Pub Rants

Category: Writing As A Career

Can A Manuscript Jump The Shark?

STATUS: One of my goals for this travel week was to get caught up on the fulls we have requested. The week is drawing to an end. I’d better hop to it!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SOS by Rihanna

You know I almost never respond to questions in the comment section but one astute reader asked a question that really got me thinking. Have I ever asked for a full manuscript, started to fall in love, and then had the manuscript jump the shark halfway or three quarters of the way through the full?

The answer is yes. In fact, that should be in capital letters– YES. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it can be a huge sad moment.

It’s one reason why agents always read until the end—even if they are sure they love the voice, the plot, and what have you. There really is such a thing as a manuscript suddenly taking a sharp left turn and leaving the agent stunned and confused.

What’s interesting though is this. I don’t keep a running track record but I do know of a few authors whose first projects I read, really liked, had this happened so I ultimately passed on that novel who then went on to get agented (and sold) with a later manuscript. Sometimes it’s just that last little kernel of knowledge that the author needed to learn about plotting before having it all click on a more mature manuscript.

In fact, one of the authors I have right now is a writer I passed on originally for her first manuscript (not exactly for this reason but for something close). I then took her on for her second novel and sold it at auction.

So when I see it, I always tell the writer that the manuscript diverged too suddenly for me (and why) but we see talent here and would be open to seeing future stuff.

Sometimes they take us up on it. Sometimes they end up represented by an agent friend (which is how I ended up knowing about it). Otherwise I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t remember as I don’t keep track.

Straight From An Editor’s Mouth

STATUS: Slowly working through emails, negotiations, contracts and whatnot. I’m particularly fond of the whatnots (aka the chocolate jar).

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ROCKY MOUNTAIN WAY by Joe Walsh

The week before last, I posted a blog entry on a crisis averted in the publishing world when the ARC of my author’s book (instead of the corrected final proof) was submitted to the printer for the actual publication.

And how wonderful the editor was in terms of getting right on that, trashing the initial print run, and getting the book done right (Kudos J! You know who you are!)

Well, as I mentioned then, it’s rare occurrence but it can happen. An editor friend couldn’t help but share her story. She asked to remain anonymous so I’ve respected that request but otherwise, here is her story in full. She works at one of the major houses in New York.

Hi Kristin–Was just reading your blog. Hope you’re enjoying Maui. I’ve attended and they always do throw a good party. And it’s Maui…

I got a laugh out of your story about your author’s finished book being the ARC version. Well, not a funny ha-ha laugh, because that really sucks for her and her publisher but more a knowing laugh. When I was a 23-year old assistant editor, my executive editor boss got fired and I wound up taking over a bunch of her books. One was a book by a medium-size celebrity who was nonetheless a major-sized headache. After I’d been on the case for a couple months, the celebrity’s paperback comes out. I get the usual three hot-off-the presses copies from the bindery, send one to the author, one to her extremely powerful agent, and stick the third on my shelf. I think nothing of it for a couple hours until I’m taking a phone call, my eyes wander over to my shelf, and I realize that–holy f**king shit!–the printer HAD MISSPELLED THE AUTHOR’S NAME ON THE SPINE! I leap out of my chair, seize the book in my trembling hands, and run down the hall to the managing editor’s office, whereupon I thrust the book at her, point to the spine and burst into tears.

God bless her, she kept her cool, but it was a MAJOR error. We wound up having to pulp something like 40,000 paperbacks at 65 cents apiece. We were lucky that I’d noticed early and the books had only shipped to the warehouse, not to the stores, or we would have had to recall those and lose the shipping money on them. I then had to call the high-maintenance author and her extremely powerful agent and explain the situation, but since none of the copies had gone out, they weren’t too perturbed; and interestingly, neither of them had noticed the error on the spine when they received their copies. Still, it was probably the most freaked out I’ve ever been in my entire career, and that was 10 years ago!

Feel free to share the story, just to show that publishers do screw up sometimes, but we always try to make it right in the end! Would be great to see you if you’re back in NYC sometime soon. Really do want us to have a book together!

Importance Of Checking Those First Copies Hot Off The Press

STATUS: Crisis averted!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SELF ESTEEM by The Offspring

Yesterday I talked about an author of mine who had found two uncorrected errors in her acknowledgement page. But now there is more to the story. Concerned, my author continued reading and discovered, to her horror, that the copy of the book she was reading was the first pass used in the ARC.

