Persistence is Everything

Years ago Andre Agassi famously said, “Image is everything.” Okay, it was a commercial, so he was paid to say it, but he get credit anyway. In fiction writing — and publishing — image isn’t as important as persistence, especially if you have a quality story or novel to offer.

Pursuing a traditional publisher can be frustrating. Each rejection is disappointing. Add up a bunch of them and a writer can get downright devastating.

Have hope. Here’s a spotlight on one writer’s journey. All true.

His first book, a short story collection, racked up 38 rejections over five years before a publisher finally said yes.

His second book, his first novel, was published four years later, after it was rejected 30 times.

Give up? Not this author. He and his agent persisted. They believed in his second novel, and despite 24 rejections, were rewarded with a publishing contract.

Most writers would be content to hear that ending. But there’s more.

Oprah took an interest, word spread, and the book hit bestseller status. It was made into a movie. The movie got at least one Oscar nomination.

You’ve heard of that book: “The House of Sand and Fog,” by Andre Dubus III.

But this isn’t the entire story. You also should know that Andre Dubus is the son of Andre Dubus (II) who had already established a very strong reputation for himself as a writer.

So no whining that “You have to have connections” or “You have to have a recognized name” is allowed. Andre Dubus III had both, and he still struggled.

What you need are three things to get traditionally published: a great manuscript, an agent who believes in you and will go the extra mileage on your behalf, and persistence.

Can you go it alone? Maybe. But an agent opens doors you can’t, and will take you down roads you don’t even know exist. What you need to share with that agent is a level of commitment and the willingness to persist, despite those 20 or 30 or 40 rejections. Because who knows what will happen next?

Blurb?

What’s in a blurb? What’s a blurb, anyway?

I’ve been hearing the word in this context: “Would you read my book and write a blurb for it?”

“Sure,” I say. “Tell me what you mean by ‘blurb’.”

“You know, a quote for my book cover.”

OHHHH! A testimonial. Something that raves about how wonderful the book is. That’s what they’re looking for. (And if the book is good, that’s what they get.)

This is a different use of “blurb” than I’d always heard, which is that little description that summarizes a book’s story in marketing materials. Here’s an example from my newest book, Pea Body:


Betty and Walt Rollin are bird watching at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, avoiding Talkative Ted and Clingy Caroline, their overbearing neighbors at the RV “resort” where they’ve been staying. When Betty spots a very non-avian body at the edge of a far pond, she and Walt are drawn into the investigation. What they discover threatens to uncover long-held secrets that could ruin local reputations, and plunges these retired, full-time RVers up to their necks in the deep sand of local politics and passions.

It appears on the back cover and serves as a teaser for readers considering whether to buy the book. Is it their type of story? Does it sound as though it has characters with whom they can identify or some other aspect that makes it familiar or intriguing?

You read them all the time. You’re in a bookstore or library, browsing, telling yourself you’re NOT going to buy another book until you finish the one you’re reading, then a title or cover draws your attention. You tug it from the shelf. You turn it over to read the description (the blurb) on the back cover.

Do you pick up those free newsletters in bookstores and libraries that tell you what’s new on the shelves? I picked up one — I’m not sure where (we are in so many places, after all…) — called Book World Page by Page. A slew of books in various categories are summarized in a few sentences each and a thumbnail image of their covers. Let’s take a close look at a few so you can see the same pattern I spotted in nearly all of them. [I'd give credit to the writers of these, but I don't know where they originated (they might have all come directly from the book covers or flaps, for all I know).]

Here’s the description for ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, by Lauren Francis-Sharma. The info before the description says it’s fiction, published by Henry Holt, available in hardcover and released in April 2014; it includes the cost and ISBN. But here’s what we’re interested in… the blurb:


In a village in Trinidad, young Marcia Garcia, a gifted, smart-mouthed seamstress lives alone, raising two small boys and guarding a family secret. When she meets Farouk Karam, an ambitious young policeman (so taken with her that he elicits the help of a tea-brewing obeah woman to guarantee her ardor), the risks and rewards in Marcia’s life amplify. On an island rich with laughter, calypso, and cricket, the novel follows Marcia and Farouk from their courtship through personal and historical events that threaten Marcia’s secret, entangle them in a scandal, and endanger their future.

Whew! Sounds like a good read to me!

How did this blurb make me want to hunt down the book? Let’s break it up into its various elements. (Ah! Yes! It is very strategically written, as you’ll see….)

