Pub Rants

Category: webinars

Online Writing Events: What’s Working? What’s Not?

This week, the New York Times started publishing a series of articles under the heading “Six Months In,” looking at what we know now (and are still waiting to learn) after half a year of confronting COVID-19. That got me thinking about my friends in the writing world. We’re six months in, and our favorite writing conferences and conventions have been canceled, postponed, or made virtual. Writing is a lonely endeavor anyway, and it seems it has become even lonelier.

Or has it?

All of us at NLA have participated in myriad online events in the last six months, from one-hour Q&As to multi-day virtual events complete with pitch appointments, critique roundtables, social rooms, and dozens of workshops keyed to various learning tracks. We’ve witnessed event organizers innovate in some pretty commendable ways. The occasional tech glitch and Zoom learning curve aside, it’s actually been pretty great.

But I want to hear from you—all of you writers out there who have participated in online writing events and communities in the past six months. In our new virtual world…

• Are you more involved with writing communities, less involved, or the same?

• Is pitching to an agent or editor online more stressful or less stressful than it is in person? Why?

• Are you connecting with the same folks you were connecting with in person, or have you branched out and networked with new folks?

• How has your critique group adapted in the age of COVID?

• What types of online events have attracted you to participate, and how did they catch your eye?

• What could online-event organizers do to improve writers’ experiences, or what types of things do you wish would be offered?

• Have you attended virtual author readings or book-launch events? If so, what’s worked? What hasn’t?

I want to hear from you! Leave a comment with your thoughts down below. Next month, I’ll report back on the virtual writing world through your eyes…six months in.

(Unfortunately, our newsletter redacted the email we included to receive your responses. Please use the comment section to share your thoughts with us!)

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Ralf Steinberger

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.

For the Part 2 of this article series, click here.

Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers who want to work on craft. During our workshop, we identified several story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers who are looking for representation. Thus, this series of articles was born! Here we bring you the third installment.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”

A common opening-page snafu we often see is when writers spend too much time setting up what is “normal” for the character before leaping into what will make this story/character extraordinary.

We see a lot of opening pages that show a character performing mindless tasks, such as cleaning the house, grooming (getting out of the shower, combing hair, brushing teeth), taking a child to school, collecting the mail, making breakfast, or having conversations that revolve around the mundane. And don’t forget our all-time favorite: a character waking up. (See “The Perils of Waking Characters” Part 1 and Part 2 on my blog for more about why this opening spells trouble.)

Illustrating the normal is not dynamic. In the normal, very little can be revealed about the character or setting. Because of this, we’re also on alert for openings like these:

“Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning].”

“If I’d only known then what I know now…[followed by pages of detail about then].”

These types of openings hint at an inciting incident. But what the writer is really doing here is postponing the story conflict. They’re asking the reader to bear with them through a few opening pages of mundane tasks and details by making a vague promise that there’s good stuff coming later. In most cases, that simply doesn’t work.

The Importance of Voice

Accomplished writers use literary voice to transcend what might be considered mundane. A terrific example is the opening scene of Gail Carriger’s Soulless:

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.

This scene actually does open with a light touch of the mundane, but Carriger’s unique voice draws the reader in. Most importantly, the scene doesn’t stay in the mundane for very long—only two sentences, and then in the third, an unexpected vampire appears. The surprise is not the vampire. He’s actually expected in this world. It’s his attack that knocks Alexia off balance. Every vampire knows Alexia is soulless and therefore renders the supernatural powerless once touched. This persistent vampire doesn’t seem to know this nor does he seem to learn quickly when his power disappears. This is what then grabs the reader and won’t let go. Carriger takes the mundane and uses voice, wit, and a twist to engage the reader…all in the first three pages of the novel.

The Hero’s Journey and the Ordinary World

Angie here. Many writers’ first contact with story structure is the Hero’s Journey. It gets pounded into us at writing conferences and story workshops, and through books on how to plot a novel.

According to the Hero’s Journey (useful to screenwriters, constraining to novelists), we must devote our first few pages to the “ordinary world.” This is supposed to paint a picture of what the hero’s life is like before the Big Boom of the story’s inciting incident. Without the hero’s ordinary world, how will the reader recognize that change has occurred once they reach the end of the novel?

Poppycock.

What this widespread education in the Hero’s Journey has done is fill slush piles everywhere with sample pages full of ordinary worlds. Yet what are agents looking for? Extraordinary. Your best bet for standing out in the slush pile is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible.

