Tag Archives: Writing

Young Love…

Maybe it’s just that I find things other people find normal to be funny for some reason (which might be a good trait for a publisher), but I found the following “cheat sheet” for writing young adult novels to be both amusing (mostly because it actually exists) and useful:

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/writing-young-adult-fiction-for-dummies-cheat-shee.html

That’s right – there is a “For Dummies” book on how to write young adult novels, and most of the information in the cheat sheet actually makes sense. So instead of talking about what makes a good young adult novels this week (the cheat sheet already does that), I want to focus on why certain young adult novels will get rejected by us.

  • Doing the math. Generally we price our young adult novels lower than our general fiction in other genres. For a publisher, this means getting the page count lower, which requires a lower total word counts. A book sent to us with 100,000 words that is pitched as young adult is probably not going to make it past the query letter. In my opinion, the optimal word count for young adult novels is 50,000-60,000 words.
    The other thing I always do is compute the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level. Most teens reading books not assigned as required reading in school are reading for pleasure, and that reading time is competing with all of the other forms of entertainment out there (including texting their friends). Making a book too complex a read for the average teen, while it may challenge readers, is more likely to make them never finish it.
  • Is it a “Twi-book”? I’ve stated this previously, but I’m not looking to publish books using what the large publishers consider to be the correct “format” for a genre – I want to be the one to discover the next “correct” format. So if I’ve read something similar to your story before, especially if it was by a well-known author, I will probably pass on the manuscript.
  • Sarah’s elephant. I want to start with an admission – I’m a prude. Yes, I put that in bold so it will stand out. In our last blog, guest editor Sarah Welsh asked a question about the “elephant in the room” – how much sex is too much for a romance novel. For young adult novels, my answer is simple: in my opinion, any sex in a young adult novel is too much. This is not to say there can’t be romance. In Tony Russo’s upcoming book Darkest Hour, there is a love triangle between Briley, the girl fighter pilot, the pirate she captures who later flies as her wingman, and the son of an aristocrat who initially makes fun of Briley’s poor upbringing but later comes to respect her when she helps her training class graduate flight school. In Jenna-Lynn Duncan’s Hurricane, there is a love triangle between the heroine and the two brothers who kidnap her in an attempt to save her from killers. In Hope Gillette’s Journey Through Travelers’ Tower, while there is no overt romance between any of the characters, there is enough tension to wind a spring. Finally, in Darren Simon’s Guardian’s Nightmare, the two main teen characters are both females, and there are no romantic themes at all. It’s simply a book about a girl whose destiny is to save her world and ours. All of these books have one thing in common – they are great books that didn’t need to use sex as a prop. In short, a young adult novel with a clever and unique plot does not need to rely on sex to create an interesting story.

For young adult authors, I sometimes suggest looking at what we’ve published and currently have under contract to get an idea of what we will publish. I’m even willing to send a sample copy (the first 20%) for free to authors who are wondering if they should query us (alternatively you can use “Look Inside” on Amazon to see the eBook interiors). But authors who don’t keep the above items in mind often find they receive a rejection letter fairly quickly.

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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.

* * *

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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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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Prime Real Estate…

The Boston Book Festival was yesterday, and I must admit I’ve become hooked on Writer’s Idol. This year the panel was much less brutal than last year (I was not the only person to comment on this), but there were two interesting themes in their comments I thought I would share:

  • This year, description seemed to be the item that the panel focused on. Not that authors used too much or too little, but rather that most of the descriptions were bland. One of the panelists, Esmond Harmsworth of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, noted that you don’t want to describe a place the way you see it, but rather as a “68-year-old Croatian refugee” sees it. In short, you want to your descriptions to reflect your character’s personality, which is far more likely to make descriptions interesting.
  • One of the entries said the genre was “Paranormal Historical Comedy,” and all the panelists rolled their eyes at that one. I can understand why. As a publisher, I have to assign a set of BISAC codes to every book we publish; these codes tell bookstores where to place the book in stores. If you check the BISAC code list, you’ll notice “paranormal historical comedy” does not have a code (and probably never will). The lesson is that you should not be overly creative in describing the genre of your work in your query – an agent or publisher will be less likely to make it through your query if the question sitting in the back of their head is “Does this cross-genre work really have a market” or “Just where would a bookstore shelve this work?”