Using just 102 words, the blurb manages to give us the following information:

The setting: Trinidad
The main character (MC): Marcia Garcia, “a gifted, smart-mouthed seamstress”
The set-up: She lives alone, raising two sons, and has a secret
The triggering event: She meets Farouk Karam who gets her to fall in love with him
Tease: “…personal and historical events… threaten Marcia’s secret, entangle them in a scandal, and endanger their future”

Wow! That covers a lot of ground — sort of like the trailer for a movie that gives you an idea of the mood and setting, what’s at stake and for whom.

Your Turn

Here’s the description for a teen novel titled Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend by Katie Finn. See if you can dissect it:


Gemma’s summer takes a turn when she gets dumped and finds herself back in the Hamptons after a five-year absence. Being there puts her at risk of bumping into Hallie, her former best friend (that is, before Gemma ruined her life). But people don’t hold grudges forever. Do they? Gemma wants to make amends, but a small case of mistaken identity causes the people she knew years ago — like Hallie and her dreamy brother Josh — to think she’s someone else. Can Gemma keep up the charade? Or will she be found out by the very people she’s been hiding from?

Jot these down from the description above:

The setting
The main character
The set-up
The triggering event
The tease

(Answers at the end of the post.)

This second blurb is 94 words, and gives a bonus — the suggestion of a subplot (perhaps there will be a romantic interest in Hallie’s “dreamy brother Josh.”

Length

You’ve heard it’s important to hone the description of your novel into a sentence or two, but just as important is how long those sentences are. I won’t quote the example here, out of respect for a fellow author, but when I paused by his table where he was selling his book, he handed me a postcard with an image of the cover and a two paragraph description. We’ll call the book The Boxy Brawler. It had just three sentences, but the first was 63 words long (!), the second ran another 42 words, and the third sentence 16 — a total of 119 words.

An extra 19 or so words doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re reading a 63-word sentence, you feel their weight like you feel those extra pounds after a holiday or a cruise (you know what I’m talking about).

Be Specific

What else do you notice about the two sample descriptions? Do you see how specific they are?

The main characters are named (Marcia and Gemma, in these examples). In the first, we aren’t reading about a novel featuring a “young single mother from Trinidad,” we’re reading about Marcia. And in the second, we’re not just tuning in to a teenagers summer, we’re reading about Gemma.

The settings are also specific and are mentioned early in the description. Nobody likes to feel lost, and we’re the same way when we read something — even if it’s a short book blurb. We need to feel oriented, so that what comes next makes sense. Be specific: cities or states or countries. If yours is a sprawling, multi-location tome, mention the key locales (London, Paris, Hong Kong…). The added bonus is that you might hit on a place in the world where someone who picks up your book at random feels a connection: “Oh! I’ve been there (or grew up there, or served in the military there, or have always wanted to go there…)!”

The Boxy Brawler failed on both of these counts. Types of characters are mentioned — a CEO, politicians, intelligence officers, and a sort of sorceress, among others — but no one main character is named. If the author can’t give me the name of a main character, then I’m wondering if they book is so scattered among the array of character types he mentions that I won’t care about any of them. (And you know what that means, don’t you?)

The setting is briefly mentioned in that 26-word final sentence, and though I’ve been to the small town it mentions, I was so cold to the book’s premise by then that it wasn’t enough to entice me to buy the book.

More on Boxy Brawler

I gave it this fake name, which is purposely puzzling, because the real title is a head-scratcher. I’m sure the author wanted an intriguing title, but without identifying the main character in his description, I have no idea who the title refers to. I’m not intrigued, I’m confused and disoriented about whose story I’d be reading.

The description doesn’t give us a a set-up, but it does hint at the triggering event — a corporate executive is approached by that sorceress character — but we can’t appreciate what that might mean if we don’t have the set-up.

Are you starting to see how these various elements in the description work together to build interest in a potential buyer? No? Okay… here’s more….

Use the Words Wisely

So how does the description of The Boxy Brawler use up all of those words, if we’re not getting essential information?

Despite a large, legible (good job here) image of the book cover and the title of the book printed at the top of the postcard, the first sentence repeats the name of the book, so that wastes critical wordage (and space). The description also spends most of its words on the “teaser,” using phrases like, “multi-faceted story about…” and “a compelling and momentous drama.”

Don’t tell me the book is “compelling” or “fascinating” or “wonderful” or “entertaining” unless you’re quoting some respected source. I’ll make up my own mind. Using descriptors like those sounds like a desperate attempt to get me to appreciate the book before I’ve read it. Just tell me what the book is about and I’ll decide on my own whether it’s compelling or fascinating or wonderful. I’ll know whether I was entertained or not. Did you see any of those words in the two examples above? Me, neither.

