Do You Need a Developmental Edit, Or a Copy Edit? What’s A Pitch?

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blackwingNovelists contact me with manuscripts in hand. I’ve got 80,000 words, they say. Can you quote me on a copy edit, or a developmental edit? You use these edits in a different order. Developmental edits are different from a copy edit. The copy edit only takes place once you’ve chosen all of the paths the story will take, and the scenes that will remain. Developmental edits help you make those choices. What’s more, it’s better to have an outline, with not all of your book written, before you purchase a developmental edit.

(If you’re ready to see how copy editing looks — just to get an idea of whether you and your editor will be a good fit — a good editor should be able to edit a 500-word sample for free. It’s just a couple of pages worth, but you get the idea.)

How ready are you to pursue a publisher? One very important part of breaking in with publishers is your summary paragraph about your book. In about five sentences, tell me the most important things about the story.

Your entry to the whole process is your pitch. You use a pitch to get the attention of an agent, or an editor at a smaller press. It’s the one sentence you say when people ask, “So what’s your book about?”

Pitches for novels should contain setup, hook, and resolution:

When <character> discovers <catalyst>; s/he must <overcome problem> before <impending doom>, or else <stakes>.

Donald Maas (agent-book developer) had a good deal to say about stakes during the seminar I took with him in San Francisco. They are crucial, and the higher the stakes, the more compelling your story will be. They go all the way up to mortal stakes (your character will die, or someone they love will die.) You can even go beyond those mortal stakes. For example, in my novel Viral Times, millions of lives are at stake — because if Dayton Winstead cannot find the source of the MightyHand virus, then tens of millions of millions will be infected with HIVE-5.

At some point in the near future, you’ll have a chance to deliver the story you’ve written, perhaps by telling a pitch in person to an agent. That’s what conferences can offer you. What you do between now and then will give you a better opportunity to find someone who’s the right person to represent you.

You do research. Which books are like yours, not just in subject but in tone and style? Who agented them?  Use online resources like Publisher’s Lunch to sort through the known universe of agent submissions. Learn as much as you can, and start a list. Rank agents in order of likelihood of love match.

Boundaries spark creativity

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It’s easy enough to revel in the first-draft mania of a writing project. This is important time, the period to clear your pipes and empty that tank of ideas and dreams. The genuine creation time, however, is when there’s a deadline and a word count or a page count to meet.

That’s what drives Saturday Night Live, according to its producer Lorne Michaels. He’s been interviewed on Alec Baldwin’s top-flight Here’s the Thing podcast. Michaels said that “I believe creativity doesn’t exist without boundaries.” For him there’s both a page count and a deadline. The show is ready by 11:30 Eastern Time — or as he puts it, “it’s not ready, but it’s got to go on the air at 11:30.” At some point, a piece of writing needs to meet a deadline to show to a writing group, an agent, a contest, or a lit mag’s submission date.

And SNL needs to unspool in 90 minutes total time — so plenty of it has to be dropped or shortened to meet time. Sometimes whole skits are dumped if they don’t work out during the frantic six days before airtime.

Boundaries exist to create choices, and some people believe that choices are all there is to define art. There’s a great scene in the movie Wonder Boys. Novelist Grady Tripp is slogging through his second book after a debut success. You see him creep into his study and take a page and feed it into a typewriter. He lines up the paper for a page number and types 261 — then looks around and adds a 4, for a 2,600-plus page manuscript. Later his grad student Hannah reads the wooly piece of writing and confronts him about it.

Hannah glances at the huge stack of paper sitting on her dresser, then, hesitantly, looks back to Grady.

		It's just that, you know, I was thinking about 
		how, in class, you're always telling us '-that 
		writers make choices--at least the good ones. 
		And, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the 
		book isn't really great-I mean, really great-
		but at times it's, well, very detailed, you 
		know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses 
		and ail the dental records and so on-and I 
		don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but it sort of 
		reads, in places, like, well, actually, like... 
			(with trepidation) didn't make any choices at all.

Let choices of page counts, deadlines and characters establish the boundaries that can spark great writing. And remember, sooner or later it’s 11:30, and time to finish the creation.

The Free Dictionary: page definition: a youth being trained for the medieval rank of knight and in the personal service of a knight.

How to Pursue Contest Entries: 10 Guidelines

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Contests are a great way to get your writing finished enough to share with the world. In the early days of my quest to learn fiction, I entered more than a few. I started by entering contests run by well-known literary publications. It might have gotten the writing completed (my short stories), but the fees would be used elsewhere now, after what I’ve learned.

I have 10 guidelines I like to have a contest meet. You can score your contest prospects along these marks. It’s really hard to get a 10. And you will want to submit in a passionate way to overlook the entry fee, the Number 1 guideline below. It’s your tuition, after all — you learn something from everything you do to support your writing. My guidelines:

1. I like an entry fee of under $20. Anything higher feels like fundraising to me.

2. I like a contest that completes and will anoint a winner in less than six months. Three is better. Life is short. Just decide, already.

