What do you want to “Ask an Agent”?

August 3, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

This month I’m going to try and answer a bunch of publishing questions sent in by readers — some of them general, some very specific. If you’ve got a question, I’d love to hear from you. Here are some of the questions that have come in to the blog recently…

Do you think it would be a good career move for an author to have her debut novel published as an ebook only? I’ve been offered an “ebook first” contract with a larger house, and I’m feeling a bit unsure about it.

It could be worthwhile. It can get you in the door, and introduce you to the people at the publishing house. I’d suggest you ask the publisher what they are going to do to help you with your book. Will they edit it? Will they spend money on a good cover? Will they actively sell it? Will they market it at all, or leave all the marketing to the author? If the answer is basically “we’re not going to do much of anything,” then you have to ask yourself if you’d be better off self-publishing and keeping all the money. But if the publisher is going to improve your book, invest in solid editing and a cover, do something on the marketing side, and help you move some copies, it could be a decent introduction to the publishing world. Again, there’s no “one right answer” to these types of questions — it depends on the writer, the publisher, and the story. But what you’re proposing can certainly be a viable option, assuming the publisher is going to do some work. (And, if you’re not great at reading between the lines, that means there are some publishers who don’t edit, don’t spend money on covers, don’t do any marketing, and don’t help you sell copies… which means you’re probably better off indie-publishing.)

I’ve been wondering why an agent who might otherwise reject a query via email would bother to take the next step when approached at a conference? The pitch is the same, the writing sample is the same, the platform (or lack thereof) is the same. All that’s different is that the author paid money to show up in person. Is it because (1) it shows the writer is serious about this, having come to a conference and signed up to see you, or (2) it allows you to have a few minutes and figure out the person isn’t a wacko, or (3) it gives you the time to talk about the proposal, rather than just take a quick look?

All of those are good reasons. But more than anything, I’ll look at a proposal at a conference because that’s what I’ve agreed to do – interact with authors at the conference. If I see something that interests me, I’m much more apt to pay attention to someone I’ve actually met and had a discussion with than I am to someone I’ve never met. But sure — it’s always nice to know this person isn’t a wacko. Um.. are YOU a wacko?

You never seem to talk much about spec fiction, but the fantasy genre has blossomed, and it seems like there’s been an explosion of dystopian stories over the past few years. Do you think the adult fantasy genre will grow among CBA readers due to the popularity of so many YA fantasy novels? 

I don’t have much to say about spec fiction because I represent very little spec or fantasy — it’s just not been my area of focus. That said, I think we could see some superhero and spec fiction stories grow in CBA fiction, but I don’t know that the genre will ever be a dominant force in fiction. (Spec fiction has always been a bit player in the world of publishing, no matter how many Star Wars movies were produced.) I don’t know about the growth of fantasy among adult readers… maybe it will grow, since we’re always getting surprised by the twists and turns in publishing trends, and so many young people have found an escape in fantasy novels. But the shift we’re seeing at the moment in CBA is toward more true stories: humorous memoir, moving and transcendent true stories, perhaps graphic and disturbing books that use fiction technique to tell factual stories. Again, fiction is a tough place in CBA at the moment.

Now it’s your turn… If you’ve got a comment to make about any of the above questions, drop it in the comments section below. (I’d love to hear from some of the authors who have gone the e-first route, to see what you thought of the experience.) And if you’ve got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, drop that in as well, or email it directly to me, and I’ll try to get to it this month. 

Posted in Current Affairs | 1 Comment »

Writing Lessons from The Hunger Games (a guest blog)

July 30, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Call me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I learned from her that I’d like to share with you.

  1. Jump right into the action and then insert background info.

Notice how the story starts immediately, “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” Collins doesn’t first spend a chapter on Katniss’ back story or what the Hunger Games are. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.

Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.

What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien begins with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)

  1. Show, don’t tell.

Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:

Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.

Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture: The name of where they live (a name as soulless as “Airstrip One”), the local economy, and the hardship of their lives.

Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you tell the reader something. Challenge yourself to show it instead. It will be slow work at first, but (like any habit) it will become easier and eventually become second nature.

  1. This takes practice.

Now the bad news. No one is born writing this well. Not only did Collins write seven books before The Hunger Games, but she was also a screenwriter for years before that.

Everyone (myself included) wants to believe that their first book will be amazing, but good writing just takes a lot of practice. If you’re not willing to write half a dozen mediocre books in order to write one really good, this might not be the industry for you.

