Monthly Archives: March 2011

On Word Count and Novel Length

Posted by March 9th, 2011

Size does matter, especially in fiction!

I sat down recently with several fiction editors and hammered out a comprehensive list of suggested word counts by genre & sub-genre. As you read through this, keep in mind three important things:

  • These are suggested word counts; rules get broken all the time.
  • These suggested word counts will most often apply to debut writers; successfully published authors are the ones who end up successfully breaking the rules.
  • If you are planning to e-publish only, and your book will never be printed out on actual paper, these guidelines aren’t nearly as important.

Something I saw a lot in queries as an agent were word counts that exceeded 100k. Often, a manuscript exceeded this by a considerable amount: I’ve seen word counts of 140k, 160k and one writer actually told me about a YA manuscript he’d written that was 188k.

Somewhere out there a myth developed – especially amongst science fiction and fantasy writers – that a higher word count was better. Writers see big fat fantasies on the shelf and think that they have to write a book just as hefty to get published. And sometimes a writer just writes a long book because they aren’t yet a very good writer. Good writers learn how to pare a manuscript down to its most essential elements, carving away the word count fat that marks so many beginning writers. And the fact of the matter is, most of those “big fat fantasy” books you see on the shelf actually only have a word count of about 100k to 120k.

The exceptions are usually authors who’ve already had an established track record of sales with previous – shorter – books, like George R.R. Martin. And, yes, once in a great while you will see an incredibly long debut novel. But the writing has to be absolutely stellar; knock-down, drag-out, kick-you-in-the-teeth amazing. (A good example is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which clocks in at just about 240,000 words.)

And I should also point out here that the longer a successful writer has been with a publishing house and the more actual dollars that author brings to the house (and the bigger that author’s advances get), the more clout that author may have regarding being able to keep his or her novel intact, without taking advantage of the editorial guidance being offered. And that is never a good thing for the book. Editors exist for a damned good reason, and no author is ever such a fabulous writer that a good editor can’t find things to make better in his or her manuscript.

There was a time about ten or so years ago when bigger word counts were the norm and not the exception. Like everything, the book industry goes through trends. But these days, editors of adult fiction – even editors of epic fantasy – squirm a little when presented with a manuscript that runs over 110k words. Books with a higher page count cost more to physically produce, resulting in a higher per-book manufacturing cost, meaning even more copies will need to be sold to make the estimated P&L work.

Publishers want to make money; bookstores want to make money.
Do the math.

When you search around the Internet for information on word counts, you get a lot of conflicting information, some of it just plain wrong, and often this information is coming from sources that would appear reputable to a writer who didn’t know any better. One article I read last week that was posted online at a major writing magazine actually insists that the average novel (non-genre) is 150,000 words. I have no idea where the writer of the article got his or her information, but that’s simply untrue. An average novel length is between 80k and 100k, again, depending upon the genre.

Word counts for different kinds of novels vary, but there is are general rules of thumb for fiction that a writer can use when trying to figure out just how long is too long. For the purposes of this post, I’m only talking about YA, middle-grade and adult fiction here. And bear in mind that there are always exceptions, but good general rules of thumb would be as follows:

middle grade fiction = Anywhere from 25k to 40k, with the average at 35k

YA fiction = For mainstream YA, anywhere from about 45k to 80k; paranormal YA or YA fantasy can occasionally run as high as 120k but editors would prefer to see them stay below 100k. The second or third in a particularly bestselling series can go even higher. But it shouldn’t be word count for the sake of word count.

paranormal romance = 85k to 100k

  • romance = 85k to 100k
  • category romance = 55k to 75k
  • cozy mysteries = 65k to 90k
  • horror = 80k to 100k

western = 80k to 100k (Keep in mind that almost no editors are buying Westerns these days.)

mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction = A newer category of light paranormal mysteries and hobby mysteries clock in at about 75k to 90k. Historical mysteries and noir can be a bit shorter, at 80k to 100k. Most other mystery/thriller/crime fiction falls right around the 90k to 100k mark.

mainstream/commercial fiction/thrillers = Depending upon the kind of fiction, this can vary: chick lit runs anywhere from 80k word to 100k words; literary fiction can run as high as 120k but lately there’s been a trend toward more spare and elegant literary novels as short as 65k. Anything under 50k is usually considered a novella, which isn’t something agents or editors ever want to see unless the editor has commissioned a short story collection. (Agent Kristin Nelson has a good post about writers querying about manuscripts that are too short.)

science fiction & fantasy = Here’s where most writers seem to have problems. Most editors I’ve spoken to recently at major SF/F houses want books that fall into the higher end of the adult fiction you see above; a few of them told me that 100k words is the ideal manuscript size for good space opera or fantasy. For a truly spectacular epic fantasy, some editors will consider manuscripts over 120k but it would have to be something extraordinary. I know at least one editor I know likes his fantasy big and fat and around 180k. But he doesn’t buy a lot at that size; it has to be astounding. (Read: Doesn’t need much editing.) And regardless of the size, an editor will expect the author to to be able to pare it down even further before publication. To make this all a little easier, I broke it down even further below:

