Tag Archives: genre

A Conversation with Billy Freda

Posted by November 9th, 2011

Cover model Billy Freda tells us what it’s like on the other side of the book…

Bill Freda headshot_smallest_cropped

“There will always be a character my age. You know, all your heroes aren’t 28 years old and buff.”

New Brunswick, NJ — Sitting across an IHOP breakfast table from a male model makes it a little difficult to focus on your omelet, let me tell you. It’s even more difficult when you have a copy of a romance novel in your bag of which said model’s image graces the cover. But when he’s known in the industry for his comedic tendencies and light-heartedness like Billy Freda is, it’s more than manageable.

With 83 books covers in his portfolio, Billy has been involved in the Romance community for more than eight years. From literal “knight in shining armor” to “midnight cowboy,” he’s run the gamut and lived to tell the tale.

There’s more to being a cover model than just a pretty face, though, and I, for one, was eager to learn more about this facet of the publishing industry that gets so overlooked, despite its über-visual nature. And with a tape recorder on the table, I was about to get some insight:

DP: So, how did you start modeling?

BF: Fell ass-backwards into it? [laughs] I started in college for some extra money. As a matter of fact, my college girlfriend saw a posting in…remember these things called the “Classifieds” in the newspapers? — Yes, I just dated myself about how long I’ve been modeling. — But she saw in the Classifieds, ya know, “Model Wanted yada yada.” I went in, and I got the job. My first big job I was a Claiborne guy for a while, for their men’s division. And then I just started getting into it. I got my shots done, found an agent, and just snowball, snowball…

DP: What made you get into modeling for book covers and the publishing industry?

BF: Really funny that you asked that following when I started….The photographer from my first shoot was literally the first person I ever shot with, and I had moved on from him but maybe two or three years later, out of the middle of nowhere, he saw that the romance world was looking for contestants [for the Romantic Times Mr. Romance competition].  He submitted me with the pictures that he had shot.

DP: [laughs] Without your knowledge?

BF: Yeah, I didn’t know! And the next thing I know, I get a phone call from a Cindy Walker telling me I’d been selected to make it into this competition and I’m like “huh?” And that’s how it all started.

Medallion cover - Bill Freda

DP: That’s too funny….What made you want to model? Or was it just that it fell into your lap?

BF: I mean, it kind of fell into my lap, yeah. Did I think when I started modeling in college for money that that would be a third to fifty percent of my career? No, never. But we’re all starving college students. It was money at the time and now it’s an integral part of my career.

DP: What about after college? Did you continue right into the modeling world?

BF: Kind of. I did modeling while I was a practicing engineer. And you know, it’s a little tougher obviously, having a 9-to-5 and trying to model. But if people want you, they will work around your schedule. You know, your bigger shoots—the higher paying ones, the commercial shoots, stuff like that—no, they won’t work around your schedule. But that’s why God created sick days, so… Yea, I continued to model right through while I worked as an engineer for six years, and then really stepped it up and put myself out there when I went into entertainment full time.

DP: Tell me a little bit about that experience with the Mr. Romance competition. You were not only one of the winners, but you’ve hosted it a number of times too.

BF: Like I said, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a great experience though. There are a couple guys from my year that I’m still in touch with and friends with. After I won, they found out that I do a lot of TV hosting and emceeing live events, so in ’05, I hosted one of the segments with Cindy Geyer, who is like the Mrs. Fabio. She’s been on hundreds and hundreds of covers, if not more, and she’s a doll, great to work with. And then in ’06 I co-hosted it, and in ’07 and ’08 I wrote it and hosted it.

DP: Can you walk me through a typical cover shoot?

BF: Well, there are two different types of cover shoots. There’s one where they’re shooting for a very specific cover in mind. The author’s requested this [scene, etc.]. A lot of times I ask for a synopsis of what the hero is like so I can portray that. And then there are shoots where publishing companies just want ten clothes changes, different time periods, and are just going to sit them in a database and use them as they are needed.


DP: About how long does a shoot take?

BF: If we’re shooting for a specific cover, we can bang it out in an hour. I’ve done a couple of Harlequin covers where they have it down to such a science: you walk in, you meet the girl who you’re about to quote-unquote sleep with, who you’ve never met in your life, which is always a little awkward… You’re literally on set, under the covers, in fifteen minutes. The shoot’s done in 30 after that.

