Thursday, October 20, 2016

When A Great Story And Bad Grammar Collide

As an agent, I am always frustrated when I hear a great pitch from an author, or the quick query letter gets me totally exited about a story, and then, when I read the project, things just fall apart. In simple terms, the writing totally sucks! What we are talking about here is the simple fact that so many writers are simply weak when it comes to basic grammatical conventions.

I know where this problem stems from. Public education simply does not teach grammar anymore. This stopped in the late 70's and early 80's with what educators called the "Whole Language Movement." The idea is that students would learn to write by writing. Today, we have a focus that apparently students will learn to write by reading literature (although they do very little of this).

To complicate matters, so many authors have fallen into the trap of believing, because they have their computers, the grammar checkers and spell checkers will catch things. We have two problems here. The first is that for most people, they are pretty much computer illiterate and don't realize that programs such as MS Word are only looking for roughly one third of the grammar issues. Unless the user goes in and intentionally makes adjustments to the program, they are missing out on so much.

The second problem is that the computer cannot read. It is taking guesses with what you are writing. It is looking for patterns. And, when it comes to checking for spelling, it is not looking at the words in context. Therefore, I could write, "He ran too his friend." there is technically no problem. All of the words are spelled correctly.

We also have the issue that, I do believe, many authors believe that if the story is good, then the publishers will have people clean up all of their pathetic mistakes. In reality, that story will never make it there because the grammar is so bad, the editors and agents will likely reject the story before it even makes it to contract.

Please understand, I am not saying that writers need to understand the nuances of dangling participles, but the basics of grammar including fragments, run-ons, comma splices, basic punctuation and certainly word choice need to be in place. When we read a query letter, or see a manuscript with obvious mistakes in it, we are immediately turned off. We may over-look some small mistakes, but too many will equal a rejection letter.

What we are talking about here is a basic communication concept of semantic noise. This is defined as: "a type of disturbance in the transmission of a message that interferes with the interpretation of the message due to the ambiguity in words, sentences or symbols use in the transmission of the message."

If grammar is not your cup of tea, then maybe (and I know this will sound harsh) writing is probably not the business you need to be in. Readers are expecting you to present a story that demonstrates quality writing, not just in the story-telling, but in the actual writing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

It's NaNoWriMo Time Again

This is a repost from earlier. I still like to remind people as they get ready to crank out that Great American novel in the coming month!

It's that time of year. The month when huge numbers of wannabe authors plan on writing that full novel in November. While the NaNoWriMo campaign is great for getting people interested in writing and maybe kicking a few in the butt to finally do something, there are a few things I should remind you of.

First of all, the idea behind this is just to write and get words on a page. Although this approach is great for speed writing, it is pretty much violating the guidelines in the writing process of planning and thinking about what you put on the page. If you do not take the time to have a rough plan in mind for that day's worth of writing, you will end up with a ton of edits by the end of the month.

Secondly, the writing process does recommend that a writer spends a lot of time editing as the writing progresses. You don't wait until the end to check things over, but check it as you go. Again NaNoWriMo emphasizes to not look back and just keep going. Unfortunately, without editing as you go, there will be worse problems down the line. Your story will head off in the wrong direction and then you will spend countless hours trying to get your characters back on track. You will contradict yourself, You will create scenes that are not necessary.

At the end of each day, take the time to edit the stories. Look over what you wrote. Think about how the material fits with what you did the day before and how it fits with what is going to happen next. If you are off track, plan on that next chapter or block of writing to start where it needs to be and not necessarily where you left off. That screwed up chapter can be put in a stack of "this needs to be reworked."

Finally, the biggest issue with the NANoWriMo is that it emphasizes the amount of words you are writing daily. It is all about word count. The problem here is that authors are not really thinking about the story. Let me give you an outside story that might stress why this is not the best approach.

My wife's grandfather used to be amazing at Blackjack. This guy could sit at a table and make a huge amount of money. But, he also had two rules he operated by. The first was, if he lost three hands in a row, he got up and quit. End of story. The second is the one that applies to the writers. He would say that if he ever thought during play "If I bet this amount or win this hand, I can get back what I lost." he would then get up. The reason is he was thinking about the money and not thinking about the game.