—> hard sf = 90k to 110k
—> space opera = 90k to 120k
—> epic/high/traditional/historical fantasy = 90k to 120k
—> contemporary fantasy = 90k to 100k
—> romantic SF = 85k to 100k
—> urban fantasy = 90k to 100k
—> new weird = 85k to 110k
—> slipstream = 80k to 100k
—> comic fantasy = 80k to 100k
—> everything else = 90k to 100k

Editors will often make exceptions for sequels, by the way. Notice that the page count in both J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series gets progressively higher. But even authors who have been published for years and should know better will routinely turn in manuscripts that exceed the editor’s requested length by 30k to 50k words, which inevitably means more work for that author because editors don’t back down. If a contract calls for a book that is 100k words and you turn in one that is 130k, expect to go back and find a way to shave 30k words off that puppy before your manuscript is accepted.

Remember that part of the payout schedule of an author’s advance often dangles on that one important word: acceptance.

I cannot stress highly enough that there are always exceptions to every rule, especially in SF/F. Jacqueline Carey and Peter F. Hamilton, among others, have proven this quite successfully. If an agent finds a truly outstanding book that runs in the 200k range (yes, it happens!), he or she may advise your cutting the manuscript into two books to make life easier for everyone. But for a debut novelist who is trying to catch the eye of an agent or editor for the first time? Err on the side of caution with your word count.

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The Economics of the Advance Reading Copy

Posted by March 2nd, 2011

The lowdown on galleys and ARCs!


 Most new books will have a galley (or Advanced Reader Copy) created. Not all books are treated equally, however. The number of galleys will depend upon the distribution of said galleys, how much the publisher is willing to pony up for said galleys, and – ultimately – how much the publisher initially ponied up for your book.

For example, lets say that the sales department wants 450 galleys to mail to independent booksellers, and another 650 to go to a Barnes & Noble Managers meeting. The publicity department would like 250 to send to reviewers, bloggers and long-lead media. The marketing department would like 300 to send to a special book club mailing. The author wants 50 to send to friends for quotes and blurbs and just in general to show off and say “Lookee here, I iz a published author!” An SF/F or romance convention may request 100 to use as door prizes, giveaways or auction items. The agent is going to ask for 20 copies as well. And then a copy of the galley goes to every bleeding person associated with the book, from the publisher to the production manager, which comes to another 50 galleys or so. (By the way, these last 50 copies are the ones that most often end up on the giveaway cart or in the garbage. Sad but true.)

So, right there, you’ve already got 1420 galleys needed, and that’s not even a large galley run. (A large galley run is when you have the great good fortune to have your book picked for distribution at Book Expo; a galley run could then run into as many as 6,000 copies.)

Now let’s do the math:

A galley costs roughly $6.75 to $8.00 to create, depending upon page count. For the sake of this post, lets split the difference and say that this galley costs $7.25 to produce. So, 1420 x $7.25 = $10,295 just for galleys. This number is run by the marketing director or associate publisher; he or she balks and cuts are made. Why does the author need so many? You copies are cut in half. Why do the indies need so many? Send to the top 150 stores, not the top 450. Why does publicity need so many? Cut to 125, send only to long lead periodicals and then use finished books for a later mailing to reviewers and bloggers. (FYI, a finished book costs about one-third the price of a galley, so using finished books is a hell of a lot cheaper than using galleys to promote.) Why does the agent need ANY? Cut to zero. Agent throws temper tantrum, raise back to 10 copies.

You see where I’m going with this. It always comes down to the bottom line.

Keep in mind also that more and more traditional publishers are now turning to electronic galley distribution services like NetGalley, which significantly cuts down on the actual number of physical galleys a publisher needs to produce.

When does a book not get a galley?

—> When the manuscript comes in too late (this happens quite frequently and is invariably the author’s fault – authors, pay attention to editorial deadlines!)
—> When the book is a mass market original: not all publishers produce galleys for MM originals. As a writer, however, you are welcome to request one; sometimes the publisher will oblige you.
—> When a book is a trade paper or mass market reprint.

What do you do if your publisher hasn’t produced a galley for your mass market original?

—> Ask your publicist (nicely!) to – at the very least – send bound manuscripts to the trades and genre-specific reviews (Publishers WeeklyLibrary Journal,Kirkus Reviews, Romantic Times, Locus, etc.). They’ll usually review from bound manuscripts as long as the pertinent publication information is included (title, author, publisher, ISBN, pub date, price, contact info of publicist, page count, format, and one paragraph summary).

My publisher will only give me fifteen copies of my galley and I need more for my friends and family!

