Tag Archives: writing

Are all novels publishable?

Writing a novel is just the first step towards publication. After writing, the novel needs to be edited — maybe rewritten, maybe several times. Some manuscripts need more editing than others, but with no exception, every manuscript needs at least one editing pass before it’s ready to see the light of day.

The best way to edit is to learn to do it yourself, but I don’t want to focus on that in this post. Instead I want to talk about the alternative. Many people don’t want to do their own editing. Some don’t feel like they can trust critique groups or beta readers. Others think they aren’t skilled enough to be able to edit their own work. So these writers try a different solution: they hire a freelance editor.

Freelance editors vary in experience and skill, just like writers. Some are published authors. Some used to be fiction editors in the publishing industry. Others just hung out a shingle. Freelance editors offer different editing services at different price levels:

A copy edit (or line edit) is the least expensive service, but it includes only a clean up of spelling and grammar. An editor local to me charges 1.5 to 3 cents per word for a line edit. For my 100,000 word novel, that would be $1500 to $3000.

A developmental or substantive edit is considerably more expensive. This edit includes an analysis of structure, pacing, character development, and plot. My local editor charges 3 to 6 cents a word for substantive editing, so $3000 to $6000 for my novel. Most of the time the editor doesn’t actually do the rewriting either (or at least not all of it) — just tells you what needs to be done.

That’s quite a bit of money to spend, particularly since after you make the rewrites following a substantive edit, you may still need a copy edit to have a finished, proofed manuscript. Would it be worth it? Without a doubt, a good editor can make a manuscript a lot better.

But is the manuscript ready to be published?

Here, finally, is the point of this post. After you’ve paid this money and gotten a professional edit, is your manuscript guaranteed to be good enough to be snagged by an agent or purchased by a traditional publishing company?


Not only is there no guarantee, in most cases it simply won’t be good enough.

Say, for argument’s sake that manuscripts were rated on a quality scale from 1-10. A manuscript of quality level 9 or above is required for traditional publishing. A freelance editor could bump your manuscript up to 2 points higher on the scale. If your manuscript starts at a 7 or 8, that’s great! But if the manuscript you wrote is of quality level 6 or below, then even with editing, you’re still out of luck as far as traditional publishing goes.

Here is the hard truth about freelance editors: As talented as many of them are, they are not magicians. They cannot take a fatally flawed manuscript and make it great. A good editor can make ANY manuscript better. But very few manuscripts, no matter how much time and effort and money is put into them, will ever be good enough to outshine 99% of other submissions, and THAT is what is required to get an agent and sell a manuscript to a traditional publisher.

Some writers write three, four, five, or even more novels before they write one of high enough quality that they are able to sell it to traditional publishers. That’s not a failing! They studied their craft, they practiced, they honed their words. They earned their way up the quality ladder. Don’t feel cheated if you don’t start at the top or if an editor didn’t make your manuscript perfect. You have to pay your dues just like everyone else and learn to write high quality manuscripts. That takes work. Hard work. With no shortcuts.

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November challenge

I made a challenge to myself this month.

This month is National Novel Writing Month — more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is a worldwide phenomena in which a couple hundred thousand writers commit to writing a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. 50K is more of a novella than a novel, and what you have at the end is an unedited pile of… well, you know. But that’s okay. The point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to produce a finished novel. It’s to get the focus on butt-in-chair, words-on-page. It’s to get those creative channels open and productive — and to build that habit of writing consistently. It doesn’t matter if what you wrote is crap, because after November you have all the time in the world to rewrite and edit.

And now, after all that buildup, let me say… my challenge has nothing to do with NaNoWriMo. Sort of. I am not a fast writer, and I don’t want to be a fast writer. I have a completely different style of writing, and it works for me. But I struggle with the other key aspect of NaNo — butt-in-seat, write-everyday. So I decided to challenge myself to set aside dedicated writing time every single day in November. More specifically, I decided to get up at 5am and use those early hours to work on my novel.

I’m used to getting up at 7 — or even later this time of year, because it gets light so late. So on November 1, I was completely unsure I would make it out of bed.

