Winning the Showdown on Page One

August 19, 2010

In an old New Yorker cartoon, an angry writer sits at his desk before a battered typewriter pounding out a note to a publisher. The caption goes like this: “I find your rejection slip mealy-mouthed, turgid, and totally lacking in style, and regret that I must reject your rejection slip.”

Rejection slips will never be models of style, and they never bring good news. Read on to learn one way to help avoid them. Our assistant Claire Cavanaugh, an outstanding editor, and Robin Perini–both are romance writers–did a workshop at the Romance Writers of America Conference. To prepare, they asked a group of agents, including Elizabeth Pomada and Laurie McLean at our agency, seven questions about fiction and nonfiction books.

In response to one question, agents replied that 90 percent of time, they can tell from page one if a manuscript was not salable. This was the follow-up question:

4. What are the most common reasons that you can tell a manuscript will NOT work on page one?

  • Poor writing, incomplete sentences, lots of adjectives each sentence.
  • No hook. Not enough dramatic tension. Too much like so many other plots.
  • Misspellings & poor grammar.
  • Lengthy narrative (usually “setting the scene” with too many details); dull opening with no change (change can be subtle but something must be happening); writing style that doesn’t engage; writer is telling and not showing the story
  • Bad writing, cliché opening, trite character names, poor grammar.
  • Bad prose, wrong word choices, bad grammar and punctuation. Boring, flat, no voice
  • You can’t tell on the first page unless the topic is impossible

The survey has a lot of helpful information. Do yourself a favor and check it out at Robin’s blog: Read the post called “Hooks and Opening – Inside Scoop,” click on the helpful handout which has sample openings, and on the last link for the “Inside Scoop Complete Survey Report.”

Agents and editors have a hair-trigger response to bad prose. If you’re telling a story, you can win the showdown on page one by showing up with a killer first page. Let your best words win. It beats having to reject rejections.

Lighting the Night So Your Readers Can See

August 17, 2010

Once you’ve seen your face on a bottle of salad dressing, it’s hard to take yourself seriously.

–Paul Newman

You have to take your work, your career, and your life seriously. Everything you think, say, and do is either making you a better, more productive writer and person or it isn’t.

And yet, you also need to balance the importance of your efforts with a sense of perspective about your place in the universe. Elizabeth and I saw a few sprinkles of the Perseid meteor shower last Saturday. Shooting stars are an apt metaphor for our existence, a fleeting burst of light with a long tail. The tail is our trail, what our light leaves behind us when it burns out.

As a writer, you have the chance to leave behind a trail of work that can continue to illuminate life and the world for your readers. What a gift and privilege it is to be able to transcend the confines of our own life and communicate with present and future readers around the planet.

Mel Brooks once said: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” So are drama, information, and inspirational writing. Stories and ideas that help us come to terms with the world and ourselves will have lasting value. Your work–long and short, online and offline–is your legacy, your gift to future readers.

So be gentle with yourself, but devote yourself to fulfilling your readers’ expectations. Light up the night for your readers and you will have fans for life.

5 Ways to Get Rave Reviews

August 10, 2010

What do writers and doctors have in common? They both need patience.

The Galley Cat blog (a must read– picked up on a tweet by One-Minute Book Reviews editor Janice Harayda listing the most overused put-downs in book reviews, three about character, two about plot:

  • Cardboard characters
  • Thin plot
  • Cookie-cutter characters
  • The book falls apart at the end.
  • I just didn’t care about the characters.

As a reader, you spot these failings immediately. How can you avoid them as a writer? Follow the steps I’ve mentioned in previous posts:

Know the territory: read as many books as you can that can serve as models for yours in terms of style, plot, tone, theme, length, structure, characters, and setting.

Be authentic: absorb what you can from the books that you love, but don’t be the next anyone; be the first you. My resistance to books that smack of commerce, that were written to cater to a market instead of telling a story that the author must tell, is growing. Write the books only you can write. Editors love to find promising books and authors, but they love finding something promising and new even more.  As agent Jessica Faust suggests, don’t explode the boundaries, but push them.