—> Dude? NO. You really don’t. Galleys serve a very specific purpose in promoting your book and they are extremely expensive to produce, so for that reason alone, authors and agents are limited to only what is absolutely necessary. If for some reason you feel you’ll need more than a couple dozen galleys, you’ll need to let your editor know well in advance of your publication date and then you should be prepared to pay out-of-pocket for the extra print run.

I think that about covers it. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I’ll be happy to try to address them!

[Photo by Svilen Milev; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported]

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Books, Not Bombs

Posted by March 1st, 2011

“U.S. generals would rather have Afghanis hooked on phonics than on drugs.”

Dan Cabrera Photo

 Yesterday a friend of mine posed an interesting question: if you could translate one and only one book into Pashto, the official language of Afghanistan, what book would you choose?

Apparently, my friend—who is currently serving in the Military Intelligence Corps of the United States Army—was asked by one of his superiors for a recommendation of a novel to translate.

This got me thinking, naturally, as to which novel I would choose (more on that later) but, perhaps more importantly, why is the Army translating whole novels for the Afghani population? Aren’t there more pressing issues at hand over there?

Bibliophiles like to believe that books make a difference in the world. Reading enlightens, educates, and connects us all through a shared experience—or so it can be argued. Sure, some books and documents have unquestionably changed the course of human history, from The Communist Manifesto to The Jungle to Harry Potter, among others. And let’s not forget that little missive called the Bible.

There’s no question that books can shock, delight, and make readers see the world from a different viewpoint. If a book fails to move the reader in one way or another then that book has failed. But is the U.S. Army hoping to move the Taliban to tears after reading Sophie’s Choice? Do they hope insurgents will see the error of their ways and the frailty of human life after reading All Quiet on the Western Front?

No matter what book the Army chooses to translate, they may have a bigger problem than subjective taste to confront. It turns out that most of the Afghani population has the reading comprehension of an American Kindergartener. According to a recent Wired blog post, Afghani police and soldiers can’t even read their bank statements or the serial numbers on their weapons. Soldiers who think they’re not getting paid won’t be soldiers for long, and even if they do stick around they can’t keep track of their weapons?

Realizing this, and recognizing that reading comprehension is just a good thing to have in general, NATO forces in Afghanistan have decided to give all soldiers, police officers, and recruits some homework.

This war on illiteracy may prove just as tough as the real war, especially considering that smoking heroin and opium—made from the abundant poppy plant found in Afghanistan— is a way of life for soldiers. U.S. generals would rather have Afghanis hooked on phonics than on drugs and are hopeful they can create some bookworms within a year.

So it makes sense that if Afghanis are going to be reading we might as well provide them with some good books. Unless, of course, our intentions aren’t as benevolent as they seem (are they ever?). Books are information, after all, and it wouldn’t be a war without some good, old-fashioned propaganda. Not that I’m suggesting the military is planning something insidious with their translations—though perhaps some publishers, agents, and authors who are losing out on foreign and translation money may think so—nor am I getting ready to don my tinfoil hat and break out conspiracy theories.

After all, propaganda comes in many forms. We love dropping pro-American leaflets on our enemies almost as much as we love dropping some BLU-82 Daisy Cutters or GBU-43 MOABs. And while some may argue that Military Intelligence is an oxymoron, spreading pro-American sentiment through radio and TV broadcasts, websites, and pamphlets can help win the hearts and minds of civilians and, in the best case scenario, change the minds of some bad guys.

So, is the Army using books to help spread the word that we’re the good guys, then? It’s a little far-fetched, considering what we already know about the reading level of the majority of Afghanis. Add to that the fact that novels can take a heck of a long time to read.

Then again, maybe that’s the point: sit everyone down with a good book and fighting will stop. Both sides can form book clubs, discussing which characters were their favorites, which endings surprised them the most, and who would play whom in the inevitably movie adaptation.

One can only hope.

My friend who brought up the subject suggested the Lord of the Rings trilogy (okay, it’s three books—four if you count The Hobbit—but really it’s like one big, long book). A good choice, I think, since 1) it’s a great read, and 2) the story captures the universal themes of good versus evil, bravery versus cowardice, greed versus selflessness. Another friend of mine suggested To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is the embodiment of justice; Scout the embodiment of childhood innocence. Both books should be read by everyone, no matter where he or she is from, in my opinion, but I’m not certain they would be top picks for the Army.

Someone else I know suggested The Kite Runner, but that might be a little too raw and harrowing for a newly minted reader. Three Cups of Tea? Sure, definitely, but not exactly the lay-down-your-arms and support your local G.I. book the brass in the Pentagon might be hoping for (plus, it’s non-fiction, which deserves another list).

What novel would you choose as your one book to be translated to Pashto?

