Video: “Misunderstood Genius”

Here’s one about an uncomfortable subject: how your rejections or failures in publishing are not best handled by assuming the world is simply unable to comprehend the staggering genius that is you.

It sounds kind of mean phrased like that, but now that I’ve come across two different people in a very short time who sent completely un-self-aware commentary into the blogosphere about how nobody seems to realize they’re rejecting a True Writer On Par With Thoreau, I decided a video was in order. This gives perspective on still being positive and motivated while chasing publication or representation, but not giving into bitterness that leads you to believe the real problem is Everyone In the World Except You.



When Authors Screw Up

There are lots of articles out there on what you should do if you screw up. Most of them involve instructions on the basics: stop doing the thing, and apologize (authentically) for doing the thing. But what is your role in this business if someone you admire screws up?

I’ve wondered about that because now and then authors I like screw up on social media and it kinda breaks my heart.

Your first instinct is to defend. Someone you like–someone who created something you might have loved–has sinned. Don’t they deserve forgiveness? Don’t they deserve gentle correction instead of the pile-on they’re experiencing? Isn’t it also important what they’ve done well? Can’t we emphasize that?

Well, the answer is no. Now is not the time to emphasize that.

It is the responsibility of the person who screwed up to try to make right, and the way they do so is going to tell you a lot about the kind of person they are. The way you act is your own biz, and I urge you to carefully consider what you’re getting into–and what it says about you–if you defend someone’s terrible behavior just because you like their work.

Here is a list of stuff to keep in mind when this happens.

  1. Liking someone’s work if they have behaved in an unacceptable way does not make you guilty by association.
  2. Liking someone’s work even if it has problematic aspects does not require you to find a way to excuse those aspects before you are “allowed” to like the work as a whole without being a bad person.
  3. You can and should accept that your heroes can believe bad things and can be spreading terrible messages. If they do this, you are not required to abandon them as one of your favorite content creators.
  4. You can and should be able to be critical about your heroes. You can and should be able to agree with those who are calling them out, and if you have something to say on the matter, you may even want to join them in echoing the callout.
  5. If the creator (and perpetrator of the bad message) is worth respecting, they will learn from this experience, not judge critics as bullies and dig their heels in while doubling down on a bad message. You are in the same boat.
  6. It is actually okay to decide you no longer want to support someone who believes/says those things. It may lead you to look at their older work in a larger context and like it less. It may not. Both responses are okay.
  7. You cannot completely separate a creator from their creation. If someone believes racist things, they are likely spreading racist messages even if they don’t mean to, and you may not have noticed it if you weren’t looking for it or aren’t sensitive to those messages because of your background. It IS important.
  8. You should look at the actual statements the person made. And you should look at several criticisms of the statement the person made to try to understand why there’s a problem if you don’t immediately see why. You don’t have to agree with the criticism, but you should definitely listen to it before you try to defend.
  9. If someone you like is getting dragged and your knee-jerk reaction is to assume they don’t deserve it, please do not announce that the real problem is the PC agenda, oversensitivity, or people looking to be offended. You must understand that the outrage is real, even if you can’t feel it. Chances are the person who Said the Thing doesn’t understand why it makes people upset either, and judging the group as hysterical, unreasonable, overreacting, or guilty of mob-mentality witch hunting is not going to stop this from happening next time.
  10. It is possible for someone to have worthwhile messages to contribute while having absolutely no business speaking on certain issues. It is possible for an author to say wonderful things about racism while being tone-deaf to the sexism in their work. It is possible for an author to spread great messages of religious tolerance and support while supporting hateful erasure and discrimination toward disabled people. Intersectionality is a thing and if someone is wrong or ignorant about one thing, it is not appropriate to say we need to ignore their ignorance because they’re doing it right on another axis.

I am not going to name names here, but keeping all this in mind, this is how I’ve reacted to bad behavior committed by some of my favorite authors. When an author I enjoyed said a casually racist thing in a very public context, I observed his sincere apology and decided I could still read and support his work, but I remain baffled by his poor judgment and certainly wouldn’t defend it. When an author whose work I was just getting into said something really tone-deaf about women, I decided it was gross (and explained a lot) but that it wasn’t egregious enough that I wanted to disown him from my library or stop reading his books. And when an author made some terribly ignorant, strongly worded statements about the lack of need for diversity in books because we already have all we need and pushing diversified characters is an unnecessary agenda, I observed her unrepentant reframing of the situation and her protest that she can’t be wrong because she has diverse characters too, and I quietly removed several of her books from my wish list. If she thinks the book world is fine the way it is and refuses to listen to the people who don’t feel represented, I’m sad about it, but I don’t want to invite more of her world view into my brain.

I absolutely agreed that all of these people did bad things. They left a terrible taste in my mouth after I enjoyed their work and had no idea they thought like this. The way they react to being called out has a lot to do with whether I want to continue to see their writing. I’m okay with ignorance, especially when the ignorant party acknowledges their ignorance and says they’re working on it. I’m okay with mistakes, especially when the mistake-maker draws more attention to themselves by saying “I did this, it was terrible that I did this, I apologize in a heartfelt manner and I have learned from this.” I’m not okay with buying more books by an author who repeatedly declares that other authors’ voices and other readers’ needs are irrelevant.

And for the record, analyzing and acknowledging problematic aspects of work you like can actually make it more enjoyable. You do not need to defend the parts that are awful (regardless of how intentional or egregious those parts are) to enjoy the rest of the work or the work as a whole. You also do not need to agree with the public outrage to respect that people have a reason to express said outrage. And if you still want to support someone who’s done something bad, that does not require you to defend what they did wrong, nor should you diminish its importance or point at people who are doing worse things.