But I did.

And I’ve done it every day since, even on the weekend. I even turn off email and close my browsers and Twitter before I go to bed, so I won’t be distracted when I get downstairs. Okay, it’s only Nov. 8, but I’m feeling good about it — especially since I have yet to need an alarm. I admit, I’m glad we had a time change last weekend; that definitely made it easier. In fact, I was up at 4:30 this morning, because my internal clock hasn’t completely adjusted yet.

It’s working. I’m making forward progress. Not fast progress — I’m not a NaNo writer — but progress I am pleased with. I expect I’ll get faster as I build the habit and get into the rhythm. It’s fun to see the page count and word count increase. Maybe I’m being optimistic after only eight days, but I can see this being sustainable.

What I’ve learned is that I have to have dedicated time if I want to work on my novel. Even if I don’t have a lot going on during the day, there are still enough distractions that I just can’t focus on the writing. After work? Forget it. My brain is fried, my creative juices dried up. All I want to do at that point is watch TV and then head to bed.

I like this challenge thing. Maybe I’ll come up with a different challenge for myself every month. So, tell me, do you have tasks that you find you absolutely have to set aside dedicated time for?

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Which is easier: selling a screenplay or a novel?

If you’re an aspiring novelist, you may be dismayed by the doomsday talk in and around the publishing industry. Fewer books being bought by publishers, lower advances being paid, self publishing touted as the miracle cure but paying off for only the tiniest handful. Some writers get frustrated and begin to wonder: Maybe instead of a novel, they should be working on a screenplay. Surely it has to be easier to break in, right?

I hate to break your fantasy bubble, but no, it’s not.

First of all, screenwriting is a completely different art form. Being a great sculptor doesn’t mean the artist is automatically a killer watercolorist. Nor does being deft with prose fiction mean a writer would be good at screenwriting. In some ways, the form and style of screenwriting is polar opposite of that of novel writing.

Second, far fewer screenplays are purchased than novels. A fair number are optioned. That means that someone in the industry pays for what in the book publishing world would be an “exclusive” while he tries to put together a package (director, actors) to sell. The price for options is usually extremely low — often less than $1000, and sometimes even free. Only a tiny percentage of optioned screenplays are actually sold, and only a truly minuscule number of screenplays sold are actually produced.

Who are the lucky stiffs who sell their screenplays? Nearly always it’s someone who has already sold a screenplay — someone who is already known in LA. (Someone who, not incidentally, also probably lives there.) Obviously that’s a catch-22. In order to sell a screenplay, you have to have sold a screenplay. The movie industry likes to work with people they know. That means they go to people they’ve worked with first, and then they go to people who’ve worked with people they’ve worked with. New writers (and new directors and new producers and new actors) have almost always gotten on the radar by living and working in some other capacity in the movie industry — as a production assistant, for example — or by working somewhere influential Hollywood people will be.

They network and meet people and pitch anyone who will listen until they get a chance to work on something. That “something” isn’t likely a brand new script. It’s a rewrite of a script already purchased. Maybe a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite. Which is then rewritten several more times. These rewrite assignments — given only to residents of LA who can attend meetings face-to-face — may be the bulk of a working screenwriter’s work. If their work is looked upon favorably, they might be chosen to be the first writer when a director or producer has an “idea” and needs something on paper to shop. More creative, more responsibility, but ultimately still work-for-hire following someone else’s outline and making their rewrites.

But wait… surely some original scripts are purchased and produced? Sure. Most of them were written by working screenwriters. Some of them weren’t even sequels or adaptations or assignments. But not many. And even fewer are purchased from people who live outside of LA or are completely unknown to the buyers.

