Pub Rants

Category: Writing As A Career

6 Writing Tips From My 6 Years in Publishing

I’ve worked for Nelson Literary Agency for the past 6 years, all stemming from my certain declaration that I wanted to own a publishing company. I knew nothing of what the process entailed, but I knew I loved books and wanted to be a part of putting more out into the world. I’ve thankfully had the most encouraging and admirable mentors to teach me the ins and outs. Though queries have not been my main job, I have accumulated these few writing tips up my sleeve. 

Consume what you create. “Write what you know” absolutely applies to fiction. Consuming the genre that you write in aids in your understanding of your manuscript and how to pitch it. A fast way to tell an agent you don’t understand your own manuscript is to pitch it as the wrong genre. Utilize the existing books in your writing genre.

Publishing means new coworkers. Preparing yourself to work with others and consider their constructive criticism needs to be part of your transition to being query ready. Know that every published author you know has a rough draft that needed work. 

Rejection doesn’t define you or your work. Be careful how you react in moments of rejection as it may impact your potential for moments of success. Don’t silence your story because you haven’t found the team fit for you. 

Find your identifier. Agents read an impressive number of manuscripts in a very short span of time. To maintain order in their brain, they’ll often rely on an identifier. This identifier can be as simple as “that middle grade with a diary structure” or “the thriller with the unsettlingly charming voice.” This identifier may also be recognized and utilized by your consumers, so you’ll want to know what it is.

Advice for your manuscript is not always advice for your query. Advice for writing craft can be applied in three ways: relevant for your manuscript, relevant for your query, and relevant for both. Relevant for both can be seen in the advice “show, don’t tell.” For example, in your query, you’ll want to show, but not tell the voice of your story. If your manuscript is humorous, show that humor in your query. 

Your reputation proceeds you. The publishing world has many moving parts to produce a book and then get that book to its audience. These moving parts are made up of many hardworking people who cross paths more often than you think. You gain your credentials through more than just writing.

Photo by Natasha on Unsplash

Last month, I was lamenting not having a crystal ball that would allow me to predict future market trends. However, if there is one publishing prediction I can make with absolute certainty, it’s this:

  1. Change is certain.

For nineteen Decembers, I’ve soldiered on through the crush of wrapping up everything by year’s end with a Starbucks eggnog chai in hand like a battle sword. This year, The Buck didn’t offer my favorite beverage. I’m still bitter about it, but change is inevitable. That’s the one prediction I can make with certainty. 

But just for fun, here are a eleven more other predictions: 

  1. I predict that the Big Five will become the Big Four. It’s my guess that despite the objections of the Department of Justice, for better or worse, Penguin Random House will successfully acquire Simon & Schuster.
  2. I predict that for aspiring writers, 2022 will be a little easier. Agents are acclimated now to the new normal Covid introduced us all to, and I think they’ll respond to queries and full manuscripts in a more timely fashion.
  3. I predict that some agents, probably more than usual, will leave the industry, switch agencies, or even start their own. Covid had a way of making folks re-evaluate their futures and what they want out of life. 
  4. I predict the same will be true for editors.
  5. I predict that editors will get excited to acquire again now that we are past the Covid transition year and are seeing some stabilization across both fiction and nonfiction markets.
  6. I predict that print and ebook sales will stay robust. However…
  7. I predict that big-picture economic issues that have impacted print publishing, like the global paper shortage and supply-chain slow-downs, will be slow to resolve. Pub dates, print runs, and marketing plans that include the printing of ARCs will continue to be affected, but nothing is forever. Hopefully these issues will begin to be ironed out in 2022, but they will most likely linger a bit longer.
  8. I predict that the big streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Apple TV+ will continue to actively scout for great books to adapt for the small screen.
  9. I predict that, in fiction, variety will reign. With few clearly discernible trends in what editors are buying right now, any good story that’s well written has a great chance to get acquired in 2022. Dark humor, cerebral alternate history, heartwarming friendship stories…whatever you want to write about, go for it!
  10. I predict that as writing conferences return to in-person events in 2022, organizers will continue to offer hybrid programming. In fact, now that Covid forced us all to become proficient at Zoom, I predict that virtual and hybrid programming is here to stay.
  11. I predict that Starbucks will bring back the eggnog chai and it will have nothing to do with the thousands of letters I sent to encourage them to do just that.