Bonus Tip: The Chapter Two Switcheroo

James Scott Bell, the author of some of Angie’s favorite books on writing and revision, suggests that once you finish an entire draft of your novel, go back and swap your first two chapters. So many aspiring writers frontload their first chapters with backstory, exposition, and narrative, saving the action and conflict for chapter two. Sometimes, switching those first two chapters is all you need to do to fix a boring opening. Plant the hook first. Then see how much of the other stuff you really need in order to tell your protagonist’s tale in the most compelling—and extraordinary!—way possible.

Photo Credit: Sherman Geronimo-Tan

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.

Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers working on craft. During our workshop, we identified story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers looking for representation.

In fact, we’re offering a three-part webinar-workshop called “Opening Pages That Lead to Yes.” It starts August 4. Want to sign up? Click here.

First, a word of caution. Take everything we are going to highlight in this series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can get away with any type of opening and make it work—even one of the nine types we are going to suggest that you avoid! So much depends on a writer’s mastery of voice, style, and scene craft.

Trust me, there is that 1% of writers out there who can break all the rules and make their stories work spectacularly. But do you want to bet that you are among that 1%? That’s quite a gamble! If, however, you think maybe you’re among the other 99% percent, then this series is for you. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the nine types of openings we’re going to share with you in this series often don’t work because they are overused or have become crutches for writers who haven’t yet mastered craft. Avoid these openings, and you will automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile!

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#2) Your novel opens with White Room Syndrome. 

In other words, you may have succeeded at putting at least one character on the page, and maybe some sort of action, too, but you’ve forgotten to share any details about your setting. Does your opening scene occur inside or outside? At night or during the day? In cold weather or hot? Where is your character, what’s nearby, and how does this environment affect him or her in this scene? Omit such details, and your reader has no choice but to imagine that your story is taking place in a “white room.”

Anchor your reader in time and place in your manuscript’s opening pages—this is the number-one comment I make when I do critiques at conferences.

As Angie will now discuss, there are several tips and tricks you can use to identify and revise White Room Syndrome (WRS) in your own opening scenes:

a.) Does your story start with a lengthy passage of dialogue? This might be the number-one indicator of WRS. Check your opening scene and make sure that your characters’ words aren’t hanging in the air in a white room. Without a sense of setting (time and place), the reader is left with no idea of where the characters are, why they’re there, and how this conversation might be important to the story.

b.) Character is to Voice as Setting is to AtmosphereJust as you choose your words carefully to give your character a distinctive voice, choose your words carefully to imbue your setting with a sense of atmosphere—one that supports the overall mood of the scene. Consider:

Beatrice sauntered into the bordello’s frilly parlor, the plush pink carpet muffling the clank-clank-clank of her silver spurs.

Beatrice crept through the shadows of the bordello’s dusty parlor, the clank-clank-clank of her silver spurs echoing off the creaky floorboards. 

In the first sentence, Beatrice is sauntering, and the setting is frilly, plush, and pink. In the second, Beatrice is creeping, and the setting is dusty and creaky, with shadows and echoes. Were each of these the first sentence of a novel, my readerly imagination would be set up for a very different sort of story. The words you choose to lend your setting atmosphere matter.

c.) Does your setting impinge on your character’s senses? We know we’re supposed to use all five senses in our fiction—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. But this tip takes that advice a step further. Consider:

Bob sat behind the wheel of the getaway car, eyes peeled on the front door of the bank. It was hot and sunny, and he was sweating, and the front seat was too cramped for his three-hundred-pound frame. He tore the wrapper off another Ding Dong and took a bite. It was time, he decided, that the gang ditched the Chevelle and invested in a van.

Bob sat in the getaway car, the steering wheel digging painfully into his ample gut. Sweat plastered his tee shirt to his chest and back. He shaded his eyes from the sun beating down on him through the Chevelle’s cracked windshield and squinted at the front door of the bank. He tore into another Ding Dong. It was time, he decided, that the gang invested in a van.

In both passages, the setting includes the interior of a getaway car and a hot sun. But only in the second passage are these setting elements doing something to Bob. The steering wheel is digging painfully into his ample gut. The sun is beating down on him, making his sweat plaster his clothes to his body. In this passage, the setting is not only present, but it’s also impinging on the character in such a way that he can’t ignore it—and neither can the reader. Look for ways to make your setting impinge on your character, not just in your opening pages, but throughout your manuscript!

