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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, January 29, 2012

How to Get Out of Your Own Way: The Secret to Becoming a Successful Writer

First, we have a few announcements:

#1 Our blog has been nominated for the Top Writing Blog Award by ECollegeFinder. UPDATE: Votes are open again through February 3rd.

#2 Ruth’s thriller HOOKED which she wrote with her husband Michael Harris, has been zooming up the charts this month. It’s in the Kindle top 100, and made it to #3 on Movers and Shakers!

#3 Treeware lovers: Anne’s first Camilla Randall mystery THE BEST REVENGE is now available in paper ($9.95.) You can buy it at Popcorn Press or Amazon .

#4 NOOK Owners: Anne’s other two Camilla mysteries GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY ($.99) AND SHERWOOD, LTD ($2.99) are now available at B & N. And Ruth's romantic saga DECADES ($.99) is featured this week on the Nook Lovers blog.

#5 SLO folks: Judy Salamacha interviews me for her column in the Tribune on Monday, January 30th.

And now I’m going to get out of Ruth’s way and let her give you some very sound advice—a lot of which I could have used a few years back. I hate to admit it, but I spent almost a decade trying to “perfect” a book that wasn’t that bad to begin with—but got worse with every “please all of the people all of the time” revision. My perfectionism killed my own book. So listen to the lady. She knows what she’s talking about:

The secret to becoming a successful writer is not learning writing one perfect book. It’s learning to write as many good books as you can. So once you’ve got the nuts and bolts down, stop obsessing and write another book.


You know what I’m talking about. I know you do. Most of us recognize it as The Enemy Within, the devil with a thousand faces, the ugly, waxy build up of negative forces that stand between you and Writing The Book/Finishing The Book/Editing & Polishing The Book.

Science still hasn’t come up with a cure for the common cold but, as an editor, I’ve worked with lots of writers over the years and I’ve learned that writers, crafty creatures that we are, struggle with the lit version of the common cold.

I’m going to list a few of the symptoms and propose cures, but be warned: If you like to play it safe, don’t pay any attention to me.

 Are you a perfectionist?

Do you suffer the misery of unfinished drafts, half completed novels, computer files so ancient only Methuselah remembers the program that created them? Have you settled into an endless rut of rewriting, revising and second guessing yourself? You’re working hard but getting nowhere—and not fast?

Then, please, stop! Ask yourself what are you afraid of: failure? Or is it success? And what’s the worse thing that can happen if you upload a less-than-”perfect” book? Heavens gonna fall? Earth stop in its orbit?

So you think it’s a POS? Maybe you’re right—but maybe you’re wrong. Writers are notoriously lousy judges of their own work. So get over yourself. No one except you is going to give a bleep.

Who knows, maybe readers aren’t as picky as you are. Maybe no one will notice whatever it is that’s worrying you and maybe whatever’s bothering you is only the monster under the bed anyway. If people like your book and buy it, what’s the problem? Close your eyes, think of the money, and smile.

If they don’t like it, if they actually hate it, and your reviews absolutely, positively stink, take the book down. That’s what the “unpublish” button is for.

Give yourself a day to lick your wounds and shore up your ego, then look at the book with a fresh eye. Maybe you ought to hire an editor to offer some objective perspective, then fix what’s realistically wrong.

Give that sucker a new title, a new cover, maybe use a pseudonym (although I don’t think people remember writers’ names unless they’re Stephen King or William Shakespeare), write a brand-new, more come-hither blurb and re-upload.

Think: “Why, Miss Brown, you’re beautiful without your glasses!” Same deal, the magic of the makeover. 

Like shampoo, a book can be rinsed and repeated. Big 6 editors hate this but these days you’re not writing for an editor. You’re trying to reach thousands and maybe millions of readers. Huge, huge difference.

Heed Voltaire: The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Accentuate the positive.

In a tizzy about your alleged weaknesses? Your critique group sez your characters are stereotypes? That means readers will recognize them immediately. They’ll fill in the blanks themselves.

Your bff sez your plots are creaky? There are only 6 plots anyway….starting with the Bible and going up to Harry Potter. It’s what you do with the plot that counts. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl? What if the boy is Clark Kent and the girl is Lois Lane? What if the boy is a scruffy junkyard mongrel and the girl is a snooty Park Avenue poodle?