Would it be an anti-war book like Catch-22Slaughterhouse Five, or Johnny Get Your Gun? Maybe some flag-waving novels like The Red Badge of Courage or most anything by W.E.B. Griffin or Tom Clancy?

Or would you choose something timeless and profound, a book that exposes the best and worst of humanity, something that cuts right to the core of our beings, something so devastating that one cannot put down the book without being moved to tears and filled with an overwhelming sense of compassion?

Or maybe you’d pick something fun and frivolous to give the war-ravaged citizens some levity and a brief respite from their troubles? After all, it’s the least a book can, and should, do.

My pick? The Giving Tree.

(The above was originally posted at Reading Between the Lines and is re-posted here with the kind permission of the author. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Daniel P. Shook / Special Operations Task Force – South; used with kind permission of the ISAF Task Force.)

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If Only I’d Known

Posted by March 1st, 2011

Writing Advice to My Younger Self

Matt Cheney“Here’s the secret: There is no secret.”

When I was in the fifth grade, I discovered the library had books that told people how to become better writers. I wanted to become a writer, and so I read all the books I could. My parents gave me a subscription to Writer’s Digest for Christmas and I read each issue with intense fascination. I even started sending stories to my favorite magazine,Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The form rejection letters I got back in my SASEs at first gave me great joy because they meant somebody had looked at my manuscript, thought about it, and decided it wasn’t quite right for them at this time. (I ignored the impersonal salutation, and I thought the editor’s signature was real.)

By seventh grade, I was somewhat frustrated as a writer. I had failed to find anyone who would publish my stories, and I began to think this whole writing biz was rigged. I’d done what all the guidebooks told me to do, I thought. I’d memorized each month’s WD (we’d become so close we thought of each other by our initials). Why wasn’t I published? What did those other people — all those published people — have that I didn’t, aside from a few years?

I first sold a story the summer between the seventh and eighth grades, though not to Asimov’s. Instead, I had lowered myself to doing what I’d sworn I wouldn’t do — I had submitted a story to a magazine aimed at (gasp!) kids. It was called Merlyn’s Pen. One of my teachers had suggested it. The story they published, “The Nauga Hunters”, went on to be reprinted in anthologies and even, about fifteen years after it first appeared, was adapted as a “reader’s theatre” play performed by a professional company in schools throughout New England.

I sold a few more stories as well as some poems to Merlyn’s Pen, but Asimov’s continued to reject me. So did everybody else, for that matter. Occasionally, I got an encouraging rejection slip, but mostly I got form letters. I didn’t start publishing fiction with any regularity until I was in my late twenties. Some of the reason for that is that I got sidetracked, spending about five years trying to become a playwright, then a few years trying to become a poet. (My genre ADHD frequently proves to be a handicap.)

Looking back, I often wonder: What didn’t I know then? What didn’t the guidebooks and Writer’s Digest prepare me for, or what of their advice was I blind to?

Sure, some things had to do with my youth, but I think a lot of what I wouldn’t learn until later could also be applicable to many aspiring writers, and so here are some musings on a few differences between my aspirations, my perceptions, and the realities of the world, some things I wish I could tell my younger self…

1.) Let your weaknesses be your strength.

The lesson I should have taken from the success of “The Nauga Hunters” (a story about two kids in rural New Hampshire) is that writing about what you know isn’t as bad as it sounds. I thought my life was boring and spaceships and aliens were more interesting, but I didn’t know how to write convincingly about spaceships and aliens. Some writers have a great talent for imagining worlds and landscapes and all sorts of weird stuff. I don’t. The things that interest me — and this is as true of “The Nauga Hunters” as of every story that has been successful for me over the last twenty years — are language and psychology. I like to explore how people express themselves, how they develop ideas of who they are and who other people are, the stories they (we) tell each other to justify behaviors, the ways words can complexify life, the ways reality is expressed and obscured by how we talk about it.

I could never write a plot-heavy commercial novel that was in any way interesting. I kept trying to write commercial science fiction when I was young because I thought if I just practiced enough, I might get it right one day. If I had put even a little bit of that energy more toward writing about language and psychology, I probably would have gotten more personal rejection slips than I got, and I might have even sold a story or two. I definitely needed to keep writing and writing, because there’s no other way to learn to write, but I was trying to claw my way up a cliff when there was a ladder right beside me.

2.) Writing programs are sometimes useful, sometimes not.

I’ve been to all sorts of different writing workshops over the years. I’ll probably go to more in the future. I like being around people who care about writing, and I love talking shop. But when I started going to workshops, and at first when I was an undergraduate in NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program, I thought workshops would teach me The Secret. I’d read the writing guides — heck, I’d memorized them! — and I hadn’t learned what The Secret was, so I figured it must be kept by the teachers of writing workshops.

Here’s the secret: There is no secret.

I really learned that when one of my NYU teachers, a wonderful writer himself and a marvelous teacher, asked me how I wrote so consistently. I was flabbergasted. “Practice?” I said sheepishly. “I thought so,” he said, apparently disappointed. He thought I’d found The Secret and could tell it to him.