Check your opening pages for WRS. Better yet, give your first scene to a friend or critique partner, and then ask them to describe the setting they imagined when they read it. Does it match what you imagined when you wrote it? If not, then we hope these tips will help you revise!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: MazZuk

Authors, Do You Know Where Your Money Is?

(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)

Every six months, you get an envelope from your agent. You tear it open, take out the enclosed check and royalty statement, and glance at the numbers on both. You shrug and mutter, “Guess that looks about right.” Then you toss the statement on your to-be-filed pile at the back of your closet, endorse the check, and head to the bank.

Sound familiar?

I can’t even begin to tell you how many published authors I’ve talked to at conferences who don’t give their royalty statements much of a glance. Why? Because they don’t know what they’re looking at. “Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not an accountant,” they say (or something along those lines). “Besides, isn’t that what I pay my agent to manage for me?”

News flash! Like you, many agents consider themselves word people—not numbers people—and your royalty statements are just as baffling to them as they are to you.

This means that the buck, quite literally, stops with you. Have a conversation with your agent about the level of support he or she is providing when it comes to combing through your statements and making sure you’re getting paid everything you’re owed.

More importantly, educate yourself. Learn how to audit your own statements.

Every year, we at Nelson Literary Agency recover thousands—sometimes tens of thousands—of unpaid dollars on behalf of our clients, simply because we audit their royalty statements.

Does this mean that publishers are nefarious, knowingly cheating authors out of a few bucks here and there to improve their own bottom lines? In our experience, no. (In fact, not all errors we find are made in the publisher’s favor!) Every error we’ve called to a publisher’s attention has immediately resulted in the issuing of a corrected statement and, when called for, a check covering the difference.

Without naming names, here are some examples of errors we’ve recently found on our clients’ royalty statements:

1. Unpaid royalties of approximately $5,000 because the publisher had applied a $10,000 advance against the author’s earnings when the actual contracted and paid advance had been only $5,000. This means the author had actually earned out—though the statement said otherwise—and was now owed nearly $5,000 in earned royalties.

2. Unpaid royalties of approximately $4,200 because the publisher’s accounting department missed the fact the author’s contract contained a royalties escalator. What’s that? A royalties escalator increases the author’s royalty rate in steps, based on units sold. For instance, a contract might specify that the author will earn 10% for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% for the next 5,000 copies sold, and 15% for all copies sold thereafter. In this case, the author had sold about 12,500 copies of a hardcover edition priced at $16.99, but she had earned only 10% for all of those copies. Not one, but two escalators had been missed.

3. Unpaid royalties of approximately $7,300 because the publisher sold nearly 6,500 copies of a $17.99 hardcover edition at “high discount,” even though Agent Kristin had ensured that the author’s contract limited the number of copies the publisher was allowed to sell at high discount. What does that mean? When publishers sell copies of your book at higher-than-usual discounts, it’s common that the author’s contract will specify that she will earn “one-half the prevailing royalty rate” on those copies. Because Agent Kristin had limited the publisher’s high-discount sales, this author should have earned 12.5% on those particular 6,500 copies, but she earned only 6.25%, and we were able to recover the difference. (By the way, does your agent understand this and negotiate your contract’s high-discount clause in your favor?)

Dear Authors, the only way to protect your assets is to do the math. Join me July 30, from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm, for my Royalty Statements Auditing Workshop, a live webinar sponsored by Nelson Literary Agency. Hope to see you then!

So just this week, we received an outstanding Australian royalty statement for one of our clients that had been missing. Because we actually track, review, and audit our statements, even foreign ones (and let me tell you what a nifty trick it is to do the Japanese statements…) we immediately spotted one rather large problem.

Oddly, there were no ebook sales listed anywhere on statement. Dating back since 2013. Not a single ebook sale in the last 2 years is a bit hard to believe, so we pinged the publisher.

Sure enough, the ebook ISBN wasn’t linked to this title in their accounting system. It was there but floating out in the ether with no title to attach to. Once it was appropriately linked, voila, almost $1000.00 was owed to the author.

And as my client so aptly replied to me, like finding loose change in the sofa!

Kind of. 😊

Even if the publisher controls the World Rights, we ask for the statements so we can review. Because I’m pretty certain that given the deluge of statements the internal publishing rights team receive, they aren’t paying super close attention.

Want to know how to audit royalty statements for yourself? We start you off easy by tackling U.S. royalty statements first. Our contracts and royalty guru Angie Hodapp is showing you how on July 30, 2015. Be a smart and savvy author. Auditing royalty statements. Only a couple slots left as there is a cap on attendance.