DP: How long would it take if you were to do ten covers at once?

BF: That’s an all-day affair.

DP: What makes a cover shoot good or bad?

BF: I think what makes a shoot good is just professionalism and…well, professionalism. Just like you want an actor to show up and know his lines, I don’t want to show up to a set and the lighting isn’t set, we don’t know what we’re shooting, “oh crap, we forgot a prop,” et cetera et cetera et cetera. Get in, gone on, get done. Boom.

DP: How do you get jobs? Do you have an agent? Do companies call you specifically? 

BF: A book cover is one of the only print-type work I don’t do through my agents for. Everything is self-promotion. And honestly, at this point, between being a former Mr. Romance winner and hosting the show for three years, everybody knows me so I really don’t need an agent. The covers kind of come to me.

DP: So people will come to you—there’s not an audition process or anything like that?

BF: Yes, there is no audition process. Occasionally you will see a cover model request in the breakdowns, though. The breakdowns are the list of all available work in the acting-modeling world. So, when I see a breakdown, I just basically send a quick cover note saying, “Listen, I’m a veteran at this. I’ve done 80+ covers…” and I’ll probably send them two or three samples, and if I’m the right look, then I’m the right look.

DP: So after you get a gig and shoot a cover, do you see it again? Do you get to approve anything? What’s the process after you’re done the modeling part?

BF: There are a couple houses that I do ask for approval from. They will say, “Is this good or not?” Now, is this a formality? Are they extending a courtesy? If I said, “Actually no, that is terrible” well, you know…

A Scots Honor_small

DP: Do they send you a copy of the book or anything like that once it’s published?

BF: Yeah, I have a copy of a lot of my covers. Some of my favorites, like Kate Hofman’s My Love, Forever and Carol Carson’s Fortune’s Treasure, are cover facing out in my library. Just because it’s like anything else, you know. It’s like if I were a painter and I had one of my own pieces hanging up.

DP: I hear you also have a sword on display in your home–is that from a shoot?

BF: Oh, yeah, I do. The sword that sits on my mantle is actually a sword I brought home from Spain. It’s a real sword made of Marlow Spanish steel, and obviously I took it back prior to 9-11. [laughs] It’s a little tough to get on planes with them now. That was the sword I used the year I competed [in Mr. Romance] actually.

DP: How did you use it to compete? What do you mean by that?

BF: Each year it’s slightly different, but usually you have to portray certain characters throughout the competition. I had a contemporary—my contemporary was from a book written by Beth Ciotta and I was a billionaire—and then for my historical hero I came out full chain mail, the real boots, the gloves and the cuffs, and that was what I wore for the competition…and I carried that sword.

DP: In addition to the Romantic Times convention, you go to a lot of other romance conventions and signings. So, I’m curious, do you get hit on at these events?

BF: [laughs] Yes.

DP: What’s the craziest, weirdest encounter you’ve had? 

BF: Oh, man. You want me to put this on-the-record? Okay, so a lot of the times people will hand you a book or a calendar, ask you to sign, and then ask “Can I get a picture?” Sure! I’ll say. And, as you know, a lot of these conventions and signings are at hotels. So, in the middle of a picture, I actually had a woman slide her room key in my back pocket, and after the picture was snapped, she said the room number and walked away.

DP: Wow. 

BF: Yeah…and now she’s my ex-wife. [laughs] No, no, I’m kidding about that part. But yeah, I get that kind of thing a lot.

DP: So, what’s next for you when it comes to working in publishing?

BF: Well, first of all, book covers is a very small facet of my whole entertainment career. I’ll say maybe print comprises half of what I do, and then this, the book covers, is just a small percentage of that half. I enjoy the industry, though; I like it. It’s a billion-dollar industry, and it’s not going anywhere. I mean, it’s going to move digital, but it’s not going anywhere. I’ll continue to do covers, I’m sure. There will always be a character my age. You know, all your heroes aren’t 28 years old and buff. So, there are always going to be heroes—I’m sure there are heroes in some romance books that are 60—so I’ll probably be doing covers for a very long time.