Photo by Sindre Strøm from Pexels

Reactive Goals vs. Proactive Goals

You’ve heard it a million times: Your character needs a goal. Something to want. Something to strive for. Something they can’t have until the end of the story, if at all. Something readers can relate to or get invested in. But here’s the thing: There are two types of goals that drive a character forward, and one type is far more compelling than the other.

Reactive Goals vs. Proactive Goals

A character with a reactive goal is reacting to forces outside her control, while a character with a proactive goal makes a plan and carries it out. Reactive goals are flight, while proactive goals are fight. Characters with only reactive goals are more passive; their stories happen to them. But characters with proactive goals happen to their stories.

Here’s an example. On one hand, we could tell a story in which the protagonist’s goal is “to hide from my stalker.” That’s a reactive goal because the character acts only once acted upon. On the other hand, we could tell a story in which the protagonist’s goal is “to learn hand-to-hand combat and, if necessary, fight my stalker to the death.” That’s a proactive goal.

Proactive goals are more compelling than reactive goals; however, reactive goals still have their place in fiction—typically somewhere in the first half of the manuscript. Keeping with our example, in the movie ENOUGH (based on the novel BLACK AND BLUE by Anna Quindlen), Jennifer Lopez’s character, Slim, must survive her obsessive, murderous ex-husband. She spends the first half of the story in reactive, survival mode and the second half in proactive, fight-back mode. What causes the switch? Somewhere around the story’s midpoint, Slim realizes no one on the right side of the law will help her. She’s on her own, and sooner or later it’s going to come down to her and her ex, and only one will survive. She decides it’s going to be her.

The Midpoint Reversal

The term “midpoint reversal” refers to an event that occurs around the 50% mark that sends the story off in an unexpected direction. It’s a twist. A surprise. An earth-shaking revelation. The gain or loss of knowledge, skills, or resources.

James Scott Bell, in Write Your Novel From the Middle, calls the midpoint a “mirror moment”—the moment the protagonist is forced to take a long, hard look at herself and realize she must change or die. (“Change” can be a change of plan, heart, attitude, effort, or direction, and “die” can be a literal, physical death or a figurative death—often a spiritual, emotional, or situational fate worse than death.)

Larry Brooks, in Story Engineering, explores the four-act structure. At the midpoint, between quadrants two and three, the hero shifts from “wanderer” to “warrior.” They are no longer drifting, confused, trying to figure out what’s going on and who’s on their side. At the halfway mark, they are ready to go on the offensive. The endgame/motivation might stay the same (in our example, to survive), but the goal changes from “run away and hide” to “train for the inevitable confrontation.”

Whatever event happens at the midpoint of your story, it’s a great place (though not the only place) to have something happen that forces your character to switch from a reactive goal to a proactive one.

Where To Establish the Proactive Goal

Despite a relatively limited number of narrative structures the human brain recognizes as “story” (see Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story for more info on story and brain science), every story itself is unique and requires its own telling. So you’ve got options.

  • On page one. Lots of stories establish the main character’s proactive goal right away. Think of stories about endeavor: athletes who want to win the race, dancers who want to make the company, musicians who want to get the solo, academics who want to earn the scholarship. The audience knows right away what the goal is, and the protagonist is driven to achieve that goal from the get-go. Often the thing that drives these stories is the conflict that keeps getting piled on. Therefore, the question becomes, “How much more proactive can these characters remain in the face of such obstacles?” The athlete is injured. The dancer can’t master that one skill. The musician can’t afford the necessary lessons. The academic is up against twenty others for only one scholarship. They try and they try and they try, until they hit the dark night of the soul, the all-is-lost moment. Which they then overcome, digging deep one last time to win the day.
  • At the inciting incident. A good inciting incident is a lightning-bolt moment. A big “things will never be the same” moment. In typical structures, this usually happens no later than 10% of the way into the story, though tons of agents and editors will tell you 10% is too late—the earlier the better. Generally, the protagonist is given some time after the inciting incident to fall back, think, assess, analyze. In three-act terms, this is known as the debate. That fall-back-and-think moment is as good a time as any for your protagonist to get clear about what they want and to resolve that nothing will stand in their way.
  • At Plot Point I. After the setup (or ordinary world), the inciting incident, and the resulting debate, the protagonist decides how to proceed (internal)…and then they proceed (external). This first active step into the unknown is usually Plot Point I, or the transition from Act I to Act II, and it’s a great place to give us an active moment that reveals the hero’s agenda and shows us what sort of gumption they’re working with. If yours is a story in which your hero must work up to their gumption, then the midpoint (see above) might be where your character first establishes a proactive goal.