Do more of what comes easily and work on your strengths. 

Snappy dialogue? Scorching sex? Elegant descriptions?

Whatever you like to write will likely be a key to developing a style that is uniquely yours.

Whether your style is Tilda Swinton or Lady Gaga, George Clooney or Judd Apatow, work it. Robert M. Parker did. Elmore Leonard did. Style counts, style matters, style lasts.

Raymond Chandler nailed it: “Style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.”

Bottom line: Style is you being you on purpose so embrace it.

Make friends with your subconscious.

If you respect your subconscious and treat it right, your subconscious will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

That guy who works at the deli on page 3? You had to stick him in when your heroine stopped for coffee and needed change?  You put him in, didn’t spend two seconds thinking about him. You needed him so you typed something.

Maybe on page 106, he reappears. Maybe he’s the murderer. Maybe he’s an undercover cop. Maybe he’s a billionaire who wants to find out how the 99% live. Maybe he’s the long-lost sister who’s had a sex change op. Maybe that guy at the deli will turn out to be the key to a great plot twist.

That guy—the one you didn’t spend two seconds thinking about—was a creation of your subconscious. He appeared out of nowhere because you needed him while you were concentrating on your heroine.
But later?

Later, that character turns out to be gold.
Scriveners, have you ever had an experience like that with the deli guy--has a minor character reappeared to become a major player? Are you tired of the writing gurus who tell you rejections will stop if you do yet another edit of your Work-that-has-been-in-Progress for a decade? Are you working as hard to be YOU as you are at following directions and coloring inside the lines?

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

How to Write a Publishable Memoir: 12 Do’s and Don’ts

They say we all have a book inside us—our own life story. The urge to put that story on paper is the most common reason people start writing. Adult education programs and senior centers everywhere offer courses in “writing your own life.” Memoir is the most popular genre at any writers conference.

Unfortunately, it’s the hardest to write well—and the least likely to be published.

Agent Kristin Nelson once blogged that she’s seen so many bad memoirs that she cringes when she meets a memoirist a writer’s conference. Author J. A. Konrath offered the simple advice: “Unless you're one of the Rolling Stones, don't write anything autobiographical.” Miss Snark pronounced, “every editor and agent I know HATES memoir pitches…I'd rather shave the cat.”

But memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love, In the Garden of Beasts and Townie: a Memoir, top the bestseller lists.

In this age of “reality” TV, there’s a huge audience for shared real-life experience. Readers are hungry for true stories: look how angrily they reacted to writers like James Frey and Herman Rosenblat, who passed off fiction as memoir.

So keep working on that masterpiece-in-progress. But hone your craft—brilliant wordsmithing and/or stand-up-worthy comedy skills help a bunch—and follow some basic dos and don’ts:

1)     DO read other memoirs. Before you put pen to paper, it’s a good idea to read some currently selling memoirs. See what works and what doesn’t. Know the genre and the market

2)     DON’T write an autobiography: An autobiography is a list of events: “I was born in (year) in (place) and I did (this) and (that.) Mr. Konrath is right—unless you’re Mick Jagger, nobody cares. (Except your family. Don’t let me discourage you from self-publishing a chronicle of your life as a gift to your descendants.)

3)     DO tell a page-turning story. A book-length memoir is read and marketed as a novel. It needs a novel’s narrative drive. That means tension and conflict—and ONE main story arc to drive the action. Most memoirs fail from lack of focus. Choose a basic storyline, like: “Orphan kids save the family farm during the Depression,” or “A cross-dressing teen survives high school in the 1950s.”

4)     DON’T confuse memoir with psychotherapy: Writing a book about a traumatic personal event may be cathartic for the writer, but there’s a reason shrinks charge big bucks to listen to people's problems. Put the raw material in a journal to mine later for fiction, poetry, and personal essays.

5)     DO remember that a memoirist, like a novelist, is essentially an entertainer. A memoir may be nonfiction, but it requires a creative writer’s skill set. Always keep your reader in mind. Never fabricate, but only tell what’s unique, exciting and relevant to your premise.