  1. Our stories should be eerily familiar

The most disturbing thing about The Hunger Games was not children fighting to the death (though that was enough), it was how familiar Katniss’ world looked to me. The Capitol was not that different from modern America. The Hunger Games not that different than watching “Survivor.”

Someone (I think it was Robert McKee) said that we read fiction in order to visit a world we’ve never been to, but then find ourselves once we get there. Sometimes we’ll like what we see about ourselves. Sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it will give us encouragement, sometimes a sharp rebuke.

The first part of that lesson is that our stories must connect with something deep inside our reader. But the second part is the danger of creating stories that we think they’ll relate to. But this results in stories that feel contrived. Better to tell stories that we relate to, then make sure the reader can see what we see.

That, by the way, is how The Hunger Games was born:

Flipping through the channels, Collins was suddenly struck by the lack of distinction between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war. “We have so much programming coming at us all the time,” she says. “Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience?…I can’t believe a certain amount of that isn’t happening.” Biography.com

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts – which of those lessons catches you the most? What would you add?

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Josh Kelley is a speaker, writing coach, and author of Radically Normal: You Don’t Have to Live Crazy to Follow Jesus (Harvest House). As a writing coach, he uses an affordable “single session” model. If you’d like more information, visit his website: www.joshkelley.ink.

 

Posted in The Writing Craft | 12 Comments »

Just Don’t

July 29, 2015 | Written by Marie Prys

Publishing & Technology: Just Don’t

Brian Tibbetts is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Wednesday, Brian posts about trends in the publishing industry and developments in technology that impact the industry. You can find him on Twitter @BRIANRTIBBETTS

This week in Publishing & Technology, at the risk of offending Erin (whose words of wisdom regarding author marketing and social media are far more informative than anything you will read in this post) or Chip (whose posts regarding how to approach an agent are golden) we’ll be talking about the do’s and don’ts of using social media to find, friend, and pitch to agents and editors who you normally would not have general access to. The general gist of this post is, when it comes to the do’s and don’ts of soliciting agents and editors through social media: “Just don’t do it.” If you understand why, without having it explained to you, feel free to stop reading now.

Believe me I understand the temptation. I spent many years as an author with a day job, searching for a shortcut to the big time. For years I only sent the same handful of literary short stories and novel excerpts to the top five or six magazines in the country. I was encouraged by the personalized rejections I received and redoubled my efforts to make connections with the editors who’d taken the time to scribble a few words of encouragement on their form rejections. (I still have most if not all of these rejections in a file drawer somewhere.) I tried cold calling agencies that represented authors that produced work that I aspired to. I did everything short of moving to New York and physically inserting myself into the literary scene. None of it worked, and in the years since I’ve developed a healthy appreciation for starting with smaller markets and developing my writing as I get published by incrementally larger publishers and magazines. And I’m glad that the temptation to use social media to network with people who I don’t know did not exist at the time. I can only imagine how many more people I would’ve pestered with my incessant cries for attention. This brings me to the point: if someone in the publishing business that you don’t know is open enough to connect with you on LinkedIn, or Facebook, or Instagram, or whatever, don’t immediately take it as an opportunity to pitch them. If they accept unsolicited queries or manuscripts through normal channels, use them. And if they don’t, just don’t.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Editing for Authors: Part 3, Turning on the Editing Eye

July 29, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on editing for authors. This week, I’m talking more about ways to develop the right perspective for editing.

I wrote last week about the difference between the up-close-and-personal nature of the writing perspective and the more objective, big-picture mindset needed to be an effective editor. Obviously, it can be difficult to approach your own work objectively, especially if you have strong emotional ties to the material, and as I said last week, time is the best way to gain that emotional and intellectual distance from your work– you’re much more likely to see the weaknesses in your work after letting the initial writer-high die down.

But what if you still struggle with objective, big-picture thinking even after letting your manuscript sit for days/weeks/months?  How much time should you let pass, realistically, in the hope that you’ll wake up one day with a completely different perspective on your work? Truth be told, some authors will always struggle with finding the right perspective from which to edit their work, no matter how much time passes, but the good news is that there are other ways to help train yourself to approach your work like an editor rather than a writer.

Cleanse Your Palate.

If you have any experience on the fine dining scene, you’ve probably had meals at which a palate-cleanser was served between courses– a beverage or a sorbet intended to rid your mouth of any lingering flavors from one course before another was served so that the next course wasn’t “tainted” by leftover, clashing flavors. Obviously, if you waited a day between courses, all traces of one course would disappear from your mouth before you tasted the next one, but a palate-cleanser lets you enjoy the flavors of two dissimilar courses to the fullest without having to spread your meal out over three days. In the same way, you can cleanse your editorial “palate” by applying your attention to a completely dissimilar or neutral project in between writing and editing, and perhaps even gain a better editorial perspective than you would have by merely letting time pass.