For writers, if all you are thinking about is word count or page count, you are missing the most important piece of the puzzle. The story!

This program has potential, but I will tell you, if you ignore the rules of the writing process, then you are dooming yourself to serious problems down the line!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Why Do You Have All Of Those Rejections?

I was reading an article from an author who was going on and on about all of the great things in self-publishing. This post, however, is not about the whole traditional versus self-publishing argument. It is about the reason this author turned to self-publishing.

This author described her experience with trying to get an editor or agent to look at her story. In the entire time she was marketing the project, supposedly she only received on request for a partial. She went on to note that she did get an agent to sign on with the book, but in the end, the agent just couldn't sell the book. On the surface, this sounds like the normal thing we hear from so many authors. But you have to dig a bit deeper with the story to know why this book didn't sell.

Please note, I am going to keep things a bit vague here so as to not make this about the author. I want to focus on the project.

This was a paranormal book involving obscure characters out of mythology. This book was really large, had an extremely complicated plot line and took the characters in directions that people wouldn't normally associate with the characters (for example taking Snow White and turning her into a paranormal prostitute serial killer).

What this author faced with a product that was simply not marketable. Because the author took such a different and unique approach to the story, it was simply not something anyone was going to buy. The lack of success this author had was not a result of the system being unwilling to look at different projects, but the fact that the story was not going to work in the market.

I talk about this all of the time when I work with writers. Before you even start working on a project, you have to do some market research. Is this a product that will sell out there. Will people really want to buy this?

I think I mentioned this before, but I talked to an author who was trying to sell a biography of her mother. The mother was a great person, but she had really done nothing special. She just grew up during the depression. The author believed this was a great story and well written. While it might be, this was a product that the general public would not buy. The story was destined to fail from the beginning.

If your story is not selling, writers need to begin first with the actual story. You might have enjoyed writing the darn thing, but if there isn't a place out there on the physical or virtual bookshelves for it, this might be the reason the rejections are flowing in. You cannot blame the system.

And I guess I should add one final note. Because the system is not buying your story, this is not a justifiable reason to go shoving the book in the self-publishing market.

Monday, October 17, 2016

There Are No Shortcuts in Publishing

This last week, I noticed a huge rise in advertising on Facebook for fantastic programs to get that book published. In all of the ads, the sponsors noted how easy writing that novel would be. One, in particular was a program that plotted out your entire novel for you. Just click on character types, settings and so forth and BAM!, your story was plotted. Others proclaimed the ease of getting that finished book of yours to millions of people.

And I am sorry to say, but writing and publishing simply doesn't work that way. There are no short-cuts. Writing that novel, marketing it to editors and agents, editing, publishing that book, and even marketing it to readers for sales takes time, effort and hard work. This is not an industry where you push a button and you are suddenly on the New York Times Best Seller List!

I even get invitations from online writing forums to participate in pitch sessions. No, these are not sessions where we sit down face to face and talk about stories. These are places where writers simply throw their pitch on a discussion board and hope that some random editor or agent will buy their book and make them millions of dollars. While this might sound like it is efficient, it is not a successful way to get your career moving.

 Services such as these are very similar to the magic elixirs sold by those traveling salesmen in the wild west. Buy this product, or invest in this service and your are promised great things. In reality, the only thing I can promise you is that you will be out time that you could have been spending writing. You will also likely find yourself even more discouraged with this business. You might even be out money that you will simply not get back again.

Look, there are ways to get your writing potentially in front of editors and agents, but even then, understand that taking the regular approach will always be more productive. There are contests out there where, IF your story gets it out of the preliminary rounds, there is a chance that editor or agent you want will read the story. No promises though. There are also campaigns by publishers when they are looking for a specific genre of writing. But even then, there are no promises.

Programs like this are always out there, especially with the rise of self-publishing opportunities. Those companies offering the self-pub service have tried so hard to convince people that their approach is easy, fast, productive and certainly going to make you a ton of cash. Those people making it in that industry (or I should simply say in all of the publishing world) are doing well because they are working their butts off. They are also successful because they have a product worth selling.