Write and rewrite: professional writers expect crappy first drafts. They rewrite until every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter are the best they’re capable of producing.

Share your work: even if you get feedback as you write, you will be too close to your manuscript to judge its literary or commercial value. You also need eyes for your revisions. Only capable, objective readers can tell you when it’s time to find a publisher to help you give birth to your baby.

Honor the process: Like reviewers, readers can spot lack of effort immediately; writers who accept nothing less than their best are praised accordingly.  Assume it will take more time that you would like to

  • Write your book.
  • Get it published.
  • Build your platform.
  • Promote your book.
  • Build your career.

The more patient you are, the more likely your efforts will be justified by the rewards and recognition they receive.

Nothing can stop an idea, a book, and a writer whose time has come. Persevere and your time will come!

Saving Your Self for Yourself

August 5, 2010

Did you hear about the proposed merger of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? The new company is going to be called You Twit Face!

In an insightful article in the New York Times Sunday magazine (8/1), Peggy Orenstein, author of the fall book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, wrote about Twitter. At her publisher’s urging, she is trying to raise an army of tweeple to help promote her book. She feels that tweeting about one’s personal life to please others makes us actors in a reality TV show.

She enjoys Twitter’s “infinite potential for connection” and the “opportunity for self-expression.” But she writes: “The risk of the performance culture, of the packaged self, is that it erodes the very relationships it purports to create and alienates us from our own humanity.”

When the world shares our personal and professional lives, what becomes of privacy and intimacy? This conflict will be the basis for thousands of fiction and nonfiction books. But it brings up the challenge of separating “person and persona, the public and private self.” You can appreciate this tension as a source for writing, but how do you forge and maintain two lives—one online that’s personal and professional, and one that’s private, that’s yours and you share only with those closest to you?

Creating a Living and a Life

A song from  A Chorus Line, which is about actors auditioning for a show,  begins: “Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” There are more ways to live, write, and get published than ever. (There’s a book to be done about the vast range of lifestyles we have to choose from.) Who you are determines the choices you make, and they become part of your identity.

As a writer, you need to be able to adapt faster than ever in response to changes in culture, technology, the economy, and the growing number of options you have as a writer as your craft, promotability, and career grow.

Out of this large evolving melange of possibilities, you have to continue to figure out who you are clearly enough to create a living and a life. And you don’t have a moment to waste. Devote your time to developing your talents, skills, knowledge, and relationships. You will need them.

Life, like art, consists of drawing the line somewhere. Good thing writers always have a pen handy. May fate elevate you from the literary chorus line to a starring role, yet enable you to disappear as soon as you leave the theater. Become a bestselling author, if that’s your goal. But if you do, you’ll need a private life even more.

(My thanks to our brilliant colleague, Laurie McLean––for passing on the humor at the beginning of this post.)

Writing for a Time Capsule

August 3, 2010

“No legs, no jokes, no chance.”

That was the response of a producer to an out-of-town tryout of Oklahoma! Audiences, however, were delighted. The program noted that the show went on to become Broadway’s longest running show for thirteen years.

Oklahoma! was the first modern musical because the songs and dances didn’t just entertain, they served the story. The show was based on a straight play called Green Grow the Lilacs, which wasn’t a hit and to which Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration added music and lyrics.

Elizabeth and I just saw a summer stock version of the show at the Sacramento Music Circus. More than ever, I appreciated the show as a time-capsule musical, the inspiring, quintessential play about the hope and promise of America. A century from now, if people want to watch plays that capture the American dream, Oklahoma! will be one of them.

Dreaming Big

The show also suggested a wonderful literary goal: writing books that will be read in a hundred years. Are there stories–long or short, true or fictional, American or foreign, successful or obscure–that you can re-imagine for today’s and tomorrow’s readers? Whatever narratives you choose to write, remember a simple criterion for every word: serve the story.

