Friday, November 8, 2019

Should You Pursue Your Manuscript--Or Set It Aside--After Multiple Rejections (AKA Who Are You Writing This For?)

One of my students from Canada recently contacted me after the third small press rejected her memoir manuscript.  The publisher was seriously interested but, after some thought. changed his mind.  The press offered detailed feedback--in itself an encouragement--which she appreciated.

But it's her third rejection after serious interest, and she's losing heart.  "It's been seven years in the writing and revising," she wrote me, "and based on feedback the manuscript has definitely improved. But I'm not sure if I should pursue it anymore."

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Confusing World of Copyrights and Permissions--A Brief Overview for the New Author

Although I don't recommend spending much time on the legal aspects of publishing until you are close to that long-awaited time, there are some good rules of thumb to know about.  Here are a few questions I get regularly: 

1. Do you need to copyright your manuscript before submitting to agents or publishers? If you self-publish, is it a good idea to go ahead and register your book officially with the office of copyright?

2. Are you responsible for getting permission to use copyrighted material, such as song lyrics, in your book?  Or does your agent or publisher take care of that?

First, a disclaimer:  I'm not a copyright lawyer, far from it, and I only speak here out of my personal experience with being an author and editor in the publishing world.  Take my advice, or the advice from links offered below, as a layperson's, not legal counsel.  If you need that, search elsewhere.

On the first question, and this may be a relief or a surprise to some of you, as soon as you write your manuscript, it's legally copyrighted, at least in the U.S.  You don't need to put the (c) 2019 your name at the bottom of each page.  In fact, this brands you as an amateur with most agents and publishers who know the rule.  It says you haven't taken the time to research how to truly protect your work in today's publishing industry.  

Can other writers steal your work if you don't mark every page with your copyright?  Again, my experience is that the industry is quite transparent--it's a smaller world than you think--and literary theft is soon outed.  There are exceptions, but it's not something that has happened to me or the hundreds of writers I've worked with.  Chances are low that it will happen to you.

In my beginning years as an author, I did consult a lawyer from the Authors Guild in NYC--worth checking out for those who have published something, somewhere, because you can get free legal advice on this and many other topics.  I learned I could go the additional distance and register the manuscript with the Federal Copyright Office, but in this lawyer's opinion, it would provide only a small amount of backup if the work should be stolen.  An agent I respected said, "Don't bother."  And I didn't.

Second question:  Do you need to get permissions yourself, before you submit to an agent or publisher, if you use other people's work?  Now you do.  In the eighties, when I began publishing, my agent took care of this.  Later in the nineties, after my agent retired and I published with small presses, they took care of it, most of the time.  I had to send the letters requesting permission.  Fair use has changed, too.  Some research is helpful here, if you're citing from work that is not in public domain.  Especially song lyrics.  And publishers often charge for use, or at least they did with some of my books.  

Here's a good basic explanation of the fair use and other requirements you need to know, if you are including quotations or lyrics or other copyrighted work in your manuscript.  (The link  is here; if it doesn't work, go to and search for copyright info.)  Learning about this may change your mind about blithely including your favorite lines from your favorite songs as epigraphs to your chapters.  

Friday, October 25, 2019

On Hooks and Other Excellent Ways to Start Your Story

When I was shopping my first novel, Qualities of Light, to publishers, along with the rejections, I received an incredibly valuable piece of advice:  start the story later.  

Specifically, one editor said, start at chapter 5.  

That's where the hook is, where the book actually begins.  She declined the manuscript, as had others, but wished me all the luck in the world.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Four Favorite Tools to Organize Your Book Material--Before It Gets Overwhelming

Beyond the book-writing process itself, the reason we all do this, there's the need to stay sane about the piles and files and folders.  A book, unlike a short piece of writing, easily generates 1000-2000 double-spaced pages in the months or years before you publish it.  So I get the question all the time in classes and with private clients:  How do I keep the sheer volume of this book-in-progress organized?  

Friday, October 11, 2019

Writing with Authenticity--Why It's Important to Foster a Unique Voice in Your Art

Publishing is an interesting game.  Like all business owners, some publishers are wary of risk.  They want books that adhere to tried and true formulas of plot or purpose.  Fiction in certain genres--think romance--even have formulas to follow.  Agents who specialize in these books know the formulas and automatically reject manuscripts that don't follow them.  So uniqueness isn't necessarily a winning card in your submission game.

Yet it is.  More often, I've heard from agents about the boredom they feel with stories that repeat the same themes, the same trends.  They look for something that will "make them miss their subway stop"--a cliche I'm sure you've heard or read about on agency sites.  

Friday, October 4, 2019

Organizing Your Book: How I Learned to Love Scrivener

Books become unwieldy fast.  Unlike a poem, essay, or short story, a book may generate thousands of pages by the time it's revised down to three hundred and fifty.  Most writers don't realize or remember this when starting a new book.  But after a few revisions, there's just too much to keep track of.

I get this question in most of my classes:  how do you organize your book-in-process? 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Layers of Time in Fiction and Memoir: How Does a Writer Weave Past, Present, and Future into Scenes without Creating Too Much Exposition?

Your scenes have voltage, electric current, for readers.  But in most novels and memoirs, there are layers of electricity, because there are layers of time.  We move between past, present, and future in our real lives all the time, even more so on the page.  One of those times will have the most electricity, and it's good to know that.  But how do you bring in the less-alive times and make sure the reader knows enough about them, without delivering too much exposition?

Friday, September 20, 2019

Dialogue Engages--But What If Your Memoir Characters Just Don't Talk Much?

Candace is writing a memoir.  Her characters are the opposite of talkative.  She took my online dialogue class earlier this year and learned that dialogue in any books brings more reader engagement.  But she was confused about how to bring her particular characters to life and still stay true to their silent natures.

I read other writers to answer these kinds of questions.  Kent Haruf wrote six novels set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.  All of them have quiet characters, but each is unique and fascinating.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Are Your Characters Too Nice, Controlled, Predictable? Here's How to Bring Out the Tension and Make Them Vivid (But Still Not Serial Killers)

Annie, one of my readers, got surprising feedback from her writer's group.  One of her novel's characters, an abused woman trying to escape from controlling relationships (with parents and boyfriend) was unbelievable.  Her sadness and desperation to escape wasn't enough to make her vivid, memorable, engaging to readers.  Where was her strength, her resolution?

Problem is, Annie says, an abused person often lacks this kind of drive.  So what could she do to create more tension around this character, making her vivid and believable in her search to become her own person?

Friday, September 6, 2019

Lessons from Margaret Renkl: How One Memoir-Writer Circled Round Family, Nature, and Loss

How does a memoir writer weave family stories into a larger whole?  This is the perennial challenge.  Unless you already have a fan following, most readers won't follow your trials and tribulations just because you write about them.  You need to hook them into a universal truth, learning, or other bigger element. Something they can relate to their own lives.