This week I've asked my friend and book editor/book doctor Liz Fitzgerald to weigh in with:
Confessions of a Book Doctor: Five Things that Every Writer Must Know
By: Liz Fitzgerald
I’ve worked as an editor and book doctor for a number of years, both with a publishing house and more recently as a freelance editor and book doctor. As an editor faced with a towering slush pile I can tell you what is likely to survive the process and make it to publication in a tremendously competitive industry. What follows are the bits of advice I find myself repeating most often to new authors…and even to some who have been around for awhile and need a reminder.
Point 1: Be professional, you must know the rules of the publishing game. Don’t think—especially as a new author--that you can take short cuts, use cute stationary, or assume that your 1200 page opus on your cat is appropriate for a publisher that handles romance novels of between 300-400 pages. Publishers have guidelines—follow them. Do not deviate. Most guidelines can be obtained on-line
You also need to understand that there is etiquette around submissions. Again, follow the guidelines, if they want an outline and three chapters that’s what you send. If they want it with a paperclip versus a staple, that’s what you do. Increasingly, more publishers and agents are accepting electronic submissions—some still do not—find out what they want.
Once you’ve got the etiquette down, which includes knowing the basics to double space, use a proper heading etc. let’s talk about the writing.
Point 2: To get a book done, most authors write daily. Most find a regular time and work it into the fabric of their life. In my experience what separates wannabe writers from those who eventually get published, is that they write every day, usually at the same time of day and for a set period of time. Many authors set quotas for a specified number of pages or words a day. If you find yourself blocked, bored or distracted, write something anyway even if it isn’t your main project.
Don’t’ be married to every word; there are always more. I find that with many new authors—and even some who’ve been around for quite a while—it’s difficult to have the editorial discipline necessary to prune and even excise extensive bits of prose. Sometimes writing that is exquisite and lyrical is unnecessary or weighs down the story—it must go. There may be ways to soften the blow, tell yourself you can use it somewhere else. But the cleaner your prose the less it will be edited by others, and the more likely it is to get a green light.
Point 3: Show don’t tell. Everything should take place on the page. The reader needs to be there at all important events. Don’t tell them about it but use sensual detail to show them. Set the scene including your character’s visceral responses to the action. How they feel, what they see, smell taste and hear.
In the following example we can see how sensual detail amps up tension and sets a scene.
“Come on, Beth.” His fingers entwined in her hers, flesh on flesh, holding tight. “I want to show you something.”
“What?” she asked, laughing, and followed him down the granite stairs that led to the dissection rooms and the hospital morgue. Careful not to trip on her gown, she didn’t think about the stench of death and formalin that curtained the air.” –The Cadaver’s Ball, Charles Atkins (St. Martin’s Press/Leisure Books).
By comparison, “They found themselves in the morgue,” falls flat. It’s a common pitfall to leave lush detail and action out of a scene. This doesn’t mean it’s free season on purple prose, but if it’s not on the page, no one will read it.
Another mistake that new authors---especially fiction writers fall into is that too much of what occurs becomes internal. You need to take what is in the character’s head and turn it into observable action. There are different ways to do this. If your character is very cerebral and conflicted, give him/her a friend, confidant…or even dog to whom they can bare their soul and reveal their motivation—what they want—as the story progresses. Perhaps the most hackneyed example of this is the villain who at the very end of the book reveals why he/she did all the evil things they did—“I suppose you’re wondering why I called you all here this evening.” It’s more satisfying, and in keeping with contemporary literature, to reveal early in the book the motivations of all the major characters. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be secrets and surprises—there should be. Your reader needs to walk in step with your characters and get to know them—just as we get to know real people—as they, and the story, develop.
Point 4: It is important to develop a couple of literate friends whose opinions you trust. Now this is where—just as with editing—you will need to table your ego, and that surging bad feeling authors can get when faced with criticism. Honest and informed critiques are a sort of mirror that can show you the strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece. Writers often become myopic around their work, especially when they’ve read and reread the same chapters. Outside eyes are crucial. Choose one or two people—more than that can be confusing—and take what they say to heart. Avoid people who are overly negative, or positive.
If you find yourself in arguments with your trusted critic, saying things like, “Oh, you don’t get what I was trying to do there.” You need to stop, and rethink a couple of my earlier points. Why did they not get the rich narrative running through your head? It’s probably not on the page. Why are they not feeling it emotionally? Chances are good you told them what was happening instead of showing with rich sensual detail.
Point 5: The final point is perhaps the most important. If you want to be a published author, perseverance is everything. Even the most wonderful books and already established authors will receive rejection from agents and editors. To quote Dorchester Publishing (Leisure Books) acquisitions editor Don D’Auria, “it’s getting the right book, to the right editor or agent at the right time.” In other words the rejection may have nothing to do with the quality of the piece you sent, it just wasn’t what that particular editor or agent needed at that moment.
No doubt there is pain that comes with rejection letters. There’s no getting around this and the best I can say is that for most writers this lessens over time, especially if the rejections are interspersed with acceptance letters.
However not all rejection is bad, and when you receive one that is not a form letter, read it carefully because an editor has found something in your work on which they want to comment. Pay attention to suggestions they make and if they leave the door open for further submission, consider sending them something else that is more in line with what they need.
Weathering rejection is a critically important step for any author. Because what I’ve witnessed over the years, is that some of the most brilliant authors will never make it to publication because they cannot get past the rejection. I like the approach that my friend and author Charles Atkins takes towards rejection, “you look at the letter and see if there’s anything in it that can help the writing. If there is, fix it. If there isn’t, or it’s a form letter, figure out who you need to send it to next, and get it out in the morning mail.”
Bio—Liz Fitzgerald was an editor and publicist for Donald I. Fine, Inc. She currently works as a freelance editor and book doctor. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.