1-Understand an editor's life and priorities-- Do you realize every editor at Harlequin is responsible for around 35 authors? They do not each have a secretary. All the editors in one line share one editorial assistant. Editors are responsible for:
reading proposals from their authors
reading submitted and contracted manuscripts from their authors
going through all the stages that are involved the production of a finished novel: revisions, line edits, copy edits, and galley proofs (or AAs)
Writing back cover blurb
collecting art information for the cover and following the cover art production schedule
attending meetings, conferences and keeping their desks neat
and their very last priority, reading through their slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts.
As you can see, the life of an editor is packed with details and a multitude of deadlines for many authors. Now if you are going to send a person this busy something to read, what do you think she would be most likely to read first:
an envelope with the query letter?
a thin manila envelope?
a very thick Priority Mail envelope that shouts long and unsolicited manuscript?
Well if it were me, an editor with a whole lot of things to do and very little extra time at my desk, I'd choose the envelope with the query letter. Wouldn't you?
So if you want a quick answer as to whether the editor's interested in your project, just send a query and the first page of your manuscript or just the premise of your proposal. That is all she really needs to see. My second choice would be the thin manila envelope, containing the query letter, the first page of my proposal, and the first scene of my manuscript. That's all an editor really needs to see to decide if she wants to read your whole manuscript. Now if you prefer to send the whole manuscript to the slush pile, that is permissible. But you will wait a lot longer, months longer, to receive an answer.
AND believe me, if you don't catch an editor's attention within the first three pages or the first scene, you will not hear good news from her. So sending more is really counterproductive. You need to send the right stuff to the right person in the right way to meet with success. That is what I am going to be teaching you in this workshop.
2-Craft a proposal that has what the editor is looking for
Immediate interest-something's happening! who, what, when, where, how, why
For teaching purposes, I am going to start with the first few pages of my historical DORRITT first in my "Texas Star of Destiny" series for Avon Inspire which I will turn in later this year. It will debut in October 2008.
"Belle Vista Plantation (WHERE)
New Orleans, August 1821 (WHEN)
"You wish to marry well? By that, Jewell, you mean marry a wealthy man?" Dorritt Mott sat in her stepfather's lavish parlor, the heavy afternoon heat weighing her down. (WHO, WHERE, WHAT, HOW)
"There can be no other meaning, sister." Fanning herself, her younger half-sister took another promenade around the parlor. (WHO, WHERE, WHAT, HOW)
Dorritt ignored her mother's shocked disapproval. She sensed that today was the climax of months of planning by her stepfather." (WHO, WHY)
I've included a five W's in parentheses. And I've chosen to begin with dialogue, I hope provocative dialogue, character -revealing dialogue—something crucial is happening in that stifling parlor. WHERE, WHEN and WHO are easy to locate. To me, HOW deals with the condition of the characters and the setting—i.e., the heat, their emotion and activity. The WHY is what is the underlying tension, something's about to change, something's in question, something's pending.
Suggested Exercise: Check your first paragraph or two and make certain that they always include these 5 W's. AND NOTHING MORE!
Beginning writers ALWAYS tell the reader TOO MUCH. The rule is: Only give the reader, especially an editor, the 5 W's and keep them guessing!
DEATH TO BACKSTORY IN CHAPTER ONE!
3-Include Three ESSENTIALS:
In Dianne Castell's "Up Close and Personal" from March 2007 RWR featuring a Audrey LaFehr of Kensington Publishing: (on page 37) and I quote:
"Question 8) What aspects of a new writer's work really catch your eye? I know it's been said a million times before, but it is the voice that catches my eye or ear if you well. It's a voice that intrigues me and appeals to me, a voice I want to listen to from the start, and more and more as the pages go on. It's a voice that's appropriate to the genre and matches the type of story being told, whether that's a taut and weighty thriller, a soft and lyrical literary novel, fun and sassy contemporary fiction, or an intense and emotional romance. It's a consistent and insistent voice, where you feel the author's intention quite clearly and powerfully, but you don't "see" the author herself behind that narrative voice. Sorry voice is intangible and very hard to describe. I did my best!"
Frankly I think she did a very good job. Voice is the very hardest thing to learn or distinguish for the new writer because it's just developing. The only way you develop your voice is by writing A LOT. And sometimes we confuse it with a character voice, two very different things. My suggestions:
· Keep a journal and periodically read aloud from it. Write about your life, your characters, what you are trying to write, etc.
· Try to decide which genre or sub genre reflects or correlates to your natural voice. I write in three sub genres of inspirational novels: romance, romantic suspense, and historical saga. Each one of them is written in my voice for that sub genre. But evidently, my voice is strongest in the last one, historical sagas. I realized this due to contests. Occasionally, one of my contemporary novels will final in a contest. But only my historicals rise to place in many contests and my 1996 Golden Heart finalist manuscript was historical and my first RITA nomination was with my historical CHLOE in 2006.
So you need to ask yourself what you want to write the most, and enjoy writing most, and what receives the most positive response from readers and contest judges. For nine years, I was unable to sell anything to anyone in NYC. It took Wendy McCurdy. Senior Editor at Bantam, in 1994 to tell me at a conference that I was writing for the inspirational market. She could hear it, but I was clueless! As soon as I investigated and changed markets, I sold. That's how important voice is.
Suggested Exercise for finding your voice--Rewrite your first chapter in first person. This will bring out your voice and your characters' distinctive voices. The story will suddenly become much more personal, much more yours. It will also show up any Point of View errors and clumsy constructions. Today, why don't you try writing at least the first page of your manuscript in first person.
