The odds of publication…

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Today i spent my early morning procrastination watching this youtube video, in which Lev decides to write a book. I laughed, because I understand the problem he stumbled across, but it also made me think.

Are the odds of publication really that bad? (Yeah I know, the movie has nothing to do with publication and everything to do with writer’s block, but that’s what it got me thinking on. So there!)

We all read articles about rejection, but let’s take a minute and really think this over. Out of 7 billion people on the planet, about 7 billion have a story they want to tell. That’s a lot of competition, right? Maybe. Except for the fact that 25% of them are illiterate.

Whew! Just by the fact that you’re reading this, you’ve already managed to erase over a billion people from the publication race. Not bad eh?

Bur A.M. Kuska! I hear you cry, what about the remaining 5.25 billion people who can read? Well ask yourself this. How many of those 5 billion will ever pick up a pencil? How many will complete a rough draft? How many will submit to a critique circle? How many will admit their rough draft is somewhat less than perfect and rewrite? How many people actually send their manuscript out at all? Send it again when it’s rejected?

*crickets chirp*

I thought so. Even if we say an agent receives 100,000 query letters every year, it’s probably safe to assume some of those are badly formatted. Some were poorly worded. (Sorta like “The Family” from earlier, but less cool.) I’m sure one or two were addressed to Mrs. Bob, and some are rejected because their YA novel is 300,000 words long. When you cut out all these things…the odds start looking good.

The reality is, there aren’t enough manuscripts out there with good writing, good plot, and good editing. ^^ Yay!

Seriously though, while we can’t track these things, we do know that there are very few agents closed to submissions, which means there are still gaps to be filled.

Enough Already!

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It’s the hot topic for agents today, and for writers as well. High word counts. Ideal range for a novel is between 80,000 and 100,000 words. It should be no more than 120,000 and that’s if it is a really good book. 180,000 word books and 200,000 word books are laughed at and rejected on sight.

What about the 25,000 word books? Why do I never hear gentle reminders that books can be too short also?

My first draft for Life of a Suburban Unicorn was 25,000 words. Yes, I know that’s too short. I also realized looking at my query letter (a previous blog post you can read here) the reason why is because my writing is too thin. I’m a skinny person in real life, and my stories are just as stringy as I am. We both need to gain weight, and my recent edit is making that happen.

Since no one sees fit to help the skinny people out there, I shall step forward. Listed below is my easy 3 step process to helping your novel gain weight.

Step one: Question everything.

Print out your novel, and pretend that you are a nosy journalist trying to squeeze a story out of this mysterious lump of text. Ask every question you can possibly think of that relates to the novel. Here is the list of questions I used to help me get through Chapter 5, in order to give you an idea:

Why is Peter in the woods?
Why would Joseph Thunderhead send a unicorn?
How does Elizabeth react to seeing Peter?
How does Peter react to seeing Elizabeth?
How does Elizabeth find Peter?
What is Peter doing when found?
Why would Mom shoot a unicorn?
What are they feeling at this point?
Where are they in the woods?

There are tons more questions too. Ask about the senses. What do they smell? What do they hear? What plants and animals are present? Do they notice them?

The point isn’t to add all this information into your novel. It’s to make sure you are aware of the information. I came from a background of short story writing. I’m used to focusing on one thing, and excluding everything else from my focus.

If you’re artistic, drawing a sketch of the scene helps too. The whole scene. Including the background, what the people are holding, how they are posed, etc. Even if you’re not artistic but suitably enthusiastic, you can make it work with stick figures and weird boxes that represent furniture. (You can even label them so you remember what those blobs are the next time you look at the picture.) Filling in the details helps fill them in your mind too.

Step Two: Highlight Telling

If, when questioning your novel, you come across a particular sentence so vague you can question it, that’s probably telling. Here’s a sample from an unedited portion of my novel, telling in bold:

Her finger touched the trigger, her whole body quivering with tension, and then she dropped the gun at his feet. It wasn’t worth it. Nothing could make her kill another person. Even Joseph Thunderhead.

Joseph stooped and picked up the gun. “Come on,” he said, resigned. “Let’s go.”

Anyone here know what a resigned person looks like? He just had a gun pointed at him and thrown in his face. Does anyone here think a single word should sum it up? When I get to this part in my novel, I’ll detail what “Resigned” looks like on an aging unicorn hunter.

This may not seem like a big deal, but when you replace a single word with a whole sentence every other paragraph, that’s a lot of words.

Step Number Three: Replace Adverbs and Adjectives

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. I do a highlight search in word for anything ending in “ly”. Almost every time a ly word can be questioned, and that questioning offer a wordier, stronger sentence. Example: What does “casually” look like? I’m sure you’ve got a vision in your head. Describe that vision, in detail.

These three steps are really all the same step. Question everything. You may find a huge plot hole you never noticed before. (Why is my character walking into a trap again?) You may just clean your writing up a bit. (Because if you can sing the song “Here a Lee” from the musical 1776 and find every word in the song, you may have too many ly words.)

What are your tips for lengthening word count? (Filler doesn’t count!)

Are you propositioning me?

