Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Many a time I’ve been in on a discussion with agents or editors when they mention that something was a dead giveaway that the author was a newbie. Now there’s nothing wrong with being new to something but when you are submitting your work you want to give the impression that you “know the rules” and even understand some of the subtle nuances that seasoned pros know.
Here are just a few dead giveaways.
- “I have a fiction novel.” Most of us cringe when we hear this. It is redundant. A dead giveaway. A novel IS fiction. It’s like saying a feline cat or an automobile car. You write fiction and you have a completed novel. I know. . . this sounds petty but it is like nails on a chalkboard to professionals.
- “I have written a picture book. With illustrations it will be about 57 pages long.” Ummm, in the world of children’s books, the normal page count for a picture book is thirty-two pages, with the story fitting into twenty-six single pages or thirteen double spreads or a combination thereof. Picky? Not really. It is because that is how many pages fit on a large press sheet, called a signature. A professional picture book author knows this. When you send in your picture book proposal and the dummy is thirty-two pages, the editor immediately knows you understand the classic picture book.
- Staying with picture books for a moment: “My neighbor is a wonderful artist and she will illustrate my picture book.” Dead giveaway– newbie. Unless the author is also the illustrator (a rare and wonderful thing), the publisher chooses an illustrator. A book that comes in as a package deal has twice the odds of rejection. Even if the editor liked the text, she’s going to be unlikely to like the illustrator and vice versa.
- “I am a teacher and I speak all over the country about our education system and what can be done to change it. I’ve got thousands of people on my newsletter database. I’ve written a 50,000 word book on The Life of St. Paul and how his illness shaped his message.” Dead giveaway, right? The platform this author has built is based on a mutual interest in education. But he’s writing in a totally different discipline for which he has no credentials. He gets the idea of platform but not about when it is valuable and when it would be useless.
- “My book is an in depth look at the life of William Carey. It is complete at 11,000 words.” Can you see what’s wrong? 11,000 word biography could not possibly be in-depth and even if published the spine would be so thin it would get lost on the shelf. It would be lucky to be a quarter-inch wide. Knowledge of appropriate book lengths is essential. It shows an understanding of the industry.
- And speaking of that: “My contemporary romance is complete at about 165,000 words.” The bestselling historical novelists can get by with upwards of 125,000 words– writers like Lori Benton and Liz Curtis Higgs– but they have proven that they can sell a book costing more than others. Remember. . . the more pages, the more a book costs. A debut author is bound to get a no because she has made it impossible for her too-long book to succeed. She hasn’t studied her genre to know what a contemporary romance should weigh in at. (It’s different than an historical.)
Okay, your turn. What other things would be a dead giveaway that the writer has not done his homework?
Ummm…Wendy, hate to bring this up, but saying ‘fiction novel’ might be an indicator of someone who took a few too many English classes. Books like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” are actually referred to as ‘nonfiction novels’. (The genre is generally thought to have begun in 1957, with Rodolfo Walsh’s “Operacion Masacre”.)
* This is something my mentor, Marvin Mudrick, regularly pounded into the heads of his students, that fictional techniques are sometimes vital to adequately tell a real story. It’s not ‘artistic license’; rather, it’s a deliberate effort to hew to the story’s truth when specifics of action can’t be completely known.
* Also…pause for modesty, humility, and preening…I AM both author and illustrator…of a T-shirt, which will carry a self-portrait (me with beard, bandana, and wraparound Oakleys) an my life-motto (please pardon this):
“The Good Die Young. Badass Is Forever.”
“My book is perfect. Ready to print. No editing required.”
* And then there’s the flipside reality. “My book will never be perfect. A subtitle in Chapter 3 needs tweaking, I can’t decide between two words in chapter 8, and what about that exclamation point in the last line of Chapter 5?”
* Warning flags aside, Wendy, I hope I’m always a newbie at something. Don’t want to be an old stuck-in-a-rut. But, Lord, make me a humble newbie.
Jaxon M King
I’ve met some of those people like in your first example, Shirlee. They are usually unwilling or unable to learn. I mean, how can you learn when you already know it all, right?
Interesting list of red flags, Wendy. It raises a few questions.
*What if your picture book is an even multiple of 32, like 64? Also, do graphic novels for adults have rigid page-number rules? Except for the US and UK, they are wildly popular worldwide and growing in popularity here. Would your agency represent them?
While the educational expert will have many on his email list who won’t care about his book, how is he in any worse position than someone with oodles of Facebook or Pinterest followers? Most of those won’t buy a person’s book, either. What type of following is essential and how does an agent or publisher gauge its sales potential?
That would demonstrate you know what you’re doing, Carol, but two signatures means the book will be twice as expensive to produce and a huge job for the illustrator (mucho dinero) and an easy way for a committee to say, “Love the idea but I don’t think it will sell at twice the price of our newest Patricia Polacco, Jan Brett or Trina Schart Hyman.” As an author trying to break in, it makes sense to create the book that’s most likely to fit their needs.