Photo credit: Branko Collin

Over the last decade, I really wish I had tracked how much money NLA has recovered by carefully auditing our royalty statements every accounting period. Because of some big errors found a couple of years ago, it’s probably to the tune of over $600,000 recovered at this point, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that total was actually more. Even now, nary an accounting period goes by that we don’t recover at least $500 to $3,000 owed to a client.

On rare occasions, we have even found errors in the Publisher’s favor—and yes, we do notify them to highlight the correction. Luckily, those have only amounted to several hundred dollars at any given time. And to be clear, Publishers aren’t being nefarious or deliberately cheating the author (with the exception of a few publishers, which will remain unnamed).

Most errors we catch are human errors. In other words, the Publisher’s in-house royalty management staff simply keyed incorrect information into their accounting system. Also, “accounting departments” at some mid-sized publishers and small presses are staffed by English majors. Mistakes will be made.

These mistakes need to be found and corrected and the monies paid to the author client. Here is the jaw-dropping fact: A good percentage of agents do not audit their clients’ royalty statements.

Let me repeat that. Even though authors hire literary agents to guide their careers and most importantly, manage their business publishing interests (royalties being a huge component of this), many agents do not actively audit or even read client royalty statements. This leaves authors to fend for themselves regarding reading and understanding their statements.

So for me, good literary agents audit royalty statements. When I was newer to this business, I did the time-consuming auditing and analysis myself, every accounting period, and shared my comments with my client. Every accounting period. I even hired a professional book royalty auditor to mentor and read behind me to assess my competence and capability. Then I hired and trained our amazing Contracts & Royalties Manager Angie Hodapp to handle this at NLA.

And Angie took it to a level that leaves me in awe every accounting period. I imagine our clients are often in awe as well when every six months, she sends a detailed letter with my comments as well as her analysis of the statement and what questions we had to track down and if extra monies are owed.

A lot of the larger agencies will have staff in-house to handle this (or I hope they do….I don’t actually know as I’ve not worked in a big agency), but I’m willing to guess that most of the smaller, boutique agencies don’t. This means that the author relies on his/her agent to analyze the statements.

So ask yourself. Is your agent doing this? If you don’t know, ask. It’s part of the agenting job. Recently, Angie has been giving workshops at local writing conferences to teach authors how to audit their own royalty statements. Even if your agent does this on your behalf, it’s not a bad idea to also be checking them. Human errors can happen on our end as well!

So with her permission, and worth its weight in gold, a handy list.

How to Audit Your Own Royalty Statements by Angie Hodapp

Keep an excel spreadsheet for each title, and add the following when each statement arrives:

• Track copies sold and royalty rates applied to each edition. Do the percentages match the contract?

• If you have a royalty escalator, make sure you’re watching units sold so you can see if the escalator is triggered at the right time.

• Track royalty earnings for each edition. Add them all up and subtract them from the advance. Make sure your math matches the math on the statement.

• Check for continuity from the last statement’s bottom line (ending balance) to the current statement’s starting balance.

• If the royalty is based on net receipts, then make sure the net amount received by Publisher is reported on the statement, along with number of copies sold. Do the division. How much is the publisher claiming to have received for each unit? Is it a reasonable amount based on the retail price?

• Look at the number of copies reported sold as “high discount” or “over discount” or “special sales.” Publishers love to sell most copies under these terms, which means smaller royalties for you. Make sure your contract limits the number of copies publishers can sell under these terms!

• Watch reserves. Your contract should specify how much the publisher can hold in reserves, and for how many accounting periods after initial publication. You can ask the publisher to release reserves once returns taper off. That’s more money passing through to you, or applying toward your advance.

• Watch returns. Publishers adjust reserves up and down from period to period based on actual and projected returns.

• Watch subrights licenses. Know the terms of all subrights deals, which may include audio, large print, book club (either a stock-buy or a special printing), or other special editions.

• Watch and track foreign right deals. If your publisher holds world rights and is actively selling your work into foreign territories, ask them each accounting period to give you:

—Details of any new foreign-rights deals, including: advance, royalties split, term of license, publication date or planned publication date, and reporting schedule. (Note that most, but not all, foreign publishers report annually, not bi-annually.)

—Copies of the licensing agreements. Even if they’re in languages you don’t understand, it’s within your best interests to have such things in your physical records.

—Note that foreign monies can take from a year to 18 months to pass through the publisher’s subrights department and show up on your statements.