6)     DON’T expect a big audience for medical journaling: If you or a loved one has a serious disease, chronicling your experiences can be invaluable to those suffering similar trials. To the general public—not so much. You may find it’s best to reach your audience through online forums, blogs, and magazines. (See #6) Remember that publishing is a business, and no matter how sad your story, if it’s not an enjoyable read, it won’t find an audience.

7)    DO consider non-book formats to tell your story. Beginning writers often make the mistake of jumping into a book-length opus. It’s smarter and easier to start with short pieces—what a writer friend calls “memoiric essays.” Nostalgia and senior-oriented magazines and blogs are great venues for tales of life in the old days. Some niche journals and websites focusing on hobbies, pets, disablities, veterans, etc. even provide a paying market. These will also give you some great publishing credits, and you won't have to slog for years before reaching an audience.

This is one area where BLOGGING can provide you with a fantastic forum. A new blog I love is by Tony Piazza, a veteran of the film business—and mystery author—who has insightful stories about every Hollywood star you ever heard of. 

8)     DON’T include every detail because “it’s what really happened.” Just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Your happy memories of that idyllic Sunday school picnic in vanished small-town America will leave your reader comatose unless the church caught fire, you lost your virginity, and/or somebody stole the parson’s pants.

9)     DO limit the story to an area where your experience is significant and unique. If you gave birth in the mud at Woodstock, dated Elvis, or helped decipher the Enigma code, make that the focus of your book. I knew a musician who worked with of some of the great legends of American music. His memoir of those jazzy days was gripping, but because it was buried in his “happy ever after” life story, he never found a publisher.

10)   DON’T jump into the publishing process until you’ve honed your skills as a creative writer. Unless you’re only writing for your grandchildren (nothing wrong with that—but be clear in your intentions) you need to become an acomplished writer before you can expect non-family members to read you work. Even the most skilled editor can’t turn a series of reminiscences into a cohesive narrative.

NOTE: There are ghostwriters who specialize in memoirs, so if you want to get your story into book form and aren’t interested in becoming a professional writer, you can hire one. Many editing services offer ghostwriting—a more expensive process than editing—but worth the cost if you don’t enjoy the writing process. I’d recommend using a memoir specialist like YourMemoir.co.uk., which looks like an excellent service.

11) DO look at small and regional publishers. A national publisher may not be interested in stories of the vanished ranch life of old California, but a local publisher who has outlets at tourist sites and historical landmarks may be actively looking for them. Another plus: you don’t need an agent to approach most regional publishers. A good example of a memoir that found a home at a regional press is Anne Schroeder’s Branches on the Conejo,Leaving the Soil after Five Generations  (Another perk of being with a small regional press is that the book can still be in print after a decade.)

12) DON’T get discouraged. Ann Carbine Best, an award-winning poet, knew she had a story to tell that would help thousands of women who shared her experience. Unfortunately, most publishers thought her subject matter was too niche and controversial to be a blockbuster. But with a small press, she found a welcoming audience for In the Mirror, her memoir of a doomed marriage.

If you’re working on a memoir, polish your creative writing skills, remember publishing is a business, keep your reader in mind--and you’ll avoid the cringe-making amateurishness that agents, editors and readers fear.

What about you, scriveners? Do you read memoirs? What is likely to make you pick one? What are your pet peeves in memoirs? Memoirists--any advice to new writers who are working on theirs?

WE HAVE A WINNER of the signed first edition of Catherine Ryan Hyde's wonderful novel, WALTER'S PURPLE HEART. I assigned every address a number went to the random number generator at Random.org to select the winning number. 

The winner is Cathryn Leigh! Congratulations, Cathryn! CRH will contact you to get your snail address. 

Cathryn, and everybody else who signed up for our HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE  launch newsletter, you're still in the running for the signed first edition of Catherine Ryan Hyde's iconic novel, PAY IT FORWARD.

INDIE CHICK fans:  This week's exciting episode comes from Sarah Woodbury, author of some wonderful historical novels set in medieval Wales. I predict we'll be hearing more from Sarah, who out-did me by publishing no less than seven novels last year. Her inspiring piece is here. 