DP: It’s a tough profession to be in, though, no?

BF: Yea, well, the entertainment industry is the most miserable profession in the world. And I mean that whole-heartedly. But here is how you know you’re doing what you want to do: The alarm goes off in the morning and you turn it off and you say “I am in the worst profession in the world” and you get up and do it anyway. That’s how you know you’re doing what you want to do.

Bio: Billy Freda started his acting/modeling/hosting career while attending Rutgers University College of Engineering. Since then, Billy’s career has consistently been on the rise, and has included countless prints ads, national campaigns, billboards, calendars, fitness magazines, and book covers. Billy’s favorite facet of his career, acting, has been receiving attention lately with his performance in the lead role in the TV pilot, “Bodies of Work.”Soon, you can find more info on his website, http://www.billfreda.com, which is currently down for maintenance.

Photo courtesy of Billy Freda.

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What Mystery Editors (and Readers) Want

Posted by November 8th, 2011

Mysteries can be a mystery! NAL and Berkley editorial give us an inside look at the mystery market: what works and what they’re looking for. 

 book and glasses - special credit reqIn this second installment of “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want,” we’re shifting the focus from romance novels to mystery novels, an intriguing and timeless genre with a number of popular subgenres. With so many different kinds of mysteries on the shelves, it can be confusing to figure out what exactly it is you’re writing and if it’s what a particular publishing house is looking to acquire.
We’ve once again turned to the experts, the mystery editors at New American Library (NAL) and Berkley Books, to give a quick lesson about the mystery genre as a whole, what’s hot right now, and what they’re looking for:

When it comes to writing a mystery that fits into the current market, first get back to the basics to make sure you’re book is categorized correctly. It’s easy to confuse a mystery component of a novel with a mystery novel itself. A “mystery” refers to novels whose plot revolves around a crime, typically a murder, and the search to figure out who committed it.  The protagonist is generally a sleuth, either professional or amateur, who engages in a hunt for the culprit by investigating and following various clues and reasoning processes.  After weeding out other potential suspects, the story usually ends with the apprehension of, or at least understanding of, who the killer is and what motivated them to commit the crime.

While mysteries often have other elements included in the story, the protagonist of a mystery is primarily concerned with the solving of the crime. For instance, the main character might have a love interest, so there could be a romantic subplot, but as long as it is secondary to the crime itself, you are still writing a mystery, and not a different type of book, like a romance.

Mysteries are related to, but different from thrillers, in that a thriller also tends to begin with some sort of crime.  However, in a thriller the reader usually learns quite quickly who has committed the crime and the driving force of the plot is not to figure out who-done-it, but to see if the hero can prevent the antagonist from getting away with the crime and striking again. Now, of course, there are all types of mysteries, so you’ll see that the genre has all sorts of subcategories.  This is because people shop for mysteries by the settings and time periods they find most interesting. The most popular subgenres change with time, and the best way to keep track of what the current ones are is to read the bestseller lists and see what kinds of mysteries are most popular.

Right now, some of the most successful genres are the following, and we editors are always looking for more fresh and exciting stories in the same vein:

Cozy mysteries
A descendent of  the novels written by Agatha Christie, this is a mystery where the sleuth, who is often female, is an amateur detective (meaning they aren’t a professional PI, police detective, cop, FBI agent, or any of the other various licensed professionals who might legitimately be solving a crime).  There is little to no violence on the page in the cozy mystery.  The setting tends to be small towns and the characters often know one another.  Usually there are subplots involving romances and friendships, with various relationship and career issues. In a cozy, the balance between character and storyline, the characters and the relationships between them, are often as important as the puzzle of the plot. We are especially eager to see more Cozy mysteries on submission.