A Caution About Reactive Goals

I wouldn’t recommend that you delay establishing your hero’s proactive goal much beyond the midpoint. The problem we see in the slush pile isn’t that characters have reactive goals. It’s that they have reactive goals for too long.

In many cases, this is an issue of too much setup—too many opening chapters with too much backstory and ordinary-world exposition. Look at that first 10-25% of your total page count and be ruthless in trimming and tightening.

A character who wanders too far into a manuscript before taking the story’s reins waits too long to command readers’ attention and investment. If you wait until the third act to give us a character who proactively enacts her agenda, you risk reader attrition. Remember that this is your hero’s story. As such, don’t let too much of the story happen to your hero—give us a hero who happens to his story. He is the prime mover, and watching him take matters into his own hands is exactly the sort of thing readers sign up to experience.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Piecing It All Together

This month, we asked two NLA authors about outlining.

Do you outline before writing a new novel? If so, how closely does the finished novel resemble your original outline? If not, what is your process for piecing it all together?

“This is a process that has evolved over time with me. Early on, I never outlined, preferring the freedom of following where the story took me. I quickly learned that my brain doesn’t naturally follow a story arc this way though, and my drafts were jumbled, very long, and in need of some painful cuts. For a while after that realization, I began outlining in detail, but that inhibited a lot of freedom for my characters to express themselves. Now, I do a skeletal outline: I make note of the bones of the novel—the turning points, the climax, crucial character changes in each act, etc.—and then allow the story to play out in the space between.

“My stories almost always closely follow my outlines to the three-quarter mark. Then, inevitably, one of my characters has to reveal something HUGELY IMPORTANT to me, and after some groaning and a lot of chocolate, I have to backtrack and layer it all in.”

—Kristen Simmons, author of the Vale Hall series and Set Fire to the Gods

“No, I wish I could! I have tried, but whenever I have outlined, even if I’m already at the halfway point trying to figure out how to get to the end, the finished novel never bears any real resemblance to what I’ve planned.

“I’d like to call my process organic, but really it’s perilous—let’s not even talk about time-consuming. I do my novels in several exploratory drafts, basically writing each draft until I realize that I’m doing something fundamentally wrong—or that so many things need to be changed that I might as well go back to the beginning to incorporate everything I’ve learned so far about the story.

“For example, at the moment I’m writing a mystery set on a steamship. I’m 30,000 words in and I’ve just now had to stop and make a choice about what my main characters were doing when the murder took place. That is, what is their actual purpose for being on the steamship in the first place? 

“Not that I didn’t have a rough idea earlier—more than one rough ideas, in fact. An outliner would have figured out the specifics sooner, probably. But for someone like me, I simply don’t know what should happen until I’m at the point where I absolutely can’t write another word unless I first make a number of story decisions, from the very broad to the very detailed. 

“I’m no good at knowing what should happen ahead of time, but usually my gut has a pretty good sense afterwards if I’ve arrived at the correct story decision. I get the feeling of something clicking into place, of inevitability, of, ‘Ah, so this is what it should have been all along.’

“Now if only I can achieve that in outline form one of those days!”

—Sherry Thomas, author of the Lady Sherlock series and The Magnolia Sword

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Rebecca Tozia Tyszka

When I attend conferences, the most popular question at agent panels is this: “Where is the market going and what will publishers be buying?” I would love a crystal ball to predict the future and answer that question. This week, a realization hit and I may just have a glimpse into that crystal ball. Although it sounds contrary, writers looking for the next market trend in publishing need not look any further than to publishing trends of the past. Oddly, what is old might just be new again. Here’s why.