For some, this can be as simple as reading a book, either something totally different from what you wrote so as to really get your head out of your story world, or something similar in genre/tone so as to help you start to develop an eye for pacing/story development in your own story. Others prefer to palate-cleanse by writing something “neutral,” such as a couple of blog posts or a journal entry or a long email to a friend– something with an entirely different voice and goal from your work-in-progress. Some find it extremely helpful to edit someone else’s work in the interim between writing and editing– this allows you to start thinking critically and globally right away because you don’t have any personal connections or bias to overcome. The hope behind using one of these strategies is that it will help to kick-start your editing mindset rather than just letting time pass and hoping for the best.

Learn From Your Past.

We all know the saying about how if you don’t learn from the past, you are doomed to repeat it. Even if you don’t have a natural knack for editing, you have learned from reader feedback, critique partners, and manuscript clinics (if you’ve been writing for awhile) what areas tend to give you trouble, what weaknesses show up repeatedly, what you’ve had to work on the most, etc. Your previous problems can provide an excellent starting point for your editing process. Where your own “editorial eye” might not have looked at your work-in-progress and seen a pacing problem or cliche word choices, your past work is a map telling you exactly where to start looking for similar problems, and once you know what you’re looking for, you presumably have some experience fixing it (from applying all those earlier critiques to your earlier work). So, consider starting every editing process by looking back over your last three or four manuscripts and reminding yourself of their weaknesses/oft-critiqued elements (or even by re-reading them yourself and seeing what annoys you now that you are an older and wiser writer) and making a style sheet (more about this tool next week) to use as a jumping-off point for your edit. If you start by looking for problems you’ve had in the past and that you already have experience fixing, it can prime the pump for recognizing other issues and get you thinking critically about your manuscript.

Once you’ve figured out the best way for you to get into the editing state of mind, you can make a writing/editing schedule that fits your editing style and helps you to make the best use of your time. If time is the best way for you to gain perspective on your work, you could stagger your writing and editing so that the clock is always ticking on pages to be edited– if you need to let pages sit for three weeks before you can look at them as an editor, write for six weeks, then stop and edit the first three weeks’ worth of material. When you’ve done that, write for another three weeks while the second three weeks’ pages “ripen,” and so on. If your perspective is better aided by reading or writing other material, schedule breaks for that reading or writing into your writing/editing schedule.

You may prefer to finish your manuscripts and edit them all at once rather than alternating between writing and editing. If that’s the case, consider that even though you wrote the first chapters three months ago, you wrote the last chapters much more recently, and you may need to let the whole manuscript sit for awhile before you have enough perspective on the book as a whole to edit effectively. If you’re the kind of author who goes crazy if they’re not working on a manuscript at all times, you may want to consider always having two manuscripts in play– writing a second book while waiting to edit the first– so that you don’t feel like you’re wasting time while waiting for perspective to show up on the first one.

Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of dozens of ways you can balance your writing, editing, and space-making activities. Be sure to check the comments for several helpful posts from authors about what kind of schedule works for them (or leave yours if you have one). Next week we’ll be talking about the role of a style sheet in the editing process and how to build and use one. Thanks for reading!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

What’s working in CBA fiction these days?

July 27, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

I’ve been getting all sorts of follow-up questions to my posts on CBA fiction…

In CBA, what genres do well in fiction and which ones do poorly? Is there a growing movement toward spec fiction and fantasy? 

Romance continues to lead the way in CBA fiction, though we’ve seen a bit of a shift from historicals to contemporary stories. Romantic suspense also does well, followed by straight suspense novels. There’s a random sampling of other genres (some women’s fiction, some historical sagas, the occasional apocalyptic thriller), but we’ve seen very little in the way of speculative fiction, fantasy, new adult, YA, horror, or paranormal stories do well in CBA. I keep hearing there’s a growing market for those kinds of titles, and there may be… but to this point, it’s pretty much been limited to indie-published titles and some very small presses who consider it a huge success to move a thousand copies. You may think it makes sense for this to be a growth category, but it hasn’t proven to be true in CBA, at least not yet.

What was it that made the novel The Shack a runaway success after it had been rejected by traditional publishers?