Look at what the person did and ask yourself, “Do I want to pay this person to talk to me? Will the fact that they believe this infect the other messages they’re sending me? If I was part of the group they’re insulting with this message, would I find it less acceptable?” And it’s okay to be conflicted about it. Like I said, it can be heartbreaking when one of your idols turns out to believe and say horrible things. Your actions regarding how you react to their work post screw-up are up to you, but don’t make the mistake of considering these controversies irrelevant. We do shape the literary world by reacting passionately (for better or for worse) to messages that inspire strong feelings. You should not dismiss or scoff at the importance of these explosions just because you think they don’t really affect you.

Chances are, if you think they aren’t relevant to you–if you won’t learn from others’ mistakes–then they could be you one day.

Just Didn’t Connect

Sometimes when someone doesn’t like a book, they can explain exactly why. They might have a problem with the content or the message. They may have thought the character motivations were unclear or preposterous. They could have found the writing style awkward or dense or simplistic. And sometimes, when this someone is a person evaluating your work, it can be helpful to you if they explain their why.

But the most difficult thing to hear might just be “I just didn’t connect.”

Sometimes this a euphemism for “I thought your book was terrible for X reason or Y reason, but I either can’t or am not willing to relay those reasons to you, either for fear of hurting you or for fear of looking like a jerk (or both).”

But more often, it really is what it sounds like. The person just doesn’t like books like yours. Maybe they prefer books they can personally relate to, and yours isn’t relatable for them. Maybe they have trouble suspending disbelief for your science fiction concept, or don’t find romances compelling, or can’t drum up any enthusiasm for whether your fantasy novel’s questing party can recover the world-saving artifact. Maybe they have a particular difficulty connecting to books that are written in third person, or in present tense.

And this “I just didn’t connect to it” response goes all the way up to editors at big publishing houses and all the way down to readers deciding what to buy.

We all have preferences. It’s doubtful that anyone who reads is going to say they are equally interested in all well-written books. And unless you personally continue to “give a fair chance” to books that open with action that doesn’t grab you and books whose descriptions sound pretty boring to you, you should understand why this happens. Agents and editors frequently have to re-read books they sign multiple times, and both types of publishing professionals are gambling on whether readers will like what they like, because agents don’t get paid at all unless they sell the book to a publisher and publishers won’t make back the money they spent on producing the book if readers don’t like it enough to pay money for it.

Publishing works the way it does because readers work the way they do. Except for situations like school reading or other assignments, we generally don’t have any obligation to read things we don’t want to read, and publishing industry professionals are in the same boat. If they don’t want to read it, they probably won’t be able to convince others that they want to read it.

So don’t go into publishing, into story-writing, into creative careers in general if you think subjectivity doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. Don’t expect “equal” or “fair” treatment, or for anyone to humor you. No one is obligated to read a predetermined amount of your book before deciding they don’t want to read more, and no one is obligated to defend liking a book that you think isn’t as good as yours. People will like things for reasons you don’t agree with or don’t understand or don’t have in common with them. It could be you’re writing stuff that not many people are interested in, or it could be that you’re writing it in a way that doesn’t make it easy to fall in love with, but either way if you’re encountering lukewarm interest and “didn’t connect” responses every time you attempt to engage readers, you might try asking yourself what makes YOU connect.

What is it about the books you love that made you keep reading them after page 1? What is it about the books you love that made them work so well for you? What was it about the books you love that makes you call them the books you love? How did those authors draw you in? You might think you’re doing the same thing they are, or doing it as well as they are, but actually look at what they’re doing. What do they do on page one? What do they do over the course of their story? What do your favorite authors have in common? You may be skipping some steps. You may be including or not including elements that turn people on or off.

Or you may be showing it to people who just didn’t connect and there’s nothing you can do about it.

You should always look at your material first, think about what you might be able to improve, but it isn’t always your fault. It isn’t always an actual flaw or problem with your work. You should be open to the idea that it might be, but not eternally convinced that it must be if some readers tell you they don’t connect.

There isn’t one right way to write a book, but if your first tries aren’t getting you the results you want and you’re determined to reach those results, try doing what worked for the authors you like. It works a lot better than blaming your audience or throwing up your hands and quitting. And it feels a lot better too. I promise.

Pitch Wars feedback is out!

Just a short one today to say I spent part of the weekend sending out all my feedback to everyone who applied to me in Pitch Wars. I think I wrote around 600 to 800 words for each Pitch Wars participant, with a little more sent to the people whose additional chapters I sampled.

Many of them have replied to the feedback, and I’m amazed (though not surprised) that everyone’s being so gracious about it.

It’s hard to take feedback. Especially on the heels of disappointment if you didn’t get into this particular contest. Even if the feedback comes with some praise, every piece of feedback that would seem pretty tame to most people will feel like a pick-axe on your heart sometimes–especially if you’re not used to it, haven’t had much critique, or thought you were really close only to hear that someone thinks you have a lot of work to do.

And yet everyone’s being so nice about how I beat them up.

I would honestly expect people who are seeking agents to be professionals here. That’s why I’m not surprised it’s like this. And many of them have been very understanding about the fact that the Pitch Wars mentors are usually pretty busy people who have volunteered for the contest and should be prioritizing edits with their mentees. They’ve made it clear to me that they saw my feedback as above and beyond the call of duty, and they’ve expressed so much gratefulness and appreciation.

I don’t need them to lick my butt or praise me for paddling their babies. But it’s just so affirming to hear that I made the right choice in offering feedback to everyone. I don’t do it for the praise or to get followers on Twitter. I do it because every time I see someone reaching this level of expertise, feeling they’re ready to make that step into the professional world, I know that person must be serious. So I take them seriously. And I treat each one–for the minutes I can spare–like it’s the only story in the world, knowing they’ll probably put my words to good use in fertilizing their gardens.

