Friday, August 31, 2007
Workshop: The Naked Writer
THE NAKED WRITER
The Naked Writer is actually the title of my book that came out last year. The book has little to do with the business of writing, except that to engage in this business (that is, to sell), we must write well—and correctly. The book covers grammar, punctuation, and other essential writing style issues, and is both meant to be read and to be referred to, frequently. The excerpt below relates to writing in an economical style.
Yet because today is about the business of writing per se, I’ve added an article (not from this book) that explains how to query agents by email. Read through article one, please, and then, the second piece is for dessert. Bon appetite.--gmh
A Penny a Word—You Pay
GMH: What common style mistake bugs you the most?
Phyllis Grann, vice-chair, Random House, New York: The use of unnecessary words.
Writers being paid by the word say that instead of “bang,” they might write “bang, bang, bang” for gunshots. That’s really a joke—sort of. While often the length of a story or article is fixed by guidelines, and a flat fee is paid, sometimes writers do get paid by the word, even today. But any writer imagining that adding unnecessary words to a piece is a good idea isn’t the writer who is going to sell the story or article. And that’s the long of way of saying that the best writing is economical writing. How many words should the story or article be? As many as telling the story takes, but not a single word more.
Instead of being paid a penny a word, five cents a word, or a dollar a word—and all these are legitimate current pay scales, to be sure—imagine that you will have to pay for every word you put on the page. Use what you need, but be a little bit parsimonious in your word use. Like every good householder or starving artist, consider your budget.
Keep in mind, too, that most publishers aren’t looking for a first book that runs 160,000 words, because they have to account for printing costs, paper prices, and the storage charge for maintaining inventory in a warehouse somewhere. Thus the words allotted to a just hatched author won’t be unlimited.
And if you’re seeking to market pieces to a magazine or newspaper, start on the abbreviated side in that realm as well. Try placing a letter to the editor, then sell small fillers until the editors know your name and see that you have some command of the language along with a few ideas worth setting into type.
As for your short story lengths, make your short fiction reasonably short. An editor trying to fill a magazine with a variety of pieces for an issue isn’t really likely to buy a 10,000 word story—again, especially from an author whose name isn’t a draw.
So when counting words in a work, less may actually be more, but, really, use all the words that you need in order to write the piece optimally. As a matter of style, though, ditch the words not required to express the ideas, and be properly clear and rhythmical while you’re at it.
Here are some examples:
Extra words: But I wanted to get an idea of the lay of the land.
Trimmed: But I wanted to get the lay of the land.
As you write, as well as when you edit your own writing, you need to stay alert for words that aren’t required and to cull them out. This is still another automatic mental habit you want to form as a writer.
Extra words: “We are waiting for only two more people at our table, so why don't you have a seat?”
Trimmed: “We’re waiting for only two more, so please join us.”
Express the idea. And when writing fiction, express the idea as the character would. But rarely will you need to go on at great length.
Extra words: His headlights reflecting off the wet pavement made it difficult to spot all the potholes, and his unmarked department vehicle bounced uncomfortably along.
Trimmed: His unmarked vehicle bounced along the wet blacktop, making him curse.
One thing we want to think about when writing is how much description a bit of business actually deserves. How important, for instance, is the setting? How important are the details? If the setting and details aren’t important, then don’t include a lot of extras. We’re living in an age of impatient readers. Cut back on description; sketch in background material.
On the other hand, you might want to include very specific details, such as the name of a street or an area of the city, even the make of the car. Details help to fill in the picture and to add color, while not actually taking that many words. Do we think the writer who created the above knows Detroit? No. Specific details will make our readers trust us more.
Pithy but with detail: His unmarked DPD vehicle bounced over the wet blacktop alongside Kronk Recreation Center, making him curse.
Okay, two Detroiters—what did I say wrong? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for your (small) prize. Only two! I’m going broke here.
Where’s the Beef?
In addition to being efficient in wording, let’s try packing both our articles and our fiction with interesting information. If you don’t have that, even in fiction, you don’t have anything. You have air. If you give us only air (a lot of nothing), at least give us blank pages where we can rest our eyes. Don’t bother us with the dinning nuisance of more words in an overly wordy universe.
Too gabby: I’m Finally Out of School—Now What? is designed to provide down-to-earth, helpful advice as you begin this next phase of your life. Many of the subjects we’ll cover are things most people out in the world take for granted, but you might not yet have encountered the reality of having to deal with such everyday circumstances.
Cut to the chase: I’m Finally Out of School—Now What? will cover many aspects of everyday life that people living on their own for the first time will need to understand.
The best writing is forceful and direct, but often writers are so eager to pinpoint an exact concept—90 percent of this, but 10 percent of that—that they water down the sentence by equivocating.
Wishy washy: He had seemingly disappeared into thin air.
Direct: He had disappeared into thin air.