Other people have written plenty about the risks and benefits of workshops, so I won’t rehash all that. I’ve gotten the most out of them when I’ve had the least expectations, when I’ve kept an open mind, and when I’ve had the luck to have the right workshop leader at the right time. The most profound workshop experience I ever had was with Barry Lopez at Bread Loaf — I arrived at a time when I didn’t think I should keep writing fiction or anything else, and Lopez convinced me that writing can be a noble activity when done carefully and honestly. Some of the other people in our workshop disliked his approach, because he did not stick to workshop protocols. Instead, he led us to discuss why we did what we did, what we wanted to do it for, and what we expected to accomplish. (Outside of class, we got one-on-one feedback on our stories, but I didn’t find that half as useful.) At another time, I might not have been ready for Lopez’s wisdom; that summer, though, it did more for my writing than 100 critique sessions would have.

I feel similarly about MFA programs. Curtis Brown literary agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote a post titled If I Were Running an MFA Program, and it’s worth reading, particularly the discussion in the comments section. There can be a bit of a disconnect between what students think an MFA gets them and what schools intend the students to learn — most (but not all) MFA programs do not spend a lot of time on the nuts and bolts of publishing, for a few different reasons (one of which is that this information is relatively easy to find on the internet and in libraries), but a lot of students leave MFA programs thinking they now know all they need to know about the industry they’ve been studying for a few years as an art. There’s a difference, though, between the art and craft of writing and the art and craft of getting that writing published. This is something that all the writing guides I read when young really did teach me well — from an early age, I knew the basics of agents, contracts, etc. The information is out there, and it doesn’t require an advanced degree to find it.

3.) Diversify.

My lack as a young writer was not so much a lack of skill as a lack of knowledge of myself and the world. I thought if I could just write nice sentences, I’d win a Pulitzer by the time I was 20.

I desperately wanted to major in playwrighting as an undergraduate because I thought the workshops would teach me the skills to get my plays on Broadway. I was annoyed to find many of my peers at NYU writing pale imitations of Pulp Fiction (the hot movie among aspiring screenwriters at the time), but it took me a little while to realize I was writing pale imitations of Christopher Durang and Samuel Beckett. We all imitated because we hadn’t figured out how to tap our own experiences and interests, and our interests and experiences weren’t yet broad enough to produce work of much depth. A little bit of this had to do with our age and various levels of talent, but much more of it had to do with our inability yet to tap into the deep currents of our lives. Chris Shinn, who was a couple years ahead of me at NYU, was smarter than the rest of us and figured this out early, writing Four while we were still trying to figure out what we wanted to say. But it isn’t a matter of age so much as of personality — we all discover our subject matter at different times, and bloom at different rates.

If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, I’d say: “Don’t worry about it so much.” I thought if I didn’t accomplish x, y, or z by a certain age, I’d be a failure.

Actually, I might have been happier if I had been able to give myself permission to study something in college other than writing. But I was convinced the only way to become a good writer was to major in it. Not so. For many people, in fact, the best way to be a good writer is to spend some time doing things other than studying writing. My writing benefited more from my time working in a high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side than it did from the classes I was taking when not at work.

Some of the best writing advice I know appears in the introduction of Barry Lopez’s (yes, him again) About This Life:

“Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer … will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three I trust.”

4.) Publication will not solve your problems.

I read Sue Erikson Bloland’s essay Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasytoo late. I had already learned or intuited many of its lessons by the time it was published in The Atlantic. If I had read it when I was fifteen or sixteen, it might have given me some comfort. Or not — at fifteen or sixteen, I probably wouldn’t have understood how much it explained. I wanted to be famous. I wanted the world to love and admire me. I wanted to show everybody … something:

Many writers about narcissism … have suggested that narcissism (or grandiosity) is, essentially, a defense against shame — with shame defined as a sense that the self is deeply flawed or deficient. To feel shame is to experience the self as small, weak, insignificant, powerless, defective. It is the experience of the self as not good enough.

I had plenty of self-hatred as a kid, and I wrote to try to escape it, to try to prove that I was good at something, good for something. I thought being published frequently would turn me into a worthwhile person, somebody other people might even want to be around, somebody people might revere. In my most grandiose moments, I wanted to be a guru — I wanted people to come to me for advice and wisdom. I sought advice and wisdom from writers, and so I thought if I became a writer, I would then achieve a kind of wholeness.

Alas, it doesn’t work that way. Publication can be fun, but I don’t think a healthy psyche finds it much more than that. If you haven’t been able to find balance and contentment in your life, publishing won’t help you, and, if anything, it may hurt. It may encourage arrogance or it may cause new neuroses — the common fear, for instance, among many successful artists of all sorts that one day somebody will find out “the truth” and prove to the world that you are a fraud.