Okay, here’s one I used at my first writers’ conference: “I wrote this book because of a dream I had.” (I cringe as I type this.) Dreams can inspire, but they rarely have well-rounded characters, coherent plot, or anything else needed in a finished book.
No wonder I could never get past 40,000 words.
Angie, I actually DID write “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” because of a dream I had…one in which the Beatles kept turning up and singing “Paperback Writer” at the oddest times, except that sometimes they would substitute “Rainy Day Jesus” for the title phrase. And I just noticed this, that the title ended up, as a God-wink or a sort of pun, as one of the Beatitudes.
* I’ve never described a dream before, and reading that which I have just written, can well understand why.
That’s pretty cool, Andrew and I love that your dream had a soundtrack! Too cool!
My last novel came straight from a dream I had, as well, Angie. And no, it didn’t have well-rounded characters or a coherent plot at first. I had to sort through all the really weird dream stuff to get to the heart of the story! Maybe your dream was only meant to be a novella.
Oh, Katie, that’s great! Maybe it was meant to be a novella or a skeleton of a novel. Or maybe it was just to help me think of myself as a writer. That’s what it did. 🙂
Damon J. Gray
I am wrestling with this in so many ways. Yes, each of us should do everything we can to make as polished a presentation as possible, but I would suggest that we do this not to come off as something other than a “newbie,” which could easily be seen as something of a pejorative, but rather to show that we are professional in the way we approach our tasks. At our engineering firm, we have dozens of frighteningly brilliant, seasoned engineers, and we have dozens more fresh out of school. No one looks down at the young engineers for their youth and inexperience, but rather, more experienced engineers come alongside them to show them the tricks of the trade in an effort to help them avoid risks and pitfalls while simultaneously making our company stronger.
The complexity of the publishing world is glaringly obvious, and it is unrealistic to expect that aspiring young writers will understand it all, or even most of it for that matter. When I interview and hire a young software developer, I do not expect that he or she understands even a fraction of the complexities of the industry. What I want to know is if he or she can write tight, extensible, maintainable code. I want to know their work ethic, their team fit, their propensity for just getting by, being pretty good, or striving for excellence.
I have made so many missteps in my efforts to secure a traditional publishing contract, and I will make more. Hopefully there is enough grace in the community that these errors will not be overly career-limiting, and I am thankful for those authors, editors, and agents who have come alongside to advise and direct me along this difficult path.
Damon, if the journey to publication is an allegory of the journey in life, are not mis-steps the tell-tale by which we understand the need for grace?
* And through grace received, are we not then equipped to be a conduit through which it flows?
* I think that in years to come, when you have achieved the success whose loom I see on your horizon, many a young author will be thankful for your help, and their visions will be broader because you offered them the view from your giant’s shoulders.
Damon J. Gray
You’re way kind, Andrew, if not overly optimistic. I continue to weave on this loom, but find that it is not the beautiful blanket I am hoping for. 😉
Damon, we are all trapped in the woof and warp of that which we weave; it is for others to see the beauty of the finished design.
* Having read pretty much all of your comments here and at Laube (and having dropped in on your website), I do feel compelled to say that there is power and grace in that which you write; it may be now the hidden power of a tsunami racing toward its appointment with the shallows, a ripple on the vast mere…but when it reaches its appointed place its full majesty will be revealed. I am cheering you on.
Damon, there is grace! I just want our community to be “in the know.”
I would guess that hyperbolic incongruities are something of a tell-tale:
* “Ripped from today’s headlines, gripping the reader with the swift fury of an IRS audit, this joyously meditative work commands consideration of the urgently timeless question: are the stories that roam the pit of our subconscious true? Are unicorns real after all, and will gentrification of the urban landscape spell their doom? This short but action-packed tome, written with the blazing ferocity of a Beverly Lewis at her most contentious, will give you the answers you hoped for…or dreaded!”
But this description is grippingly attractive, Andrew. I think you may have a best-seller here. “Blazing ferocity” is definitely a phase I need to add to my sales vocabulary.
Thanks Carol! 🙂
Fun, Andrew. 🙂
It feels inevitable that Beverly Lewis at her most contentious would somehow correlate with the once-and-for-all confirmation of the existence of unicorns. I don’t see what the problem is here 🙂
I wonder if this title would bring a red flag, as something a mixing of genre (and an affront to the literary senses):
“Hanging Ten: The Surfing Life and Frontier Justice of Judge C.S. ‘Longboard’ Lewis”.
The only example that comes to mind quickly is of a person who wrote a novella that’s 50,000 words long. This would indicate someone who either didn’t study the strictures of the genre, didn’t edit their book very well, or both.