There are also a number of variations within the cozy subcategory:

  • The culinary cozy, where the amateur sleuth is involved in the world of cooking and/or the setting is connected with food.  Think of New York Times bestselling author Diane Mott Davidson, whose Goldy Schulz series has been running for decades now;
  • The crafty cozy, where the amateur sleuth is part of some hobby within the crafting world (like knitting or quilting) and the members of the world help to solve the crime.  Authors like Maggie Sefton,Earlene Fowler, and Betty Hechtman are all people who are using a fiber hook in their mysteries and making the most of it;
  • The paranormal cozy, where the sleuth often has some sort of paranormal ability and/or investigates strange happenings connected with the paranormal world.  New York Timesbestselling author Victoria Laurie and national bestselling authorSofie Kelly are two authors among many who have made the light paranormal mystery their own;
  • The chic-lit cozy, where the sleuth is often involved in more glamorous pursuits like fashion, jewelry, accessories. Ellen Byerrum and Elaine Viets have been crafting fun chic-lit mysteries for decades.

Historical mysteries Here the setting is an intriguing historical time period, the sleuth may or may not be modeled after a specific, well-known historical personage, and historical events often serve as a springboard for the mystery explored.  Variations include:

  • Historical mysteries where the sleuth is based on a recognizable or famous historical personage, like Abigail Adams, Dorothy Parker, or is a minor character connected with a more famous historical character, like the maid to Sir Author Conan Doyle.  New York Times bestselling author Laurie King writes a “Mary Russell series” centering the fictional wife of Sherlock Holmes, and more recently J.J. Murphy has put Dorothy Parker at the center of mysteries and the Round Table;
  • Mysteries set in a particular time period, like the Regency era or early Colonial America, whose protagonist is in some way a stock character typical of the era.  Victoria Thompson’s gaslight mystery series, set in turn-of-the century New York with a midwife protagonist is just such a series.

Traditional mysteries
Unlike cozies, in the traditional mystery the puzzle of the plot and the setting become as important as, if not more important than, the relationships between the various characters in the story.  Often the characters in these mysteries are well developed with deep backstories and complex personalities—yet still they play second fiddle to the solving of the crime. But because the characters are so vivid, the crimes also tend to be complicated, complex, and fueled by surprising motivations.  Some of the mysteries in this category may use language that is quite literary in nature, so the style of the language becomes a distinguishing feature of the book.  Authors you may have read include Nancy Pickard, with her wonderful “Kansas” series, or Louise Penny, with her long running “Chief Inspector Gamach” series. Other mysteries in this area may high suspense and semi-realistic chase scenes, so they may at times feel like thrillers.

Scandinavian mysteries
These are mysteries that have come to the fore in recent years.  Set in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, or Finland, they often have a traditional PI investigating a crime that is indicative of things gone amiss in the society at large.  The detective in the Scandinavian mysteries can exhibit a modern, world-weary attitude and be overcome by feeling of ineffectualness and despair.  The setting becomes all important as the ice and cold of the physical world becomes metaphoric for the conditions the detective seeks to surmount.  These books have dominated the New York Timesbestseller lists lately and well known authors include Stieg Larsson,Henning Mankell, and Jo Nesbo.

Hard-boiled mysteries
Of course, not all mysteries can be doing well commercially all the time.  The hard-boiled, or “noir,” mystery is a type that has long existed but is not enjoying as much popularity at the moment.  These are mysteries in which the sleuth is usually a professional PI (and often a tough, quiet sort of guy) and the setting is gritty and realistic.  There are varying degrees of violence and the crimes are often explicitly described on the page.  Guys like Mickey Spillane were some of the commercial founders of this category.
However, even if a certain category is not popular now, it will no doubt, have its day eventually.  Twenty years ago American readers weren’t generally reading Scandinavian mysteries, and now they dominate the bestseller lists.  The only thing you can really count on is change.

So, study the market, pay attention to what’s on the bestseller lists, and read the books that people are talking about the most. Not so you can mimic them, but so you can meld your own interest with what the market supports.  Some worry that this is being “overly commercial,” but editors would argue it’s a way to be relevant to the current reading world.  If you don’t pay attention to what mystery fans want to read, you may have to accept that you’ve spent your time and energy working on a project for an audience of one (or maybe two or three!). If you want reach a bigger fan base, you need to stay in touch with what readers are responding to.  That is what we editors will also respond to.

Next up in our “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want” series:  Science fiction and fantasy!