The Web gives you to tools to create in any medium and link your work to your e-book as well as link to anything else on the Web. This makes enhanced e-books that enable you to build a community of readers first modern books. They vastly extend your creative potential as well as your ability to reach readers. Old ideas, new techniques—the arts evolve, but the needs and desires of people and artists don’t. Seize the chance to tell the stories that only you can in the way only you can tell them.

Expect out-of-town rejections. In his outstanding keynote at the San Francisco Writers Conference, Steve Berry said that before he hit the bestseller list, he received 85 rejections on five novels before selling one. (His talk is available at

Only time will tell if you’re right, and if you dedicate yourself to your craft and your career, you will be.

6 Keys to Succeeding as a Contentrepreneur

July 29, 2010

If a word in the dictionary was misspelled, how would we know?

–Steven Wright

You don’t have to worry about the word contentrepreneur, it’s too new to be in dictionaries. But to build a career in a digital culture, you have to marry content and entrepreneuring by being a contentrepreneur: a novelist or nonfiction writer who makes a business out of creating content. Here are six keys to doing it well:

1. Look at the potential of your ideas in the largest possible way.

  • Don’t think about one book but a series of books that sell each other.
  • Don’t think about one kind of writing but about every kind of writing that you can use to express and develop your ideas, and, whether for free or fee, use to build awareness of you and your work.

            * If you’re writing a series of related novels, consider all the possibilities for developing your story, setting, and characters in all forms and media from short stories to novels.

            * If you’re writing nonfiction books, think about all of the ways you can communicate your ideas from a blog post to a multi-book series and can use your content for income or promotion.

The next two keys come from a New York Times interview with Dan Rosensweig (7/11), president of Chegg, which rents textbooks. He had worked with the founders of Yahoo and publisher Ziff-Davis, from whom he learned the importance of two things:

2. Have an “unbridled passion” for focusing on opportunities not obstacles. Passion will enable you to transcend obstacles.

3. Look for ways to improve. Stasis is history. (The American Heritage Dictionary used the word motionlessness to help define it, following the word with this quote: “’Language is a primary element of culture, and stasis in the arts is tantamount to death’ (Charles Marsh).” Fewer things than ever are impossible, but stasis is one of them. Integrate the inevitability of change into your life and do what you can to control your writing and your career. Better you than someone else or a force or institution beyond your control. When things change, they either get better or worse. The question to keep asking yourself is: “How can I do this better?”

5. Grow. Find the spot in the constellation of authors in your field that will enable you to realize your goals and devise a plan to get there. Prices rise. So must your income. Think far ahead.

6. Steve Jobs likes to quote Henry Ford: “If I’d have asked  customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” More of the same is relatively easy. Creating ideas for books that readers can’t imagine is always a possibility for visionary writers. Coming up with an idea for a story or a better way to live that people couldn’t know they’d be thrilled to read is an opportunity that’s always waiting for you.

May being a contentrepreneur bring you contentment (but not enough to keep you from staying one!).

Books on Hot Subjects: Trial or Triumph?

July 27, 2010

Almost anything that happens is bad for somebody and good for somebody.


Few things are more exciting for agents than finding a story in the news and putting together a book about it fast. For writers, it represents an immediate opportunity to write about a subject they may already be covering.

The Symbionese Liberation Army enabled me to agent my first book. When the SLA kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974, I knew there was a book in it. So I called Alan Barnard at Bantam, where I had worked, and which was well-known for doing instant books, to see if they wanted a book on the SLA. No luck.

Then I called Bill Grose at Dell Books to see if he wanted one. He also said no, but after he hung up, Helen Meyer, who owned Dell, came into his office and asked him about doing a book on the subject. So he called me back and said yes.

