Saturday, June 14, 2008

Understand The Gatekeepers

Writers never cease to amaze me about their lack of understanding concerning the details of publishing. Many people will invest hours in writing their manuscript or story, yet not take the time to learn the basic details about the book business and even the typical elements in producing a book. For example they will write a full nonfiction manuscript instead of writing a book proposal. Or more frequently in the fiction category, they will craft a full manuscript which is not even close to being within the expected word limits.

When someone writes me a pitch for a novel or a nonfiction book which is substantially over or under the expected normal lengths, I take the unusual step instead of sending a form letter (which I also send), I will often write back a short response and point out their challenge with the length and reference this post I wrote several years ago. My post actually points to bestselling novelist Lori Copeland and her advice about length for novels in different genres.

Novelists unlike their nonfiction counterparts have to complete the full story before they shop it to the agents or editors. This requirement is particularly true for the unpublished novelist. As a writer I understand that they have gotten wrapped up in their storytelling and completed their novel. Last week I was pitched a novel with these specifications:

Genre: Contemporary Mainstream Fiction written saga style and spanning the time period from 1940-2013.

Audience: Adults 18-54 Word Count: 190,000

In my response, I encouraged this author that she was substantially over the normal word count. Her response to my note that I was going to pass up this opportunity, "I will take my chances with the length as I'm know it's a good story as is. Besides, editors have to have something to cut from...and if they can figure out a part that isn't needed for the story line, I'll be happy to make the adjustments."

This type of naive response shows the writer has almost zero understanding of the needs of the editor who is the gatekeeper within the publishing house. Imagine for a minute the massive amount of possible material that is coming your direction from respected and known literary agents, writers that the editor has met at a conference or in some other venue and other sources. Often I compare the volume to someone trying to catch a drink of water from a fire hose. If you have such volume of submissions coming your direction, how do you sift through the piles? One of the easiest ways is with the word count criteria. You glance at the story line and writer, then see the number of words in their story and if it is way over the top (as in this case), then you reject it. The editor never reads the story or even a few pages of it. Why? Because it is a tremendous amount of work to cut 70,000 words from a submission and there are better and more effective ways to spend your time.

The other element that this author doesn't understand is the challenge to get any novel published in the traditional marketplace. Why? There are limited opportunities--in fact--much more limited opportunities than in the nonfiction area. While there is great marketing hoopla made about some fiction authors,
nonfiction consistently out sells fiction. I can hear the protests out there saying things like:

*"But with fiction I don't need a platform or to be known like I do with nonfiction." True but you can build a nonfiction platform. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction you need to be building your own presence in the marketplace. I've given many ideas about these matters
in these entries on The Writing Life.

*"But with fiction I can just make it up and don't need to do research." No, whether you are writing a contemporary or a historical or a romance, you need to do research and have your facts right. One of my friends is a reader for several Hollywood production companies. They pay him a reading fee to review published (or about to be published) novels for possible films. Recently he was telling me about a forthcoming historical from a well-known Christian publisher (part of a series of books from this novelist) with a historical error in the first chapter. He discovered the error in a matter of minutes using Google. Because this writer failed to be historically accurate in her storytelling, she unknowingly missed an opportunity to be considered for a film project. Admittedly it is rare for a novel to be made into a movie (just check the statistical possibilities in
this post that I wrote in December 2005). The historical inaccuracy killed the opportunity for this novelist.

Instead of figuring "the editor has to have something to cut, they will fix it," make a commitment to crafting your idea as close to what the publisher needs as possible. Then the editor or literary agent can take your project to an even higher level of excellence.

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2 Comment:

At 7:54 PM, Blogger Krista Phillips Left a note...

WoW! That is quite a rebuttal there, and quite a long book as well. I think what amazes me even more is the idea of "Oh, the editor will just change it." I get that response from family members when I tell them I am in editing mode on my book. "Oh, Krista, that's what editor's are for! Why are you wasting your time?" Well, of course! BUT! If I want to get noticed in the first place, my manuscript better be tight and as perfect as I can humanly get it. I'm sure editors will have suggestions and changes, but we need to have pride in the quality we are submitting too. To submit a book completely ignorant of a publisher's guidelines and of common grammar, spelling, and modern writing technique isn't a wise move.

Regarding fiction vs. Non-fiction, my argument with you is not that "but I don't have to have a platform to write it" or about research etc. The thing is, I can't choose to be a non-fiction writer. I am just not. God made me a novelist. I love to mold characters, dream up conflicts, and craft the words to touch a reader's heart. I am not saying I will never write non-fiction, but it isn't my heart, and that goes beyond what sells best or building a platform. Would I love to sell my stories and earn a living? Absolutely! But, as I told my boss the other day, I don't leave my ethics and integrity at the door when I enter the office, and the same goes to my writing. I won't sell out God's calling on my life to earn more $$. Plus, I doubt I could write a good non-fiction book even if I tried.

At 9:49 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


I agree that some writers (a very few in my experience) are natural born storytellers or novelists. The majority of the submissions that I see are people who "think" they are storytellers or novelists but have never bothered to study the craft of storytelling--and it does not come naturally for them. These folks end up telling their story or writing it because of a particular issue they want to emphasize rather than "showing" the reader the story from the first words in the manuscript. My bottomline is there is a lot of poor stuff in circulation and searching through it for the quality manuscripts takes far more time than most people realize.


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