And ask yourself:
Is my voice distinctive?
Does my voice fit what I am writing?
Is my sub genre clear from my first page?
According to Dwight Swain, readers read for emotion. We want to have boring and mundane lives but to read exciting, emotion-packed fiction. If you are skimming, not delving deeply enough into the portrayal of the emotions of your characters and doing that in every scene, you will not be acquired. If you are writing the easy scenes with your fun and undemanding secondary characters and skipping the hard, emotional, heart-wrenching scenes that nearly destroy your hero and heroine or lift them to heaven, you will not be acquired.
According to Susan Naomi Horton in her classic article "Making Them Tick: Motivation and Emotional Intensity" reprinted by many RWA chapter newsletters in the mid-90s, emotional intensity is necessary to sell and it is created by:
meaningful conflict (More about these later.)
There are five ways to portray emotion in prose, and here they are from the least effective to the most effective:
just saying what emotion a character is feeling, (Mary was sad.)
revealing it through dialogue, (Hey, Mary, you look sad.)
revealing it through interior monologue (or the character's thoughts underlined), (I'm so sad, Mary thought. Does Bill really love me?) Note present tense.
through the characters actions, (Mary sat down and cried.)
and finally the most effective, through the character's physical reactions to some stimulus. (When Mary saw her boyfriend kiss Thelma, she realized that she'd stopped breathing. She gasped and turned away. Please don't let them see me.) Oh sorry, I got carried away—just the first 2 sentences!
I recommend highly two online workshops by Margie Lawson, PhD—Empowering Character Emotion and EDITS revision system. Whole books have been written on this topic so this is all that I have to say about it—DO IT.
Here is the rest of page 1 and page 2 of Dorritt. Read and pick out all the words, phrases, sentences—and figure out all the ways I have portrayed emotion in this passage. No one is dying here, but there is a lot going on in that lavish parlor. Of course, since it's the beginning, I am just setting up the characters and their emotions. I'm launching them and as the chapter progresses Dorritt will finally hit the high emotional point near the end of the first chapter, the chapter's climax.
"Dorritt's tambour embroidery frame and stand sat in front of her at hand level. Placing tiny artful stitches helped her conceal how her heart skipped and jumped. How would it all play out today? Dorritt looked up at Jewell. "Don't you think love is necessary to marry well?"
Jewell made a sound of dismissal. "These odd humors, your peculiar comments all come from books. You read too much, Dorritt. Father always says so and mother agrees." Jewell's high-waisted white dress swayed with her wandering.
"Then it must be so." The heat of the afternoon was squeezing Dorritt like a sodden tourniquet. She put down her needle and pinched the bridge of her nose. Over the past months, she had stood back and read the signs of her stepfather's devious manipulation of facts and circumstances. Did Jewell have any idea what might end? Begin today?
With a handkerchief, Mother blotted her perspiring face. "Please, Jewell, you must sit down and relax, compose yourself."
"Why hasn't André come yet?" Jewell attacked the lush Boston fern which sat on the stand by the French doors. She pulled off a frond and began stripping it. "He told me he would be asking my father's permission today."
There is many a slip between the cup and lip. "Perhaps he has been delayed." Dorritt set another tiny stitch with the rigid concentration.
Would her stepfather manage to work his conjuring once more, bend reality to his selfish and greedy will? And more important, could Dorritt use it in her favor? Her hands stuttered and she had to pull the needle back out.
The sound of an approaching horse drew Jewell to the French doors that led to the garden. "I can't see the rider. He has already dismounted under the porte-cochere. That doesn't look like André's horse," she added fretfully and tossed the mangled fern frond back into the pot.
Readers keep reading for only one reason. They keep turning pages to find the answer to some question or to find out what the character is hinting at, what is going to happen next. They won't read on because you write beautiful prose. And the most discriminating reader of all is the editor you're hoping will acquire you. Every chapter has a hook at the beginning and a hook at the end. And so does every scene. Many people take a lot of time working on their first sentences in an attempt to hook the reader immediately. Sometimes we can come up with a winning first sentence and sometimes we can't. But you will do just as well if you can plant a hook in the first paragraph or two. An editor will at least read the first couple of paragraphs, so just get a good one in there and then keep it going. Plant little hints that someone has a hidden agenda, something big's coming, that secrets will be revealed--some time in the upcoming page. That's a way to keep the reader (editor) stuck to your pages.
Suggested Exercise for emotions and hooks
Go through my first two pages of Dorritt and highlight all the emotions portrayed and all the hooks I've planted. Then look at your first two paragraphs, highlight them for both hooks and emotion, improve them
Remember make them laugh, make them cry, make them wonder.
I hope this exercise is helpful. Please feel free to comment here or on my webstie: www.LynCote.net
Suggested Writer Resources:
Dwight Swain's TECHNIQUES OF A SELLING WRITER
Christopher Vogler's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY
James Scott Bell's PLOT AND STRUCTURE
Tami Cowden's HERO AND HEROINE ARCHETYPES
Online Workshops by Margie Lawson, PhD—Empowering Character Emotion, EDITS revision system
Kathy Jacobsen's A NOVEL APPROACH (Conflict Grid, etc.)
http://www.kathyjacobsen.com/ $25 for PDF file (220 pages) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!
HEA (Happily Ever After) Café for archived lessons on query, synopsis and beginnings and more! www.rwaonlinechapter.org/pubbedauthors
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