I really sympathize with J.D. Salinger these days, writing but not publishing. It’s not a bad option.

5.) You’ll be fine.

There’s more to life than writing, but writing can be a way to discover life. Use it for that, and you’ll surprise yourself sometimes with what you find. Those occasional moments of discovery make all the false starts, clunky sentences, discarded pages, missed opportunities, embarrassing mistakes, and creative failures disappear just long enough to stop stinging.

[The above originally appeared on The Swivetand is reprinted here with kind permission of the author. Photo courtesy Matt Cheney.]

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The Author/Editor Relationship

Posted by March 1st, 2011

“Your editor is the book’s primary champion in-house.”

 louanders“Where’s my check?” was probably not the most tactful response to my effusive welcoming email, an email praising a new author’s magnificent manuscript and their powerful storytelling skills, and enumerating all the many reasons I was thrilled to add them to the Pyrroster. Checks are notoriously late in this business, but in this case, the signed contracts back from the author hadn’t even reached me in the post; I’m not even sure they were signed as we’d just made a verbal agreement with the agent that morning.

Uh oh, I thought, this doesn’t bode well for the author/editor relationship.

And it is a relationship.

My wife is always ribbing me that I just work with my friends, and that’s true to a large extent, but – BUT – as I remind her, they were all business colleagues first and friends second. I’d asked illustrator John Picacio to do the cover of my first anthology within about five minutes of meeting him, and it was only later that he revolved into one of my best friends. Chris Roberson says we hit it off at the 2001 World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, but he doesn’t track bright on my radar until he delivered the astoundingly-brilliant “O One” for my anthology, Live Without a Net. (The story is online at that link in its title – check it out.)

Publishing, like the film industry I worked in previously, is a business of friends. Sure, there’s jealousies, back-biting, rivalries, hurt feelings, egos, crazy folk, etc… but for the most part, you work with people you really enjoy working with, because if you are going to spend a year or more enmeshed in someone else’s imagination, it’s a whole lot nicer for both of you if you can get along with them as people too.

It’s nice for the authors as well. While some of them grouse about their editors (sometimes you get the impression that’s almost a stock response with some writers – though none of mine of course), editors are the middlemen (or middlewomen) between authors and publishers. They aren’t just there to hack and slash the heart out of your manuscript. An editor is also said manuscript’s chief advocate inside the publishing house.

My parent company, Prometheus Books, produces about 100 books a year, roughly 29 of which are Pyr titles. There is no way that publicity, sales & marketing, the art department, and all the scores of individuals from the various departments that will work on creating, editing, shaping, packaging, producing, and promoting the novel can read every book. So it’s the editor who advises publicity on how best to pitch a work, or what campaigns to include it in. It’s the editor who coaches sales on how best to pitch the novel to buyers. It’s the editor who briefs the art department on what the novel is about.

It’s easy for an individual book to get lost amid the whole list – your editor is the book’s primary champion in-house, keeping the rest of the (often quite large) team excited about it, and making sure it doesn’t drop of the radar.

There’s a reason why authors follow editors when the latter change jobs, and why conversations with your editor about sporting events, comic books, TV shows, and the price of tea in China are all classified as “working conversations”. The editor is your editor because he/she loves your book and picked it out of the hundreds (thousands!) of other manuscript, pitches and proposals that crossed his or her desk(top) in any given year.


Building a relationship with an editor starts with realizing this.

Publishing houses can be large, intimidating entities; they switch your book in the schedule for nebulous reasons, market – or fail to market it – in weird ways, stick a cover on your masterpiece that utterly betrays its content. But your editor is your friend in this, the insider with one foot out the door, who’s there because he/she thinks you are a genius. How can you not get along with someone that thinks that of you?

Now, don’t worry, I totally get what you are going for here, but can you trim this by 20 percent, add a sex scene, and make the hero a heroine? Thanks, friend. Do that and we’re gold.

[The above originally appeared at The Swivet and is reprinted here with kind permission of the author. Image courtesy Lou Anders.]

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The Tie-Ins That Bind

Posted by March 1st, 2011

“You’ll be a better writer for the lessons you take away from it.”


It’s a common belief amongst readers–so much so that, at least in my experience, it’s pretty much accepted as a given–that authors would rather be writing their own “original” novels than working on tie-in materials. Tie-in fiction, so this belief maintains, is something that we do to pay our dues, or to pay our bills, while we’re working toward what we’d rather be doing.

I won’t pretend that there isn’t some truth to that, for me at least. I’ve been writing (and trying to publish) my own fiction for over a decade, and the publication of The Conqueror’s Shadow is one of the high points of my career, and even my life. If forced to choose one over the other, yes, I would pick original fiction over tie-in.