If they weren’t willing to do that, they probably wouldn’t be willing to do research on publishing or enter contests like this anyway.

So this is my thank-you to everyone who’s expressed thanks to me, and I hope you all continue your quests and reach the destinations you desire.

Pitch Wars Analysis: My Submissions

It’s time for me to commit more nerdery upon you!

Pitch Wars was lovely. I got pretty much exactly what I wanted: lots to choose from, but fewer submissions than last year. Since I love giving feedback on everything I receive, it’s much harder to do a good job on it if you get over a hundred (like I did last year), so this year’s 92 was okay with me. (I got 90 that were eligible; two were marked for categories I was not accepting.)

I selected Lynn Forrest, author of urban fantasy THE MEASURE OF A MONSTER, for my mentee. We don’t have alternates this year, and I was not one of the mentors who volunteered for a second mentee. 

So Julie, what was in your inbox, anyway?
For those who do not want to review my Pitch Wars 2015 Nerdy Analysis of my submissions, I received 60% Adult, 40% New Adult. Of my 90 eligible submissions, I got 45 fantasy, 25 science fiction, 6 paranormal, 5 speculative fiction, 3 contemporary, 2 magical realism, 2 women’s fiction, 1 historical, and 1 thriller. I had two manuscripts below 50,000 words and one over 150,000 words, but most were between 80,000 and 100,000 words. And the mentor I had the most submissions in common with was K.T. Hanna.

Hey Julie, what kind of feedback can we expect?

I will be sending out my feedback soonish to everyone who submitted to me, but my day job and my social life have been more demanding than usual this week, so I’ll be rolling it out as soon as I can. I composed 55,646 words of feedback during the consideration window. None of it is “form letter” stuff–though I think form letters with a little bit of feedback are also a good way to handle feedback for the mentors who are not able to offer lots of individualized feedback for various reasons. I had the luxury of working a job that doesn’t take up much of my life and I don’t have to take care of any children and I wasn’t on deadline, so I probably have more opportunity to devote time to this when compared to some of the other mentors. I hope nobody uses my feedback offerings to shame anyone else if they are not able to do the same. Giving feedback is optional in this contest. I hope those of you who submitted to me will be able to benefit from mine!

I am giving specific advice about what to change in query letters, and there are quite a few places where I started line editing. I tended to give more feedback to people who had better submissions, because they were almost there. If I didn’t give much feedback, it’s because I felt like there was too much to fix and stampeding in to micro-manage might not be a good idea for a developing voice. My feedback is fairly irreverent and sometimes extremely goofy. Hopefully it is not going to be interpreted as mean if I joke around with you a little. And there are a few of you who might get personal notes or questions from me. I like to make friends during the contest too. 🙂

Yo, Julie, didn’t you say you give some kind of “score” to submissions?

If you weren’t aware of my nifty Pitch Wars report card, you may be interested to know I gave a rating to every submission I considered, with 25 points possible for the query and 25 points possible for the writing sample. No one got 50 points. The highest score I gave was 22 on the query, 23 on the pages, 45 total. And that score was given to someone who was not my mentee. My mentee was the #2 spot, not the #1. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Weirdly enough, the person who received the highest score from me isn’t even one of the writers I asked for more pages from. She doesn’t even know she was one of my favorites. (I’ll tell her in the feedback.) I didn’t ask for more pages because I had a personal reason I knew I could not take her manuscript, and it’s frustrating to get someone’s hopes up if you know you won’t end up taking them. Everyone I requested more pages from was someone I honestly considered for the mentee spot.

It just goes to show you how much that “subjective” thing really is true. Everyone does it, all the way up the ladder. Right now I have a manuscript on submission to editors that today got a “not my thing” rejection, you know? I dunno, I think it’s kinda like dating. Some mixture of attraction, common interests, mutual availability, and shared goals results in good matches, and someone who wants to be a good match with you can’t just barge in and say Excuse me, I fulfill what I have determined to be your requirements; you are now required to give me a chance! (Well, they can do that, and sometimes they do. While insisting that they’re quite eligible mates and deserve your attention. Which makes them even less attractive, right?) Oh dear, I have digressed again. Silly me.

How many writers did you request more pages from? 

I only asked for more pages from six writers. I’m not going to reveal who they are here, but I will say I requested four adult urban fantasy books, one adult science fiction book, and one new adult fantasy. Three authors got the same “score” as my mentee did. The one in my group of six with the lowest score–41 points–was the one I came closest to picking for my mentee before I decided to go with Lynn. So I guess my scorecard helps me figure out which individual aspects of writing my applicants are good at, but doesn’t necessarily help me make a decision.

Initially I thought I ought to ask for more pages from everyone who got 40 points or above. That would have been 17 authors! Maybe I should have. If I do Pitch Wars again next year, maybe I will do that.

Julie, did you go to battle over your mentee? Did you lose any battles?

Two of the authors I was considering had at least one other mentor either considering them or choosing them as a mentee. I am a pacifist in most senses and declared that I would not fight any other mentors over mentees. I had enough stuff I liked that I would have simply chosen someone else if it came down to it. So no, no battles for me.

You’ve been doing Pitch Wars for three years, Julie. Did you get any submissions from authors you recognized from previous years?

Yes! One author who’d submitted to me last year submitted to me again this year with a new manuscript. And one author who’d submitted to me last year submitted to me again this year with the same manuscript. Both got high scores from me but neither was my selection.

How many authors who submitted to you had really good submissions? How many just weren’t ready?

This is a hairy question and a sometimes-subjective one. I did sort my submissions into the following categories:

  • Ineligible–wrong category
  • Not ready
  • Ready, but not for me
  • Low maybe
  • High maybe

The high maybes were reserved for folks I requested pages from. If I hadn’t connected with any of the additional chapters in my high maybes, I would have started requesting from my low maybes, but it didn’t happen.