Summary

Be concise. Be specific. Tell the reader/potential buyer who the main character is, where the book is set, a sliver of the background (set-up) so the triggering event makes sense, and finish with a tease.

Would I submit my own blurb for the same dissection? Sure:


Betty and Walt Rollin are bird watching at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, avoiding Talkative Ted and Clingy Caroline, their overbearing neighbors at the RV “resort” where they’ve been staying. When Betty spots a very non-avian body at the edge of a far pond, she and Walt are drawn into the investigation. What they discover threatens to uncover long-held secrets that could ruin local reputations, and plunges these retired, full-time RVers up to their necks in the deep sand of local politics and passions.

Main characters: Betty and Walt Rollin
Setting: the Outer Banks of North Carolina, including Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Set-up: Full-time RVers staying at an RV resort who are out birdwatching (suggested subplot with annoying RV neighbors)
Triggering event: They discover a dead body
Tease: Their involvement in the investigation threatens respected local residents and puts themselves in harm’s way

How about your novel? Do you have a 100-word (or close) description that covers these bases? Could it do the job better? Go forth and edit those blurbs :)

Results of the Broken Hearts Dissection:

How did you do? Here’s what I found:

MC — Gemma
Setting — summer in the Hamptons
Set-up — Gemma has been away five years; at some point she “ruined” her best friend Hallie’s life
Triggering event: “a small case of mistaken identity causes the people she knew years ago to think she’s someone else”
Tease — “Can Gemma keep up the charade? Or will she be found out by the very people she’s been hiding from?”

Color Swatches for Your Cover

I know, I know. Everybody says get a professional to design your book cover, and you probably should. But I’ve seen some “professional” covers that are hideous. I won’t name names, but I will say that if I ever *do* decide to hire an artist to do my cover, I’m watching out for a few of these folks so I can steer all the way around them.

If you’re on your own for your cover, but the mere thought of combining colors to make an appealing combination leaves you in a cold sweat on even the hottest summer day, here’s something you might try.

Color swatches. You know, for paint.

Shopping in a True Value hardware store the other day, the board of paint swatches caught my eye. How do people choose which color to surround themselves in when there are so many possibilities? We live in an RV, remember, and although some people actually paint the interior of their rig, I’m content to spend my time writing rather than re-decorating.

So I wasn’t thinking of painting when I saw those swatches — I was thinking of book covers. See that bottom section of “Pea Body”? I picked that color of green because I thought it worked with the rest of the image. What about my next cover, which I’ve started to design?

I wandered over to the swatches, and saw some helpful brochures. My fingers swept past the one about when flat paint works better than high-gloss but landed on one in a series of “themes.”

They’ve conveniently included a complementary color. Here’s a crude re-creation of what I saw, with the accent color on the right:

paintswatches

How cool is that? You can skim the swatches, pick out the color you most want to use, and see the accent color the professionals recommend.

I carried the swatch with me to the checkout and laid it on the counter with our other items. “Oh!” the clerk said. “Which one are you leaning toward?”

After I explained we weren’t painting anything, but I was picking colors for a book cover, I pointed to the closest shade. “That’s the color of my wedding,” she said. We congratulated her. Maybe that’s another use for these swatches, if you’re tying the knot anytime soon :-)

Writers Roundup

Below are a few choice resources to keep your writing motor oiled and running as we finish off July. Write on!

 

Protect Yourself

This is one time I’m glad my books aren’t phenomenally popular! But in case yours are… here’s a link from a recent Publishing Poynters newsletter. According to Aaron Shepard, “Ebooks are being pilfered and posted for free download from a site called MassZip.com. Go there and check for your books. They especially like color PDFs.” Ikes!

 

Is Amazon Your Friend or Foe?

Yep, we all need Amazon. Unfortunately, we need Amazon more than it needs authors, bookstores, publishers or others. Sitting pretty much at the top of the publishing food chain means Amazon can decide which prey it wants to hunt and how much of the meat it’s going to share (if any). The Hachette situation raised needed awareness about the situation, but don’t be so quick to think it won’t affect you. For interesting insight from a small publishing house’s perspective, see “How Amazon.com is Hurting Readers and Publishers,” by Karen Christensen at Berkshire Blog.

 

Self-Publishing

What’s the best price for an e-book? Are free book giveaways still the way to go? Do pre-orders help sell books? Do readers prefer a longer e-book or a shorter one? The answers to these questions and more are in the 2014 Smashwords Survey. The Smashwords blog summarizes key results and links to a slide show with more data. Very revealing!

Make the Telling Interesting

We’ve all heard we need to “show not tell.” And we’ve all listened to both sides of the debate — maybe even taken a side. I’m here to say it’s not a choice. You need both. What is debatable is how you do it.