This just in!! The paper version of THE BEST REVENGE--the first of the Camilla Randall mysteries--is now available from Popcorn Press! Only  $9.95 

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rejection: Why it Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means


The book I’ve been writing with Catherine Ryan HydeHOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE—and keep your E-sanity! will be published by Mark Williams international  in June of 2012. The book will be available as an ebook that will include free six-month updates. AND it will also be available in paper in both a US and UK edition.

We’ve had some interest from more traditional publishers, but decided to go with the innovative people at MWiDP because we need a nimble publisher who can keep up with industry changes and offer timely updates. Also, Catherine has a large international fan base, which made “Mr. International’s” offer especially attractive.

This is not another how-to book for writers. It’s a how-to-survive book. It’s something we think a lot of writers might need right about now. 

If we’d known the challenges writers would face in the 21st century, we’d have gone into a more stable profession…like maybe running an all-ayatollah drag show in downtown Tehran.

Let’s face it. Aspiring writers need help. Writers today need to learn to ride the roller-coaster of a rapidly changing publishing business and deal with an overload of conflicting information.
We can find thousands of blog posts every day on the subject of writing and publishing, and we can’t read them all. Which ones do you trust?  Who do you believe? So much of it is negative, snarky, or either/or.

Making a living as a writer gets more difficult by the day—does that mean fledgling writers should give up their dreams?

Our answer is a resounding no. The life of a creative writer can be the most rewarding in the world. A writer lives a life of the mind—an examined life. Whether you hope to become the next Stephanie Meyer, a self-publishing writer-preneur, a crafter of literary short stories, or just want to write for family and friends, life is infinitely enhanced by the process of creating worlds out of words.

Our book is about helping newer writers learn how to navigate the publishing business as it zooms into the future, to learn to be the best writer you can be—and keep on writing, no matter what.

WIN PRIZES!! If you leave your e-address in the comments thread (or send it to me at annerallen.allen (at) gmail (dot) com) we will send you the formal announcement of the launch of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE. This will also make you eligible for a drawing to be held next Sunday for a signed, first edition hardback copy of Catherine’s novel, WALTER’S PURPLE HEART, which she discusses in this post.

The Denver Post said, "Walter's Purple Heart" serves up 315 distinctive pages of reconciliation and hope...Hyde subtly captures the most powerful elements of sentiment—qualities we all recognize and understand—and adds a dash of metaphysical hope. She suggests that when it comes to love, nothing is ever truly lost, but rather redirected."

Signing up for our announcements will also make you eligible for the REALLY BIG drawing to be held on launch day in June. The REALLY BIG, launch-day prize in June will be a signed first edition of Catherine’s iconic inspirational novel, PAY IT FORWARD. 

My Ultimate Rejection Story (Chosen out of Literally Thousands)
by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I have a number of rejection stories. I’ll bet it’s a larger number than the best guess in your head right now. I’ve written a sort of “best of” series of my rejection stories into Anne’s and my new book HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE—and Keep your E-Sanity

Each of the stories is meant to illuminate rejection, to show that it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

At first you think it means the work is no good, you’re not a good writer. But then how can you reconcile the fact that my short stories were rejected an average of 17 ½ times each before going on to find a good home without further revision? (You’ll read that story in our book.) Okay, so then you figure the work may be good, but you’re trying to place it with the wrong publisher. But if that were true, I wouldn’t have placed my first short story with the same magazine that issued my most vicious rejection. (You’ll also read that one.)

Now, hopefully, you’re almost where you need to be, thinking rejection really only means that this particular editor won’t publish this particular work. Hold onto your socks for what comes next: It doesn’t even mean that much.

This is the one I consider to be my ultimate rejection story.

I’d had an agent who marketed Walter’s Purple Heart to no avail (25 rejections!) and wouldn’t even take on Pay It Forward. Hated it, hated it, hated it. (Told that one in the book, too.) I told her to send both home to me, and then gave them to a newer, hungrier agent.

The new agent sold Pay It Forward to Chuck Adams at Simon & Schuster, who then immediately asked what else I might have. Out of the drawer came Walter’s Purple Heart.