Last month, my brilliant client Gail Carriger was a keynote speaker at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Ensconced at the hotel bar, as people often find themselves at writer conferences, Gail and I chatted with several attendees who came over to hang with us. Gail made a brilliant observation about a pop-culture show just sweeping the world. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Squid Game was Battle Royale for a new generation that had never seen that original show. Huge realization moment for me. In the last couple months, I’ve been reading deal announcements for so many stories that just feel familiar to me. Bam! Of course. Old stories can always be expressed with a new angle or twist and made new again for a new generation. So even though I’d seen similar concepts previously—hey, I’ve been agenting for two decades—those concepts are totally new for agents and editors who have arrived on the scene in the last couple years. 

Back in the early 2000s when I got my start, the industry was in the throes of a chick-lit trend. (That term hasn’t aged well, but that’s what it was called then.) I argue that we are in that trend again (sans the term), this time with even more fantastic stories that are diverse and inclusive. Think Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson, A PHO Love Story by Loan Le, The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory, The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, Girl Crushed by Katie Heaney, and Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. This trend is back and, dare I say, better than it was twenty years ago. What is old is new again. 

Another example: Back in the mid-2000s, in the young-adult space, paranormal was all the rage. Editors couldn’t buy enough vampires, fallen angels, and werewolves. Then the market became saturated. Now here we are a decade+ later and this trend is cycling back around. We here at NLA are seeing a lot of paranormal elements creeping back into queries. Stories are hitting shelves again in this space as well. Think The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh, Crave by Tracy Wolff, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper, and The Coldest Touch by Isabel Sterling. The genre is being reinvented by a new generation of storytellers for a new generation of readers.

Is it worth doing a little research on the old world wide web (I cracked myself up typing that phrase) and diving into what might have been hot in the mid-2000s to see what could be coming back around as a trend? I say why not. There are no new stories under the sun, but there are always, and I mean always, new ways, new twists, new perspectives on how to tell those stories. Happy researching. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mic JohnsonLP

Pitch Language vs. Book-Review Language

There’s pitch language and there’s book-review language, and each has a unique vocabulary. Pitch language sells, but book-review language tells. If you’re working on your query letter, here’s a quick tip to help you keep the tone on track: Avoid using book-review language in your pitch.

Here’s a quick list of book-review vocabulary:

  • Absorbing
  • Action-packed
  • Addictive
  • Ambitious
  • Awe-inspiring
  • Breathtaking
  • Captivating
  • Dazzling
  • Dynamic
  • Engaging
  • Enjoyable
  • Gripping
  • Haunting
  • Heart-wrenching
  • Juicy
  • Memorable
  • Moving
  • Page-turning
  • Poignant
  • Powerful
  • Scrumptious
  • Spellbinding
  • Suspenseful
  • Tear-jerking
  • Tense
  • Thought-provoking
  • Thrilling
  • Touching
  • Yummy

These descriptors and others like them, while wholly appropriate for book reviews and cover blurbs, should be avoided in your query letter. Why? There are two reasons.

First, when you tell an agent in your query letter that your manuscript is “a breathtaking page-turner full of juicy, spell-binding prose” and that your beta readers told you how “haunting and moving and tear-jerking” it was, the agent has no idea what your story is about. Your query letter’s pitch should be 100-percent focused on your story.

Can’t you do both? That is, why not pitch the story and also say a few glowing things about it?

Because (and this is the second reason) your query letter should be no longer than one printed page. It’s the equivalent of an old-school, ink-on-paper business letter. That’s not very long, which makes every line valuable real estate. The more lines you put to work immersing the agent in your story’s premise, characters, conflict, stakes, plot, and the like, the greater the likelihood they’ll be interested in reading your sample pages or requesting your full.

Your pitch is not a review you write about your own book. Once more for the back row, pitch language is sell copy, but book-review language is tell copy. The query letter, like back-cover copy, exists to sell. So keep that pitch focused on your story’s Five W’s to increase your chances of selling:

  • Who is your character?
  • What do they want? (Goal)
  • Why do they want it? (Motivation)
  • Why can’t they have it? (Conflict)
  • What happens if they don’t get it? (Stakes)

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels

Your Best Daily Writing Goals

Many writers familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) have a complicated relationship with the number 1,667. That’s how many words one must write each day for 30 days in order to hit the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. Some writers blow right past that number every day of the year in their sleep—and, kind of annoyingly, like people who do CrossFit, they won’t hesitate to work their generative abilities into conversation or humblebrag about their daily word counts on social media. For others, that number is too far out there, and missing that goal time and time again becomes demoralizing and demotivating, as does comparing their output with that of those high-daily-word-count superstars.

