Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sometimes Throwing Something Out Is The Best Option

I have had several authors over the years with projects that we just struggled with. The author would write the story. We would revise it. We would get comments from an editor which sent the story in another direction. We would revise again. And then we would end up in a death spiral.

In some cases, we would even attempt to rebuild the story for other lines, or other publishers and then, once again, we would be in that endless loop.

For most of these cases, we finally ended up just trashing the story and going with something else.
What we did is what insurance companies do if repairing your car after an accident is not worth it. We considered it totaled. We had to make the decision to throw it out and start over.

As much as we hate to do this, sometimes this is the only option. I get that it is painful. You have spent hours pushing yourself to get that story right and then you have to give up on it and move on.

The issue here is that we often are so closely attached to a project that we just cannot see the real issues. Going back and reworking the story, revising and so forth will only make the story worse.

Now, I know that some of you might be asking how you would know if you have spent enough time on it. Maybe one more round will fix the problem? The deal is, we really don't know. Yes, one more round of edits might fix the problem. Maybe one more read through will give you that inspiration to find the problem and write that novel that will be amazing. BUT... you have to ask yourself, is it worth it?

If you are currently struggling with a project, it might be time to just let it go and move on. Maybe you will think of the solution as you work on the new story? Maybe not. Just consider this one of those learning moments in your writing career!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What Do Contest Wins Really Mean?

Today is the day that many romance writers are sitting around anxiously waiting for "THE CALL" from the Romance Writers of America to say they are in the finals for the RITA Award or the Golden Heart Award. According to the Romance Writers of America, this award recognizes "outstanding published romance novels and novellas." Unfortunately, this is not always the case. There are a lot of great stories out there that will be simply overlooked because of the preliminary judging. So the real question is, what do contest awards really mean?

In simple terms, it meant you made it through a gauntlet of subjective readers who may or may not have had a criteria to evaluate the stories. It means that someone liked your story. It does not necessarily mean it is the "best story" or that it is really something that is "outstanding." It simply means it had the points necessary to get to the finals.

Now, please, don't get me wrong. As an agent, it would be completely great to run around and proclaim that my author is a RITA winner. As an author, it is great to be proud of the work you did. But, it is really important to stop and really think of what these accolades really mean. Let's walk through the judging of the RITA for example.

If you enter the RITA, you are required to judge the RITA awards. You cannot judge in the area that you entered, so this means that when you get your box of books, these will likely be in genres that you A) don't write; B) don't read; and C) maybe be genres you fully do not understand. Now, here is where it gets difficult.

The criteria is simply if you like the book or not. It doesn't have a rubric that focuses on character, plot, setting, voice, theme, conflict or anything. It is simply a subjective call.

As these writers read the books, they give it a ranking. Here are the official scoring guidelines:

Scoring Overview

Each preliminary-round entry will be scored individually on a scale of 1.0 to 10.0, with 1.0 being the lowest (poor) and 10.0 being the highest (excellent). Decimals (from .1 to .9) are STRONGLY encouraged to help avoid the possibility of a tie. Judges are encouraged to think of the points system as equivalent to a classroom grading scale:
9.0-10.0: Excellent
8.0-8.9: Good
7.0-7.9: Average
6.0-6.9: Below average
5.0-5.9: Marginal
4.0-4.9: Poor
Below 4.0: Very poor
Preliminary-round judges will be required to answer the following three questions in addition to assigning one overall score:
  • Does the entry contain a central love story?
  • Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic?
  • Does the entry fall within the category description? 
If there are three negative responses to any one question, the entry is disqualified.
Preliminary-round scores will be determined using a trimmed mean (the highest and lowest scores will be discarded and the remaining three scores will be averaged).
The top scoring 4% of each category’s entries (based on the number of qualified entries received) will advance to the final round; excepting that no category will have fewer than 4 finalists and no category will have more than 10 finalists. Any fraction will be rounded up to the next whole number, not to exceed 10 finalists.

Numerically, this might look great, but if you really have one judge who just doesn't get your genre, you are pretty much out. I have talked to countless authors who score 9's across the board, and then get a judge who saw their book as simply average.

What makes this even harder is that these books are coming to the readers have the covers still on them and we see who the authors are. These are not blind readings. Human instincts kick. It is hard not to see authors we know and immediately start to think the book will be good. Along the same lines, if we see books that have covers that might not be amazing, or from lines that we already think are "less than quality" we make those judgement calls.

Combine human instinct with subjective and vague criteria and you really don't have much to work with.