Fewer doesn’t equal zero. It’s possible. It happens. So you decide to pursue it, even though you live in, say, Chicago. What do you do? What you don’t do is write a screenplay, pitch to screenplay agents (as you would book agents), and wait for the agent to sell the screenplay for you. Hollywood is different. There are several possible strategies you could take:

  • Enter (and win) big contests. Win a Nicholl Fellowship or a Disney Fellowship. The big ones have launched careers, but they’re extremely competitive. The smaller ones… well, do your research.
  • Produce your screenplay independently. It’s extremely expensive, and you might want to start with a (big) contest-winning short first, but independently screenplays have opened a lot of doors.
  • Pitch your screenplay to production houses yourself. This is similar to sending your manuscript directly to a publisher, except you shouldn’t send it until it has been requested. Call them — another departure from book publishing — and find out who you need to talk to  in order to pitch a screenplay. You might be given an e-mail address, but more likely, you’ll pitch on the phone. Be prepared. If you get a request, then your screenplay becomes part of the slush.

If you *do* manage to sell your screenplay, you’ll likely make more money on the sale than you will for a novel, but you’ll lose control. Completely. You won’t direct. You won’t meet the actors. You likely won’t even be asked to do the rewrite. And there will be rewrites — lots of them. If your screenplay hits the screen, it probably won’t look anything like the darling you poured your heart into. And if you want to keep working in the industry, you’ll need to move to LA and do the work-for-hire that fill the coffers of other working screenwriters.

Novel writing is, in contrast, easier to break into, and you’ll have a lot more control over your story throughout the publishing process. It will still be your baby in the end, and you have the luxury of living anywhere you want to live.

Pros and cons to both. In the end, each person needs to research the possibilities, be realistic about his strengths and limitations, and then… follow his passion. There are no guarantees. Only dreams.

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Is Amazon Publishing good for writers?

A couple of big articles, including one in the New York Times, have come out touting the new publishing branch of Amazon and proclaiming it wonderful for authors and terrible for traditional publishers. But is it? I found a lot of hyperbole in the articles and a lot of red flags that leave me with some serious questions.

First, let’s look at the article in yesterday’s New York Times. It says:

Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.

122 books? Array of genres? That’s rather ambitious for a fledgling publisher. Exactly what makes Amazon qualified to pick quality submissions out of the slush? Who will be editing these books (and what are their qualifications)? Who will be designing the covers? What kind of publicity/marketing plan do they have? According to the article, publicity plans are top secret, as are details about the deals they’re setting up. That secrecy is NOT normal within the industry. Big red flags.

What the article conspicuously fails to mention at all is distribution. It plans to publish books in both print and digital form, but does it plan to sell those book anywhere other than Amazon.com? Will those books be available on bookstore shelves anywhere? Oh, I have no doubt that they’ll be *available* to stores, but will any actually choose to shelve them? If you were Barnes & Noble, is there any long-term benefit AT ALL to shelving books published by Amazon? Amazon is not their partner — it is their competitor, and a damn powerful competitor at that.

Next, the article discusses the case of Kiana Davenport. It presents an extremely biased version of the events. It claims that Ms. Davenport lost her contract with Penguin because Penguin is shaking in its boots about a collection of short stories she self-published on Amazon. They say:

“They’re trying to set an example: If you self-publish and distribute with Amazon, you do so at your own risk,” said Jan Constantine, a lawyer with the Authors Guild who has represented Ms. Davenport.

I… disagree. You can make up your own mind, however. I recommend reading Kiana’s original blog post on the subject AND all the associated comments (oh wait, she deleted the ones that disagreed with her, so that may not be worth your time), and then reading the thread on Absolute Write. Or just read Absolute Write. One thing I love about the people on that site, is that they have a wide range of experience (published authors, unpublished authors, agents, and editors), and so they look at situations like this from all sides.

Bottom line: Lots of authors self-publish and traditionally publish at the same time. But if the books overlap, the authors work with their agents and publishers to ensure they are not breaking their contracts or damaging the future sales of the book under contract. Those contracts are not set up to stifle a writer’s ability to write and publish but to protect the publisher’s investment. Publishers want to ensure that when their book is released, it is the newest, shiniest, best book a writer has to offer at that time so they can maximize sales. Oh yes, how evil and unreasonable those publishers are. </sarcasm>

The article then discusses a deal made with Laurel Saville. Well, sort of, since details are secret. Apparently Laurel wasn’t paid an advance. The question then becomes, what is Amazon offering her as a publisher that she wouldn’t get by self-publishing with Createspace, particularly since she seemed to be doing just fine on her own? I can’t help but wonder how Amazon picked its 122 books, and how many of them are of high enough quality that they would have been picked up by a traditional publisher — and how many non-celebrities will get a super-high advance.