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The problem with query letters, is that they are way too transparent. An agent can look straight through your query letter into the inner workings of your novel and see everything wrong with it. Don’t believe me? Check out this interesting experiment by Nathan Bransford. He gave his readers the chance to sort through their own mini slush pile. The result? You write about as good in your query letter as you do in your novel. Really.

Yeah, I clapped my hands over my ears and ran screaming in the other direction too. Then I did what every other writer should do. I came back and tried to see how I could use this to my advantage. That’s how I found out you can use your own query letter to find flaws in your book, without using a critique circle!

(Disclaimer: You should still use a critique circle for optimum error protection. Don’t have one? Now you do.)

To do this, simply go through every chapter in your book, and write down each major action that happens. Don’t explain why it happens. Don’t try to make it sound good. Don’t do anything but note what your character does. I started listing these actions in a summery I wrote of my novel. You can read it here:

Elizabeth Brooke is angry because her mother is keeping a secret from her. A secret that forces her to move out of the main house and allow complete strangers to take over. Jerks.

A little investigating into the situation, and Elizabeth finds out her mother’s secret. The family they have taken under their wing claim to be unicorns hiding in human form from unicorn hunters, whom they refer to as the Lion Team.

Yeah I know, stop sniggering. Elizabeth doesn’t believe it either, at least not until she accidentally triggers a full scale war on her mother’s turf. Instead of siding with her own daughter, mom chooses to banish Elizabeth to her Aunt Deb’s house on the other side of the state.

Wonderful.

Salvation occurs in the form of Joseph Thunderhead, a man who promises to teach her how to unlock her own unicorn powers, if she leaves with him, no questions asked. Remember that scene in Phantom of the Opera where Christine sleepwalks into the clutches of the phantom? We can only assume that’s what’s going on here, because that’s exactly what she does.

>.<

Knownst to everyone else, but evidently not knownst to Bella…I mean Elizabeth…Getting into the car with a complete stranger in order to enter the modern day fortress of doom is NOT a good idea. She does learn how to become a unicorn. She also learns that she is no more than a slave, and that escape is impossible.

Okay, you’ve read enough of the literary vomit I spat onto a page before deciding I needed to fix my novel. To prove to you that I am capable of stringing a decent set of words together, here is the rewritten summery based on my edited chapters:

Anyone would be curious about a handful of strangers moving in unannounced. Elizabeth Brooke certainly is, especially when her mother does nothing to stop the family making themselves comfortable in their guesthouse.

Since mom’s usual response to trespassers involved a 20-gauge shotgun and rock salt, Elizabeth is sure mom invited them herself. What she isn’t sure about is why Mom wants to keep it a secret.

 That’s all for today! Happy writing!

Query Letters Made Difficult

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I just spent twenty minutes writing a huge comment to this person here trying to help her sort her query letter. Since it’s useful information, and I did promise query letter help, I’m reposting it here. This way, the next time I stumble on an author needing query help, I can just point them to this link!

Writing Your Query in Seven Difficult Steps:

1. Write down what happens in your first chapter, badly.

And I mean it. Just say what happens. Here’s an example of what happens in my first chapter:

Elizabeth is standing there with her binoculars. She is looking at some boys. They are in her guest house.

Yup, all done. Pat yourself on the back.

2. Now sit down with your awful first chapter synopsis, and your first chapter, and start asking questions. In my case, there’s only one real question that comes to mind:“WHY is she looking at the boys.”

You can, if you like, go through the entire book this way, but I like doing one chapter at a time.

Now your synopsis should read something like this:

Elizabeth is standing there with her binoculars. She is looking at some boys. They are in her guest house. She is curious about them because her mother is trying to keep their presence a secret.

3. Now we add layers to this pitch. Make a note to yourself that the secret is probably going to be a good hook. Just write it down as an observation. Make a note about your main character’s personality. What does she have to say?

#@!! people moving into my mom’s guesthouse. I’ll show them!

“Meanie weanie mommmy. Why won’t she tell me what’s going on?”

You get the idea. In my case, Elizabeth Brooke is a bit of a trouble maker. She is, after all, spying right now. I’ll jot that down.

4. Write down the synopsis from your character’s voice.

5. You can even struggle to write it in your own voice, if you like. I’ll watch.

6. Finally you’re going to combine all these things and strap it to your Good Author Writing Skillzz. You know, the ones you left behind in your novel?

Let’s recap what we’re combining:

The Badly Written Synopsis
The List of Answered Questions
The Potential Sales-Pitch
The Character’s Voice
Your Voice (optional)
Your Good Writing Skills

Combine them all and you should get something like this:

Anyone would be curious about a handful of strangers moving in unannounced. Elizabeth Brooke certainly is, especially when her mother does nothing to stop the family making themselves comfortable in their guesthouse.

Since mom’s usual response to trespassers involved a 20-gauge shotgun and rock salt, Elizabeth is sure mom invited them herself. What she isn’t sure about is why Mom wants to keep it a secret.

7. Do this for every chapter, and then cut out anything unnecessary.

Ta-da! A query letter! ^^ Be sure to use third person present tense!