Should You Do NaNoWriMo?

I bring this up not to discourage anyone from participating in NaNoWriMo. Rather, it’s to encourage you to consider how the challenge can help you grow as a writer. The short-term and extrinsic rewards are definitely worth it: bragging rights, a sense of personal accomplishment, fun swag, and opportunities to meet other writers during in-person and online write-ins. But the long-term benefit is what you’re really after. NaNoWriMo is about creating a brain change. It’s psychological. It’s about fostering the practice of turning off the analytical, judgey, editor part of your mind so that your creative mind can more effectively and efficiently do its job. You need both, but you need to learn how to let them take turns.

That brain change is more important than 1,667.

Yesterday, I came across an excellent Facebook post by my friend, prolific science-fiction author James Van Pelt. With his permission, I’m sharing his thoughts and experience with with setting daily word-count goals with you here.

James Van Pelt says:

“When I finished grad school in 1990, I set myself the goal of 1,000 words a day (because I’d read that’s what Stephen King did). I was teaching high school English full time and raising a family. If I was on a roll, a thousand words could take an hour. Unfortunately I wasn’t on a roll all the time, and that one hour could stretch into four. Obviously I couldn’t get a four-hour session in with the rest of my schedule, so what happened is that if I didn’t think I could hit the 1,000 I wouldn’t write at all.

“This was disturbing.

“At the end of the year I would tally my words. The number was always disappointingly low, and a low-grade self loathing lingered for weeks.

“I’m a slow learner. It took me until 1999, when at the end of the year my total looked like it would be around 35,000 words that I decided the problem wasn’t in my motivation or will power; it was the damned 1,000-word goal. It was just too much.

“I asked myself what I needed to be happier. I was going to be finishing the year at 35,000 words. Would I be happier if I did twice that much? Sure, way happier! The math on a 70,000 word year is about 200 words a day. That’s less than a page. That’s one conversation or setting description or moment of action. I could do 200 words before school started or during lunch/planning period, or during a staff meeting (plus it looked like I was taking notes).

“This was a doable goal, but it would only work if I didn’t skip days like I did with the 1,000-word goal. So, starting in November of 1999 I’ve been writing 200 words or more a day. If I’m on the road or at a convention, I’ll write at 5:30 in the morning or in the last half hour before going to sleep. What I try to do is not tell the people in my life, “Sorry, can’t join you. I have to write.” I haven’t missed once.

“Different systems work for different people. This is what works for me. I like streaks and they motivate me. I’ve written and sold a lot of fiction since 1999 and I always carry that pleasant buzz of knowing that I’ve written recently, and that I’m going to be writing soon.

“Between living a creative life or thinking that I’ll lead a creative life someday, I choose the first one.”

Connect with James Van Pelt on Facebook or check out his website.

Your Best Daily Writing Goals

Setting goals is important. Studies across all disciplines tell us over and over that people who set goals and then use those goals to guide the ways in which they spend their time are far more likely to accomplish desired outcomes than those who don’t. Furthermore, we know that breaking long-term goals down into digestible chunks is a key to success. As you make a plan for NaNoWriMo, or for next year, or for your next big writing project, or whatever, here are some ways to approach setting goals that are right for you.

Start by observing your writing habit.

Before you set word-count goals, spend two or three typical weeks writing when you can at a pace that feels like something you can sustain. These should be weeks representative of your life in terms of work, family, chores and errands, and other non-writing responsibilities. Don’t choose weeks that you are on vacation, laid up with a broken leg, entertaining your in-laws, or dealing with an unexpected project or crisis. At the end of those weeks, tally your total word count and tally the total hours you spent writing. Which makes you feel more positive about your efforts?

Decide whether to track word count, time spent, or both.