But only if forced. See, to me, the tie-in fiction I’ve done wasn’t just a stepping stone, it wasn’t just something I had to do in order to “make it.” It was something I wanted to do. It’s something I still want to do, and I’d love to have tie-in novels intermixed with my original stuff for decades to come. But perhaps more importantly (and what I want to talk about here), doing tie-in fiction has made me a better writer in general, to the point that I would actually recommend that most sci-fi/fantasy writers dip their toes into the waters of tie-in fiction at least a couple of times in the early years of their careers.

Let’s leave aside the more subjective benefits, such as being able to play with your favorite characters or settings, and focus on why tie-in writing is good for the career.

1. Audience
Unless you’re dealing with a relatively new property, any tie-in novel already has at least something of a built-in audience. You know there’s already a market (even if only a niche market) that’s going to look at your book, and–unless it’s absolutely awful–probably a set portion of that niche market that’s almost guaranteed to buy it. It certainly never hurts to get your name, and your work, in front of people who, if they like you, might just follow your to other properties, including your own.

Now, I need to clarify that this isn’t as big an advantage as you might think. A surprisingly large portion of the tie-in audience doesn’t pay much attention to who’s writing the next in their favorite line; they’re buying for the property, not the author. You have to really grab their attention to make them care enough to follow you outside that property. But it’s still an opportunity to hook some of them, and it’s more than you’d otherwise have had.

2. Creative Stretching
The reason writers need to try different things, and that some of us take courses, is to stretch our creative muscles. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you stagnate. The more you try, the better your writing is going to be–even if you then return to the familiar.

Working on tie-in fiction is a creative endeavor with requirements you won’t find in original fiction. It’s not just about creating a story, but creating a story that works with these specific characters–or perhaps creating your own characters, but characters that work in this specific setting. You might have to include a plot element or a character mandated from the property owner that you otherwise wouldn’t have used, and you’ve got make that element fit smoothly. It can be limiting, yes, but that’s the point. Learning to work within these limitations makes you a better writer even when those guidelines and borders are removed. It makes you a sharper plotter, a more flexible and adaptable writer; you’re more able to view plot or character issues from different angles.

3. Taking Feedback
Learning how to absorb feedback–positive and negative–is a skill that every writer must have, but few of us ever entirely master. (Nobody’s skin is tough enough to completely ignore it when someone hates part of our work. Well, maybe Steven King, but he can just write a brand new novel over breakfast the next day. I swear, there’s got to be at least three of him…) From editors to online reviewers to the husband or wife, we need to learn to take whatever’s meaningful from any given response to our book, and to give it real consideration, even when our first inclination might be to dismiss it. Feedback is the only way we know how to improve.

You know what’s a really good way of learning to accept feedback? Being in a position where you have no choice. When you’re dealing with tie-in fiction, the property owner is final arbiter. If they come back and tell you “We’re not crazy about the talking rabbit in chapters four through seven,” you don’t get to ignore them. You might argue your case, explaining how the rabbit is essential to the plot and serves as a metaphor by which the reader understands the soul of the world, but ultimately, if they can’t be budged, the rabbit goes. And if that means rewriting the entirety of chapters four through seven, well, guess who’s rewriting chapters four through seven? (Hint: Look in the mirror.)

Yeah, it can suck. It can be remarkably unpleasant; I’ve done mandated rewrites on that level (though not for a talking rabbit), and it’s rather like pulling your own wisdom teeth with pliers–rectally. But it’s also educational. Because once you’ve been forced to adapt, and to rewrite around someone else’s preferences, then you’re in a much better place to do so on your own, to a much lesser extent, when your editor or your beta-readers object to something in your original manuscript. You already know how to do it, after all.

4. Voice
It’s not hard, for most writers, to stay in the voice of their main character throughout a book. It’s your creation, and odds are it’s got a lot of you in it, so of course the voice remains more or less consistent.

But what about for more than one book? What if you–as I did, with The Conqueror’s Shadow and The Warlord’s Legacy–come back to a character you created years ago, in order to write a sequel? No matter how easily the voice came to you the first time, it can be something of an effort to pick it back up after so long.

It’s easier, though, if you’ve already spent several books writing voices for characters that you didn’t create. Both of my prior tie-in novels, Agents of Artifice and Gehenna: the Final Night, required me to put words in the mouths of characters that had existed before I ever touched the property in question. And both were written for fans who were going to know pretty quick if a voice was wrong, and wouldn’t be shy about letting me know. If I hadn’t written those books, and learned how to capture a character’s voice, then neither The Warlord’s Legacy, nor even the rewrites/late additions to The Conqueror’s Shadow, would have come out nearly as well as they did.

In fact, I’d posit that even if you’re not worried about coming back to a character after some time apart, learning how to write other people’s characters will still make your own better, because it makes you more aware of nuances of dialogue and behavior. Since you must study such things for some tie-in characters, you begin to examine them automatically when it comes to your own. And any sense a writer has on how to make Character X distinct from Character Y, any instinct to recognize when Character Z wouldn’t say/do that, can only lead to a better book.

