we will no longer include the reviewer’s comments when a manuscript is rejected.

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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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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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