Some writers, like James, have dialed in to a realistic, sustainable daily word count. But there are others who find greater success tracking time spent. You can also track both! If you do, pay attention to the ratio of time to words when you’re drafting versus when you’re plotting or revising. These will not be the same ratios. You might be a writer who tracks word count when drafting and time spent when revising. Whatever the case, having a solid idea of your volume and rate of output under various circumstances will help you over time to develop even more realistic goals.

Practice positive self-talk based on what’s realistic and sustainable.

You’re going to get derailed. You just are. Suddenly you’re not putting gold-star stickers on that progress chart you made back at the beginning of the project or coloring in the “I did it!” squares in your bullet journal anymore.

When that happens, adjust. Instead of thinking “great, now I have to double my output tomorrow, and that probably won’t happen, so then I’ll need to triple my output two days from now, and that’s never going to happen,” take a realistic look at your calendar and set new goals for the next three, seven, ten, or X-number of days. A gold star or checkmark is still a gold star or checkmark, regardless of whether the goal was 2,000 words or 200.

Another strategy: Switch from a word-count goal to a time-spent goal or vice versa. That way, your self-talk switches from the negative “no way can I write 2,000 words tomorrow” to the positive “it’s not realistic for me to write 2,000 words tomorrow, but it is realistic to spend 30 minutes with my fingers on the keyboard before work tomorrow.”

Off track? Look back before looking ahead.

If you feel like you’ve fallen so far behind in your daily progress that you need to adjust your final deadline, don’t make a new plan for moving forward until you’ve looked backward. What derailed you? Was it something within your control, like spending too much time scrolling through social media or saying yes to projects or favors you could have said no to? Or was it something outside your control, like an unexpected work trip or a sick child?

Either way, I have good news. If it’s the former, make a list of all time-sucking behaviors that derailed you, and then make a plan for saying no. No to wasting time staring at screens. No to Aunt Betty who wants you to help her alphabetize her recipe cards. Yes to yourself and your goals.

If it’s the latter, recognize that the hiccup is temporary. Depending on the severity of the crisis, it might not feel temporary, or you might not know when your life will be back to normal, if ever. Again, it’s time to adjust. Do you need a break from the project? Take one! But schedule it. Make a date with yourself, even if it’s only one hour next Saturday afternoon, to keep your head in the game. If you’re used to getting two or three hours a day to write, but suddenly that can’t happen, adjust. Try writing in ten- or fifteen-minute increments. Try writing three sentences instead of three pages. All progress is progress.

At the end of the day, writing is hard, whether it’s your full-time job, part-time job, or avocation. Setting goals is important, but so is setting the right kinds of goals for you, at the right time in your life. Be flexible and positive, and keep your focus on what is realistic and sustainable, not for anyone else, but for you.

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This Month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Josh Malerman, author of recently released novel Pearl and New York Times bestselling novel Bird Box.

In your new novel, PEARL (Del Rey, October 12), an unusual suspect—a pig—might just be responsible for the grisly havoc on Walter Kopple’s farm. How do you give a voice to non-human characters? How do you keep the voice consistent?

I’m interested in what I’ve come to think of as the space “between intelligences”, the idea that we are no smarter than animals and animals are no smarter than us, that our minds work in different ways and so therefore there’s a canyon (or a distance anyway) between how we process, how we exist. Now, that space between those intelligences… that’s fun. Not the differences so much as the irreconcilable differences. So, Pearl, to me, is a living creature that finds himself capable of traversing that space, of experiencing both states of mind. His entire life he’s been “elevated,” but today, the day of the book, is when he finally glimpses the full potential of his mind. To me, because it’s day one of discovery, there must be a sludginess to how he’s handling it, even to how he’s evolving. And it’s in there, in that sludge, that I found his voice. It’s atonal. It’s half-right. It’s brilliant. It’s simple. And as he grows? As the day grows long? He can (and must) change, too. Because that’s what today is for Pearl: the day he rises above.

Besides an “un-put-down-able thriller,” Kirkus calls PEARL “part twisted fairy tale, part animal rights protest, part PTSD drama, and part Triumph the Insult Dog.” I love that! What’s your response to that endorsement? Is there anything you’d add?