*Or, if a writer pitches a book to an agent/editor that the said professional doesn’t represent.
I’m so guilty of some of this when I first started–
*writing sentences like this: Taking a swaying sip, her shaking hand turned the doorknob. (Not only can her hand NOT take a swaying sip, but I was also so guilty of overwriting, too. I’m trying to teach my daughter now that we don’t have to spell out every move. The reader is smart. If she turns the doorknob, her hand is probably on the knob. My daughter and I laugh ourselves silly over some of this.)
*”I’ve edited my novel three times. I think it’s ready.” NO, NO, NO. Come back when you’ve gone over it at least 50 times.
Only the critical turning point scenes need 50 or more, Shelli. Most of the rest will be ready after 12 to 20. I’m not kidding about those numbers; they come from personal experience. I doubt there’s a successful author alive who nails it with two of three. Even if the last edit didn’t make any changes, I’d never stop at fewer than ten read-throughs of every page.
Ha ha! 🙂 I do think the more I write, the better I get at a first draft, as far as grammar goes. But the tricky part is when you make changes. And you leave an error. I feel, for me, the biggest threat to a perfect manuscript grammar-wise is making changes. But that’s another lesson learned. When you make changes, check and double check your work. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
If we started out learning to write through NaNoWriMo (which is a great idea and very helpful) some of us writers occasionally think that every book should be 50,000 words long and perhaps even send that newly minted bit of short fiction right out to agents upon completion. It just takes time reading industry blogs and going to conferences, but soon the book lingo and knowledge accompany the writing knowledge. But it can be ever so hard to wait!
Yes, Kristen. When I first started reading this blog, I wondered what “MS” meant … “WIP” … it look me a bit. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yes, I made that mistake at the writer’s retreat we held at the camp we live at. I put W.I.P. in the handouts and saw that some were having to have the term explained. I was so glad to have new writers attend, but had forgotten that so much of the language is jargon.
Jaxon M King
How about loading your novel with adjectives and adverbs? I’m embarrassed to say that the first version of my novel had tons. I hadn’t researched adequately and thought that I was using clever word play. Once I finally got my head out of the sand, I learned that’s a no-no. Upon going through and cutting them out, I realized just how much of a beginner my work revealed me to be.
Yes, Jaxon. I went extreme when I found this information out … eliminating all of my adverbs, my -ly words. I thought you shouldn’t use them at all. But when I started reading more and really watching for them, I noticed that my favorite authors use them … just sparingly. So sometimes I will use them. Sparingly. 🙂
Jaxon M King
Thanks, Shelli. I agree. Some sentences just beg for an -ly word!
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Submitting in 8 point italicized font. Because it looks pretty.
I think the format of an unpublished manuscript can be a dead giveaway that the writer is a newbie. For instance, when the manuscript is single-spaced and the font is 16-point papyrus… Dead giveaway.
I think I pitched you a 30k novel when we first met at MH, Wendy! Haha! We all start as beginners. I think the one that’s stuck with me is a fellow I met a couple years ago at a conference. He told me he’d written a historical fiction set in 2004. Knowing your genre is key.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Set in 2004?
Wellllllll, uhhhhh…how about that?
2004. That’s funny. 🙂
But do you understand that I find WWII historical fiction hard to swallow? I remember parts of WWII first hand!
Some if it depends upon how long you’ve been around. And I’m still optimistic enough that I have a novel series running around in my head. Some are outlined, but none are fully written… yet.
You mean I had a chance to represent you, Karen? Just shows, we never remember those things.
Such great advice and so many wonderful comments. I also think it’s important to be careful what you compare your manuscript to: fans of the Left Behind series will enjoy this novel. For me it goes back to inspiration. That series might have inspired the idea, but to compare your work to such a popular series might turn off the acquisitions editor.
“I write fiction—both novels and short stories—in four different genres; non-fiction—history and politics; professional essays; family history; republish 19th Century Victorian literature; and poetry. So I’d be an ideal candidate for a writing career because something I write will always be in vogue. Oh yeah, and Bible studies, too.”
A dream client, David. 😉
Thank you Wendy for this blog post. It’s always helpful to know and utilize the information to help a newbie move forward. I always appreciate expert advice. Thank you and all who commented. I have come to really enjoy this blog for the informative blog posts, the comments, the grace and the encouragement and the good natured bantering. I love the prayer and concern for each other I see. One need not go further to find such a pot of gold.
I love the verse, “Do not despise the day of small beginnings.” Even those who have reached the epitome of their particular craft or occupation continue to learn.
I shall do my very best no matter where I am in this adventure, and put all these recommendations to use.
Elizabeth, I am really seeing every day how important small things are, and that it’s not important what we accomplish, but how we do it, and why.
Absolutely Andrew, absolutely.