The big debate about tie-in, of course, is whether the material is, as many people seem to think, innately inferior to original fiction. Obviously, I think that’s absolutely not the case, as I imagine everything I’ve said so far implies. But even if you think it is, if you’re an author–and especially relatively near the start of your career–you could definitely do worse than to give it a shot. Even if you find that it’s not your thing, you’ll be a better writer for the lessons you take away from it.

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Reader’s Block

Posted by March 1st, 2011

Or, Stop and Read a Book Once In a While!


An agent shares her perspective on a frustration that most agents & editors experience eventually…

Over the holiday break, I found myself with reader’s block. For all of you writers out there who just did a double-take, yes, I said readers block. I just made it up. Although I’m positive I’m not the first person in the industry to feel this way. Let me explain.

I was on the couch, reading a requested submission and I just couldn’t get past the first page. And the writing was good. After four failed attempts I put the manuscript aside and picked up another. Same thing happened.

The next few days passed with the same results. I was frustrated (for those of you who don’t know me, this is an understatement to say the least). At one point I’m pretty sure I injured my dog with an errant rubber band flick. I unbent every paperclip in sight. I even did—gulp—all of our laundry, including bed sheets! But still, the thought of attempting another manuscript made my eyes cross.

“I think I’ve burned out,” I announced to my husband, Joe. He didn’t even get a chance to step inside our apartment yet. “I just can’t read anymore.”

Joe peered over my shoulder at the mess of paperwork on the couch, the pile of metal sticks on the coffee table, and at PeeWee, who gingerly licked at his rubber band wounds. “Let’s talk about it.”

Ah, the benefits of being a newlywed.

Joe dropped his briefcase, carefully moved a pile of papers labeled “client edits,” and sat on the couch. “So what have you read lately?”

“What have I read?!” Did he really want to get me started? “Oh, I don’t know…about a hundred queries, a manuscript about a leprechaun with a Napoleonic complex, Client X’s latest revisions…” blah, blah, blah.

Joe’s a good sport. He let me rant for at least three minutes.

“That’s nice,” he finally said. “But what books have you read?”

I stopped pacing. Wait…what was the last book I read?

“Identical, Ellen Hopkins.”

“Great. When was that?”

“Thanksgiving…” I reluctantly admitted.

Joe was quiet for a minute. Then he stood up, walked over to our bookshelves and pulled out the newest Dennis L. McKiernan (I’m a closet Mithgar junkie and he knows it). I had bought the book as soon as it came out in October. I meant to read it…when I had the time….

“Come with me.”

I followed Joe down the hall and into our bedroom.

“Now lie down and read.”

Had he even been listening to me?!! “I can’t read!” At this point I was near tears. I mean, before this I could always read. No matter where I was, I could always get sucked into a new world. And now that magic was GONE.

“Joanna,” Joe said more sternly. “Lie down and read.”

Being the other newlywed, I relented. I swiped the book from his hand and made myself cozy.

It took a few minutes, and a few bouts of actually forcing myself to sloooooow down. But it worked. The words pulled me in, one by one. I connected with the characters (Aravan, my love!). It was just like old times.

I stopped—reluctantly—to eat dinner and to feed PeeWee, who forgave me for my earlier actions as soon as his kibble hit his bowl. By the time Joe climbed into bed, I was more than half way done. At 3:42 a.m., I closed the back cover over, fully satisfied.

Only I wasn’t satisfied. After I turned out the light, the story kept replaying in my mind. I wanted more. What happens to the characters now? Oh, I hope Dennis (isn’t it great how you’re on a first-name-basis with an author when you read their work?) writes another soon….

This is what I had been missing.

The next morning I had errands to run, we had plans that evening, and I needed to shower, but something kept pulling me to my pile of submissions. I wanted to meet new characters, to go on new adventures. Dennis’ book left me wanting more. And that’s really what good writing does.

That’s when I realized what Joe was trying to tell me. There was nothing wrong with the manuscripts or the writing or even the queries. I just needed something to remind me what all of those submitted pages could become. I needed a reminder of why I joined this industry, why I even became a reader in the first place.

Nothing beats a good book.

I once heard that Stephen King reads for four hours and day and writes for four hours a day. Now, it’s true that Stephen King could attribute his success to scrambled eggs and beer for breakfast and we would probably all take his advice, but I think he has something there on the reading part. It’s our way, as persons in the publishing industry, of smelling the roses.

Joe came home early from work that night for our evening plans. He found me on the couch, PeeWee curled up next to me, a manuscript on my lap and …unshowered. But he didn’t get mad. Ah, newlyweds!

[The above originally appeared in The Swivet and has been reprinted here by kind permission of the author. Photo courtesy Joanna Stampfel-Volpe.]

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