I know that as a judge for final rounds, I have often looked at those final projects and thought, "Is this really the best? Or, is this just the best of what was out there? Or, were these people who just got luck with the judges?"

Let me give you another example. I was listening to an NPR program before the Oscars and they were talking with some guy who had been nominated 21 times. This was for Sound Engineering. He noted that to be nominated, these came from people who were in the business. This meant that this was really a group of people who knew what went into the work. BUT, here was the twist. The final round was judged by everyone. Now people were judging who just went off of what they "thought" was going on, but more than likely, were picking the winner based on the movie that they liked, or the movie they thought was worthy.

The point of all of this is simple. Contest winners in publishing are just a snap shot of the industry. If you did not get called, it doesn't mean your book was not worthy. It might simply mean that you got a judge who just didn't get it. I would also add that this is not going to make or break your career. In the end, it all comes down to those book sales. THIS is where we really see who the winners are!

But for those of you who were nominated. Congrats!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

We have always heard the expression that "practice makes perfect." For many of us, this is what has driven us to get to the gym, work on improving hobbies and so forth. The problem though, is that this statement isn't exactly true. Practice does not make perfect. PERFECT practice makes perfect!

I do believe a lot of writers out there have really missed this point. I hear people go on and on about getting to be published is about "doing your time." For many, they seem to believe that if they just keep writing, eventually something will stick. Many of these writers even extend this argument by looking at their file folder in their office with all of those rejection letters. They will then reference all of these major authors who were rejected a ton of times:
  • Agatha Christie was rejected for 5 consecutive years before landing a deal.
  • JK Rowling received 12 rejections in a row before landing her deal
  • Louis L' Amour is often cited as having over 200
  • etc., etc., etc...
Now, before I state that these people had other factors at play when it came to getting their stories published, many current writers are not in those situations. They are simply not learning from their mistakes and just doing the same thing over and over again. I see this all of the time with people who submit to me. Many will keep sending me submissions and there is simply no growth in the writing.

Why? They are just practicing and not working for that perfect practice.

Just writing a lot of stories (or even smaller writing activities) is just practicing. Moving to that perfect practice level requires studying what you write, analyzing other writers to see what they do, tweaking and fine-tuning your writing to get that precision. And yes, this takes time.

I am often screaming here on the blog that becoming published takes time. Many seem to think that this time factor is, again, just putting in the hours. But hopefully you can see that it is a lot more than just writing words.

When I work with my authors, we spend a lot of time looking at what the editors want and fine tuning the writing. This is that perfect practice.

So make that a goal. Don't just put in the time. Make it useful time. You may find more success!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Are You Writing With Blinders On?

I have worked with a lot of writers who, when they send in a project to an editor for some comments, or even when they send it to me, respond with comments such as "Wow! I didn't see the story that way?" This is not that they had a different direction to the story and felt the comments from the me or the comments from the editor were wrong. They simply just missed some things when writing.

This is an all too common problem a lot of writers have and this is really one of those benefits many authors have when they are working with critique groups, agents and editors, and not doing it on their own. Having someone on the outside look at your work is one of the most valuable tools a writer has when it comes to improving their careers.

It is crucial that you do not go out and attempt to improve your writing on your own. Sure, there are blogs, articles, books and workshops you can attend, but you are still looking at your writing with blinders on. You will take this information and shape it around your writing, instead of molding your writing in a direction that will truly enhance your writing.

I do have to say a couple of things about this though...

First of all, please note that the feedback editors and agents give you is just one more set of eyes. Does this mean that the answers they provide are 100% perfect? Not necessarily. That is part of the editorial process though. Just because they give you that feedback does not mean you have to take it exactly as it is. If you see things another way, they are more than willing to listen. BUT, with that said, remember that they are more in touch with the market than you are so the odds are, they might be on the right track. Still, listen carefully.

When it comes to critique partners, this is the area where you have to really be careful. There are a lot of people who want to help, but this does not mean that they are the best people. Know their qualifications, listen to what they have to say, but then filter that information. Again, this does not mean they are wrong, but, if they are just as out of the loop as you might be, you may find yourself in the situation of the blind leading the blind.

I think the point of all of this is to find people on the outside who can give you a fresh new perspective. Sometimes, listening to those ideas is a great way to find those holes that you have been overlooking for so long.

Have a great weekend everyone. I am now off to celebrate my birthday being a stable dad for my daughter all weekend. Go Dad and Happy St. Patrick's Day!!!!