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net



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What Romance Editors (and Readers) Want

Posted by November 1st, 2011

Writing a romance novel? The NAL editorial team gives us a tutorial on the romance market: today’s hottest subgenres and what they’re looking forHere’s what the romance editors want:

book and glasses - special credit req

When I was in romance editorial, it astounded me how many submissions I received that had nothing to do with what I was actually looking to acquire, or even that fell outside of the genres in which my imprint specialized. Sometimes the manuscripts hooked me despite this fact, and I fell in love with the writing or the story or the potential I saw for the story. But there was nothing I could do; if it didn’t fit for our list or the market, my hands were tied.
As an author, even after doing all your homework–researching the market, reviewing an imprint’s recent publications, checking Publishers Marketplace for an editor’s acquisition history–it can still be difficult to figure out if what you’re submitting will give the editor what he or she wants. Particularly when it comes to such a robust and diverse genre as the romance market.

With this challenge in mind, Book Country asked the romance team at New American Library (NAL) to share a little bit about their experience with submissions and what specifically they hope to find among the pile:

Most editors at NAL find that when we’re looking for new talent, the biggest problem with the submissions we receive is not that they’re badly written (because many of them are very well done) but rather that the books are not the kind of stories that readers are looking for.  The romance reader is very particular in her tastes and preferences, and trends tend to dominate the market.  If you want to attract a big readership among romance fans, it’s crucial you know what kind of story they are looking for in the current market.
To help you figure out how to do that, the editors at NAL want to offer you some friendly advice about writing romance and positioning your book:

First, make sure you’re writing a romance novel and not a women’s fiction novel! Romance novels have as their central focus the relationship between the hero and heroine of the story.  Their developing romantic relationship forms the backbone of the book’s plot. Most often this involves a man and a women meeting and having a powerful attraction; however, there’s an obstacle getting in the way of their relationship. Frequently, each character has an internal conflict that she or he must overcome. The end goal is for this couple to reach their HEA, or happily ever after, together (with realistic complications along the way). In other words, they meet, they have a conflict, and they must react and develop in response to it before the book can reach a satisfying conclusion.  These conventions are common to romance novels across the board and can act as a helpful rule of thumb to guide you according to what readers will expect to see in your romance novel.

You also need to remember that most romance readers buy according to subgenre, based on themes, settings, or time periods.  The most popular subgenres in romance change over time, and the best way to identify what’s most popular in the romance market at a given time is to watch the bestseller lists. Our job as editors is not only to follow the trends but anticipate them, while your job is to write a great book people want to love.

Right now, some of the most popular genres in romance (and the ones our editors are most excited about) are:

Vampire romances
This means a love story where at least one of the main characters is a vampire, with supernatural powers and an immortal lifespan. The setting can vary. J. R Ward‘s “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series was at the forefront of the vampire trend from the start and remains a beloved favorite among paranormal romance readers.

Regency-set historical romances
While settings for historicals can vary, England is the most popular setting. Regencies are romances that are set during the Regency period in England, which strictly speaking was from 1811 to 1820.  Historical romance readers will expect these novels to be historically appropriate, meaning that the characters should act according to what was expected in society at that time. Some of Penguin’s bestselling Regency romance authors include Jo Beverley and Jillian Hunter.

Scottish-set historicals
Ever since the release of Braveheart, we have seen a high demand for romances set in Scotland.  The most popular time period is definitely medieval, but the Jacobean era (1603-1625) works as well for this subgenre. Bertrice Small’s “Border Chronicle” series is a fabulous example of the historic Scotland setting.

Shapeshifter romances
These are paranormal romances in which at least one of the central characters to the romance can shift shape into another form.  Shapeshifting characters might be dragons, werewolves, falcons, coyotes, the list goes on… To name two examples from NAL’s popular shapeshifter romances, we publish Michele Bardsley’s “Broken Heart” novels and Deborah Cooke’s “Dragonfire” novels to great acclaim.

Paranormal romances
Paranormal romances are ones in which the love story features a character with otherworldly abilities (in addition to but not excluding being a vampire or shapeshifter).  There are witch romances, fallen angel romances, mermaid romances, demon romances, among many others.  Sylvia Day’s “Renegade Angels” series and Regan Hasting’s “Awakening” novels will give you a great idea of the fallen angel and witch trends, respectively.