I think The Shack told an intriguing story, had an interesting depiction of God that had some appeal (if you’re not aware, the role of God was pictured as an African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit was portrayed as a rather ethereal elderly Asian woman), and spoke to an audience of people who wanted to feel they were reading something deep about God. (They were not, by the way. The story has major problems, and the writing is weak.) The big picture of the novel is that the lead character had a bunch of crud in his past that needed to be brought out into the light and examined – which is certainly a good message. It was also controversial, which garnered it some attention. The book did well, sold copies, and took off via word of mouth among spiritual seekers. Then FaithWords at Hachette bought it, pumped a bunch of marketing money into it, and the book blew the roof off. I think they sold more than six million copies. Many people used it to suggest we’d arrived in a new place with Christian fiction. My thought? Mencken was right. Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate a surprise hit. But I read the book and thought it was really weak. There were many other, better books that could have been used as examples of the good stuff being produced by writers of faith. CBA fiction has hit a place where there are some wonderful writers, telling excellent, thought-provoking stories. But this was an example where great art can be a much tougher sell than bad art masquerading as something deep. It was the painting equivalent was Thomas Kinkade, who somehow convinced much of America that his nostalgic paintings of cottages were great art. They weren’t bad, by any means – I owned one, and I liked it. But they were safe and easy and romanticized pieces of fluff that made you think of an idealized American pastoral scene, not really great, thoughtful pieces of art that spoke to your soul about anything. Again, I’m not complaining, only explaining that “deep” doesn’t always sell. I mean, who sells more records — the London Philharmonic or Miley Cyrus?

What do you think made the curious little book The Prayer of Jabez so successful a few years ago?

That’s easy: It was a very short book (so it would be easy to read), that was inexpensive (so it would be easy to buy), and it claimed to offer magic words that would give the reader the power to force God to do something (so it had a broad appeal). I know the book well. The author, Bruce Wilkinson, was a friend of mine who I’d worked with on some writing projects. The editor, Dave Kopp, was an acquaintance who has continued working in the industry (he is an excellent editor and is now running the Convergent line for Random House). I don’t think either of them intended the book to be viewed as a “Magic Potion to Make God Do Your Bidding.” Yet the simple promise of the book made it take off unexpectedly, and it generated a pile of money. But again, this happens occasionally in publishing, and you can’t always figure out why one book did great and another book did not. I think anyone who picks up a copy of Henry Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus will find a life-changing manuscript, but most have never heard of it. On the other hand, we’ve all seen books like Your Best Life Now or Going Rogue do well and wonder, “Am I missing something?”

Would love to know books you think are overlooked masterpieces, OR books that made it big and you thought were somewhat less-than-stellar… 

Posted in CBA, Current Affairs | 12 Comments »

Maybe Family Christian Stores survive after all…

July 23, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Some news bits that relate to writers who do books in CBA…

First, Family Christian Stores may, in fact, survive… and thus surprise everyonebookstores_2 in Christian publishing. As previously talked about here and here, FCS was in danger of shuttering its 266 stores due to declining revenues, a tough publishing market, changing tastes among people of faith… oh yeah, and an inability to actually run the whole operation as a profitable enterprise. They did $230-million in business last year, but the Richard Jackson-owned chain had wracked up $127-million in debt, owed publishers $14-million, had $20-million in consignment merchandise they hadn’t paid for, and were basically swimming in a sea of ill will. Two companies that specialize in killing businesses, Gordon Brothers and Hilco Merchant Services, were pushing to have the court declare FCS bankrupt, so they could sell the remaining stock for pennies on the dollar and close the stores. Instead, the judge had the company go through a sale, then nixed it when he found out the CEO of the company, Chuck Bengochea, was making secret late-night phone calls to Mr Jackson to apparently map out an insider strategy in violation of the law, then set up a NEW sale, and this time it’s got a buyer.

Second, the buyer of Family Christian Stores is none other than Mr Richard Jackson and his new company, FCS Acquisitions. Um… go ahead and read back over that if you need to. We’ll wait… Okay, you with me? Yes, Mr Jackson, who made a fortune in health care,  and who purchased FCS and more or less ran it into the ground, then tried to form a new company to buy his old company but got slapped down by a judge for what was termed “reckless… insider” moves, has formed a NEW company, and that new company is buying the OLD company — and thus allowing it to get out of some bad leases, to start afresh with some accounts, and to do what we used to call on the playground “a do-over.” For those who pay attention to this sort of thing, he tried this before, offering to pay as little as $28-million to try and gain control of the company and its assets, but there was a hue and cry against it. This time, he’s putting up nearly $55-million, paying back a fair portion to publishers, and settling with all those consignment folks who felt cheated.

