May 26th, 2009 | Current Affairs | 4 Comments
I've had more than twenty people write to ask my opinion of the Google book settlement. Some thoughts…
ice for an author in this situation is to opt in to the settlement. Hope this helps.
I've had more than twenty people write to ask my opinion of the Google book settlement. Some thoughts…
Recently I was driving to work thinking about my day when two words caught my eye… ESTATE SALE.
Figuring it was a sign (okay, it was a sign) I convinced myself I could take a few minutes out of my day to do something different. I'm not a collector of stuff just to have it, but I was suddenly in the mood to hunt for treasure. An old typewriter whose parts I could turn into the shadow box collage I keep envisioning on my office wall. An old ink bottle to contain posies. Or an old blanket for our new dog's basket. You know. The kinds of things you never go shopping for …
I arrived and saw people walking away empty handed – not a good sign. But, I'd spent the time and gas getting there, so figured what the heck and pulled to the curb.
On my way up the sidewalk I overheard two people talking about getting their names on the list. There's a list? I passed by them, smiling and waving, then felt their stares on my back as I turned toward the front door.
That should have been my first clue, but thoughts of discovering an old Underwood or Olivetti pulled me along and I walked through the front door like I belonged there.
I. DID. NOT. BELONG. THERE.
I was barely a step inside the door when I heard the quick pace of heels on hardwood followed by scolding from a beehived, aproned woman shouting "NOT UNTIL NINE! DIDN'T YOU SEE THE LIST?"
Again with the list. I backed out, pulled the door closed, then noticed it. Flapping in the breeze at my feet was a sheet of paper clipped to a board, filled with two columns of names. Ah.
I started to bend over to see what I'd missed when a small throng barreled toward me. "Did you just walk right in?" Asked one woman who looked like she needed to go back to bed and start over.
"Yeah," I said. Obviously, was what I wanted to say, didn't you just watch me do so?
"BUT THERE'S A LIST!" she shouted, pointing at my feet. Pointing out my offense.
Another woman complained, eyes bulging, "I drove all the way across town this morning and I've been here since 6:30. You CAN'T just walk in there."
Clearly I was on someone else's turf and didn't know the rules. I felt like maybe if I just snapped my heels together …
Instead, I muttered "sorry" and dug my keys from my pocket to signal my imminent departure.
"You're leaving? Don't you want to put your name on THE LIST?"
Uh, no, lady. You and your wild monkeys have succeeded in scaring me away. I picked up my pace and retreated to the safety of my car.
I drove away reckoning that that was one of the more bizarre experiences I'd ever had. But once the green fog started lifting from my head, I decided there must be some unwritten Estate Sale Rule Book I'd never been privy to. Then I wondered — if I'd known there were rules, standards, expectations … would I have bothered?
All day long I couldn't shake the absurdity of my great estate sale blunder. And it got me thinking about how many people start, innocently enough, on the writing journey deciding it's worth a try; just an easy side trip along their way to somewhere else.
Based on the queries and submissions we receive, I'm sad to say there is a staggering amount of evidence that tons of folks don't bother figuring out the rules of the writing road. Don't think to read between the signs along the way and think about what they're getting into. They see the promise of treasure and plunge ahead, ignoring guidelines, books on craft, the market.
I often contend that the “rules” may not be obvious, but that they are not that hard to figure out. Still, I have to believe there are writers who are earnest in their
mission, but who are genuinely innocent in their ignorance. It's those people I thought about as I tried to learn from my misguided quest.
How many of us, pointy hats or not, don't bother stopping people in their tracks as they skip innocently (yes, sometimes stupidly) along the yellow brick road, to say "hey you, the one with the manuscript in the basket … uh, let me give you a couple hints how this whole process works."
If you're one who figured it out for yourself, the temptation might be to respond "Yeah, well, I did it the hard way. No one saved me from embarrassment and ridicule. They'll learn. Besides, if I help them, they may just get what I'm after …"
I'll spare you the continued analogy. The likening of Christians to the Munchkins and those freaky Lollipop Kids. Glenda to the Holy Spirit. How the Wizard (should that really be capitalized?) we serve expects us to help each other. How the wicked witch and her crafty minions … oh, I said I'd spare you. Sorry.
Okay, anyway, here's my point. With conference season upon us, I'd like to challenge you — especially now as the road is twistier and harder than ever to tread upon – to please look out for one another. Seek opportunities to help new writers figure out the unspoken rules. Step a little out of your way to gently correct folks if you see them unknowingly blundering their way with visions of emeralds dancing in their heads.
Look for chances to pull someone aside and say "hey, this is where you start, this is how it works. Yes it's hard and twisty, and you will meet many perils and face fearful things along the way. But, if you pay attention, you'll learn much along the way."
Who knows. In the end, your help may be just the thing to keep the house from falling down upon you both.
Wow. I must say, there are a LOT of bad poets out there. In case you didn't read them, this year's entries in our annual Bad Poetry Contest brought us verses about dead cats, naked cucumbers, and constipation (keep pushing, anita). Jimmy Jacobson brought us zombies, and one deep thinker offered his thoughts on "Ned the Hamster." Sensitive and reflective author Cathy West, ruminating on the industry, penned these moving words: Dear Writer, as you think you are, I shall tell you kindly from afar, You Suck. You're awful. Terrible. And you stink too."
This is the place for bad poetry. In case you're wondering what it is we're doing, we take one week out of each year (the week of my birthday) and try something different. Normally authors are sending in questions about writing and publishing, and I try to bring some wisdom to bear on the issue at hand. But the first week of May we set aside to share one of my stupid passions — bad poetry. I don't mean poetry that is simply juvenile or moronic, but the kind that offers faux depth, atrocious metaphors, and really stupid self-awareness.
Ode To A Fallen Friend
O, gentle green frog
Now spreading red
Five miles per hour was fast
my heart is heavy Someday I will once again
weighed down like it has a big boulder from Rocky Mountain National Park on it
It pulls me down into a pit of sorrow and sadness
like a well full of tears and sadness
The sun is shining like a super bright star
but in my heart
it is black
like darkness without the sun
walk in the brightness
I will walk like a girl who is happy
like a girl with ballet slippers on her feet
and I will think only of love and joy
rainbows and kittens
my heart is heavy
Someday I will once again
In the lobby of the Deadham Community Theater is a painting of a bald man, done all in greens and grays, with mushrooms floating in the air all around him. One look at it makes you think, "Wow… this is BAD."
I'm feeling ill
How about you give me
A salvation pill?
He said to me
that very day
with me in your life
you'll be A-OKAY!
The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and aside from the fact that I'm stuck in bed with the most wicked head cold I've ever had, it's a perfect day here in our neck of the woods. Speaking of perfect, let me answer a few questions in regard to proposals — one area where my perfectionist tendencies run amok. Just last week two editors mentioned that my proposals are among the best they've ever received. So, I think I'm well qualified to answer a few proposal questions. So, Here goes …
Anna wrote and asked "I'm having trouble trying to decide where to focus. I started putting together a proposal for my second novel, but I'm sure I'll go back and tweak the story some when I start editing it. I feel like I have to have it complete and ready to go before I bother with a proposal. Do I completely edit and polish the novel at this point, or do I dive into creating a strong proposal?
After a novel is finished, it's best, if you can, to let it set for some time before going back to edit it. So, in answer to your question regarding what to do next, I'd say dive into creating the strongest proposal you know how, then spend more time going back through it and making sure it is clean, presentable, factual, current, and well organized.
Katherine wants to know: "Should I include sales figures for my previous books in my proposal? My first novel sold pretty well, and the second was about the same. But my publisher decided to pull back from the specific category of fiction I write and so I'm thinking I'll probably look into getting an agent and that I'll probably land with a different publisher. How important will sales figures be to them?"