What we call “gentle fiction”
Gentle fiction is a subcategory of contemporary romance, which means a romance set in the present day. These are love stories set in a small town setting with lots of quaint charm and heartwarming emotional elements. The heartwarming sense of town life and the gentle tone of the emotions really set this subgenre apart from other mainstream contemporary romance. They are the most popular kind of contemporary romance at this time, and have no paranormal elements. One visit to JoAnn Ross’s “Shelter Bay” series and you won’t want to leave this wonderful town!

Western romances
Heroes from the Wild West hold much appeal, whether it’s a contemporary cowboy romance or a historical western. There’s just something readers love about a charming cowboy!  One bestselling example from NAL’s list is Catherine Anderson, who writes both contemporary and historical Westerns.

Romantic suspense
Romantic suspense has a fast-paced storyline with lots of action because the romance between hero and heroine takes place in the face of some kind of danger that threatens one or both of their lives. The suspenseful nature of the plot is almost as important as the romance, and there is usually a mystery to solve. These novels are usually contemporary settings and are always real world stories.Shannon K. Butcher’s “Edge” novels and Christina Dodd‘s “Bella Terra Deception” series give a great example of the kind of high-octane action and edge-of-your seat suspense readers look for in this genre.

Urban fantasy
While not technically romance, Urban Fantasy novels often involve a strong love story that appeals to romance fans. Whereas the third person point of view is common in the other romance genres, urban fantasy often takes a first person point of view. And the mystery that’s driving the plot and the action is almost as important to the novel as the romance itself.  The characters in these novels are very tough, and the stories may contain violence.  Lee Roland’s Viper Moon thrills with a captivating voice and a complex urban fantasy series world.

As you can see, there are many subgenres currently driving the market from the editors’ perspective, so make sure your novel fits into one of them. Or if you are trying your hand at something different, remember to keep your story within the conventions of a romance novel in the first place and understand that your story really has to be something special if it colors outside the lines. Editors love to find fresh new authors with budding talent, so give them something they can work with!

Romance is not the only genre where editors have specific interests though…

Our next installment of “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want” will focus on the mystery genre. 

Stay tuned!

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Writing Likeable Characters

Posted by August 2nd, 2011

Book Country Twitter Chat (July 14, 2011)

Two authors and editors–Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith–chat with Book Country about how to write likeable characters, whether hero or villain.


Like with real people, all characters are unique–each one has his or her own voice, history, and motivation. And strong characters have even more in common: that is, they are all “likeable.” Whether it’s a character you love or one you love to hate, both flaws and redeeming qualities are necessary to create the essential connection between reader and character. But how do you strike that balance? What can you do to make a reader understand, relate, and care about your hero or your villain?

In our July 14th Twitter Chat, we asked these very questions of Kelley Eskridge (@kelleyeskridge) and Nicola Griffith (@nicolaz), two writers and editors with enough experience and expertise to blow your mind. Kelley is a New York Times Notable science fiction and fantasy author, a screenwriter, and chair of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Nicola is a Nebula, Tiptree, and multiple Lambda Award-winning author of science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction, and more. But that’s not all–together they also make an unstoppable editorial team, running Sterling Editing, a freelance editorial, mentoring, and coaching service.

Just take a peek at some of the great tips from the chat:

@nicolaz: ‘Likable’ doesn’t mean ‘like what they do’. Means *understand* why they do it.

@kelleyeskridge: Filter every action through character POV. And make every scene have an emotional and action goal.

@mbrucebarton: Dialogue is key to moving character forward while also forwarding action

@ColleenLindsay: Agent @DonMaass has recommended giving your villain one character trait in common with yourself to make him more sympathetic.

@DanielleEBowers: Do things with your villain you’d never dare do in real life, but always wanted to.

@AdamDetritus: one way I remember a prof saying to build at least SYMPATHY is to never have coincidence actually HELP a protag

@kelleyeskridge: Good characters r not one-note songs. Falling from grace=more interesting than never having been there

@nicolaz: Most important ‘never’ is: never make a perfectly good or perfectly bad character.

We’ve also posted the entire transcript as a PDF document here. The PDF will open in your browser and you’ll be able to save it to your computer if you like. You can also get to know your fellow genre fiction lovers by clicking directly on their Twitter handles.