Of my 92 submissions, I had 2 ineligible books, 42 not-ready books, 34 ready-but-not-for-me books, 8 low maybes, and 6 high maybes.

Sometimes stuff I determined to be not ready was enjoyed by other mentors, so I can absolutely say it was subjective. I also put perhaps unfair emphasis on the query letter. Many of the other mentors say the pages matter more than the query, and they’re right, but I also know agents use the query to decide what they want to read, and I did that too. Sometimes if the query was way off, I still put it in the “not ready” pile even if the pages were okay, because it made me feel like the person did not do basic research on what a query is supposed to be, and that indicates lack of readiness in a different way. There were a couple even in my high maybes who had queries that needed some serious work, but they weren’t way off. You definitely need to pay attention to what query letters are if you’re entering a query-letter-centric contest.

What were the biggest problems in the query letters? What were the biggest problems in people’s writing samples?

More or less exactly like last year, in the queries I yelled at people for lack of trajectory or too much/too little detail. I gave specifics in each case and a push in the direction I’d like to see it go. For some, I suggested picking up a couple paperbacks in their genre and modeling a query synopsis after the back-of-the-book description. And when I commented on pages, I would talk about whether I connected to the character, why I thought their language was too passive or inundated with unnecessary speech tags or adverbs, and how I’d like to see them reconceive their opening if I thought it didn’t work. If I didn’t read the whole first chapter, I sometimes told people so and explained where/why I disconnected.

And, of course, I screamed about grammar. Dashes, mostly, and curly quotes/straight quotes. If you didn’t know there are differences between hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—), you may have gotten yelled at by me. If you didn’t know that some quotation marks and apostrophes get “curled” by certain programs and others are left straight (and you used more than one program to show me your document, including Scrivener), you may have gotten yelled at by me.

The most common problem I saw was lack of trajectory. The one comment I found myself typing over and over was a request for firming up the straightforward direction of the query. This means when evaluators look at queries, they’re generally looking for you to tell them what happens and who it happens to/who makes it happen. We want to see your character(s) defined; we want to see the problem in your story; we want to see how your character(s) might approach solving said problem; and we want to know the stakes (what will happen if they don’t succeed).

This won’t do for every query, because obviously not every story is so straightforward, and some have more than one problem. But remember, this isn’t an attempt to sum up your book in two paragraphs. This is an attempt to pull us into your story enough to start reading it. You don’t have to tell us everything. You don’t even have to tell us about every plot if your book has several. This is a document that is designed to do nothing more than get us to open your book and read page one.

A list of common issues I saw in the synopsis bits:

  • Too much detail (we need broad brush, not explanations of each plot point)
  • Attempts to insert storytelling into the query (we need story, but not “and her heart soared when he kissed her in the rain”)
  • Presenting final stakes as a question (“Can she save her mother in time?”–yes, probably; now we don’t have to read it)
  • Vague stakes (“or he will lose everything”–nah, tell us what he will lose specifically)
  • Cursing (snark is okay, but I recommend against actually using swear words in the query)
  • Giving too many character names (main characters and villain okay; every member of expedition team, not)
  • Telling the ending (yes, you tell the ending in a “synopsis” attachment; you do not tell the ending in a pitch blurb)
  • Message and themes (show us what your story illustrates, but don’t tell us it’s deep or unique or that it examines human nature)
  • Too much setup (you need to bounce right into the plot, not spend a paragraph on who the character was before the plot happened)
  • Lists of what happens in what order (pitches are not a stark outline of your book’s plot points)

Your Query’s Personal Section:
The most common problem I saw in the bios was irrelevant information. Most people did pretty well giving me just a little taste of their writing background and pub credits (where applicable), but I did get a fair amount that went into loads of detail about their other projects–especially when said projects were unpublished, reviewed by nobodies, or published by nobodies. Queries are for agents who want to get you a mainstream publishing deal. They care about your publication credits and writing affiliations, but they don’t need to know about them if yours aren’t impressive or indicative of a building career.

You should personalize your queries and by all means tell an agent a little something about why you think their website, blog, or Twitter presence suggests you have something reasonably professional in common. But you should not deviate into rambles about your personal life or shift focus onto other projects.

A list of common issues I saw in personal sections:

  • Authors telling me who they think they write like
  • Authors comparing their work to established work and giving me long-winded explanations of why it’s similar
  • Authors telling me this is their first book (and I say don’t do this because this is like going into an interview saying “Hello, I’ve never done this before, but hire me!”)
  • Authors claiming their self-published books or small-press books got good reviews on Amazon (please focus on THIS project, and only quote professional reviews for other projects)
  • Authors telling me they’ve been rejected by others
  • Authors sharing details about why they wrote the book
  • Authors launching into in-depth explanations of special rules in their fantasy books and explaining their cool concepts, divorced from story
  • Authors discussing their writing or publishing process (do not say how long it took to write, how many agents you’ve queried, how long you’ve been looking for representation, how many revisions you’ve done, or who you hired to edit it–notifying me that it’s been proofread as a guarantee of quality is a mistake, because we expect professional quality)

I hear that agents also often get promises from authors that the book is going to sell well and/or transform the genre and life as we know it, but I didn’t actually see any like that. If you were considering making promises about the sales and success, don’t.

Your Sample Pages

By far, the most common problem (and the most fatal problem) in people’s sample pages for me was unnatural backstory. If you are already launching into history and context and setting up your world while your characters stand still and it’s in the first five pages, I know you haven’t quite figured out how to tell this story. You’ve figured out your stuff, you’ve realized it needs to be in the story, and then you’ve . . . dumped it on us at the beginning. I tune out. Because I’m not invested yet. I have to care first. If you begin a novel by expecting me to sit for a lecture first, you’ve mistaken your book for a class I have to take. I don’t have to be here. I can put the book down anytime I want. Remember that and get us hooked immediately.