As many of you know, the ARC is the uncorrected proof—as in the author still needs to get the final page proofs from the copy editor, review, make corrections, and then return to the publisher by that deadline. That becomes the “final” copy that heads to the printer.

In this case, there had been a huge snafu and the wrong document was used for the final printing. Ack and double ack. This is a really costly mistake because the publisher is going to have to trash the initial print run and redo it.

Which they are doing (and unfortunately the release date is going to be pushed back a couple of weeks because of it). An instance of a Publisher behaving wonderfully!

When a book is about to release, often the editor will send out a copy or two of the soon-to-be released book just hot off the press, and thank goodness my author opened up what was supposed to be the final book and gave it a close read. And double thank heavens that she did this right away, the minute the book had arrived in her mailbox because the error can be corrected right now as none of the books have shipped from the warehouse.

One or two weeks later and it would have been a real disaster.

So when that first copy arrives, absolutely admire your final work in print but you might also want to open the cover and give it a read just to be sure.

And don’t panic folks. This type of error is fairly rare but as you can see, it does happen.

Power Of The Proof

STATUS: I’ve been working on a contract for most of the day—speaking of diligence.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DON’T FEAR THE REAPER by Blue Oyster Cult

Which, let’s face it, I don’t tend to do much of on this blog. Sheesh, I always find the error the next day and I do appreciate when blog readers point it out in the comments section. It never offends me. Sometimes I write and post because I’m in a hurry, it’s too late at night, or I simply “read” it incorrectly in a quick skim.

But if you are an author facing your page proofs for the final read-through before submitting the final manuscript for the printer, well, let’s just say you don’t want to hurry or skimp on this proofread.

Two interesting dilemmas that just came up this week:

1. One author found two errors in the very first sentence of her acknowledgements page. Granted, she had actually corrected the errors in the pass but somehow the copy editor missed it. That is the worst feeling. We’ll correct it now but who knows how many books are out there with the missed corrections…

2. Just like scary movie… Just recently an author of mine caught an editor comment and question that was embedded in the narrative of the novel on page 110 of the work. She found the error in the ARC so we had plenty of time to correct that one but it still strikes me as terrifyingly funny that an editor remark could have found its way into a late-stage version and even though it didn’t happen, it could have slipped into a final copy.


In other news, two fun things going on in the blogosphere.

Chuck Sambuchino at Guide to Literary Agents is looking for the worst logline ever for his The “Worst Storyline Ever” Contest. This is going on now until the end of August. A glory of sorts…

Lucienne Diver, client and fellow literary agent, is hosting Mystery Week over on her blog so if you write in this genre, you might want to pop by and check it out. Some great advice going on over there.

What Established Authors Have To Say

STATUS: As much as I enjoyed Worldcon (the SFWA and TOR party were quite fun on Friday), I must say I’m just relieved to be sitting here alone in my office just working away.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE by Michael Bublé

On Saturday, I attended a panel entitled “Writing 101: Authors Take Questions from the Audience.”

Now this may be an odd panel for an agent to attend (being that I’m not an author) but I do think it’s valuable to hear what established authors have to say to aspiring writers. At the very least, it’s going to be a healthy reminder to me of what struggling writers face out there in the trenches.

Besides, I was just interested in hearing what war stories Harry Turtledove, Kate Elliott (I’m a big fan) and Kay Kenyon had to share.

It was a good panel and I’m glad to have attended. I think the best pearls of wisdom that I gleamed from their talk are these two:

1. All writers have felt like they’ve been kicked to the curb at some point in their career (be it trying to land an agent, accessing an editor at a publishing house, or sifting through the myriad of rejections). You are not alone and the best you can do is to keep writing because that’s what writers do. All established authors have at least one manuscript that will never see the light of day. Many have several.

2. Wherever you are now in your writing is not where you will always be. These established authors said that they couldn’t reread their first published novels because ack, they are so much better now; they can hardly believe that such dreck actually was published (my take: even established authors are hard on themselves!). You will learn and grow as a writer and your rejections today might simply be a memory tomorrow.

Good advice I think.