If you want a more in-depth royalty statement auditing experience, join Angie for her upcoming Royalty Statements Auditing Workshop, scheduled for July 30, 2015.  This Webinar is open to the first twenty attendees to sign up.

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The genesis: In January 2015, Backspace co-founder Karen Dionne and I had a conversation in which she mentioned that writers sometimes want representation so badly they are willing to sign with an average or even a below-average agent. Trust me, not all agents are equal. I replied, “Well, writers don’t know what they don’t know.”

In that moment, a lightbulb went on for both of us. Writers don’t know what a good agent does. How could you if (1) you’ve never experienced it and (2) you’ve only ever had one agent and no way to assess just how strong he or she might be at the job?

Thus, this series of articles was born.

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Archive:

February 2015 Newsletter – Article #1: Agent As Savvy Business Manager

March 2015 Newsletter – Article #2: Commanding Authority: An Agent’s Negotiation Edge.

April 2015 Newsletter – Article #3: Fearless Negotiation: An Agent’s Most Important Role for an Author

May 2015 Newsletter – Article #4: Negotiation Tactics of Good Agents

Last month I gave a webinar on how Digital is rapidly transforming publishing.

I love giving this workshop at conferences every chance I get because most writers are completely confused by the stories that are making today’s headlines and how that impacts writers. It’s my chance to really explain all that is going on.

Attendees always walk away telling me that my workshop alone was worth their conference registration cost. (Of course they could just be humoring me…) LOL

Still, it makes me happy. I always want aspiring writers to be informed as much as possible.

We are doing something unique this month and making the recording available for streaming.

In October, NLA implemented a new feature–a special News Alert eMail blast for subscribers of our newsletter. Today, a blast went out informing readers of how Harpercollins subscription service with Scribd will work and how authors will get paid.

Because my time is so limited these days (sadly!), regular or daily blog posts that alert readers about changes to publishing contracts and how that impacts authors just isn’t possible for me. But I am still doing great posts 2 or 3 times a months. Those columns can be found in NLA’s Monthly newsletter for our subscribers.

If you’ve been suffering from Pub Rants withdrawal, that would be the place to go to get your fix. Our eNewsletter is free. Just click on the Newsletter button at the bottom of our web page to sign up.

And for those of you who weren’t subscribers yet and missed that blast,  here’s the link to where you can see the news.

By the way, this is exactly the type of content I plan to tackle in tonight’s webinar:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 6:00 p.m. Mountain Time.

THE NITTY GRITTY – HOW DIGITAL IS TRANSFORMING THE PUBLISHING LANDSCAPE.

There’s still time to register.

My fabulous webinar on how to craft the perfect pitch paragraph for your query letter is tonight, Sept. 18, 2013  at 6:00 p.m. Mountain time. There is still time to register if you want to come join the fun. 

As part of the webinar registration, I had attendees submit their one sentence tag line and then I read through them all. What was immediately clear is that a lot of folks who are attending used the tag as a mini-summary of the story.

That’s not the purpose! A tag line should be one sentence about the inciting incident (or plot catalyst) that starts your novel moving forward–and without it, you wouldn’t have a story to tell.

So that is just one thing I’m going to be teaching folks how to do tonight. Nail that one sentence tag line about your manuscript!

Agent Reads The Slush Pile Tomorrow – Wednesday, July 25

STATUS: Have to leave a tad early today. My plan is to read a good portion of a client manuscript this evening.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now?  LAID by James

At conferences, the biggest complaint I hear from aspiring writers is this: there is never any feedback given when an agent or an editor sends a rejection letter.

Or, if there is a response, it tends to be generic–something along the lines of “I just didn’t fall in love with the story.”

Writers don’t have a good sense of what is really causing an agent to stop reading.

Well, this webinar is designed to answer that question. It’s a no holds barred (and a tough workshop so be warned) but if you want an honest, straightforward, and helpful response as to why your sample pages might be getting rejected, then this is it.

This is a “fly on the wall” glimpse of an agent reading her slush pile.

I read the first opening 2-pages submitted by the participants of the workshop. If I would have stopped reading, I stop and clearly say why. In general, we tackle about 20 entries selected at random. 

The I crush the writer’s fragile ego under my critique hammer… Just kidding. This is not American Idol style.

I don’t pull the punch but I do try and be sensitive and helpful. This webinar is not about denigrating the writer but it’s also not for the faint of heart.

If you think you are ready, then you might want to consider it. Register here. And I’ll see you tomorrow.