Third, the CBA publishers basically went into court and, no doubt looking as glum as possible, agreed to the plan. I can’t imagine anyone in leadership at a CBA publishing house is high-fiveing over the current regime remaining in control, but it’s better than having 266 retail outlets for their books completely shut down. So they all coughed, made grimacing smiles, straightened their ties, and agreed this was an okay plan. And it is. (Feel free to pop that cork in celebration!)

Fourth, it looks like the bulk of the FCS stores will remain open, and many of the 3100 employees will retain their jobs. That’s actually very good news for Christian writers, since CBA publishers have been slow to move their focus away from brick-and-mortar stores. Christian authors rely on the stores to help get their books in front of readers, so having 266 stores (or however many actually survive — word is FCS will shutter at least 20 locations) is better than nothing.

Fifth, one of the really bad aspects of this bankruptcy has been the impact on consignment vendors, who were still taking their wares into the stores when it was on the brink of collapse because, well, apparently the leadership at FCS forgot to tell them, “Oh yeah, if you bring that in here, we won’t actually be able to pay you for it.” Those vendors banded together, filed suit, and its been the nastiest part of the proceedings. FCS had $20-million in consignment inventory that was, in essence, going to be stolen from vendors. The stores have sold about $6-million of it, and are settling on the rest. (And, while people will try to put a happy face on this, the real reason everyone agreed to this plan is because if the liquidators step in, nobody gets anything. Or, as one business owner put it to me, “With the old plan, we got Jack Squat.” You can just feel the love and enthusiasm, can’t you?)

This should all get settled in mid-August, with a “new” ownership, new leases (that will certainly save the company money), the closing of some money-losing stores, and some fresh capital to try and save the business. Will it work? Beats me. They’re claiming they have “improvements” that will make them more “productive” and “valuable.” Maybe they do — I hope so, since I represent authors in the genre who really could use the shelf space to promote their titles. I’d love it if the stores shrunk, started focusing on books instead of John 3:16 socks and Precious Moments Statuettes, and found ways to build readers. But the past ten years have shown us that bookselling is a tough business, and possibly more of a small mom-and-pop business than a big, superstore chain business. So here’s to you Mr Jackson, and Mr CEO Bengochea (assuming you can refrain from making any more late night calls and stay out of jail). None of us are actually rooting for you — but many of us are rooting for your stores to succeed.

 

Would love to hear about your great local bookstore. Where are you buying your books? 

 

Posted in Current Affairs | 7 Comments »

The Immediate Past or The Distant Future?

July 22, 2015 | Written by Marie Prys

Publishing & Technology: The Immediate Past or the Distant Future?
Brian Tibbetts is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Wednesday, Brian posts about trends in the publishing industry and developments in technology that impact the industry. You can find him on Twitter @BRIANRTIBBETTS
This week in Publishing & Technology we’ll be talking about innovation in digital publishing (again). This week, like every week, I scoured the internet looking for signs that the publishing revolution that we’ve all heard about for so many years now will feature something beyond digitally delivered versions of print only books (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and again I came up empty-handed. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough, but the most relevant article I found this week was penned by The Silent History co-creators Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn in the spring of 2013. For the full article on the Huffington Post site click here.
I had the good fortune to attend a conversation between Eli Horowitz and Paul Collins (yes, that Paul Collins) not long before this article appeared on the Huffington Post Blog. The conversation was a part of the Transmit Culture lecture series put on by the Master’s Program in Publishing at Portland State University and what was discussed that evening galvanized my growing enthusiasm for pursuing for pursuing a career in publishing. During the conversation Collins and Horowitz discussed The Silent History, its recent launch, and its success (or potential lack thereof) as an experiment in innovative digital publishing at length before finishing the evening with talk of Horowitz’s tenure at McSweeney’s and a Q&A session with the audience. The Silent History is a truly innovative in its scope and unique (thus far) in its level of execution. As Horowitz and Quinn put it, “In the olden days (say, 2009), a few publishers did dip their toes in these waters, experimenting with a few innovative projects; these didn’t earn enough to justify their start-up costs, and publishers seem to have now largely retreated to straight digitization of standard text projects, occasionally adding a halfhearted enhanced ebook.” To date, The Silent History, still stands as the best (if not the singular) example of a truly innovative, digital text-based publishing venture. Is the reason for this purely economic or is Taylor Antrim correct in his June New York Times review of Horowitz and Adrian’s (traditionally published) book The New World, when he claims that, “It turns out we don’t want tech-aided experiments in form.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 0 Comments »

Editing for Authors: Part 2, Perspective and How to Find it

July 21, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on being your own editor, I’m talking today about the importance of the right perspective when editing your own work, specifically the role that time plays in your editorial success.