Well, I’m glad they liked it. That’s for sure. And I like all that. But I definitely see Pearl as more akin to Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie, in which the little boy Anthony has God-like powers and lures people into his mental web. Pearl to me is more Carrie than Charlotte’s Web, more slasher, too, than fable. As goes the animal rights part of things: I’m a vegetarian and I was more than happy to see Pearl gain power by the minute, especially over those who dismissed him as product. In some ways, I really relate to Pearl. Insomuch as he’s ambitious: he had a glimpse of what he is capable of and I’m not sure anything can stop him from reaching that mountaintop. At the same time? I wouldn’t want to drive too close to Kopple’s Farm. I’m the exact kind of persuadable person who would be sucked right up into that telekinetic web without knowing I was.

With PEARL, you took a wild and maybe tough-to-take-seriously premise and succeeded in making it an acclaimed work of slasher horror that’s twisty, dark, and truly chilling. That’s not easy! Was that a challenge you set out for yourself with this project? Or is this a story that took on a life of its own as you wrote it?

Let me tell you! While working on the books, any time I was talking to friends and they’d ask what I was up to, it was nearly impossible to explain this story. The second I started to do it, I’d feel like, “WHAT am I talking about?” But Pearl is one of those books where the actual book itself is better than the “pitch” and I think we’d all rather write books like that in the end. But from my angle, it wasn’t a difficult book to write because, like the river in Bird Box or the Trail in Unbury Carol, Pearl’s evolution is something of a straight line, right? A clean path upward and outward, his “web” stretching out and out to all the locals in town until almost everybody is stuck in his design. In other words: it grew, on itself, and it wasn’t hard to “top” the scene before it with each day’s writing because Pearl got more powerful as the book grew, too. Then again, all the books take on a life of their own, in a way, especially when you don’t outline. And I almost never do! 

It feels like horror is really opening up right now and making space for storytellers to explore new concepts and themes in unique ways. What story-development advice do you have for writers who might be working on finding their niche in this expanding horror space?

Well, trends scare me. They always feel like moving targets. At the same time, I’d already written some 14 books by the time my first came out and so now I’ve got a back log of twenty-four books or so and sometimes it’s tempting to choose one of them to come out next if the horror-verse seems to be leaning its way. I guess my advice would be this: you think you have “your” voice and there are voices you believe are more elastic, more far-out, than your own. You can equate this to music. And a young musician might think, could never be as expansive as David Bowie, as St. Vincent, so I’m not going to try. But the thing is, you’re not David Bowie (and thank God for that! David Bowie is David Bowie, you are you), so if you try to stretch like he did, you’re going to end up with a different result, but you will still have stretched. Am I making sense here? What I mean to say is: go for the idea that feels a little outside your idea of yourself, and once you do it? Then that book is now part of your style, your voice, yourself. And if you do this enough times, you’ll end up closer to the artist you want to be than if you never make a move to stretch at all.

Finally, because inquiring minds always want to know, tell us about your writing habit. Any charms or talismans hanging around your writing space? Any rituals you do to get you into the creative headspace? Or can you just sit down anywhere, anytime, and write?

It used to be I wrote novels in a bus, in a van, touring America. I wrote in bars, restaurants, people’s homes that were housing us. Dad’s basement and all-night coffee shops. Everywhere. These days I’m mostly in my office, with a horror movie soundtrack playing on the record player. But I’m still game for doing it anywhere, and maybe I should. Maybe your question will prompt me to write another one freehand. I love doing it that way. One thing I’ve noticed is this: while there isn’t an overall routine to how I write books, a routine does exist for each book in and of itself. Bird Box was written from around 8AM to 11:30AM every day, about 4,300 words a day. Ghoul n’ the Cape was usually in the afternoon, 1000 words a day. So those experiences were totally different, but consistent in and of themselves. And there is one weird thing I do (that I can’t believe I’m telling you): I wink at the page or the screen when I think I nailed a scary scene. Yep. I actually wink at the book like, “Yeah, we did it. We did it.”

The verdict is in. With headlines such as HarperCollins Sales Near $2 Billion and Publishing Sales Jumped 18.1% and First Half Profits Soared at Penguin Random House, it’s clear that at least in term of earnings, Covid is not having a negative impact on publishing. I should be thrilled. My industry is sound. This is good for authors. Time to celebrate. Right? Yet, I’m grumpy. Here’s why. 