Marry background details to character perspectives, natural revelations through story, or dialogue. And you can probably leave out more than you think. We’re pretty observant–we’ll figure it out.A list of other common issues I saw in sample pages:

  • Telling (narration tells me a protagonist is good, or has been a doctor for 10 years, or has three children, instead of letting me just see it come up)
  • Characters have an awkward conversation about things they both/all know so I can learn about it
  • Setting and situational backstory relayed through narration and divorced from character
  • Spelling and grammar errors (!!!)
  • Disconnected storytelling (I passively watched the character do things without understanding what they wanted or why they were doing it)
  • Opening with something exciting, then backing up halfway down the page to tell me how we got here and slowing the momentum considerably
  • A feeling that I would have to be patient to get to the good part (I shouldn’t feel like I’m humoring an author by reading their stuff; they need to make me want to read it!)

I was excited that I really got very few clichés, though. I didn’t see a lot of authors writing the opening that describes the sky or the weather. I didn’t see the protagonists waking up on a normal day and trying to decide what to do next. I don’t think I had anyone describe their protagonists by having them look in the mirror.

Anything else cool to tell us? 

Well, you tell me what you want to know! Here’s just one more cool factoid: Protagonist names!

I’m a name nerd and I love paying attention to naming trends. There was no one Most Popular Name in my submissions, but I went through to see if I could find any patterns, and the most I could find was I had two Alexes, two Ambers, two Claires, and two Victorias. (I only counted one protagonist for each book, and if it had multiple perspectives, I just picked the character whose name was mentioned first.) Here’s the list of protagonist names in my 92 submissions, for all you other name nerds!

  • Abigail
  • Addie
  • Addisyn
  • Adela
  • Adele
  • Alby
  • Aldonza
  • Aleks
  • Alex (2)
  • Alistair
  • Allison
  • Alyssira
  • Amber (2)
  • Ami
  • Ana
  • Anna
  • Arietta
  • Blake
  • Brandy
  • Cami
  • Carrie
  • Cassandra
  • Charlotte
  • Christine
  • Ciro
  • Claire (2)
  • Cole
  • Daphne
  • Dhel
  • Dillard *
  • Dinah
  • Edison
  • Eithne
  • Emma
  • Enzo
  • Erissa
  • Erling
  • Evelyn
  • Freya
  • Greg
  • Hadley
  • Hope
  • Horatio
  • Ian
  • Inga
  • Jack
  • Jamie
  • Jay
  • Jem
  • Jeremiah
  • Jim
  • John
  • Katherine
  • Keegan
  • Kerry
  • Kharis
  • Kitty
  • Lavie
  • Letty
  • Linus
  • Luke
  • Maggie
  • Marietta
  • Marla
  • Mike
  • Natalie
  • Nathan
  • Nora
  • Nyra
  • Peet
  • Reilly
  • Rhiannon
  • Riam
  • Robert (R.J.)
  • Rose
  • Sam
  • Santos
  • Sara
  • Silen
  • Simon
  • Suzanne
  • Theo
  • Tilly
  • Tiny
  • Verity
  • Victoria (2)
  • Vivian
  • Zayria

* (“Dillard” was listed as a protagonist’s last name, but no first names of protagonists appeared to be listed in the query.)

Avoiding the Red Pen of Doom


So you Pitch Wars folks may have heard I’m a grumpy editor and that I will be grading your papers–excuse me, your manuscripts–extra hard on silly things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word use.

Well, you heard right.

I don’t really want to spend this post rambling about the importance of a polished manuscript, so if you want to read my philosophy on the topic–which could be summed up as “please don’t make me be your literary janitor”–I have already written a post on that. But one major reason you want your manuscript to avoid certain common errors is that doing so makes us feel like we’re in good hands.

Ahh, we think when our internal editor can go to sleep and just enjoy the story. Finally. Someone who knows what they’re doing. That’s it, really. I want to feel that sense of confidence, like I’m dealing with a professional. For that reason–and because I would love to work with a mentee in Pitch Wars who will allow me to give my red pen a rest–I am now going to lay out the most common glitches I find myself yelling at people about over and over again during editing.

You may be surprised what you don’t know. Trust me here.

1. Extra spaces.

The standard now is ONE space after terminal punctuation. If you currently have a manuscript featuring two spaces after sentences, you’ll need to globally replace every set of two spaces with one space. You don’t want to look outdated/old-fashioned. I also often find two spaces between regular words, or even more than two spaces, so I recommend a good old automatic search-and-replace.

2. Mixture of straight quotes and curly quotes.

Nearly every manuscript I’ve edited has this problem and I don’t know why, but this formatting inconsistency is usually a consequence of editing in more than one program. (I’ve heard conversion to Word from Scrivener sometimes causes this if you then start editing inside Word after the conversion, for instance.) You should do a final once-over to make sure your quotes are all curly or all straight. Inconsistency looks sloppy and we can see what parts you’ve been messing with. You need to be especially careful about apostrophes; sometimes they flip the wrong way if they’re curly, and apostrophes should look like a tiny nine, not a tiny six.

3. Inappropriate use of single quotes.

US standards and UK/Australian standards are sometimes different on punctuation, and this is one of those times. But since I am US-based, I am explaining the US rule. Dialogue should be in double quotation marks. Quotations should be in double quotation marks. Scare quotes are also double quotation marks. Single quotation marks rarely make an appearance except inside doubles (to indicate something quoted inside something else that’s being quoted). I’m not sure why it’s so common for authors to use single quotes like my example above, but you shouldn’t.