Then I called Tim Findley who, with Paul Avery, was writing the banner headline stories on the abduction in the San Francisco Chronicle. He said no, although he did later coauthor a book. So I called Paul who said yes. Voila!, a sale in four phone calls. An exciting experience that took place within a day’s time.

Paul enlisted Vin McLellan, a reporter for the Boston Phoenix, to collaborate with him. They wrote a proposal. I sold it, and they were off to the races. Unfortunately, Ms. Hearst didn’t get captured for nineteen months, so the story was never finished. When she was apprehended, Paul, Vin, and a typist spent two weeks working around the clock in our apartment to finish the book.

But by that time, half a dozen books on the subject had come and gone and the public had been subjected to a huge amount of media coverage, so Dell was no longer interested in an instant book on the SLA. We resold the book to John Dodds at Putnam, which brought out The Voices of Guns: The Definitive and Dramatic Story of the Twenty-Two Month Career of the Symbionese Liberation Army —a first-rate 477-page book at $14.95—in 1977, three years after the event. It was too much, too late.

We had the same experience with Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs. Tim, who was wounded in Guyana in 1978, wrote a book that was hailed as “seminal, definitive, extraordinary.” But Dutton published it four years later, and weighing in at more than 500 pages, it too was more than the media-weary public wanted to know. However, the book had a second life when the Tarcher imprint at Penguin brought out an updated trade paperback edition for the thirtieth anniversary of Jonestown. It did well enough to go back to press.

Making the World Better

It’s been said that when there’s a bunch of books on a subject only the first one and the best one do well. But the right books by the right authors published quickly enough can work. At one point, there were seven books about 9/11 on the Times bestseller list.

The New York Times (7/21) reported that at least six books on the Gulf disaster would starting flowing from publishers in September. Publishers are hoping that authors with platforms and different angles will enable these books to attract readers. An event of this magnitude and importance—Times columnist Thomas Friedman called it Obama’s 9/11—merits the in-depth analysis that only books can provide.

The question is whether these books can find readers, despite being about a depressing subject that the media has covered heavily and about which readers can do little or nothing. The better we understand what happened in the Gulf, the better able we will be to prevent it from happening again. Let’s hope they’re all bestsellers. They will be serving the highest mission books have: making the world a better place. If you’re thinking about writing a book on a hot topic, gauge carefully how salable it will when your book comes out.

Joining Your Literary Community

July 22, 2010

Groucho Marx once said that he wouldn’t join any organization that would have him as a member. Fortunately, writers welcome other practitioners of the craft to their ranks. One  reason why now is the best time ever to be a writer is that there are more ways to connect with other writers than ever. Nothing will be more valuable to you than a community of writers who share your goals and challenges and who can advise you about writing, agents, publishers, and promotion. Writers need each other more than ever.

After two posts on critique groups, a reader asked about finding a critique group if you’re new in town. Here’s one way: lists writing groups. Type “meetup writing [and your city]” in a search engine, and they come up.

But this is part of a larger question: whether you’re new in town or not, how do you join the writing community?  

In a word: ask!

  • You can ask writers, booksellers, librarians, publishers, book reviewers, writing teachers, freelance editors, and book publicists.
  • Ask your friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
  • You can ask at writing and author events, writing classes and conferences.
  • You can ask your friends on Facebook and your peeps on Twitter and other social networks. Googling “social networks for writers” yields 12,000,000 links for sites like Red Room.
  • You can ask at businesses you patronize.
  • Since writers participate in reading groups, you can search online for reading groups in your town.
  • You can also be entrepreneurial and start a group. If you need a place to meet, at least to get organized, bookstores and libraries are logical places to try. Schools, churches, and other nonprofits are alternatives. A bank or another business with a conference room may be willing to host the group, especially if a member works there.

If you don’t have a collaborator, you’re writing alone. But you can create a continually growing community of writers and others to help you the rest of the way. Writers who are eager and able to help you are waiting for you to find them. Start now.