I must admit my “I get it” moment about Writer’s Idol came during another session on the future of publishing. A woman asked a question about downloading samples on her Kindle. It occurred to me that this is what most people probably do now; once they’ve “discovered” a book (either through recommendations or by other means), the first thing they are likely to do is download a sample of the book. It used to be that to sample a book required going to the library or bookstore, but now it can be done right from your computer or smart phone. This probably means that more people are sampling books before they buy them than in the past. Thus, in a digital age, the first few pages of your manuscript really are prime real estate – they are the words that will make a person buy your book or move on to the next recommendation. While I consider Writer’s Idol to be entertaining, I also think it serves to remind authors just how important their choice of the first 250 words in their manuscript is.

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Biblical Word Counts…

I ask readers this week to bear with me while I share some statistics from the site King James Bible Statistics. I promise this is going someplace:

  • Total words in the Bible (KJV): 788,280
  • Total words in the Old Testament (KJV): 609,269
  • Total words in the New Testament (KJV): 179,011
  • Total words in the four Gospels: 82,590

Why am I sharing these numbers? Simple. This week we received an “alternative interpretation” of the history surrounding a famous African leader. Total word count: approximately 551,000 words. That’s right – the manuscript was almost as long as the Old Testament. While there is a part of me that applauds someone for being able to write this many words on a single topic, another part of me is asking what was this author thinking?

I’ve commented before on the fact that there are reasons most publishers have word count guidelines. The first has to do with the cost associated with printing a book. A publisher is less likely to take a chance on a 150,000 word manuscript by a new author than an 80,000 word manuscript by the same author simply because of the cost associated with printing the book. But the other reason is that people have a finite attention span (which is dependent on age) and expect books to be a certain length depending on genre. This is one of the reasons Young Adult books can be as short as 50,000 words, while Science Fiction tends to be upwards of 100,000 words or more – it’s what readers of these genres have come to expect.

So before you submit your 150,000-175,000 word manuscript for review to a publisher, ask yourself a simple question: If the story of Jesus Christ could be told in 82,590 words, does your manuscript really need to be as long as the New Testament…

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What’s in a name…

My wife had always loved the name Samantha, in part because “Sami” would be the girl’s nickname – complete with an i at the end. So when our daughter was born we named her Samantha Lynn. We always call her Sami, and always spelled it with an i. When Sami was three she had learned to spell her name – complete with the i at the end. She was so proud she was telling everyone we met. At a restaurant one night she was telling the server, who responded, “Hey, I’m Sammy too. I spell it with a y because I liked to have a squiggle at the end.”

On that night, Samantha decided a squiggle at the end of her name sounded too cool for words, and Sami was no more. She became Sammy, complete with her squiggle, and there was nothing the original authors of her epic tale could do about it.

Character names are very important in novels because they are often the first glimpse a reader gets of a character. First impressions really are everything. A southern belle with a Chinese name or an action heroine named Gertrude will seem out of place unless the author takes the time to explain why the character has an atypical name for the setting. An alien or magical being with a complex name will become a distraction to a reader unless, like Samantha, the character is given a nickname. If a reader finds a character’s name to be a distraction each time they encounter the it, either because they wonder where the name came from or skip over it because they can’t pronounce it, there is a good possibility they will enjoy the book less.

A lot of thought went into selecting the name for our publishing company. I wanted a name that was unique (so it would be remembered) yet sophisticated – Bootlegged Whipped Cream Press would have certainly been unique, but would people have taken it seriously? At the time, I also wanted to focus on publishing social and political commentary. Divertir is French for “to amuse and entertain,” so it was a perfect fit. Even as we moved away from our original plans by publishing new-author fiction, because our goal is still to produce books that amuse, entertain, inform, and maybe even inspire, the name is still a good fit.

This is not to say you can’t have some fun with character names. Sarah can become Sadie as she starts a new adventure in life (or death), and the self-important Jonathan can become irritated when your sympathetic antagonist calls him Johnny as a way of emphasizing the fact that Jonathan has a bit of an ego. But the names of your characters deserve as much thought as the names of your own children, because they are your children and the names you give them will follow them forever – even when they decide to spell them differently.

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