Earth to writer—listen up
A former science-fiction/fantasy editor at Penguin and Random House describes the most common writing and marketing mistakes she saw
Published: April 8, 2010
|Maybe you’ve already gone through the most nerve-racking of the authorial rites of passage: the agent-editor appointment at a writers conference. Attendees sign up for a slot with the agent or editor of their choice, and have a strictly enforced eight minutes to pitch a completed novel or a work-in-progress; at eight minutes a bell rings and the writer is swapped out for the next hopeful. Nerve-racking to say the least!|
A few years ago, I was on the faculty of an all-genre conference and spent a morning in the appointments room. One of my appointments was late, and I was looking over my notes when I heard loud voices from the hallway; the tardy author had arrived and was haranguing the volunteers who were handling the scheduling. Volunteers at these events work long hours and do it cheerfully, and I was already predisposed to dislike him when he blustered into the room and threw himself into the chair across from me.
Unfortunately, in his hurry he had cut himself badly while shaving, but hadn’t noticed. His natty, white button-down shirt was soaked with blood well below the collar. To this day I have no memory of what this fellow was writing; but I do remember trying to keep my jaw from dropping as he proudly told me all about his book.
This is an extreme example, but in my 10 years as a genre editor I saw plenty of science-fiction and fantasy writers—sometimes talented, often otherwise sane and lovely people—shoot themselves in the foot when writing and marketing their work. Editors are wildly overloaded, especially so in the last couple of years when many of their colleagues have been laid off. They are looking for reasons to reject your manuscript and get it off their teetering to-do piles.
Don’t let it happen to you. Following is a list of common mistakes—and ways you can avoid them.
1. Dependence on clichés. The most prevalent problem I saw when reviewing speculative-fiction submissions was an over-dependence on clichés. Clichés are not only lazy but they’re unmarketable—and their use is a death knell in a genre that expects and depends on new ideas.
Tropes that worked well for Tolkien have now been done to death in speculative fiction. Avoid, for one, the MacGuffin, a cinematic term meaning an item the procurement of which is the focal point of the plot, though it may be unimportant to the story in and of itself (e.g., The Maltese Falcon). Beware, too, the orb, the chalice and the ring. They will do you no good at all.
Try describing your story to a fan and a not-fan; if either one says, “Oh, it’s just like that [book/movie/etc.]!,” then it’s back to the revision stage for you.
2. Logorrhea. Bigger is not better. Fantasy gets a little more leeway as far as length is concerned, but if you’re going much past 110,000 words on a first book, for the love of all that’s holy, stop and rethink. I’ve heard from plenty of writers that their books couldn’t possibly get told in less than 250,000 words. But at least 80 percent of the time, those books were cluttered up with unnecessary exposition and description; the rest of the time, they could be successfully split into two.
Take a hard, critical look at your writing—or better yet, ask your writers group to do it—and try to cut your word count by a quarter. This is an excellent exercise to make sure you’re really making use of your space; every single sentence should advance plot, character or atmosphere. If it doesn’t, chuck it.
3. Over-reliance on the passive voice. Too many writers use the passive voice—or weak, generic, though technically active verbs—to give their work a “historical” feel. All this tactic does is make the story feel weak, slow and removed. “It was a dark and stormy night” is the most famous example of potboiler passive; much stronger is: “The rain lashed the windows, illuminated only by a dim lantern hanging over the door.” A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not ‘World War II began’! It’s ‘Hitler. Invaded. Poland.’ ” “World War II began” is technically in the active voice, but barely so; it’s a good example of using a generic verb where a more specific, muscular one (“invaded”) would have been better.
3. Hopping on the trend bandwagon. Vampires are hot. So is urban fantasy. So is steampunk (which, for those of you new to speculative fiction, is “Victorian science fiction,” in the words of writer G.D. Falk-
sen). Tomorrow, it’ll be something else. If the hot genre isn’t something you enjoy reading or writing, and don’t have an aptitude for, forget it. You’ll be a square peg in a literary round hole.
I once worked with an author who wrote historical fantasy; her books were exciting, lyrical, deft and often hilarious. She tried her hand at a contemporary, despite the fact that she had never read one and disdained the subgenre as a whole. The result was a pale, dull imitation of the trend—nothing like what she could do in the historical market. Spread your wings, by all means, but don’t try to force what isn’t working.
5. Not reading enough. The most damaging mistake I see new writers making is not reading widely and broadly—both within their own genres and others. There’s a certain fluency of language that is best gained by reading good writing—do as much of it as you possibly can. Libraries are free and books are manna. Go. Do it.
6. Not doing research. Know your market before you start pitching. Who are the major authors in your field? The high-powered agents? The re-spected editors? You need to know this or you’ll spend a lot of time pitching a story that’s already been done—to an agent who doesn’t work in your field.
7. Pooh-poohing agents. Have books been sold without agents? Certainly. Are there times in a writer’s career when an agent is less necessary than others? Sure. But selling a first novel without an agent is a hard slog and a long shot—and keeping a career afloat without one is tricky.
Very early on in my career, I made an offer on a trilogy for $5,000 per book (fairly standard at the time) to an un-agented author. And then I made the mistake of going on vacation for two weeks. When I returned, she’d signed on with an agent—and those three books ended up selling at auction for more than $50,000 each. Like plumbing and estate planning, some things are better done with the aid of a professional.
8. Skipping revisions. You finish the first draft, it’s done, it’s ready to go out—right? Wrong. Don’t let impatience—or the elation of a full draft—prompt you to send out a story that’s not ready for prime time. Revise, revise and revise again. Give it to your writers group or other beta readers. Don’t have any? Get some. You only get one chance to put your best foot forward; don’t blow it with substandard work.
9. Internet shenanigans. Keep any and all negative comments off your blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Everything you put online is archived and can be found, and there’s no better way to turn an editor off than to disparage her online. And she will find it.
A friend once sent me an aspiring author’s account of a conference appointment early in my career where he described me as looking “barely out of the @)(#*% sorority,” and wondering why he should trust the opinion of someone so young. Guess what kind of mood I was in toward him when he sent in his manuscript and fawning letter?
10. Too much vinegar, not enough honey. Agents and editors are people, too, and they’re no more anxious to work with jerks than you are. Think your book is such a masterpiece that you can be an expletive-deleted without harm to your career? Think again. The man with the bloody collar was off the charts, but I’ve met plenty of (unpublished) writers over the years who jovially told me that they “wouldn’t allow” any suggestions on revising their work. One agent I know still finishes every pitch letter she writes to publishers with the words: “[Author] is open to editorial comments.”
That shouldn’t be a necessary assurance—and yet it is. Remember that an agent or an editor is on your team, and will be willing to work with you to make your writing as good as it can possibly be. Disagree if you need to—but do it politely. There’s no percentage in making yourself hard to work with.
The process of finishing a novel, and of getting it all the way to publication, can be a frustrating, opaque process. But all of the advice I’ve offered here boils down to three simple rules: read widely, edit ruthlessly, and don’t be a jerk.
There’s a market out there for great stories, and the speculative-fiction genre is an exciting, fantastically fun field to be writing in. Keep your head about you and you’ve got a good shot of getting your work in front of interested eyes.
Good luck! And remember: Always, always look in the mirror after shaving.
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After a decade editing science fiction and fantasy at Random House and Penguin, Liz Scheier is the editorial director of digital content at BarnesandNoble.com. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.|
(This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Writer.)