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:~: Monday, March 05, 2007 :~:

The Miracle Pill

We've all seen it. Hell, we've probably all fallen prey to at it one point or another. The miracle pill/diet/book/plan/whatever you want to call it. Overweight? Try the next-great diet drug. Having relationship problems? Read this life-changing book. Dying to make a million dollars? Follow this step-by-step plan. Want to be a published author? Then do what I did.

More often times than not, for writers, especially unpublished writers, that little miracle pill comes in a very large and real human body. She could be a member of your local RWA group. She could be an author you listened to at a workshop, one you met online, one who participates in several author loops you participate in. She could be published or unpublished, young or mature, but odds are no matter who she is, she has a commanding voice or presence that makes you sit up and listen. She's probably just trying to help and doesn't mean to give you bad information, but is her advice really relevant to you? And most importantly, is it helping or hurting your career?

When I first started writing, I jumped into several writer loops. I was green and needed to learn. Consequently, I was overwhelmed with information from all different angles. My favorite, and the one I struggled most with though, related to manuscript length.

It's no secret I'm not fond of short books. I tend to read fast, and short books are over way before I'm ready to let go of them - especially if they're good. I love meaty books that keep me up late reading and waking early to find out what happens next. And, as I'm sure it's no surprise to you, I write lengthy books. I will never forget asking a question about manuscript length on a loop and getting the response, "You will never ever EVER land an agent or publish a book longer than 95K words. Stop what you're doing and cut, cut, cut."

I write between 100-110K words consistently. Try as I might, I've never come in below 100K, not that I don't think it'll ever happen, it just hasn't yet (though, I've been very close). I remember reading that particular piece of advice and thinking, "Well. I'm screwed. Might as well toss the towel in right now." As a new writer, that advice stuck with me a long time. Then I wised up and realized the woman who'd offered this gem of wisdom was yet unpublished by the big dogs herself. And the more I saw of her on the loops, the more I realized she had advice on everything from what font was "the only acceptable font" to plot points that will garner you an automatic rejection.

My agent never said a word about manuscript length before, during or after my revisions. None of the other agents who were interested in my book ever mentioned the length. Neither have any editors who have read it (except for one, but we knew that particular house liked slightly shorter books going in). Bottom line here isn't that manuscript length is the make-or-break clincher for a sale, but that if someone loves your writing and your voice, length is something minor that can be changed later.

I have tons of other examples of writer-friendly advice I've been given, most recently at my RWA chapter meeting regarding synopses - but I'll spare you. Nearly-there authors are probably more apt at weeding the crab grass from the fertile lawn, but whenever I hear an "I did it this way" story, I still pause to listen and think...what if I did it that way?

It's tempting. Probably more tempting for new authors who are looking for the magical pill to get them from unpublished to published in the blink of an eye. Whenever I talk with a new author and tell them what I've done in my career and they say, "Oh, I'll do it that way," I immediately wave my hands and say, "No, no, no. Do it YOUR way." Those of you who are seasoned writers and are reading this blog know there is no such think as a miracle pill to publication. Although sometimes I really wish there were.

What's the worst piece of writing advice you've ever gotten? And how did it change your career - good or bad? And before I forget, we're cross-blogging with the girls at Romance Unleashed this week. So once you finish commenting here, be sure to stop by over there and read the NY published author's take on the same topic.



Blogger Jessica Trapp said...

Great post! And great reminder that we are all feeling our way along in the dark sometimes. I think the worst advice I ever received was to stop writing medievals because they would never sell. Gak. I sure could have been further along on my second medieval when my first one came out.

:) Jes


7:34 AM  
Blogger Lori Devoti said...

Okay, hopefully this won't double post--the Web seems to have eaten my earlier response....
I'm going to be blogging over at RU on this on Wednesday, but probably one of the absolute drop your jaw on the floor advice I got was not to try and write for a certain publisher because they only wanted cookie cutter stories--and, of course, the insinuation was if I did submit to said publisher I would be "selling out". Never being a person too worried about what others thought and perfectly willing to have "sold out" stamped on my forehead in their minds if I did make a sale, I picked my jaw up off the floor and began to look at everything that particular group said to me with a vat of salt.
Oh, and guess what--when said publisher came out with a new line one of these ladies thought she might be able to sell to--did she submit. Sure enough!

8:24 AM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Great post! I definitely know someone like you described--and for the life of me, I can't figure out her motivations. Anyway, the worst advice I've heard--and this wasn't directed at me, but to another woman on the loop who had just been signed by a big-time (i.e. VERY experienced, LONG track record!) agent. The advice-spewing woman told her that she needed to make up a thorough list of publishers and specific editors to whom her manuscript should be submitted, and give the list to her new agent right away. When someone asked, "But isn't that the point of having an agent? Aren't they the ones who know the editors likes/dislikes, and decide where to send it?" the woman piped up with, "Well, my agent is one of the biggest in the industry (which, as an aside, isn't true!), and she requires all her authors do this. You must show that YOU know the market, blah, blah, blah..."

So the woman took the advice and made up an extensive list, then sent it to her new agent, saying, "Here is where you should sub my manuscript." Well, it didn't go over so well with the agent, who reassured her that she knew how to do her job, and asked her why she thought she needed an agent if she could do this herself? Needless to say, they didn't get off on the right foot, and eventually parted ways.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

Ack, Jessica. If there's one thing I've learned in this business it's that the market can turn on a dime. What's selling today might not be selling tomorrow and vice versa. Glad to see you didn't write to the market and proved everyone wrong. ;)

8:52 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

ROFL, Lori. I have no problem with "selling out" either. If you love a story and characters, who cares if it fits a mold or not?