4. Inappropriate dialogue rendering.

Dialogue appears to be one of the world’s last great mysteries to some folks. I see quoted text blending into stage direction that’s handled like a speech tag; I see commas used after question marks and exclamation marks; I even see people forgetting their commas before speech tags or using the wrong capitalization/punctuation for attaching speech tags. Bottom line is that you should end your dialogue with terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks unless the sentence continues outside the quotation marks to attach a dialogue tag, and if what follows after the comma is NOT a dialogue tag, it needs to be converted to the proper verb form before you add it on there. (For instance, in the first example in the graphic above, you’d write “Just don’t,” she said, walking away scowling, or “Just don’t.” She walked away scowling, or “Just don’t,” she said as she walked away scowling.

5. Improper rendering of ellipses.

Ellipses baffle many. That’s probably partly because three dots looks right and four looks like too many, and partly because there is a special character to create ellipses that converts automatically in some programs. Well, the Chicago Manual of Style is a common style guide for many editors and publishers, and these days it recommends spaces before, between, and after a set of three periods to indicate a pause–unless it is at the end of a sentence, in which case you get a fourth period that ends the sentence (flush against the sentence it ends, just like a regular period), followed by the spaced-out periods. It’s also not three periods followed by one space, which I also see a lot.

6. Improper rendering of dashes.

Dashes! Ask anyone who’s ever received editing from me: I harass people mercilessly over dashes. Turns out people don’t know there are different punctuation marks for different types of pauses, and many authors don’t know the difference between the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash.

The key:

( – ) Hyphen (shortest!): Used for connecting related words, like short-haired and dust-covered. Or for number words like forty-two. It is not used for a pause in a sentence. Created using the hyphen key on the keyboard.

( – ) En dash (medium!): Used for certain rare, peculiar hyphenations that involve connecting a two-or-more-word phrase to another word, like Michael Jackson–themed or yellow jasmine–scented. It is also used for ranges, like scores (“they beat us 27–6!”) or in substitution of the word “to” (“the Canada–United States border”). Created using alt-0150 on the keypad.

( — ) Em dash (longest!): Used to indicate interruption or pause in a sentence. You can use it to indicate that someone’s dialogue is getting cut off (“But you said I could if I—”) or to set off separate phrases or asides inside a sentence (The clown—still wearing his red nose—sighed deeply) or to add another idea to an existing one (Sometimes I think about dropping out—it’d be a relief, really). Created using alt-0151 on the keyboard.

The em dash is also sometimes indicated by two hyphens next to each other ( — ). If you are formatting your manuscript without the special dash character (which sometimes is converted automatically to a special dash character if you type two hyphens), you should not include spaces before, between, or after the dashes.

Please don’t make me yell at you over your dashes.

7. Comma splices.

Ever heard of comma splices? I used to have all kinds of comma splices in my writing until I found out they were a no-no. Comma splices can be hard to explain–both what they are and why they’re unacceptable–but once you get the idea of what they are, they start to jump out at you everywhere. Comma splices are essentially when a comma is used to join two parts of a sentence that should be more independent from each other. They usually need a stronger separation–such as a period, a dash, or a semicolon. The example above could be fixed with a semicolon or a period, just depending on stylistic preference. I tend to see comma splices more often in sentences that are already quite long, with several of them in a row. Look up comma splices online to figure out what they look like if it’s not clear to you already, and then kill them all.

8. Unnecessary, “creative,” or adverb-infested dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are one of the most frequently decorated parts of an amateur writer’s manuscript. One good rule of thumb is to avoid telling us how someone said something if what they said already made it clear. You don’t need to find a flashy word like roared or expectorated if the tone is already obvious just from reading the quote, and if someone says something pleasant and well-mannered, you don’t have to add “she said politely.” Give us adverbs or clarifying permutations for the word “said” or “asked” if something about it is not clear from the dialogue itself, like if the phrase is whispered and we wouldn’t otherwise know, or if it’s said sarcastically (provided we can’t tell already from context).

I think the main reason people think these gaudy tricks are good writing is that they imagine variation makes their sentences more attractive and innovative, but all it really shows is that they don’t know the purpose of dialogue tags. Think of your writing as a road and your plot as a series of tourist attractions. Your job as you lay out the road is to guide your drivers to the attractions; the storytelling is the highway, and the stage directions and dialogue tags are instructions for traveling it correctly. You want the roadside signs to guide the drivers, not become pretty enough that they’re mistaken for attractions themselves. Their job is to guide the driver and get out of the way–to be as invisible as they can be while still being understood.

9. Inconsistent usage.

Inconsistent usage is tough to nail down because every writer has different problem spots, but I see it often in stuff like “toward” and “towards” both being used in the same manuscript (you should pick one and use it consistently, “toward” being more commonly accepted, and the only exception is dialogue). Usually I’ll see this with authors sometimes capitalizing a person’s title and sometimes not; or spelling, hyphenating, or capitalizing special terms made up for the story differently each time.

10. Extraneous phrases and words.

Extraneous words are clutter. They jumble your sentences, make them more awkward to read, and can even slow down your pacing. “She wondered if she’d ever see another thunderstorm” is way more effective than “She found herself beginning to wonder whether or not there was ever going to be another thunderstorm.” Not only is the former around half the length of the latter, but it’s so much more readable and effective.

Watch for unnecessary words and phrases like started tobegan to, and in order to. Avoid phrases that are redundant, like whether or not (just whether works) or thought to herself (unless the character’s speaking telepathically, they are most likely always going to be thinking “to themselves”). Cut unnecessary uses of the word that. Avoid using really, quite, and very if they’re not necessary (and this is where creative word swaps do come in handy; I’d rather see “enormous” than “very big”). And try to avoid the word thing (except in dialogue) if you can think of a more specific word that describes what thing.