Writing is an up-close-and-personal business. You live and breath your story while you’re writing it, spending hours with your characters while thinking about and planning your story, talking about it with friends and family or your writing group, and then when it’s time to write, your creation appears on the page literally seconds after you conceive it– writing is, in essence, a largely improvised art form. Even if you know the general direction your story is going to take, even if you plan out all the names and scenes in advance, the truth is that when the time comes to put words on paper, you’re making it up as you go along. The words that come into your head are the ones you put down on paper; that’s the only way anything ever gets written. If I sat here and waited to write my blog post until I knew every word I was going to say in exactly the order I was going to say it from beginning to end, I would die before I started a single sentence– that’s not how writing works, and many writers’ favorite thing about writing is the instantly measurable nature of it– “I wrote 1000 words today!” But while that stream-of-consciousness creation is great for getting words on the page, it’s not so good for editing.

Editing is a process in which the majority of your decisions are made on a comparative basis— this line isn’t as clear as the rest of the paragraph; this scene’s pacing is slow compared to the rest of the chapter; this character/plotline is less developed than this other one, etc. To be an effective editor, you have to train yourself to take one or two (or ten) steps back from your manuscript and see it in pieces bigger than the individual words or lines so that you can make these comparisons. Because this is so different from the process by which we write, many authors have trouble shifting their perspective to one from which they can edit effectively. Mentally, it can be hard to switch gears from that one-word-at-a-time mindset to a more global approach to your work, and emotionally, it can be even harder to look critically and objectively at shoddy writing, confusing storytelling, or plot holes when you’ve been as  invested in your characters and as present in your story as you’ve been when writing. Fortunately, there are several ways to create some healthy mental and emotional “distance” between you and your manuscript. This week, we’re looking at one of the simplest and most effective strategies for gaining perspective– time.

Time is the Best Editor.

Like happens at some point in most long-term relationships, you and your manuscript are going to need (and benefit greatly from) a short (or perhaps extended) break from each other. Taking some time away after spending all day, every day in each other’s company can provide a radical shift in how you view your story. Elements that felt hugely significant when you wrote them can seem unimportant and cluttery upon revisiting the manuscript a few weeks later. A sentence you thought was particularly brilliant when it first popped into your head might, you sheepishly admit the next day, have been a bit cheesy.

Time away also helps you to recognize what you truly do like about your manuscript/what your priorities are. If you come back to your story and still grin when reading a scene you loved writing or still pat yourself on the back for a particularly great character, that’s probably something that should stay in, and something that should shape your editing process. Recognizing what is good and what is distinctive about your writing is as much a part of being a good editor as being able to sniff out the rotten parts, and just like time away from a significant other can make you appreciate their good qualities anew, so time away from your manuscript can bolster your confidence in its strong points and help you make decisions for what direction you want to take when editing.

The amount of time needed to attain an objective perspective for editing differs for everyone. Some authors have great success editing just a day after writing, following a routine of editing the previous day’s pages before writing new ones. Others prefer to allow more time to pass between edits, editing in bigger chunks at the end of every chapter or the end of every week. And many don’t want to edit their manuscript at all until they’ve finished a full draft, sometimes letting it sit for a few weeks after completing it so as to really be able to take a break from thinking about the charters and plot full-time.

The strategy that’s best for you depends on how emotionally involved you’ve been with your work-in-progress, how easy you find it to switch from your “author hat” to your “editor hat,” and how experienced an editor you are. If you have no problem snapping into editorial mode, you might not need more than a day between writing a scene and editing it to be able to make objective decisions about content and structure, and if you’ve edited your own work before, you may be able to recognize pacing problems or plot holes early on, before the manuscript has been finished. If, however, you’ve been very emotionally involved in your writing process– if the subject matter is highly personal for you, or the situations in the book are intense/difficult to write– you probably need a little longer to recover/recharge emotionally before you’re ready to step back and look objectively at the writing or storytelling rather than getting caught up in the associated emotions.

You also probably need more time if you haven’t had a lot of experience with editing (not to be confused with proofreading) your own stories. Recognizing major flaws in your plot, inconsistencies in your pacing, underdeveloped characters– these are all big-picture problems that are easiest to see when you have the whole manuscript to look at, so if you don’t have a lot of experience spotting them or fixing them, you’re setting yourself up for greater success if you give yourself the entire manuscript to work with and a nice two-or-three-week cushion to give the post-writing, self-congratulatory, “I wrote a whole book, I am a dang genius!” excitement a chance to die down and your more objective, “I wrote a rough draft of a book that needs a lot more work” side a chance to rise to the surface.