Don’t Mistake Voice For Character Development

STATUS: It was a nice quiet day. Only something like 25 emails versus my usual 60 to 80 on any given work day. Gosh I love half-day Fridays in publishing!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? COME MONDAY by Jimmy Buffett

I’ve been reading sample pages again this week (a desperate bid to catch up before I go out of town all next week for RWA in San Fran).

And here’s another “problem” that has me thinking this week. I see a lot of young adult sample pages and one thing I’d like to highlight is that writers should not mistake voice for character development in their manuscripts.

In other words, I’m seeing a lot of sample pages with fun, light (dare I say—chick litty) kinds of voices where the main characters will use a lot of OMG or “hello? How could they not know” type of phrases as a way capturing girl teen speak.

Now I understand why writers are using this. It’s a fun, more light tone to convey the lighter nature of the novel but that alone does not define your main protagonist. In other words, that’s only ONE facet of character development. That alone will not be enough and that’s why I’m passing on a lot of sample pages as of late—pages with good concepts but an over-reliance on this voice technique and almost no other character development outside of the voice.

I need to see more original character development so the young teen protagonist strikes me as a unique individual (worthy of a story) and not a conglomeration of how teen girls talk.

It’s Friday and I’ll just throw it out there. Let me know if it makes sense. Have a good weekend.

Beginning Writer Mistake (Take 4)

STATUS: TGIF! Really, what more is there to say?

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHEN YOU COME by Crowded House

Let’s round off this week by focusing on one more mistake Sara and I have been seeing lately. We call it the opening-chapter-back-story-info-dump.

That pretty much sums it up.

But if you want more details, this is when writers feel like they can’t begin their story until the readers know and understand the back story, or the history of the character who opens the novel, or how the world works (if this is SF or fantasy). So, the opening chapter usually has nothing to do with the direction of the rest of the novel but the writer hasn’t mastered the ability to integrate it seamlessly as the real-time story unfolds.

The writing is almost always explanation (telling instead of showing) with very little dialogue, scene action, or character development.

Auto NO response every time.

This is often why prologues don’t work.

And don’t be fooled, the chapter back story info dump is sometimes disguised by coming in chapter 2 or chapter 3 but can be characterized by many pages where the above telling versus showing happens at the expense of dialogue, plot, character, or scenes to move the story forward.

So don’t just breathe a sigh of relief if you’ve checked your opening chapters and it’s not there. The large info dump chunk can sneak in later. If the chunk comes later and the rest of the novel is decent until then, we agents will allow some wiggle room because that issue can be easily edited if it’s just a one time snafu. I find that if this problem exists though, many of the other beginning writer mistakes are present as well.

Have a happy editing weekend!

Titles: Another Writer Mistake?

STATUS: I’ve got a lot of phone calls to do to start my day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? 50 WAYS TO LEAVE YOUR LOVER by Simon & Garfunkel

This one is certainly a lesser evil and in comparison to some of the other writer mistakes we’ve talked about this week, low on the totem pole. But I do think it’s worth mentioning although I’m pretty sure I’ve already discussed this at least once on my blog.

The overdone title.

A couple of thoughts to keep in mind:

1. Sometimes simple works—and works really well. (TWILIGHT for example). Don’t make a title more complicated then you need.

My client Jenny O’Connell has a great example of this with her two current back-to-back releases from MTV/Pocket Books: LOCAL GIRLS and RICH BOYS.

My sense is that you can probably figure out the direction of the story just from the titles. The first book, Local Girls, is about two teens who have grown up on island of Martha’s Vineyard. They are the local girls until one teen’s mother gets remarried to a rich tourist and takes the family from the island to Boston. The story takes place the next summer where the once local girl has returned as a tourist and will the friendship survive?

Rich Boys is, yep, you got it. A local girl hired to babysit a wealthy summer family’s little girl becomes entangled with the wealthy family’s older son who, after a disastrous first year of college, is bent on wreaking havoc.

Simple but grabby.

2. Avoid the pithy title with the long, rambling subtitle. I cannot tell you how often I see this. The title can be something like (and I’m making this up off the top of my head), The Survivor Chronicles (which could be a rather cool title if you think about it!). And then the author ruins it with the lengthy subtitle such as (and yes, this is an exaggeration)—a memoir about a young abused woman coming of age, discovering her bi-polarism, embracing her sexuality and finally triumphing against all odds.