I’m glad that the future picture of publishing is rosy. I just wish there was movement in the industry to share that financial rosy picture with the content creators who make it possible. The opposite is happening. Royalty share to authors has contracted in the last five to seven years. 

A few examples:

For YA and children’s deals, when I first started in this biz, it was common to negotiate royalties for a project starting at 8% with an escalation to 10%. Now that royalty structure has gone the way of the dinosaur. Publishers hold the line at 7.5% (excepting grandfathered-in authors with higher royalty structures). All this despite the children’s segment being a huge revenue-growth sector for publishing for the last decade. As publishers earned more, authors received a smaller piece of the earning pie with this reduction in royalty. 

In the mid-2000s, Random House used to pay an ebook royalty of 25% of retail price until advance earn-out, and then it switched it to 25% of net receipts (which roughly equals about 17% of retail price). And there were deals where publishers offered 30% or even 40%. That went the way of the dinosaur, too (except for the highest echelon of established authors). And to be clear, I’m talking about traditional publishing here. Plenty of smaller, indie, electronic-only houses probably still offer those kinds of rates. 

The death of the mass-market format. This used to be a whole other royalty revenue channel for the author. It’s mostly just gone now (and ebook sales do not make up the difference). Despite the trade-paperback format becoming king and increasing earnings for publishers, there is no movement from the 7.5% flat royalty rate in over two decades. Two decades. Probably longer. 

And then there is audio. Earnings from this format have skyrocketed in the last five years. Yet here we are at 25% of net receipts for digital download and publishers “insisting” they must control audio rights when agents used to partner with audio-only publishers and would still prefer that. 

So yep. I’m grumpy. 

To add insult to injury, lemon juice to the wound, or insert another catchy phrase here, agents often heard several variations of the following this past year:

  • Because of Covid, we have an abundance of caution and that is reflected in the advance we are offering.
  • Because of Covid, sadly we’ll not be able to pick up this author’s latest option material.
  • Because of Covid, we are not supporting (translation: spending any money on) in-person events.

The litany is that publishing profit margins are “slim,” costs of printing are higher now, etc., etc., etc. Yet these recent headlines paint a different picture. And although Publishers Marketplace recently reported that at long last, advance levels are on the rise for the last quarter of 2021, the advance is only one part of the publishing-earnings pie. A book doesn’t exist without the content creator. The author. I’d love to see a headline that proclaims a publisher is offering authors a bigger slice of that earnings pie. Now that would make me smile.

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What I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Novelist

This month, we asked three NLA authors for their best advice for first-time novelists.

What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had given you before you began writing your first novel?

Kathleen West, author of Are We There Yet? and Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes

I’m fairly certain people did tell me this, but I wish I had internalized it: There’s very little authors can control in the publishing realm. The two things you can always do, though, are to keep writing and also to cultivate genuine, mutually respectful relationships with other writers and the members of your publishing team. Otherwise, hold it all—the “success” and the “failure”—loosely.

Meghan Scott Molin, author of The Golden Arrow Mysteries series

One piece of advice I think I wished I’d known (or internalized) when I started: One book deal doesn’t mean you “arrive.” Even a multi-book deal. I wish I’d known how many friends would switch publishers, agents, editors, publicists in their first year of getting a book deal. I’m slowly adjusting to the idea that it’s always a battle in one arena or another…the road isn’t smooth sailing. I think better preparing young writers for the “building years” between contracts, the months spent waiting on sub, the heartbreak of an editor backing out on an additional project…it’s all really valuable conversation.

Valerie Valdes, author of the Chilling Effect series

I wish someone had told me that all writing advice is akin to tools you can put in your toolbox. It’s okay to only reach for the tools you need while others collect dust, and not everyone uses the same tools, or uses them in the same way. Even you won’t necessarily use the same tools with every novel, and that’s okay, too. There’s no single right or wrong way to write.

I also wish someone had told me to focus on setting manageable goals that I control, instead of ones that other people ultimately have control over. So for example, “try to write a little every day” instead of “try to get an agent by the end of the year.” The latter is a milestone, and those are worth celebrating, but treating milestones as goals can lead to frustration and disappointment.

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