3. I like a contest where I have a good idea of the number of first-round judges, and who they are. Otherwise, it’s usually grad students who volunteer. Not to be dismissive of less-practiced writers, but I never was crazy about 24-year-olds judging my stories.

4. I like a contest where I don’t have to be someplace to receive the prize. Travel costs money too, and I want to use my money for book research trips.

5. I like a contest with a cash prize, not a book contract. Publication in a lit journal Of Note might be worthwhile, too. If your goal of entering a contest is to get your writing noticed.

Do I really need that prologue?

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Writer’s Digest posts a Literary Agents blog with good advice. Today I got an e-mail that expanded the “pet peeves” of five agents.

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
– Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Slow writing with a lot of description puts me off very quickly. I like a first chapter that moves quickly and draws me in so I’m immediately hooked.”
– Andrea Hurst, Andrea Hurst Literary Management

“Avoid any description of the weather.”
– Denise Marcil, Denise Marcil Literary Agency

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter 1. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
– Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue. Or opening with a hook that’s just too convoluted to be truly interesting.”
– Daniel Lazar, Writers House

” ‘The Weather’ is always a problem – the author feels he has to set up the scene and tell us who the characters are, etc. I like starting a story in media res.”
– Elizabeth Pomada, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents

Viral Times has a prologue of 900 words. Does my novel need it? I believe it, which represents another tip of publishing and writing: Follow your voice, especially if you have tried alternatives. For my book, there’s too much sweep of character and time and place to get a sense of what’s at stake, and the state of the world 20 years from now.

But you can choose for yourself. Making choices is the artist’s work, after all. And your joy, if you can embrace the choosing.

Submissions, Part 1

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I’m doing some reorganizing of my office studio this month — so I’m chucking out a lot of paper in the process. A lot of what’s going made its way into the office after the 2006 AWP conference, held in Austin. Much of the departing paper was printed to inspire submissions of more paper.

Imagine a space the size of two football fields, side by side, lined with 10-foot-long tables, each representing a small press or smaller lit journal. Each has a stack of books or issues to sell. Sycamore Review was one of those. I scraped up the details on the twice-a-year fiction and poetry journal that prints just 1,000 copies for each issue. It’s pretty typical of the lit mag submission dance.

Sycamore has an eye toward what it calls “stories that have a ring of truth, the impact of felt emotion.” Its entry in the 2008 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market uses the word “emotion” several times. You can offer up your writing to the publication only by printing paper and mailing it, but at least the Sycamore staff has let go of the No Simultaneous Submissions commandment.

They have an annual contest, the Wabash Prize, which accepts fiction entries until March, and Poetry entries in the fall. Don’t forget to send along your $10 reading fee. (By the way, some lit mags don’t charge a submission fee, like Farfelu here in Austin.)

They also want “fiction that breaks new ground.” On the pub’s Web page, the sample story Exposure begins thusly:

Wednesdays and Saturdays are my days off at the pharmacy, but Saturdays my wife is off too, so I do my flashing on Wednesday afternoons.

Edgy, as they like to say in Hollywood (a place where not much writing is going on for TV, since the writer’s strike remains unsettled. But I digress). Exposure was also this year’s Wabash winner. The Sycamore editors read until March 31, and they just put an issue to press this month, so they’re reading for their first 2008 issue. You can submit to

Sycamore Review
Purdue University
Department of English
500 Oval Drive
West Lafayette, IN 47907

And if you wonder why Sycamore Review, like most literary magazines, demands the paper on ink plus stamp and envelope ritual, the answer is: they’re a little magazine, with old computers, and they read paper. Oh, and taking the trouble to submit through the mails, um, that’s part of the weeding-out process. It eliminates the riff-raff, according to the world as one editor described it during 2006.

There’s something about having to actually print out submissions, write a cover letter, get stamps, and go to mailboxes that weeds out the dilettantes. With emailed submissions, every high school student whose creative writing teacher praises him would be sending submissions. (I’ve seen this happen, the hordes of emails not hardly worth reading…But I’m not knocking high school students, creative writing teachers, or you in any way.) You can’t just walk onto American Idol—they have a screening process. Similarly, you can’t just write your way into Sycamore Review—there’s a built-in screening process called “submitting” that allowing emailed submissions takes away.

Computer budgets and tiny staff aside, the handsome postcard at the top of this entry is part of the Sycamore Review budget, one of several hundred printed for the AWP show. Paper for the journal issues is even more dear, apparently: there’s only enough pages for five stories and eight poems in the most current issue. The good news? There are thousands more publications out there to send your paper to, including a $10 check. A couple of football fields full of them.

But a lit mag with two issues per year, payment of two copies to successful contributors, and a yearly contest with a $1,000 first prize? That’s about what you can expect. Do the math. $200 a year will get your five of your stories considered by four journals. Or you could spend the money on a good editing job for a novel. That kind of work sells here in Austin for about $800 for a novel.

But that’s another kind of submission, one that puts you on your way to being in print.