He bought it in a six-figure deal right before Christmas.

Why is that my best rejection story? Because one of Walter’s Purple Heart’s 25 previous rejections was from…wait for it…Chuck Adams at Simon & Schuster.
And he knew it.

His statement on why: He said Simon & Schuster had changed. They didn’t used to let him take on the smaller, more literary works. Now they did.

My statement on why: My career had changed. A book he might not have successfully marketed as a debut could be much more saleable as a follow-up to Pay It Forward.

So there you go. The true story of rejection. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that any one particular editor won’t buy that work of fiction. It just means he (or she) chose not to buy it on that day. Later, things can change. Reader tastes, the book industry, or your name recognition.

Here’s a final question before I move on from the subject of rejection.

I once received a plain, printed rejection from a small literary journal on my short story Nicky Be Thy Name. But they accepted the next story I sent. In a phone conversation with the editor, he remembered “Nicky,” and referred to it, saying he’d come within “a hair’s breadth” of taking it.

Now, I hadn’t known that. He hadn’t said. I just figured he didn’t like it.

When we get a rejection back in the mail, we usually don’t know the process the work has gone through. We don’t know if one paragraph was read by an editorial assistant (translation=first reader, probably straight out of college) or if our work made the rounds of all editors and survived everything but the final cut.

Here’s the question:

Why do we always assume the editor(s) hated it, that we have been branded as hacks? Why don’t we ever assume that it came within “a hair’s breadth” of acceptance, and is being returned with deep regret?

Catherine’s Workshop Announcement:

On the first weekend in February (and possibly the second weekend as well if I get enough takers) I'm going to be doing a weekend workshop at my studio in Cambria. This will be a read-and-critique workshop with a heavy focus on self-editing. In other words, the stuff your read-and-critique group will miss if they are only listening to the work, not reading it on the page (students will be encouraged to bring enough copies for everyone). Self-editing is a must for any author considering the indie, rather than traditional, publishing model. Class size is limited to eight. Hours on Saturday and Sunday will depend on class size, so please email for more information, and to reserve a space: ryanhyde@cryanhyde.com

Traditionally I have charged $175 for workshops of this length (14 hours of instruction if maxed at 8 students). I'm doing the workshops, quite frankly, because I need the money, yet I am more than aware that most of my students are not exactly rolling in it these days, either. So I am conducting this workshop as a "recession special," which is another way of saying "pay what you can." Make me the best offer you can afford to make, and I won't turn anyone away over financial considerations. 

What about you, Scriveners? Do you have any good rejection stories? We'd love to hear them. Yes, it's OK to vent! (And don't forget to leave your email address--or send it--to enter the contest.)

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Hooks, Loglines, and Pitches: What Every Writer Needs to Know

Some nice news: This blog has been nominated for the Top Writing Blogs Award by ECollegeFinder.org !

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to start sending that masterpiece out into the marketplace, you’re going to run into words like “hook,” “logline,” and “pitch.” The terms come from the film industry, but they’re becoming standard in publishing as well.

So what do they mean? Are they just sexy terms for a synopsis? 

Not exactly. The distinctions often blur, but here are the basics:

LOGLINE is a term that once applied only to screenplays, but has been creeping into the literary world. It consists of one or two sentences describing the story’s premise, like a film description in TV Guide:

Here’s the basic formula for a logline:

When______happens to_____, he/she must_____or face_____.

“When Dorothy Gale gets tornadoed to Oz and accidentally squashes an unpopular head of state, she must find a wizard to help her get home to Kansas, or be killed by the ruler's evil sister and some nasty flying monkeys.”

A HOOK is longer—a paragraph or two giving the characters, premise, and conflict, like a book jacket cover blurb. (Skipping the cover blurb accolades. Self-praise doesn’t just sound narcissistic, it screams “clueless amateur.”)

The hook should be the main component of a query letter to an agent, editor, or reviewer and is essential for your back copy or Amazon blurb.

The Wizard of Oz is a middle-grade fantasy novel set in a magical land where much of the population suffers from self-esteem issues. When Dorothy Gale, a Kansas farm girl, arrives via tornado, she accidentally kills the ruling witch.

