Editorial Myth-busting: Four Common Misconceptions About the Editing Process

This is a topic that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for a while, as evidenced by the precursor posts earlier this year (Publishing: The Industry of Disappointment and Editors . . . are People?). There are so many myths and misconceptions, so many horror stories out there regarding the author-editor relationship, that it’s no wonder debut authors approach the editing process with a strange blend of hope, fear, dread, and resignation. Editing gets lumped into the same category as going to the dentist or getting the oil changed in your car. It’s not fun, but you know you have to do it. And that’s unfortunate. Because, as Drew Hayes pointed out in his article, the author-editor relationship really should be a mutually beneficial collaboration.

But, as with most things in publishing, that fact often gets obscured by the divide in perception between what the process looks/feels like for the author and what it’s like for the editor. So let’s do some myth-busting, yes? Everyone loves myth-busting. Especially when there are GIFs involved.

Myth #1: An editor’s only job is to find errors in your work.

Perception: wrong

Reality: thoughtful

It’s easy to see how this myth began, since a large portion of editing does revolve around the finding and fixing of “errors.” But that’s far from the only thing an editor does. According to the many horror stories out there, editors are judgmental, cruel beings whose only mission in life is to lord over the ranks of poor, pitiful writer-souls the way Ursula does her garden of victims in The Little Mermaid. We badger, and bully, and shred a writer’s precious work until there’s virtually nothing left, laughing as we drag the carcass of words through the Meadow of Publication and deposit its ravaged husk into the arms of readers everywhere.

Now, I’m obviously being just a tad facetious with the hyperbole, but I’ve actually heard people say this myth out loud. A lot. And I suppose, to an extent, it’s true. We are paid to find and repair problems. But the reason has less to do with sadistic pleasure at proving others wrong and more to do with the fact that we’re an objective set of expert eyes. The reason authors need editors is because they’re too close to their own work. They know what they meant to say, how the story is supposed to go, what the scenes are meant to capture. An editor is a new perspective outside of the writer’s head. They’re your first chance to see the way readers are going to react, and they’re your last chance to fix things that would otherwise earn you the dreaded one-star Amazon review.

So while the myth would have us gleefully giggling as we circle every misplaced comma and typo, the reality is that we’re more like a safety net. It’s our job to help protect authors from reader backlash. Finding errors is only one aspect of doing just that.

Myth #2: Editors are the gatekeepers standing between you and publication.

Perception: Ghostbuter Dog

Reality:Teamwork

Ah, yes. This is one of the many myths that led to my earlier articles about the humans behind publishing’s massive facade of mystery. Querying authors tend to assume that agents and acquisitions editors are solely there to be in the way. That, much like that dog-thing from Ghostbusters pictured above, we’re mindless drones serving our masters by keeping perfectly qualified, brilliant literature from making it through the gates.

Now, this myth might hold a tiny shred of truth in it (acquisitions editors and agents do filter submissions for marketability), but it’s often perpetuated by authors who’ve acquired a plethora of rejection letters, and who refuse to face the fact that their book-baby might not actually be ready for publication after all.

The reality behind acquisitions is that agents and editors are looking for business partners. Publishing is a team endeavor, and it requires a lot more than simply being able to spin a good tale. So yes, we are gatekeepers in the sense that we have to be highly selective about who we end up recruiting onto our team (remember, publishing is a business, and what do businesses want? Money!), but we’re not gatekeepers in the sense that our only reason to exist is to guard the hallowed halls of publishing from an influx of mortals. Usually, if your book isn’t receiving offers, it means it either isn’t ready yet, you’re querying the wrong agents/editors, or it just might be better suited for a different publication avenue. (I’ll talk about those more in a different, future article.)

Myth #3: Editors make tons of money, so why the hell are they so expensive?

Perception:rich

Reality:broke

This one mostly refers to the world of freelance editing, since traditional publication paths don’t require the author to pay for editing out of their own pocket. (Giant red flag if you’re ever offered a “traditional” publishing contract which does ask this of you, by the way.) It’s also a topic I’ve covered before, and which the lovely Cait Spivey provided a guest post on.

The long and short of it is that editors really don’t make that much money. What seems like a hefty chunk of change to the author having to pay it, really equates to the oft-touted ramen diet favored by other starving artist types. In editing, dollars earned divided by time spent often equals less than some people flip burgers for. Which is why most editors edit because they love it, not because it rakes in bucket-loads of green.

Which brings us to our last myth — a misconception very closely tied to the reason editors walk hand-in-hand with authors in the “I’m Broke as F*&%” parade.

Myth #4: I can read my novel in less than a week, cover to cover; why does it take an editor weeks or months to edit it?