8:54 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

Wow, Kristina, I could see how that might not go over so well.

My agent asked me for a list of publishers and dream editors I'd like to work with. I liked the fact she asked for my advice, but ultimately I trusted her opinion of where to send the manuscript. I think you have to, otherwise, why have an agent in the first place?

And I have a love-hate relationship with the loops. Some - like Crimescene writers - I find extremely useful, especially when there's one or two highly specialized "experts" answering questions. A lot of the writers loops though leave me with a "blind leading the blind" feeling when I walk away. I don't check them nearly as often as I used to.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Sally MacKenzie said...

And Elisabeth, you didn't mention one of the burning topics of writerland--how do you measure length, anyway? (Pardon me while I snicker...romance writer...measure length matter?...oh, never mind.) I've heard people maintain--positive that they are right--that word count is Word word count. And others, equally sure, say no, it's the old 25 lines per page, 250 words per page estimate because publishers are really interested in PAGE count. I turn in 400 page manuscripts for my "around 95,000 words" contracts. Because of lots of dialogue and short paragraphs, my Word word count is usually under 90,000, but the publisher hasn't ever complained. AND when I see the actual book, its page count often seems totally unrelated to my manuscript's page count. Oy!

I think I'm glad I wrote and sold my first book before I joined any writers' groups. Some of the info in invaluable, though--just not the mis-info.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

LOL, Sally. Yes, I've read that debate as well - until my eyes burn. Everyone's got an opinion on that one.

I read somewhere - probably on a writer's loop - that for every five manuscript pages in Courier, that equals four print mass market pages. I have no idea if that's correct or not, but at the time it was stated like truth. But doesn't actual book page length vary depending on the publisher's font size???? This is why I've never understood the whole manuscript page length rule of writing.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Elisabeth, I'm with you--my agent and I definitely discuss houses before she sends my stuff out--who I'd like to work with, what I've heard lately at writer's conferences, etc, that might lead to a good 'match.' But it's really a give and take coversation--as I assume your conversations with your agent are, too! But this woman insisted it was more of an 'inform your agent who to sub it to' type thing, to 'prove that you understood the market.' It's one thing for an agent to ask their client for a list--it's a whole different thing to provide such a list, unsolicited, without any discussion first! Yoikes!

10:15 AM  
Blogger Sally MacKenzie said...

Frankly, Elisabeth, I think publishers determine the size of the book by the phase of the moon. Book length does have to grow in "signatures" though (at least, I THINK so), so books do tend to be in multiples of, hmm, 16? I forget the size of a signature. But I've heard of authors handing in books that are the exact same number of manuscript pages and they end up with diffenent length published books. Go figure. I don't believe there's any rule there, either.

And you raise another favorite topic of mis-info--what font to use. I do write in Courier now, because I know if I go over 380 pages or so in that font, the book will be long enough. (My manuscript page count has crept up with each book. The one I handed in Jan. 1 was 435 pages.) But I think any font is fine. Some folks swear by Times New Roman (and swear AT Courier).

10:26 AM  
Blogger Joan Swan said...

Wow, sure a lot of great information here -- both in post and in comments!

Ah,yes. The perfect, problem-soving pill. I've discovered the hard way in just about every area of life that no such thing exists.

I've also discovered that 99% of the time when someone speaks as an expert on a subject, they're not near the expert they think they are. And there's always someone who will disagree with said expert.

I tend to take in all the information, cull the obvious bullshit, research the rest, then make up my own mind.

:-) I'm a rebel that way.

Welcome girls from Romance Unleashed!!

1:13 PM  
Blogger Carol B. said...

The worst writing advice I received was more of a consensus that immediately upon finishing my FIRST manuscript, I should start querying and get started on the next manuscript. No matter that I was green as grass about writing a salable book, let alone a query letter that would attract attention.

Guess what that bit of advice got me? Uh-huh. A form rejection letter copy so hastily done that it was skewed on the page.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

I like that, Sally. Phases of the moon. ;)

Oh, the whole font debate is a whole other ball of wax. I write in Courier, but am fine with TNR since that's what my CP uses.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

Great attitude, J. I think the writers who survive and move on in this business have to do that.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

LOL, Carol. I've had those skewed R's as well.

Consesus is big on the loops. Again...the blind leading the blind. ;)

8:37 PM  
Blogger Edie said...

Interesting reading all these replies. I can't think of any worst advice, but we writers do tend to obsess about word count and format.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Elisa said...

LOL on the word count, Sally. I've given up trying to figure it out.

The worst advice I've gotten...I'm going to be blogging about crit partners in a few minutes, but other than that, I think the worst advice is similar to what Jessica got. I was told I should never submit a demon book to a NY publisher, because no way would they buy it. LOL I'm kicking myself for listening to that advice now.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

Edie, no bad advice? Ever???? I'm in awe.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

Oh, man, Elisa. I'd be kicking myself too. Just goes to show you never know what's going to be popular in NY tomorrow.

I know a woman in the Rose City RWA chapter who wrote part of a NASCAR romance and was told it would never sell. She gave up. A year later, Roxanne St. Claire sold Killer Curves, which kicked off Harlequin's whole NASCAR series. This woman's kicking herself as well.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Laura Drewry said...

>>I tend to take in all the information, cull the obvious bullshit, research the rest, then make up my own mind. <<

Now THAT'S the best advice ever!


11:39 AM  

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