Success as an editor is largely dependent on being able to hold your work at mental-and-emotional arm’s length. Experiment a little and find out what your sweet spot is for time elapsed between writing and editing, and then let that shape your writing-and-editing routine. Editor-you will thank you for waiting, even if author-you rolls her eyes and tries to rush you. Next week, I’ll be talking about a couple more ways to develop perspective as an editor as well as some sample writing/editing routines to try. As always, thanks for reading!

 

Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Can CBA novelists move to the general market?

July 20, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

What with the struggles of Christian fiction over the past couple of years, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been getting has to do with the potential shift of writers from CBA to the general market — specifically, Can a CBA novelist move to a traditional publishing house in the general market?

My answer is quick: Potentially you can, but it’s very tough to do successfully. 

I understand why inspirational authors want to explore this shift — CBA fiction is pen and inkshrinking, there are fewer legacy publishing houses releasing fiction, and those that do focus on fiction have generally been trimming the number of titles they release. That’s particularly true with literary fiction, where there are just a handful of traditional CBA houses who do any literary titles at all. And while there are a number of new, smaller presses popping up with titles aimed at religious readers, few have shown staying power and nearly all of them are focused on category fiction (most often romances, though there are also some cozy mysteries, romantic suspense, and even some spec fiction titles available).

In addition, traditional CBA publishers have heavily relied on brick-and-mortar stores to move their books, and the disappearance of so many Christian bookstores has hit publishers extremely hard. The potential closing of Family Christian Stores, the largest chain of religious bookstores, has been a scary proposition for CBA publishers, as I’ve noted on this blog in the past. A recent study done on the buying habits of those who read Christian fiction demonstrated their reliance on finding titles in brick-and-mortar stores. So we have as many writers as ever, but trying to do books in a market with fewer publishers, who are doing fewer titles, available on fewer stores shelves. That’s the problem, in a nutshell.

The potential answer for many authors has been to try and take their stories to the broader general market… and it hasn’t been working. Why? First, understand that much of CBA fiction is dominated by the conservative evangelical brand of Christianity, and the general market isn’t interested in those types of stories. It’s not that they are closed to faith, but people who aren’t part of that culture can’t be expected to embrace it. A writer who grows up in the evangelical culture, who is surrounded by the American evangelical milieux, often isn’t going to know how to speak to a broader audience. (Again, I happily represent a bunch of Christian authors, so I’m not criticizing — only trying to explain the issue.)

We can argue over this point, and I expect a bunch of CBA writers to tell me that, no, they know how to interact with the culture, etc. I’m sorry, but I’ve been working with both religious and non-religious texts for years now, and in my experience, most novelists in CBA struggle mightily to write to a broader audience. They don’t know how to stop using religious language. Their examples are often Bible-based. The situations they describe are frequently the things talked about in church. They over-worry about sex and strong language. Again, I’m not slamming these folks; I’m explaining that many writers in that situation will logically struggle when trying to reach a non-churched audience.

Second, CBA authors struggle reaching out to a general market audience because there really is no “crossover” market. Listen, I represent both Christian and general-market fiction, and I’m regularly pitched book ideas by writers who want to appeal to both markets. That almost never works — the books end up being too Jesus-y for the general readers, and too worldly for the Christian readers. What’s intended as a blending of the two cultures ends up in no-man’s-land. They appeal to neither side, and nobody buys the book. (And yes, it’s true that on rare occasions a book like The Shack will find an audience in both markets… but it’s the exception that proves the rule. Books like that are so rare that, when one pops up, it’s news.)

Third, writers of Christian fiction, particularly Christian literary fiction, tend to write small, quiet stories. That makes sense, when you think about it — the notion of faith is a personal thing, and a story about it is often one about thoughts, motivations, and internal decisions. I would argue the bulk of literary novels in CBA have been rather quiet stories about people who face some life event and make an internal decision. They are often small stories, and largely thoughtful. And that’s a problem in the general market, where they are usually looking for big, noisy, banging-around-in-the-mess stories. (Yeah, I’m generalizing. There are examples of big CBA literary stories, and examples of quiet general market stories. But overall, this has been a problem for authors trying to move from CBA to a broader audience.)