The witch’s powerful sister wants Dorothy dead, but Dorothy only wants to get home, which she cannot do until she finds the right traveling shoes.”

Or you might want to try the “Hook Me Up” formula of the late, great Miss Snark (I suggest stating the setting first, especially for fantasy or sci-fi.)

X is the main guy; he wants to do_____.
Y is the bad guy; he wants to do_____.
They meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't resolve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

Don’t take the “bad guy” reference to mean you need to make your novel sound as if it has a Snidely-Whiplash-type villain. The antagonist can be anything that keeps the protagonist from his goals, from a wicked witch to the hero’s own addictions. If you want to read more on antagonists, Kristen Lamb has a fantastic blogpost, “Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker.”

A PITCH can contain either or both of the above. You can make a pitch in writing or in person. It tells—in the shortest possible time—what your book is about and why somebody should buy it. This is what you memorize before you go to that Writers’ Conference, hoping you’ll get trapped in an elevator with Stephen Spielberg or an editor from Knopf.

When composing your pitch, you want to answer these questions: Who? Where? What’s the conflict? What action does the protagonist take? What are the stakes? How is it unique?

To get started, it's fun to play with Kathy Carmichael’s clever “pitch generator” This is fun and amazingly useful. I’m so glad to find it’s still going strong after six years.

Here’s her generator’s pitch for the Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is a (x) word fantasy novel set in the magical land of Oz. Dorothy Gale is a Kansas farm girl who believes a legendary wizard can help her get home. She wants to return to Kansas to be with her Auntie Em. She is prevented from attaining this goal because her transportation vehicle is sitting on a dead witch, she’s being attacked by flying monkeys and her traveling companions are a little dim.

Hooks, loglines and pitches should all be composed in the present tense, starting with title and genre.

None of the above should be confused with a SYNOPSIS, which is a detailed run-down of the complete plot. (But not too detailed. Lots of submission guidelines ask for a one-page synopsis these days. More on that in another post.)

In all three, you also want to convey the tone of your book:

You can have a humorous logline:

“When the romantic adventures of a southern belle are interrupted by an icky war PLUS her goody-two-shoes-BFF steals her boyfriend, Scarlett whips up a fabulous outfit in order to seduce Mr. Wrong, who in the end, doesn’t give a damn.”

Or punch up a coming of age story by emphasizing high-stakes conflict:

“With his life in constant danger from the monstrous carnivore Snowbell, young Stuart must fight for his life, and prove once and for all whether he is a man or a mouse.”

Or go for the thrills by emphasizing the most dangerous scene:

“Marked for death along with his companions, a toy rabbit must learn to cry real tears in order to save himself from being thrown into a burning pit by the boy loves.”

Or give the overall premise:

"When the adopted son of Kansas farmer discovers he’s a strange visitor from a another planet, he tries to save the world, one clueless girl reporter at a time, in spite of opposition from an assortment of megalomaniacs armed with green rocks." 
(What is it with heroes and Kansas?)

When you’re composing, don’t forget to weed out clichés. Here are some overused phrases to avoid:
  • little did he know
  • comes back to haunt her
  • race against the clock
  • web of deceit
  • determined to unmask
  • wants nothing more
  • spins out of control
  • torn apart by
  • vows to expose
  • world falls apart
  • forced to confront
Whether you’re writing a logline, hook or pitch, remember that less is more. Keep it short. And keep working on it. These few words are as important as any you’ll ever write.

It’s a fun game to play with classic stories. Anybody want to jump in with loglines for their favorite books? (or your own?) I’d love to see more!

Next week we have a very special guest. Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward, will be talking to us about her personal experiences with rejection. Catherine has also announced she is giving one of her special limited-enrollment workshops on the weekend of February 4th. She'll be teaching the secrets of self-editing. Every participant will get personal editing advice on a WIP from Catherine as well as the members of the group. The workshop will be held in her own studio in gorgeous Cambria, California. In true "Pay it Forward" spirit, she's only asking that you pay what you can afford. This workshop will fill up quickly, so contact her soon if you're interested. Further details at ryanhyde@cryanhyde.com.  If you don’t live on the Central Coast, there are lovely places to stay in Cambria, so consider a weekend vacation. One of my favorite places to stay is the Cambria Pines Lodge —very affordable at this time of year. It has gorgeous views and gardens and is only five minutes from Catherine’s home (no, I don’t get any perks for recommending them.)