I can deal with a few writing quirks and mistakes here and there. I’m good at helping authors identify their language problems, and I’m sure whoever I choose for my mentee will have a couple glitches I can help them with. (For the record, ending sentences with prepositions is accepted usage in informal writing, and starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions is similarly fine. These are not the types of petty problems I scream about.) However, I would prefer to work with someone who won’t make me feel like I’m grading an English paper or watching out for mistakes all the time. Learn these common problems, excise them from your book, and help keep all of my hair in my head.

And for those of you who will still insist on committing these sins . . . be prepared to feel the sting of my mighty red pen.

No longer yours

This is far from a new idea–I’ve seen it expressed several times–but now I’m experiencing it myself and I’m going to reflect on it.

When you write a book, get it published, and release it into the wild, it becomes no longer yours.

That may sound like an obvious statement, but the nuances are a little more complex. You know when your work is published that people you don’t know and will never meet are now hearing your words in their heads. You know you’ve made them think about things they wouldn’t have thought if you hadn’t thought them first and written them down. You know your work gets its wings and flies to places you’ve never been, carrying ideas in its wake, spreading messages far and wide.

But what’s really interesting about it is seeing people treating it like it’s . . . well, something other than your weird little baby. Reacting to it like it’s public property–because it is. Reviewing it positively and discussing its potential influence on academic mattersPosting quotes from it that they found inspirational and getting hundreds of people to share them with others. Getting excited because their copy arrived and taking pictures of it to blog and tweet. Seeing it criticized and seeing others get my backRecommending it to people to help understand themselves and each other. Telling personal stories about why my book is important to them.

It’s mine, but it’s not just mine anymore.

The book has become part of the conversation. Part of the world. Part of the fabric of existence as we go on from here. It’s something others can access to inform their lives, and it’s something that is now being casually recommended to strangers by other strangers so they can understand an experience we’ve all had. These people have oftentimes paid money for the privilege of letting me “talk” to them for an appreciable length of time. My words were taken seriously, digested, enjoyed, passed on. They are being read now. They will continue to be in the future.

And for many of the people who read it, who I am as a person isn’t actually important. So many readers absorb the content of a book without even thinking about the person who wrote it, without thinking about why they wrote it, without trying to connect to that person (even though they’ve done so in a pretty intimate way if you ask us). The way they think of us sometimes, if they don’t know us in person or online, is just as content generators–a disembodied set of words and opinions that made a thing and sold the thing.

I like that.

No, not because I like being dehumanized or separated from my content, or because I don’t like when people DO try to connect personally (because I do like that), but because now they don’t have to know me to hear my words. They don’t have to be part of my world for me to be part of theirs.

It’s a good feeling.

Pitch Wars: The Feedbackening

So it’s done. After having chosen a mentee and an alternate, I gave my feedback to 103 people who entered the contest, in individual e-mails, with around a page to a page and a half of personalized commentary.

It came to about 60,000 words, and some people are like YOU BASICALLY WROTE A YA NOVEL WITH YOUR FEEDBACK. (Well, an awfully critical, disjointed YA novel, but yes, word-wise, it was a lot.) And honestly, this is one of my favorite things about the contest: giving people who didn’t get picked a ladder to climb so they can leave with bright prospects.

Though please let me state and reiterate that MENTORS WERE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE ANY FEEDBACK AT ALL and most of the mentors could not spare time to draft more than a form letter or some abbreviated feedback. The fact of the matter is that qualifying as a mentor means you basically have a writing-related or editing-related career, even if you’re not full time, and many of us are working multiple jobs, parenting multiple kids, and juggling multiple responsibilities. For most of the mentors in this contest, their own deadlines and other responsibilities just had to take precedence. I really, really don’t want the fact that I happened to have time to draft this feedback to make anyone in this contest resent that other mentors didn’t or couldn’t do the same.

And you folks who received feedback from me: Wow, everyone’s been so gracious about it. Even for the people I was really hard on, I mostly received effusive thank-yous and appreciation, with a few requests for clarification mixed in (which I generally don’t mind, though if you see this, please don’t ask me to read a new version of your query unless I’ve volunteered explicitly to look at it; I think I’m burned out on queries!).

“But Julie,” say some people who didn’t submit to me, “what was this glorious feedback like? What did you tell them that has them cheering for you and screaming your name on Twitter?”

Most of my “pass” mails focused on the query letter. I yelled at people for lack of trajectory or too much/too little detail, mostly. I gave specifics in each case and a push in the direction I’d like to see it go. For some, I suggested picking up a couple paperbacks in their genre and modeling a query synopsis after the back-of-the-book description. And when I commented on pages, I would talk about whether I connected to the character, why I thought their language was too passive or inundated with unnecessary speech tags or adverbs, and how I’d like to see them reconceive their opening if I thought it didn’t work. If I didn’t read the whole first chapter, I sometimes told people so and explained where/why I disconnected.

And, of course, I screamed about grammar. Dashes, mostly, and curly quotes/straight quotes. (This is not what kills you, though. Obviously. Since I said that kind of thing to my mentee.) If you didn’t know there are differences between hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—), you may have gotten yelled at by me. If you didn’t know that some quotation marks and apostrophes get “curled” by certain programs and others are left straight (and you used more than one program to show me your document, including Scrivener), you may have gotten yelled at by me.

But getting yelled at by me isn’t always bad, and it’s not terrifying. I tend to be kind of informal and even occasionally funny when I offer critique. I constructed my feedback as I read each submission (which is why it took me so long to get through them), and I reread them before sending to make sure a) I hadn’t been too mean, and b) to adjust where appropriate when I wanted to tell someone how close I’d come to picking them or comment on if they got chosen as mentee or alternate by someone else. In rereading the stuff I wrote in these slap-happy late-night editing sessions, I found the following silly, creative, and plain weird pieces of advice or commentary. My apologies if these were said to you. I have to do something to keep myself entertained.