The reader knows he didn’t actually disappear into thin air, but that something untoward probably happened to him. Yes, I just equivocated by the use of the word “probably,” and that’s because he might have engineered his own disappearance. I’m not entirely against equivocation, you see, but I want to bring the consideration to mind.
Often we use extra words to waffle on one point or another. We might ask ourselves if we really should introduce that wiggle room for a statement, diminishing the strength of the idea and the sentence itself.
Here’s the bonus for reading the above. Don’t cheat, guys.
Want to Query by Email? Ahhh, Yes.
Seventy-five percent of all Americans are online. Some of us are online 75 percent of the time.
Many agents prefer to hear initially from authors via email. They like email inquiries for the same reason authors like them—ease of use. Agents who receive email queries can respond quickly while in the office. But usually they prefer to carry partials and full manuscripts home at night or to their summer beach house in the Hamptons (that’s a sort of joke based on a common misperception, since not all agents or editors earn enough money for those fabled long summer weekends).
Most writers prefer to query by way of email. Certainly it’s cheaper. Of course not all agents want email queries and something can be said about a paper query, which makes a nicer presentation, especially if you use a decent sheet of paper for the letter rather than the usual white bulk.
If you want to query by email, check the agent webpage first, or a listing in something like The Literary Marketplace to see if the agency will take an email pitch. (Try http://www.agentquery.com for information on agent preferences, too.) You should keep track of outgoing and incoming on these email queries and if you don’t get a response after a few weeks, try sending the query by way of snail mail. Or you can take the lack of reply as a signal that the agent has no interest. If that’s your approach, you don’t even have to track your responses. I know that sounds terrible, but, at the same time, if you aren’t good at the bookkeeping end, this is a legitimate way to do business when you’re sending more than a handful of email queries.
I’m friendly with an agent who doesn’t use email, and I must say, if I want to contact her quickly just to say a word or two, her not having email access is pretty inconvenient. If she were my agent, I wouldn’t care for that at all. Not that the agent’s use of email is a guarantee that any particular agent will answer you, even if you’ve signed with him. Agents ignore emails as well as phone calls when they feel like it. However, if they do respond, email is simply easier, and that’s why some authors will only sign with an author’s rep who feels comfortable with email communication, and who takes initial email queries.
However, someone pointed out to me that just because an agent doesn’t take an email query doesn’t mean she doesn’t use email to communicate with her actual clients, so at some point during your conversation with an agent, after a snail mail initial contact, you might ask. Or, in fact, some snail mail inquiries will be responded to by email—so include your email address.
And be aware that numerous agencies actually refuse snail mail queries—they’ll say so on their websites, if that’s the case.
Another thing you can do with email queries is to ask for a “read receipt” so that you at least know if the agent opened the email and looked. I personally don’t respond to “read receipts,” but that’s because I generally answer my email pretty speedily and don’t want to be bothered first acknowledging receipt.
Another benefit of email queries is that many times replies will come very quickly—that very day, possibly. Even an offer of representation can come within a day or two if the agent is really interested and will take the manuscript in electronic form. Someone told me, in fact, that in getting his book deal with a mainstream publisher, he never printed out a single page of paper. Not only did his agent respond electronically, so did the editor.
Sometimes if the agent or publisher will accept a submission of the actual writing by email, he/she will ask for a PDF file—that is, a file created by Adobe Acrobat. What you can do is go to Adobe.com and get your file turned into a PDF file as a free offer. Otherwise, you can buy the program outright, which is a bit expensive, or lease the program on a yearly basis.
Actually, more and more agents have been requesting emailed files of partials and many prefer PDF files, since they can’t be changed, and this sort of assures the story won’t be “stolen” (which it won’t be, anyway). Another reason for this format is that the editor may want to read on a PDA or laptop, and she may prefer reading in PDF.
You can also go to a search engine and ask for "free conversion to PDF" to find other software that converts files unto PDF.
Other than that, if you’re asked to cut and paste some of your writing into the email, you might want to save your word processing document as plain text and then cut and paste from there to avoid format oddities. Another way to approach this cut and paste problem is to switch off the html setting on your email. Save the email as a draft. Open it again and make corrections. Strange things can happen to email as it transmits and you want to make the material as readable as possible.
One agent tells me she answers all her email queries, but that if a spam blocker is on, she won’t take another step to get her response through to the author. What should you do if you’re the author with the aggressive spam blocker on your email? Set up an email address with Yahoo or Hotmail and do all your agent mailing from that address. That should work.
For a free PDF program, go to http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2006/12/01/30-essential-pieces-of-free-and-open-software-for-windows/
G. Miki Hayden teaches at the Writer’s Digest online school. She’s an award winning fiction writer who has been praised by the NYTimes. Miki writes about writing in The Naked Writer and a prior well-received book, Writing the Mystery.
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