First, let’s review what we mean by “show” and what we mean by “tell.”

Show

“Show” is scene. Those are the places in the book where characters do things. They talk to each other. Something is usually happening, even if it’s something subtle.

For example:

“Shawna stood languidly at the bus stop, her slack body betraying the exhaustion she felt. She struggled to keep her eyes open and so kept them moving up and down the street, watching for the bus, then counting taxis as they passed going in the other direction. ‘Why couldn’t he have sprung for a cab?’ she asked no one in particular.

“‘Men. They can be such cheap wazoos, can’t they?’

“The voice startled Shawna. She’d thought she was alone, but at some point another woman had joined her at the stop. ‘I’m sorry,’ Shawna said. ‘What did you say?'”

You can visualize what’s happening: the figure of a woman fighting to stay away, frustrated to be waiting for a bus when she could have been in a cab. We can hear the woman who’s quietly joined Shawna at the stop.

Tell

As I type these subtitles, I can’t help remembering the “Show and Tell” days in elementary school. You showed the class something and told everyone about them. Remember the kid who just showed something, too shy to utter a word about what he or she was holding up (usually in front of the face)? Remember how puzzling that was?

I’m not for a minute saying that you should explain what you’re showing in your novel. Instead, think of each as a necessary half to the whole.

Elizabeth Lyon explains this about the best I’ve seen it done in her book, Writing Subtext: How to craft subtext that develops character, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme. In her “Quick Review of Craft” section, she briefly reminds readers of what we mean by characters, plot, story, theme, and narration. About this last one she writes, “[i]Narration[/i], simply put, includes all forms of ‘telling,’ not to be confused with the word ‘narrative,’ which means ‘the story’. Narration is a whopper category that includes information, description of characters and setting, flashback summaries, thought, and the ‘sad, mad, glad’ emotions as well as the ‘fight, flight, excite’ reactions. You may have heard the writer’s mantra ‘show don’t tell’. Show means plot action and tell means narration. All together, you have produced the narrative of your story, told by narrators — the protagonist, other viewpoint characters, and sometimes the author. When used well, narration adds depth, but when overused, telling tempts the reader to skip portions of your book.”

What she doesn’t say (at least not here) is that when the author is the narrator, that third person narration should still have a voice. It might be pretty straightforward reportage or it could be a voice with unique characteristics, a voice that conveys mood and creates atmosphere. It’s not an active character within the book, but it’s an active element in giving the book its personality, of providing a sense of cohesiveness.

Take a look at these three examples:

Toni Morrison’s opening to Sula:

“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom….”

Tom Robbins’ opening paragraph to Another Roadside Attraction:

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami. However significant that discovery may be — and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us — it is not the incident with which to begin this report.”

Stephen King’s opening for The Shining:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

“Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting….”

How can you not be drawn in? These are not scenes. These paragraphs are not “showing” us something. They are narration. They are “telling” us something. Yet each is interesting and compelling. Each captures our interest and urges us to keep reading.

 

Show and Tell

So you see, it’s not a matter of whether you should show OR tell. It’s a matter of how you will do both: how you will balance the scenes and the narration, the drama and the description.

Combine compelling narration with sense-filled scenes, and you’ll create the illusion necessary for lulling your reader out of their chair and into the world you have created on the page.

Writers Roundup

What can I say about all of these recent posts rounding up articles and blog posts for you? Not much except I’m trying to make up for the times when I can’t offer up much…. Enjoy these while you can!

 

Inspiration

Who can’t be inspired by the late Maya Angelou?!? Maria Popova at Brain Pickings gives us a beautiful homage to the beloved and respected poet in “Maya Angelou on Identity and the Meaning of Life.”

Writing

You’re at the keyboard, the scene is unfolding, the narrative soaring, the story moving…. You’ve gotten to a point where a break seems right. But should you just use spaces? Create a new chapter? Do something else entirely? How do you decide something like that, anyway? I’m so glad I found Ava Jae’s Writability post on this topic so I didn’t have to puzzle through it on my own.

Self-Publishing

You’ve heard the horror stories about writers who’ve been ripped off by unscrupulous “publishers” who promise the moon and deliver a burnt-out light bulb. Judith Briles at AuthorU offers up some excellent tips for avoiding that frustration in “Self-Publishing… Publishing Predators Put You and Your Book at Risk.”

Brooke Warner at She Writes defends what they do and draws a clear picture of what separates her service from some of the outfits that Judith Briles (previous item, above) warns us about. If you’re looking for more depth on the distinctions that exist out there — and there are many layers to self-publishing options, including legitimate co-operative arrangements — give “Not All Subsidy Presses are Created Equal” a look.

Marketing

Olivia Flores Alvarez reveals her “Top 5 Marketing Mistakes Indie Authors Make (And How to Do Better)” in this article from the Houston Press. Are you guilty of any?

eBook Singles

What’s Amazon up to with their Short Reads section? As of this writing, things are quiet, but Howard Polskin at Thin Reads has some ideas in “Amazon Creates Short Reads, New Section Devoted to E-Book Singles.” Could it be a new marketplace for you short works?

And here’s an oldie but a goodie, also about Amazon. If you’re wondering how many copies you have to sell to reach bestseller-dom in Amazon-land, take a gander at Gabe Habash’s article, which first appeared over a year ago at Publishers Weekly.

 

Stop Wasting Your Words

You’ve spent hours and hours fine-tuning a particular scene in your novel. It’s perfect. Except it doesn’t fit a new direction you’ve realized you need to take with the manuscript.

Or…

You’re three or twenty chapters into your newest novel, swimming along like a fish in the flow of your masterpiece when WHAM! You see the critical point in your novel more clearly than when you started. You’d bet your life on it being the logical, best thing to happen in your book — except it means going back to the beginning of your draft and overhauling huge chunks of what you’ve already written in order to make it work.

IKES!

Can you avoid it? Should you act like you never saw that perfect climactic scene so you can spare the riveting prose you’ve already penned? Do you really have to toss all that hard work into the trash?

Why does knowing other writers smash into this same abutment all the time not make it any easier? Surely some other writer with more experience has some secret to avoiding this…. There must be another way to deal prevent massive revisions. Outlining? Plotting in more detail? Longer, more precise character profiles before writing a word in the draft?

What’s Really Going On

You’re worried about wasting your time. You want to make the writing process more efficient. You want a tidy path from writing the first word all the way through typing “The End.”

How do you do that? Unfortunately, you can’t.

When we find ourselves chopping chunks (big or small) from our drafts, it’s easy to feel frustrated. Don’t. Resist trying to figure out ways to avoid this — you’ll spend more energy trying to find another way to bend the process to our liking than the energy you’ll expend just re-doing whatever needs to be done.

You can’t plan for every possible variation of your plot. You can plot very carefully, if that’s in your nature. But if you’re a “pantser” — drafting by the seat of your pants, letting the characters drive the plot from the get-go — then you have no choice but to accept that you’ll have to dump stuff.

Instead of focusing on getting the MSS finished as quickly as possible, immerse yourself in the process of drafting.

Think of the draft as an exploration into the characters and their situation. The draft is you chance to follow your instinct, or adhere to your outline — whichever.

You can’t screw up a draft. You have to tell yourself that over and over. Your draft is just that — a draft. It is not your final manuscript. It is in no way your final book. It is your playhouse. Your sandbox.

When you set yourself free to wallow in the draft, you’ll discover that nothing is wasted, even if you have to toss huge sections of the manuscript.

You might be hitting “Delete” a lot, but you have not wasted your time. You have not wasted the words. Quite the opposite: you have gained much more than you dumped.

You gained more writing experience, having written those words, those scenes, those passages of narration. You’ve gained a clearer insight into your project, and have a better idea of what the book is and will be when you’re done. You have grown as a writer through those pages.

It’s sort of like growing out of some of the clothes we had when we were kids. You might have absolutely loved that shirt and hated that you couldn’t wear it anymore — but before you knew it, you had a new favorite, then another. You probably couldn’t even tell us about that first favorite shirt today, could you? Or if you can, is it a shirt you’d want to wear again today? Probably not. You’ve outgrown it. Styles have changed. It’s old. Ragged. You have new shirts to wear instead.

So it goes with words and scenes and big chunks of that novel you have to chop. You’ll have new favorites scenes and narrative passages and you’ll chop those, too.

But as you grow as a writer, you’ll discover you’re dumping fewer and fewer sections — just as you save more favorite shirts, now that you’re older and aren’t growing as much.

Make no mistake: you’ll always have some extra stuff to shed, shirts that go to Goodwill because they aren’t in style any more or you’ve found you just don’t wear them any more. You’ll always have bits and pieces — sometimes big chunks — of your writing you’ll have to abandon, too.

Don’t fight it. Accept that it happens and move on. Tell yourself you needed to go down that path. It wasn’t the wrong path; it was your path. It was the necessary path to get where you are now.

And that’s the important thing.

What about you? How do you cope with chopping chunks of your writing?