Heck, I don’t need to read the book anymore…And yes, unfortunately, I do recognize that the professionals in the publishing industry are often guilty of this but as writers, there is no need for you to fall into this trap.

3. In general, avoid titles that might be hard to pronounce or difficult to spell.

4. To Be a Long Title or Not to Be a Long title? That is the question. And the answer is that it depends.

AND THEN WE CAME TO THE END works because as readers, we totally get it and the longer title is memorable.

Same with I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU. We’ve all used a similar phrase often so the longer title works.

But then you have the power of the short title such as Brooke Taylor’s UNDONE.

This title can be read in so many ways. It leaves a question in the reader’s mind. What is undone? Does it mean incomplete? Or, to come undone? In this case, it’s the first question. What is left undone is the 5 wishes of a teen girl who dies and her best friend, Serena, decides to complete the list and in doing so, discovers who she really is.

The short title can be evocative.

And speaking of short titles and writer mistakes, you might want to check out this soon-to-be released slim volume called HOW FICTION WORKS by James Wood. Funny, he’s tackling all the issues that I’ve just talked about on this blog. Powerful stuff.

Beginning Writer Mistakes (Take 3)

STATUS: When I do my blog early in the day, I feel like I’ve actually accomplished something! Time to channel this energy into all my other tasks for the day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? YOU’RE THE ONE THAT I WANT by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta

I’m still thinking of those sample pages from last night and it totally reminded me of another writer mistake which didn’t become crystal clear until this morning. Definitely another pitfall to avoid.

Okay, the writer writes a solid, action-oriented scene where the characters involved make crucial discoveries that move the story forward. Another plot piece snaps into place for the reader. This is great. This is exactly what a good writer should be doing. This scene works.

Then in the next scene, characters arrive that weren’t in the previous scene and now the writer feels like it’s necessary to recap the previous scene in dialogue for the newly arrived characters.

Sometimes this is necessary but when it happens repeatedly in the story, it’s just bad writing. Not to mention, it’s going to feel repetitive as the reader already knows the information.

As for dialogue revealing back story, sure that’s a good tool but yet another writing element that should not be overused.

Here’s another thing to be on the look out for. Do your characters just sit around having conversations rather than actively doing something in a scene? This one can be hard to spot as the dialogue can be really good, crucial even, but if readers start paying attention, they’ll realize that nothing BUT dialogue and conversations are happening in the novel.

You don’t want that either! Trust me, I’ve seen this. As an agent, it might take me 80 pages to catch on but eventually I will and I’ll pass on the manuscript.

Beginning Writer Mistakes (Take 2)

STATUS: First day back in the office after being away is always a bit busy. There’s just a lot of catch up to do.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHAT YOU NEED by INXS

Tonight I was reading some sample pages (this time from material requested) and I hit on yet another newbie writer mistake. Actually, I need to clarify. This writing mistake isn’t relegated to just new writers. I see this error happen for seasoned writers as well. Writers who have enough talent on the page to keep me reading for a100 pages or so before I finally give up in exasperation.

Curious as to what it is?

It’s the mistake of telling instead of showing but in the guise of dialogue that seems to revolve around in active scene but if one analyzes what is actually unfolding, there isn’t any real action happening.

In other words, the characters are basically sitting around talking about their past actions or research or a discovery but the reader is getting privy to that information after the fact rather than having the writer write the scene where the discovery is made.

I’ll tell you right now that this is a tough error to spot as dialogue SEEMS to be moving the story forward but if you look closely enough, the dialogue is simply recapping an event or a discovery that happened off stage. Once the writer has fallen into this trap, it’s hard to break from it and ultimately the whole manuscript ends up suffering despite the occasional really fine bright spot or two in the narrative where a scene unfolds as it should.

And I wish I could share actual examples but I can’t. My clients don’t make these kinds of mistakes and the materials I’ve requested are private (proprietary info) and can’t be shared without permission. I can’t imagine too many writers would want to volunteer for that “honor” on this blog.

And will I try and point this out in my letter to the author? Sure but since I’m not going to dissect a scene where this occurs, I’m not sure how helpful my general commentary will be. I can only hope these writers seek external help from critique groups and/or already established writers to pinpoint this pitfall.

It’s definitely a writing foe worth vanquishing!