You need to set off an adverb repellent in this manuscript and start killing some of these suckers. Don’t make it such a sprawling metaphor, or we start to think you’re going to wander away from us into this guy’s head and forget you’re supposed to be pitching a book.

You want this ending to punch, and it’s just too sprawled out all over the bed right now. With a bunch of pillows and stuffed animals.

I suggest times a hundred that you wait wait wait to tell us how things work.

That’s pretty long for one sentence, despite the cunningly used dashes. (I’m very fond of dashes.)

You write likable sentences; I’d sit with your sentences in the lunchroom.

I’m going with something that hits me in my sweet spot and your subject matter is slightly behind and over to the right of my sweet spot.

I like present tense (though it’s terrible in the wrong hands). Fortunately, yours seem like pretty good hands.

I felt it was mostly spent setting the scene instead of getting me invested. Like the props were still being put on stage at the start of the play. Tell us what the person loses, not just “control.” I want it to be a lot tighter and really smash us in the face.

Word-count-wise it sounds a little on the short side? But I guess that’s because I’m used to hulking fantasy books.

I really love this beginning and it’s honestly a relief to read something that knows how to give exposition I can hang my hat on.

Dialogue tags should tell us things we can’t tell by what is being said (like volume, as in whispered, or like tone, as in sarcasm if we couldn’t detect it from context). When you switch them up so often, they become very noticeable instead of invisible, and those are not the parts of your writing you want us to notice. They’re road signs, not attractions.

It’s like you went from microscope to binoculars with nothing in between.

The answer to “Can X do Y?” is almost always yes, and if we’re reading because we want to know the answer to that question, we’ve already answered it. “X must do Y or else Z” is much better than “Can X do Y?” Even though it’s actually quite a well-written query, it lacks meat. I just want to eat the meal, not be told what it tastes like and what its ingredients are.

This sentence and others like it should be banished forever from your querying vocabulary. I’m only yelling at you for this because you have so little else to scream about and I want you to be perfect.

Some people will probably tell you that starting with prologue-like italics is a bad idea and I will tell them to go sit on it.

Most really good queries hint at complexity while displaying simplicity.

Our protagonist is doing her thing, acting in the midst of the stuff we need to understand, getting on with her life rather than posing for a Chapter One Centerfold.

And I’ve got to admit that the sudden random boner at the end of the chapter threw me off.

So there you have it, folks. The kind of advice Julie Sondra Decker gives to people.


My mentee and alternate are in for some wacky comments. I can feel it.

Nerdy Analysis: Pitch Wars 2014


Oh, you’re not a nerd? Get out!

Seriously though, there’s some nerdy stuff coming. With math, data, and graphs! RUN!

So Pitch Wars has completed its submission round and now we mentors are frantically digging through our submissions. Some more frantically than others.

Because you see, some of us got kind of a lot of submissions. Like, for instance, yours truly.

I received 101 submissions.

(Technically 103, but two of them were for Young Adult manuscripts, and I was not allowed to take Young Adult. I am a New Adult and Adult mentor only!)

I’ve only read a small percentage of my inbox–about 15%–and I’m going to chug through it this week. But since I’ve read very little of it, I can’t really offer you any meaningful reflections on what I’m thinking. What I CAN offer you is statistics. Lots of statistics! So . . . let’s start with category. How many Adult and how many New Adult did I get?

Of course, Adult dominated. New Adult is just getting off the ground, and not as many people write it.

Now here’s one I’m not too enthusiastic about doing, but people were talking about it/asking about it a little because there was a perception that guys are severely underrepresented in this contest, both amongst the mentors and amongst the entrants. I mostly have name data to go on and to guess someone’s gender based on traditionally male or female names, I have to make assumptions, and I also can’t reliably tell who among them, despite the name, might identify as a non-binary gender. But I took my best guess, and this is how it broke down if I had to guess the balance between male and female in the contest (based on my inbox):

Yep. It’s a female-dominated contest. (I think we all know that publishing is pretty dominated by women, and yet lots of books by male authors get published, so. . . .)

Moving on to something else! What about . . . genre? What kind of genre breakdown did I see in my box? (You can click these charts to see them better if they’re too small or the blog configuration gets in the way.)

I don’t think anyone’s surprised that the mentor who asked for science fiction and fantasy got a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Are you?

I’m just surprised romance is that high.

As you can see if the chart is visible to you, ten people chose “other.” Some of them did so even though their category was technically there, but it looks like they just wanted to be more specific. The “Other” category included one Experimental Fiction, one Christian, one Upmarket Women’s Fiction, two Urban Fantasy, one Historical Paranormal, two Women’s Fiction, one Mythic Retelling, and one Dystopian Paranormal.

What else, you might be saying . . . what else nerdy can you show me? Well, how about word count?

As you’d expect, nearly all the submissions are between 70,000 words and 100,000 words. It drops off sharply after 100K, but yeah, I did have two over 150,000. One person didn’t include their word count and they’re the question mark at the end. I also did get several novels under 60K which is weird to me for adults (most of them were not New Adult), and one was under 50K.

I’m super surprised I didn’t get the biggest books in the contest, though. I did say in my bio that I LIKE long books, and yet the other mentors got the 200,000+-word tomes! Wow!

And just when you thought I must be done . . . NOPE.

Pitch Wars twins! Which mentors did I share the MOST submissions with?

Jami Nord is my supreme Pitch Wars twin, with 30 submissions in common. Just behind Jami are Amy Reichert and Natasha Neagle. Despite being my mentee last year, Whitney wasn’t even in the top five. We actually have somewhat different taste in books.

Okay, okay, that’s all the nerdery I have for you right now. Please tell me if you want me to analyze anything else!

Or don’t, so I can get through my submissions faster. 😉