Writing Wisdom

July 20, 2010

A Dan Piraro cartoon in Parade showed a medium sitting across a table from a customer with a netbook computer in front of her, and she’s saying: “We don’t use a crystal ball anymore. We just Google you.”

An editor interested in buying your book will Google you to get a sense of your presence online. Instead of a crystal ball, they’ll use a computer-generated profit-and-loss statement, along with feedback from colleagues, to help justify buying your book.

What wisdom about writing can I offer that will help you convince editors to say yes to your book? One or a series of books could be written about the wisdom you can gain from doing a job or practicing an art or skill. Some examples:


  • Riding uphill is harder, downhill more dangerous.
  • You have to know your bike, yourself, and the territory.
  • You have to expect the unexpected at any second.


  • You have to be the right distance from your subject.
  • You have to balance color, foreground and background, tension and harmony, and the elements in a composition to create unity.
  • Knowing how to use your camera will help increase your creativity.

Driving a Taxi

  • You have to look at what’s around you but also in the distance both for traffic and for passengers.
  • You will have slow and busy periods.
  • You will have good and bad luck; you hope that they will balance each other.


  • Reading is the doorway to writing.
  • The best reason to write is that you must.
  • You have to capture readers’ interest immediately and keep it as long as it takes them to finish your book.
  • If you have a problem with your writing, focus on something else, and your subconscious usually provides the solution.
  • Your proposal or manuscript is finished only when the people you share it with can’t figure out how to help you improve it.
  • You need mentors to supplement your learning about writing, agents, promotion, technology, and publishing.
  • The models for your books and career will light the way until you’re ready to find your unique path.
  • You have to maximize the value of your book before you seek and agent or publisher by test-marketing it, building your platform and communities of fans, and developing a promotion plan.
  • Promotion is more challenging than writing.
  • The writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself (Katharine Sands).
  • Publishers and literary agents are eager to find new writers as new writers are to be discovered.
  • Your passion for writing and sharing your work will see you through the challenges of being an author.
  • You will meet those challenges more easily if you’re clear about your short-  and long-term personal and professional goals.
  • You will succeed if you persevere, and the harder it is to achieve success, the more satisfying it will be.
  • And as I mentioned in the previous post, luck has a lot to do with a book’s success.

I found one of my favorite pieces of wisdom on a cloth bag that Workman Publishing gave away one year at BEA: “The more you garden, the more you grow.” You can grow by acquiring wisdom from any endeavor and you can apply it to writing. The more conscientious you are, the more you’ll learn. May you have all the luck you want, and may the wisdom above speed you on your way.

Making It Up as You Go Along

July 13, 2010

La Crosse, Wisconsin

Phil Neumark, who’s cycling across the country and shepherding me as I accompany him for a few days, doesn’t like the noise and traffic on main roads. So he looks for state and county roads that go through towns and have more picturesque views. This requires him to supplement his map for the day by improvising, and asking for directions on which roads to take and where to stop for lunch.

People are always impressed with Phil’s mission and are as helpful as they can be.  They aren’t always right, which can mean climbing hills in vain, asking for more directions, and climbing the hills again to get back on the right route. But then, an adventure is what happens when things go wrong.

I had my first flat ever not long after leaving St. James, where we had stopped for lunch. It was on the rear tire which is harder to fix. Phil was too far ahead of me to help. Left to my own devices, had enough time elapsed, passing motorists would have spotted my bones, like a steer that didn’t make it, next to the bike. But the first vehicle I waved to, driven by Kathy and Laurie, two angels in distress, gave me a lift to our hotel in Mankota.

Writing and building a career involves asking for help and improvisation: choosing the right idea, word, agent, publisher, and ways to reach your readers. Not of your choices will work, but keep asking for advice and improvising, and you’ll get where you want to go. Assume that you will back into accomplishing your goals by trying alternatives that don’t work. What you will have left are the right choices for you.

Stay loose!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers