Sorry to have been away from the blog for a while. I'll do better now that I'm home for the month of August.
Jennifer wrote and asked, "Where can I go for formatting and style guidelines? I'm writing my first novel, and I'd hate to write the whole thing, then go back to fix my stinky format."
There are a number of books you can research that will talk about formatting your novel proposal — Writers Digest has a couple, and the Dummies people cover this really well in their book on writing romance novels. Or you could simply Google the topic, and you'll discover thirty blogs and at least three You-Tube clips on how to format your novel. OR you could look at the sample novel proposals that are on agent websites (check www.MacGregorLiterary.com or www.Alivecommunications.com — there are others). But, in my view, you don't have to sweat the formatting of a novel very much. You're going to present it in a Word document, double-spaced, with good margins and a readable font like Courier. You'll let the system number the pages and indent each paragraph, you'll use a page break (not a series of returns) for the start of each chapter, and you'll use a # for a break in the middle of a chapter. Don't overthink the formatting, Jennifer. Make sure your manuscript is good — that's the part you should be sweating.
Bob asked, "What's the number one reason you reject a novel proposal?"
The number one reason? Because it isn't very good. I don't see as much of the truly awful stuff I used to get when I was a beginner at Alive (proposals in crayon, proposals from correctional facilities, proposals about some strange guy's fantasies). Instead, I see a lot of proposals that are just okay. The writing is okay, but not great. The story is maybe okay, but not great. Everything feels about 60% done. Those usually get a rejection. If I see potential, I might tell the author to work hard and get it 100% done, but… that rarely happens. Good writing is hard work, and most people approach it as a fun thing they're going to dash off, then send to the agent so he can make a million bucks on their behalf.
You want to stand out? Write something that's great. Write something that's so good I just can't say "no" to it. I'm always reminding authors at conferences that the BEST way to get published is to "become a great writer." All the great writers I know are published. (And if they aren't I want to meet them, because they soon will be published.)
Marilyn noted, "You've encouraged CBA novelists to join Chi Libris. How does one join Chi Libris?"
Chi Libris is an association for Christian novelists. The members get together to talk about writing and the industry, share wisdom, and (most likely) brag about the deals they're doing. It's a good group to be part of, and one of those "by invitation only" organizations. You must have published two novels in order to join [correction: you must have three published novels], and you have to be a Christian. They have an annual retreat, which for the past few years has taken place in the same city as the International Christian Retail Show, just prior to ICRS. [Kidding about the "bragging" part. I think Chi Libris is great. Take a look at Angie Hunt's note in the "comments" section.]
Nicole sent me this: "I just read an author's debut novel and loved it. I then read the second book in her trilogy and thought it was good. Then I found out the publisher was canceling her third book. Is that probably due to low sales? And is there a way to create a small print-run for something like this? Or can publishers do a POD on a book like that?"
If the publisher is canceling the third book in a trilogy, it's possibly because they didn't sell enough copies of the first two books. But this is a tough publishing economy, so the publisher could be facing struggles on any number of fronts — returns, cancellations, nonpayments, etc. But, yes, if the books were selling well, they'd most likely publish that third book.
As for creating a small print run, you've got to view this from the publisher's side — they still have to invest in substantive editing, copy editing, interior design, cover design, et al. Then if they were to do a small print run, the cost of the books would go up. So it's cheaper for them to simply cancel the contract and back away. In such a case, the author might want to produce and sell a POD or digital version of that third book. If he or she can locate the readers, and sell them the book directly, that's the type of project an author can do well with.
Mary asked this: "Is it okay to enter my novel into a contest while still waiting for an agent to respond? I wondered if this was a breach of author/agent protocol. And will winning a contest help me land an agent?"
I can't answer for all agents, but I don't find this to be any great breach of protocol. I think it's great when an author enters a contest, and even better if she wins. Being able to say something like, "I won the Daphne Du Maurier Contest" certainly can't hurt.
Martha wants to know, "How can I convince someone my idea is sellable? What makes a great query?"
A great query does six things: First, it tells me in one simple, non-technical sentence what the book is. Second, it tells me who the author is and why he or she is the correct person to write this book. Third, it tells me about the manuscript — the title, the word count, the genre, the fact that it's complete. Fourth, it reflects the author's writing. (Why do some authors spend five years writing a manuscript, then five minutes creating a query?) Fifth, it clearly presents the author name and contact info (since all agents have seen interesting query letters that had no contact info, and the return email didn't work). And sixth, if we've had some contact in the past, it offers me a bit of context — something along the line of "we met at the Harriette Austin conference in Atlanta, spoke over dinner, and you said you were interested in a novel that combined Amish people, vampires, and the recipes of Martha Stewart."
As for "what makes it salable," that best way to describe that is to picture a Venn Diagram — three circles that overlap. Those three circles represent a big idea, great writing, and a significant author platform. Publishers would like to see all three of those aspects in order to say "yes" to a deal. The book's story or main idea should be of interest to a specific audience, the writing should sing, and the author should be able to show the publisher that her platform will help sell a lot of books.
George wrote to say, "I understand that fiction books are usually sold with the manuscript complete, and that nonfiction books often have the manuscript incomplete, so the editor can have some say in the process. Where do memoirs fit? Do I need to have a completed manuscript in order to sell my memoir?"
Most memoirs are treated like fiction, where the manuscript needs to be done (or largely done) in order to
get the publisher interested enough to make an offer. So treat it as such — complete it, then get some editorial help to make it as strong as possible. Don't rely on the bigness of the story alone — make sure the craft is great.
Someone wrote to ask, "Have you heard of the Spacecoast Authors of Romance?"
Just a note: There are a bunch of these types of author organizations. Most are regional member groups of larger organizations. Spacecoast is the regional Florida group of the Romance Writers of America. I happen to represent an author (Rachel Hauck) who is a member of this one. But there are dozens of others like this — groups that belong to RWA or to ACFW or to some other writers' organization. These are good places to meet local writers, talk books, and learn from those who are a bit farther down the path.
Got a writing or publishing question? Send it along.