First off, congratulations on the sales of your first and second novels, Katherine. As "pretty well" could mean considerably different things to different publishers, and sales history is one of the first questions out of editors mouths these days, now would be a good time to round up a current figure so you can be prepared to answer that as specifically as you can – either to your new agent or to any editors you might have the opportunity to pitch your work. And, there's no use in trying to mask sales figures as most agents and editors are able to access the facts with a phone call or email. So just be honest. It is what it is. If you had a particular issue (one of the authors I represent "lost" two editors and her agent to maternity leave prior to the release of a book and she's still recovering from lost momentum) most editors will understand — if the writing holds up, of course. I'd say, though, if you're looking for an agent, leave these details up to him or her to discuss. Yeah, I know … we get to have all the fun.
Mason got a little whiny, but his concern is pretty universal, so I'll humor him. He said "I'm trying to make sense of all the information I've gathered for putting together a proposal. It seems like it could go on for pages and pages! Why do they ask for so much? "
Okay, look. There are tons of books on crafting proposals and even more websites and samples floating around on websites. We have a fiction proposal on our website which leans toward the technical side, but they don't all have to be that way. One thing I always try to keep in mind when I'm advising authors (or sometimes helping them) with proposals is that editors are busy and overwhelmed. They need good information put together in a manner which makes it easy to find the specific details they will need if/when they're discussing your project with their counterparts or presenting it in a pub meeting. So yes, the sections you see in a sample proposal can seem confusing and a bit like you're being asked to jump through hoops, but if you're willing to make their jobs easier, trust me, you and your work will stand out and they'll appreciate you for it.
Having said all that, personally, here's a framework for how I like to see proposals organized:
Basic overview info to help orient the reviewer to your project. Genre, category, setting, word count, status (finished or not), brief author intro.
What is the book about? This is a one paragraph (or one sentence, if you can do it) handle at this point – not the full synopsis.
Why is the author the one person in the universe qualified to write this book and what are his/her plans for helping the publisher promote and sell it?
Who are the specific consumers likely to plunk down their hard earned cash to buy your book?
Answers the question – can the author really write?
For fiction, I like for this to follow the sample chapters so the editor has a chance to get the same first impression a reader would. Hard to do if they've looked through the synopsis first.
Different editors look for different information first. Some like to see right away if they recognize the author before they go any further. Some jump right to the bottom and read a few lines to see if the person can write. Still others want to know how the book fits in the marketplace and how this author/project compares to what's already out there. If the information and supporting elements are easy to find and deliver answers to their key questions, that's really what most editors want initially. The reason publishers need so much covered in a proposal is that this is often all they have to go on when they are making decisions in meetings about which projects to potentially make an offer on. And the editor who is presenting it is often taking a bit of a risk.
By the time it reaches the final decision stage, typically editors will have already gone through the discovery phase and answered several questions for themselves. Yes, they look at the sample chapters, but they rarely convince a publishing committee to make a "yes" decision (i.e. take a business risk) solely on the writing alone. It happens, but, like I said they often need, especially for newer authors who may not be widely recognized, good support information to help them sell it the project in-house.
Gary said "It seems to me that editors should just read the
manuscript and see if they like it before they ask authors to spend so
much time putting together a proposal."
Sometimes that happens, Gary. But usually only if it's recommended by an agent the editor trusts. I don't know an editor who enjoys reading sample chapters just for reading pleasure. Trust me, like us, they all have stacks of recommended books they'd really rather curl up with.
Look. A good proposal answers a few very important questions upfront. Does the written material really match what the query promised? Is there enough information, overall, to help me come to an informed decision on this? Should I bother to discuss this with my fellow editors? Try to get this on the agenda for the next pub board? Does it compete with that other idea I'd had in mind to bring up this month? Should I round file the whole thing and tell the author they'd be better off making a living scraping gum off the bottom of chairs at Burger King?
Deciding whether they love your writing is important, Gary, but it's often the what you put in the material leading up to the sample chapters that convinces an editor it's worth their time (or not) to read it.
Thanks for asking. Feel free to reply with further questions and we'll do our best.
Stay Healthy, and Happy Spring!