Indie Chick Anthology fans: Read Prue Batten's story about her encounter with an amazingly clueless agent on the Indie Chicks page.

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Confessions of a Former Query Addict

Happy 2012! 

What a year it’s been. Exactly a year ago, I woke on New Year’s Day to one of those emails that used to flood my brain with a mix of adrenalin, serotonin, and hope—a burst of euphoria that somehow made my life of constant rejection bearable. It’s a high only an aspiring author knows.

There it was in my inbox on New Year's morning—a positive response to a query I’d sent to an agent months before: 

 “Your writing is delightful, and your characters are original and inviting. I would cheerfully read anything you wrote. I think you’re very talented…” I started to squee and do a happy dance.

Then I read on. It was a no.

The agent was turning it down because “the market has become unforgiving of the isolated well-written mystery. Series do better.”

But…it was one of my Camilla Randall mysteries! The only reason I hadn’t mentioned it is I knew a querier shouldn’t mention more than one book at a time. A major no-no. So I wrote back, groveling, saying the book was indeed part of a series—would she, pretty please, like to read book one?

Two days later I got a yes. I sent off the ms. for The Best Revenge.

...and never heard another word.

For all I know, the manuscript is still sitting in some unpaid intern’s e-slush pile.

I continued on this hamster wheel for another—I hate to admit this—eight months, sending out query after query to every agent who’d ever sold a mystery like mine. This on top of four previous years of query hell. Yes, that adds up to nearly five years. (My first publisher went under in 2006.)

And before I found that publisher, I’d spent much of the late ’90s and early ’00’s doing the same thing. Several queries took, and I was represented for much of that time, so instead of query hell, I’d lived in submission hell—another neighborhood in the same arrondissement of Hades, with slightly more prestigious real estate.

It was like being addicted to a drug. Those few “yes” responses--a request for a partial here, a full there, an "I love this, but..." glowing rejection--gave me the highs that kept me going and going, hoping for that one big score.

But I was saved by an accidental intervention by three people: my blog partner Ruth Harris, editor Les Smith at Popcorn Press, and author/editor/international entrepreneur Mark Williams at MWiDP.

Ruth’s comments here on the blog and elsewhere were my first wake-up call. Here was a bestselling author whose work I loved, who had made it to the pinnacle of writerly success—the New York Times bestseller list. She’d also been an editor at several of the Big Six houses. And she’d walked away from all of it in order to self publish. I had to admit maybe there was something to this indie thing.

Then I heard from Popcorn Press—a small indie publisher whose editor liked my blog, admired my professionalism, and wanted a look at my backlist. It took me a few months, but finally I offered them my two backlist titles.

But for my three new titles, I was still jonesing for that big score. I clung to hopes that my latest—the Hollywood mystery, The Gatsby Game—would finally land me an agent. I figured since it offered a solution to one of the ten most notorious Hollywood mysteries of all time—which is still unsolved—New York might see some potential money in it.

In September, I finally got that offer I’d been dreaming of for five years. Here was my big score--an offer of representation!

But it came with an astronomical price tag. The agency wanted a total rewrite. Not an edit. A tear-it-up-and-start-over rewrite. I was going to have to eliminate all mystery elements, humor, gay characters, and ties to the real Hollywood scandal. They wanted a simple, Harlequin-type romance.

Not only was I going to have to give up the story I’d been aching to tell for decades, I was also going to have to erase my own personality: squelch all my Dorothy Parker snark to become Barbara Cartland-sweet

It took me three days, but I finally had to admit the price of that fix was too high.

Enter Mark Williams. He had read Sherwood, Ltd as a favor, to check for the accuracy of my Brit dialogue. He loved it. And it seemed he was starting a new international publishing venture. He made me an offer on all three books—to launch before Christmas.

By Christmas.