Please note that the chat appears from newest to oldest tweets, so start at the bottom and work your way up.

Thanks to all who participated in this helpful chat!

REMEMBER: Book Country Twitter chats occur every other Thursday night from 9-10 pm EST. Just use the hashtag #bookcountry to participate or follow along. Topics are announced in advance in the Book Country Discussion forums, so be sure to take a look!


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Don’t Knock Yourself Out of the Game

Posted by July 26th, 2011

Six Ways to Make Sure You Don’t Cripple Your Chance at Getting Published

As a writer, there are any number of factors you can’t control. Don’t neglect the ones you can!


Getting published isn’t easy. Each day there are more aspiring writers competing to win the attention of a finite number of publishers. And while every editor hopes to discover the next big thing, limited budgets mean that even quality work isn’t guaranteed to sell.

But you’re different. You’re talented, focused, and hungry. You understand that getting published takes more than just craft. It also requires market savvy, professional networking, a little luck, and most of all, the commitment to keep going through the rough times. All of which you have in spades. Congratulations; that combination is all you need.

So long as you don’t knock yourself out of the game.

Before I sold my novel, I joined critique groups and took MFA classes, attended conferences and schmoozed with authors. Along the way, I met hundreds of aspiring writers, many of them very talented, capable of illuminating raw human truths, of crafting sentences that hit like a punch in the eye. Some of them will make it.

Most won’t.

The reason is simple: One way or another, many authors handicap themselves. Swept up in the idea of writing, they make mistakes that limit or negate their opportunities. Here are six ways to make sure you don’t cripple your own chances:

Start at the beginning and write to “THE END”

Imagine you paint houses for a living, and you love it. You’ve got a terrific project coming up: great lines and multiple stories that intersect to form an elegant structure. Do it right, and you’ll get the chance to paint another, and another, maybe for the rest of your life.

Given that, what would you do? Would you begin with the garage, stop mid-way, paint a patch around the chimney, then abandon that to stain the deck? Would you split your attention between three separate colors? Would you decide you’d rather paint a different house altogether?

Or would you look at the whole, plan your attack, then pick up your brush and work in steady measured strokes until you were done?

Writing a novel is much the same. One of the worst-and most common-mistakes writers make is not focusing. It’s fine to think about the upcoming sex scene, or to daydream about the big finish. But start writing on page one and keep going till you get there. While the glamorous parts are more fun to write, focus solely on them and you’ll neglect your narrative.

Likewise, it’s dangerous to work on multiple projects. Completing a single book can take years. Try to write three at once, odds are you’ll finish none.

And while it’s practically guaranteed that somewhere in the midst of your novel you’ll get an idea for a better one, resist the temptation. New ideas are the lace lingerie of writing, but novels aren’t made of one-night stands. Like any relationship, commitment is key.

Cherish forward motion

When I was working on my first novel, THE BLADE ITSELF, I had a note taped to my monitor that read, “You are hereby released from writing the perfect novel.” It was a sentiment that helped me navigate hourly crises of faith. Every time I began thinking that the book would be better if I went back and reworked, I read that mantra and forced myself to live it.

The net result was that instead of constantly revisiting my early chapters, I finished a first draft. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was snarled and awkward, with characters popping up unannounced, significant timeline issues, and an internal geography that would drive a cartographer off the ledge.

But it was done. And everything else could be fixed.

Sure, sometimes you have a thunderbolt that absolutely forces you to revisit what you’ve written. But for most cases, consider maintaining a separate document of ideas and problems. Jot them down as they occur, and don’t worry about how daunting the list looks. Mine ended up fourteen pages long, but once I had a completed story, fixing the flaws was simple.

And never forget: One complete rough draft trumps ten polished-to-a-high-gleam first acts.

Hate yourself in the morning

Everybody writes differently, and it’s important to find the time and method that works for you, whether that’s doing two hours every day or locking yourself away to churn out twenty Saturday pages. Which method you use isn’t important.

What’s important is that however you write, you need to set specific goals: page count, word count, finishing a chapter. And you need to feel badly when you don’t meet those goals.