Next, there was an article published in The New Republic today called, “Why Writers Should Embrace Amazon’s Takeover of the Publishing Industry.” I don’t for one second believe Amazon is taking over the publishing industry. Agents will happily tell you that there are more publishable books out there than there are publishers to sell them. Publishers can pick and choose and easily fill their lists. They are not begging for submissions, hoping for a breadcrumb. Contrary to what articles like this would have you believe, publishing is doing just fine, thank you very much.

Once you get into the meat of the story, the writer lists three services that have been “neglected” by traditional publishers. Let’s review her arguments, shall we?

  1. Discovering new authors. First, she says that agents can take six months to respond to a query. Nonsense. No agent takes that much time with queries. Not even close. She then mentions “unconnected authors,” which implies that writers must know someone to get picked up by an agent or publisher. Bullshit. Unknown writers are picked out of the slush every single day. I see nothing in what I’ve read about Amazon to make me think they’ll be better at picking books than anyone else. They’ll have winners and losers, just like other publishers. If they woo away experienced writers who are proven best-sellers, Amazon may appear to have “picked” more winners, but really that just means they have deeper pockets. Those writers weren’t exactly picked from the slush, and Amazon’s association with them means nothing for aspiring writers.
  2. Creating beautiful books. The writer claims that big publishers no longer edit the manuscripts that come to them. More bullshit. They do. They spend an extraordinary amount of time with their writers. We know nothing about the Amazon editors. We don’t know who they are, or how many books they’ll be assigned, or how talented they are. We don’t know if the big name writers will get more editing attention than the newer writers.
  3. Getting the word out. Amazon’s publicity plans are “secret,” so I’m not sure how any claim can be made that it will be better than a traditional publisher’s plan. Will their marketing dollars be more heavily invested in those proven authors or in the newbies? Gee, let me take a guess. The writer of this article complains that traditional publishers don’t market the newbies enough, but I think that depends on the book and the publisher, and I see zero evidence that Amazon will do better. I would also point out that not being able to get the book anywhere but at Amazon is a pretty significant handicap at this stage of the game.

Bottom line, I don’t think we know enough about the Amazon publishing venture to know how good it will be for writers or readers or whether it will, in any way, impact publishers. I’m willing to keep an open mind, but I’m definitely not drinking the Kool-Aid yet.

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The Professional Writer: Accepting Rejection Gracefully

If you’re a writer, you will be rejected. Your critique partners and beta readers won’t “get” your manuscript. You will be rejected by agents. Once you have an agent, you will be rejected by publishers. Then once your book is published, you will be rejected by book reviewers and by readers themselves. No book in the history of the world has been universally adored. No matter how blessed you are, you *will* be rejected, and it will hurt.

There are right ways and wrong ways to deal with the pain. Eating an extra brownie [pan] and having a cry fest with your best friend is a good choice, particularly when you dust yourself off the next day and get back to work. Taking the rejection personally, blaming the publishing industry, and  complaining about the rejection online is… not the best strategy.

I stumbled onto a terrific article today that looks at some rejection letters that writers posted online and then complained about:


This article was written in 1984, and the site it pulled the letters and comments from no longer exists. But the bitter comments the writers made are still out there. Yes, the writers posted “anonymously,” but some of those rejection letters were personal. Do you think an editor won’t recognize them? The Internet lives forever. Remember that before you post snarky comments to your blog or on a writers’ forum.

Publishing is a business. It’s highly unlikely — no matter how it feels — that an agent or publisher or reader is rejecting you as a person. They are expressing an opinion: that they didn’t like your book. That’s okay! This is a subjective business. Just keep working on your craft, keep making your writing better, and keep learning about the industry.

Like a professional.

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