Not maybe-get-an-agent-someday and possibly-publish-three-years-later-if-you're-really-lucky. He wanted to publish all of my new books in the next three months. He also wanted quite a bit of editing (Les at Popcorn wanted some, too.) But these were real edits: aimed at improving the books, not just wedging them into some marketer’s wish list. Still, doing them in that time frame--while promoting the other books--seemed deeply bonkers.

I said yes anyway.

The last three months have been a brain-frying marathon, but somehow, all five books were e-published between Sept 28th and Dec. 28th.  An amazing example of teamwork. Thanks Les and Mark! Look what we did!

I also must to thank Laura Morrigan of Covers by Laura, Megan Derico of Derico Photgraphy and Katheryn Smith at Popcorn for designing such fantastic covers.

All five novels should be available in paper early this year from Popcorn. I love the quality of the paper copies Popcorn has done for Food of Love—while keeping the price under $10. I hope they’ll be able to do the same for the others..

And I also have to mention the two anthologies that came out in the same three months. Saffina Desforges Presents, from Mark Willams and co. and Indie Chicks from the fantastic group of independent women authors brought together by the hard-working Cheryl Shireman (to read her inspiring piece, check out my INDIE CHICKS PAGE

And I owe a huge amount of thanks my wonderful blog partner, Ruth Harris, for keeping this blog going while I was going a little nuts over the past three months. (OK, a lot nuts.)

Am I saying you should all stop the agent query process and start looking at small publishers? Not at all. For one thing, you generally have to query them, too. And if you’re considering that route, remember small publishers vary wildly. Read the contract carefully and have it checked by a lawyer or publishing professional. They should be offering a much better royalty than Big Six, because there will be no advance.

The biggest drawback with a lot of small publishers is the price of the books to consumers—often close to $20 for a paperback. It’s very hard to sell many units at that price. Ditto high-priced ebooks. Anything over $5 is a very hard sell for a non-name author, so be sure to check a publisher’s prices before you query.

But for me, this route has been like getting off a drug that was killing me. There’s a saying attributed to everybody from Freud to Einstein (but probably penned by Rita Mae Brown) that says “the definition of insanity is expecting different results from the same behavior.”

That’s what I was doing, sending out those endless queries.

From that agent’s rejection I got a year ago today, I should have realized I wasn’t on the right path. Nothing was wrong with my writing, but my work was never going to fit into the wish lists of the Big Six, who are increasingly focusing on a younger demographic.  

But readers are another story. I’m building momentum with steady sales, and when MWiDP offered The Gatsby Game free for four days on the KDP direct plan last week, it hit #40 in contemporary fiction and got over 2500 downloads. And now The Best Revenge is climbing the charts.

I'm not against the query process. I still think most new writers benefit from it, and it's still the most reliable path to a professional writing career. But we also need to know when to quit and try something different..

If you’re young and write YA, especially steampunk or another trending genre, there’s a very good chance you’ll land an agent and maybe even a contract with a Big Six publisher. But if, like me, you’ve built up solid inventory and are getting the same “this is beautifully written, but…” results, it may be time to give up the query addiction and take charge of your own career.

And maybe next year, instead of waking up to one more close-but-no-cigar rejection, you’ll have a bunch of your very own titles on Amazon, available to readers and actually making you some money.

And maybe you’ll even get some good reviews, which are a better high than even a request for a full manuscript. Seriously--way better. I am lucky enough to have had some fantastic reviews from people whose opinions I value highly, like Irish author Gerry McCulloughCanadian reviewer Benoit Lelievre at Dead End Follies Regency Romance author Anne Gallagher, and Book Blogger Donna Hole  Many thanks to you as well as all the other wonderful readers who have left such great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

For a great overview of this tumultuous year in publishing, I recommend David Gaughran’s superb wrap-up post on what happened in self-publishing in 2011.

And if you’re considering indie publishing, read Kristen Lamb’s wonderful post on the subject last week.

How about you, scriveners? Have you ever been addicted to the query process? How long do you think a person should keep querying before they look for another path?

This week I’ll be joining in Susan Kaye Quinn’s Internet Indie Book Festival. She’ll be providing readers with a look at some brand new indie titles for your new Christmas Kindle (I got mine! Love it!) Stop by for a look at some great new, affordable books that were released in November and December.

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