There’s a writer I regularly see at conferences who’s been writing the same book for six years. Every time I ask how it’s going, he tells me how busy he’s been, how work gets in the way, how he’s still planning it in his head.

That’s fine, of course — it’s his prerogative. But no matter how good a writer he is, I’m not holding my breath to see his novel on the shelves.

The best way to complete any project is to break it into small pieces and then steadily accomplish those goals. For me, the goal is a thousand words a day, five days a week. Sometimes I get more, sometimes I barely scrape by, but on the rare occasions I leave the chair without that word count, I beat myself up badly enough that the next day I more than make up for slacking.

It seems harsh, I know, but the truth is that if you don’t put one word after the other, you simply won’t get there. If you want to be published, you have to treat this like a job.

Worry less about selling out and more about selling

I once read a manuscript, a crime story about a cop who had a passion for Hummel figurines. This was a side interest in an otherwise tough guy, and the novel was beautifully written: lush prose, vivid characters, a genuinely tense storyline that revolved around a well-researched political scandal.

But still, Hummel.

The author had written himself into a niche without meaning to. The sum total of Hummel aficionados in the world doesn’t outweigh the complete disinterest of the rest of us. And so despite having a great story with plenty of suspense, what the author had seen as a quirky character trait ended up labeling, and dooming, the book.

Writing a book is art. Art is personal. Your characters and story say something about who you are and what you treasure.

Selling a book is commerce. The rules of commerce dictate that the more people interested in what you’re writing, the likelier it will sell, and the higher the price will be.

The trick is to find a balance that lets your art function as successful commerce. This isn’t about hitting the least common denominator; it’s about avoiding niches. They may be comfortable, but they’re cramped, and you want room for as many people as possible.

It’s a musical fantasy thriller, with lasers

There’s so much talk about having a “big idea” or a “high concept” that aspiring authors often feel like it’s not enough to simply write a compelling book. Admirably enough, they want to do something unique, something that breaks fresh ground. Unfortunately, many attempt to do this by mixing genres.

This is, by and large, a bad idea.

It can be done. It can even be done brilliantly, as in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a sci-fi television series about intergalactic smugglers operating on border worlds similar to the American Old West. It was an unexpected concept that worked. An audience will always respond to a forcefully imagined world. The problem is that no one knows how to position the finished product.

Think of it this way: booksellers need to know where to shelve you. If yours is a crime novel, they put you with Dennis Lehane and Lee Child; if it’s literary fiction, they put it beside Michael Chabon and David Mitchell. If your book features blaster-wielding damsels tap dancing against the clock to prevent a terrorist attack, they put it down.

Genre is a marketing tool. It tells publishers how to promote something, booksellers where to stock it, and fans where to find it. So as temptingly fresh as cross-genre novels can be, they’re risky. Firefly is the perfect example: the writing was spectacular, the world vivid, the idea original. Critics raved and fans swooned.

The network canceled it halfway through the first season.

“What’s your book about?” is not a trick question

Novels are like children — we obsess about them, delighting in their successes and agonizing over their failures. So it’s no wonder that for many authors, condensing their story is a tougher battle than writing the thing.

However, it’s worth the fight. Because sooner or later the person asking the question will be an agent.

When that happens, you don’t want to have to make up an answer on the spot. Instead, have a couple of “hip pocket” versions in different lengths: a sentence, a paragraph, a two-minute pitch. For example, my one-sentence pitch is “The Blade Itself is the story of a retired thief who has to fight for his new life when his old one comes looking for him.” Did I leave out a lot? About 86,974 words. But I conveyed the essence of the story, said the name of my book, and most importantly, respected my listener’s time.

It’s a difficult art, but a crucial one. The ability to present the core of your novel in a few words shows an agent that you’re serious about the business and that you really understand your own story. Plus, as a side benefit, you may find that boiling down your book helps clarify the story in your own mind.

In conclusion…

Getting published isn’t easy. The best things you can bring to the table are a terrific book and a willingness to work hard. But beyond that, remember that a little forethought and some care can make a world of difference. After all, in this business there are any number of factors you can’t control. Don’t neglect the ones you can.

(The above article previously appeared at the MarcusSakey.com; the article and photo are reprinted here by kind permission of the author.)



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