Fourth, I believe there is a significant difference between CBA and the general market in terms of the purpose and the perspective of fiction. To many Christian novelists, the purpose of art is largely theological (i.e., it should evangelize, it should glorify God, it should illuminate Scripture, etc), and their perspective is therefore to write books that demonstrate that truth. To many writing non-religious novels, the purpose of art is varied — to entertain, to reflect, to challenge, to reveal, to make a statement. I think it’s fair to say many artists would say art has no purpose; it just exists. And their perspective is that art is a means of expressing ourselves, even if that expression is unkind or unfair or unholy. That’s a far cry from the CBA purpose and perspective. So someone who is outside of the American evangelical camp tends to look at CBA fiction and think, “Why are you spending so much time on God-talk?” or “Why are you trying to proselytize me?” The two groups are speaking different languages, and going after different goals. There are certainly some similarities, of course — in both technique (characters we like, a strong story arc, etc) and in tropes (good vs evil, redemption, etc). But there are fundamental differences, and it’s why most CBA novelists won’t make it in the general market.

Now, having said that, I continue to believe in inspirational fiction, and to hold out hope for a more varied publishing landscape for Christian writers. I’ve helped some authors move successfully from CBA to the general market, but they’ve had to change how they view their work. There is a movement among many Christian novelists to make fiction more realistic and less theological, though they struggle with finding traditional publishers and sales venues. There are also discussions at some CBA houses to create new fiction lines that won’t be limited by the old strictures of Christian fiction (“no sex,” “no language,” “no bleak views of the world”), but that still offer stories of hope and faith and a moral compass. And I know there is a movement afoot to try and get those titles mixed in with other literature at stores, and not stuck in the Christian fiction ghetto of Barnes & Noble. So I continue to believe in the value of Christian fiction, but I also believe we’re beginning to see a much broader world of literature, some of it still Christian, but outside the historical boundaries of CBA fiction.

Posted in Current Affairs | 98 Comments »

Feast and Famine

July 15, 2015 | Written by Marie Prys

Publishing & Technology: Feast and Famine

Brian Tibbetts is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Wednesday, Brian posts about trends in the publishing industry and developments in technology that impact the industry. You can find him on Twitter @BRIANRTIBBETTS

This week in Publishing & Technology we’ll be talking about a trend in the publishing industry (among others) toward the expanded utilization of independent contractors, or freelancers. I had intended to spend this week addressing either global publishing trends or talking about the highly comical price ranges that Publishers Marketplace provides on its “Report a Deal” form. But this month’s issue of Publishing Perspectives, the monthly magazine published by the good folks at the Frankfurt Book Fair, has a little article on its very last page by Laura Summers titled “In the Future, Will we all be Freelancers?” and I just can’t stop myself from weighing in on this trend.

Don’t get me wrong; I always wanted to be a freelancer. I used to dream about it when I worked a corporate job. I put myself through graduate school as a freelance reviewer of reference books and research materials for a publication catering to the needs of college librarians, doing a little web design, and writing for an SEO copywriting specialty company, and I truly did enjoy the freedom that came along with the position. I would roll out of bed at a reasonable hour, shuffle into the kitchen in my pajamas and slippers, put the coffee on, and settle in at the kitchen table to start my work day. If I had a meeting, a class, or an appointment to attend, I would leave the house and my work behind for the necessary time, without having to consider the impact on my nonexistent co-workers or boss and without having to ask for permission. If I felt like taking an afternoon off, or sleeping late on any given day, I only had to make a Faustian bargain with the rest of the week’s schedule to do so. There were some definite upsides, not the least of which was the exemption from dealing with the office jerk (and every office has at least one). But there were also some serious drawbacks to freelancing. At any given point, despite my efforts to diversify my sources of work, the work could just dry up, leaving me with little to keep myself afloat. If I weren’t diligent in my accounting and quarterly tax payments, I would get spanked with a hefty tax bill at the end of the year (and at a considerably higher tax rate than I was accustomed to in my previous life as a corporate drone). I was responsible for providing myself and my family with health insurance, and all the other little perks that come with working as an employee that are so easy to take for granted until you have to provide them for yourself. Freelancing also took a toll on my sociality as a human. I found myself babbling ad nauseum to the first person that I came in came into direct contact with at the end of the day, as if spending a solid day in my own company had left me starving for human interaction. In the end the good and the bad balanced out to the point where working freelance was tolerable, if only because I knew that it was temporary. And from my perspective, that may be the biggest problem with the entire industry dragging itself toward reliance on freelance creatives. There are very few people that are cut out for handling the income insecurity, isolation, and extra tax burden that come with working freelance for the long haul.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »