Monday, May 19, 2008

Some Answers for Beginners

Writer's Digest asked me to answer some questions for an upcoming article, but I missed the deadline (it was less than a week and I just had too much to do for you), so I'm posting my answers here. But do look for the articles when they run (and let me know when they do).

Article No. 1: SELF-PUBLISHING

Q. Do you review queries where a writer wants you to take on their self-published book?
If yes, what are you hoping/looking for?
If not, you can be candid about why not.



We get many queries for self-published books. I have taken on a few. I have one I'm selling right now, but they are never easy to sell.


Q. Is there a "magic number" - number of sales you need to see before you will consider the book?

No. I've had books with fabulous quotes or sales of over 10,000 that haven't resold. It's depends on the market.


Q. Have you ever taken on a self-pub book before? Were you successful in finding a traditional publisher? How did that work?



I have a self-published cook book that I am selling now. I read about it in an article about self-published titles. I have not sold it yet.



I have found it really hard to place self-published bocks, both fiction and nonfiction, but I know other agents who thrive on this practice.


Article No. 2: CHAPTER ONE PET PEEVES

Dennis Lehane once said that the sign of an amateur writer is that they start a story with the cliché of the protagonist waking up from a dream, then staring out the window, then staring in the mirror, then finally leaving the apartment on page 4.

Q. What do you hate seeing in chapter 1? What are your pet peeves

This can be anything:
It can be something the protagonist does
It can be some aspect of writing or storytelling
It can be that the chapter is too long, too short or too unfocused
Prologues?
Anything....

What will immediately turn you off in chapter 1?



It's not so much the first chapter, as book length. More than half the queries are rejected because the books are too long or too short.

A publishable novel today needs to be about 80,000 words - 120,000 if it is epic fantasy. Anything longer, and/or shorter is unsellable in today's market. When I write to new authors and inform them of this they argue with me citing Jonathan Livingston Segal or some tome by Stephen King, both of which were products of the 70's. Today's market cannot support first novels that are less than 300 pages (who wants to pay $24.95 for a 180 page book?) or much over 350 pages.



Of course, with the faster paced movies we are watching, books really have to start off with a rush. Dean Koontz wrote in the classic, but out-of-print Writer's Digest book, How to Write Best-Selling fiction, that your novel should open with your main character in terrible trouble and then be in even more grave danger within 5 pages. This always works.

So your novel has to grab me by the first page, which is why we can reject you on one page.

16 comments:

Travis Erwin said...

I found the info on page count especially helpful. I though a mainstream at 100,00 was acceptable and that is what I have shopped until now. Glad the one I am working on is right at that 80,00 mark.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

So many aspiring writers have asked me for advice on their manuscripts, and I always tell them that if it doesn't grab me on the first page, I won't read past it because nobody else in the industry will, either. And those writers never believe me when I tell them that you can get rejected on one page. If only they would listen. . .

Ryan Field said...

The first page usually says it all.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Great! My WIP does start with my MC in trouble and then getting into an even more dangerous (but slightly subtler) situation. Word length is another good thing to keep in mind, and from what I've read, sci-fi/fantasy can generally get away with larger word counts (still within that 80k-120k range, mind you.)

Tod said...

[Of course, with the faster paced movies we are watching, books really have to start off with a rush. Dean Koontz wrote in the classic, but out-of-print Writer's Digest book, How to Write Best-Selling fiction, that your novel should open with your main character in terrible trouble and then be in even more grave danger within 5 pages. This always works.

So your novel has to grab me by the first page, which is why we can reject you on one page.]

It seems to me from reading these agent blogs that you always have one eye on a movie deal. Is this why so much action is demanded in the first paragraph?

No offense, but if that's true then I think it is sad.

Adaora A. said...

That was amazing. Thanks so much for that! Why didn't they give you more time? I don't see how they could have expected you to reply in under a week. Thanks for giving up the goods.

Jinx said...

Good information. Thanks for posting it. =)

BernardL said...

Great post, I'll bet Reader's Digest is sorry they didn't give you a little more time.

Lori Perkins said...

tod - I don't have an my eye on a movie deal, but the reader is always comparing theer entertainment dollar to other media and no longer has the time or the pateince for a long, drawn- out lead in. I find this to be the case in both ficiton and film.

BuffySquirrel said...

I've rejected short stories after the first line, never mind the first page....

Vivien V. said...

I suppose it helps to start in right with the action, but it probably has to do more with creating intrigue on the first page, not necessarily having your main character dangling off the edge of a cliff, but making the reader feel like there's something at stake - something to keep reading for.

Anonymous said...

I hate to be contrary, but how does one explain Patrick Rothfuss' debut novel, "Name of the Wind"? I don't know how many words it is, but it is a hefty 662 pages, in small font. Not only did he win the Quill award for it, but it recently hit the NYT Bestseller's list. Granted, I know that this is what we call an 'exception', but it does show that 'unsellable' is too strong a term.

Then again, I suppose I'm an exception too. The last 5 novels I read were at least 180k words.

Ray Rhamey said...

Thanks for the confirmation of my thesis about the importance of the first page, Lori. I have a continuing series on my Flogging the Quill blog wherein I (and readers) critique the first pages of novels submitted by writers.

The challenge of my "Flogometer:" is the page compelling enough to make me turn the page?

Few are, but writers learn from examining both those that don't work and those that do.

Ray Rhamey
www.floggingthequill.com

Marian said...

I sometimes crit stories on the Absolute Write forums, and unless the story's good (or conversely, very bad) at the start, I don't find it easy to keep reading. I'll do it to help the writer, but it's difficult to keep going for enjoyment, so I can understand an agent giving up on a story if the first page doesn't work.

I once had a manuscript where the main character went off into a flashback in the second paragraph. Two partial requests and rejections later, I came to my senses and rewrote that.

JimmyT said...

Uh oh, mine starts with a dream sequence, and my main character doesn't get in trouble until page 100!

Back to the drawing board, or at least the shuffle board - :)

Joseph John said...

Awesome advice. I found three posts on reputable agent's blogs dedicated to this same topic. All of them said you should shoot for a word count in the 80k-100k range. Thanks for the pro tip.