Perception:Spacecat

Reality:

Interesting

This is my least favorite myth to run up against as an editor, either freelance or otherwise, because it instantly shows me how little the person saying it knows about the actual editing process. Editors are, in fact, some of the fastest readers I know, because we’re buried under a mountain of manuscripts that would rival Mount Everest if they weren’t largely digital. But editing does not live in the same sphere as reading. It doesn’t. I don’t care who you are, if you believe that, you’re wrong. Very, very wrong. Editing is much like writing, if it must be compared to anything. And let me ask you, oh ye authors of the interwebs, how long did it take you to actually write your manuscript? I don’t mean the act of putting words on paper or screen, but the time it took from concept inception to the “polished” draft you’re handing your editor. If you say less than 3-4 months, minimum, you’re about as believable as that cat hurtling through space at warp speed.

The fact of the matter is that editing takes time. A lot of it. It’s not just a matter of reading an author’s words. You have to digest them. There’s a lot of analyzing, of listening and interpreting intent from reality, of diagnosing and curing storytelling diseases of all varieties, as well as the expected suggestions for proper grammar. Good editors will expend an impressive amount of mental energy crafting suggestions that can be as small as a single word, because that single word has to a) conform to the accepted rules of English, b) fit with the author and character’s established voice/style, and c) somehow solve/improve upon whatever was wonky in the first place. That’s a lot of pressure on a single word, huh? And editors do that for an entire manuscript! So you can see why it would take a significant amount of mental gymnastics to complete even a single editorial review, let alone the three rounds (developmental, line/copy, proofreading) that most manuscripts go through prior to publication.

So yes, it is possible to read something cover-to-cover in a few days to a week. But it is not possible to edit the thing in that time frame. It’s just not. Asking your editor to do so is inhumane, because it will inevitably require them to give up massive amounts of sleep, drink enough caffeine to make them twitchy as a squirrel in autumn, and otherwise shackle themselves to their desk until they collapse from sheer exhaustion. Trust me, I’ve had far too much experience with that particular scenario. It’s far better to realize that editing is a time-consuming process for everyone involved and plan accordingly.

Which brings us to the end of today’s post. These are four of the more common myths I’ve heard, but tell me, what are some other editing myths out there? If there are a lot more, perhaps this myth-busting business will become a regular feature. 😉

 

Featured From the Archives: Which Comes First, Character or Plot?

Sadly, my good intentions for returning to my more prolific blogging days got derailed by what can only be described as a deluge of other obligations, both personal and work-related. But that’s not a trend I wish to continue, and I will be striving to find more time to create the snark-tinged articles you’ve all grown to know and (I hope) love. In the meantime, I present one of the last remaining archive-articles that hasn’t already resurfaced at least once. Enjoy!

Which Comes First, Character or Plot?

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 6/21/16

This is the literary equivalent of the chicken and egg scenario. Plot needs character in order for it to resonate emotionally with readers, and character without plot is really just someone standing around doing nothing. But which comes first?

There are writers in both camps who insist one or the other is the penultimate starting point for a story. But I disagree with all of them. I don’t think there is any one way to start. I firmly believe that every writer is different and will create in a way that’s unique to them. To try and constrain that creative process to a strict set of rules is futile, in my opinion. All it does is force writers who don’t naturally work that way to feel frustrated and inferior when their work fizzles and dies. Muses are fickle creatures, and prone to abandoning you when you try to force them into a rigid box. So instead of telling you that you absolutely must start with character, or plot, or even idea, I’m going to encourage you to experiment and find your own style.

But first, let’s take a look at the three different starting points, shall we? It’s hard to make an informed decision without all the facts, after all.

Character-Centric

Character-centric writers always start with a character. (You’ll see this approach a lot in fan fiction, where the only creative outlet left to the writer is character creation.) They create every last detail, from name all the way to their relationship with their great aunt Matilda’s cat who got ran over when they were four. These writers know their characters inside and out, to the point that you almost start to wonder if they’re creating a character for a novel or an imaginary best friend. Armed with pages and pages of character sheets, these writers have everything they need to get started — except a story.

Even though they’ve spent days, weeks, or months learning every minute detail of this fictitious person, they don’t have a story yet. No one wants to read those pages and pages of character notes, because they’re about as exciting as a clinical psych report to anyone but the author. You could have the coolest character in the world, but no one’s going to care unless you give them something to do. Which is why, oftentimes, you’ll notice character-centric authors struggle with plot. Since their focal point is the character, they simply don’t know how to create something interesting to fit them into, often resulting in a storyline that feels pointless, ambling around and around with no direction.

But, to their credit, character-centric authors school the rest of us when it comes to creating fully fleshed-out, believable characters. They just have to work a little harder in the plot department is all.

Plot-Centric

On the flip side of that coin is the plot-centric writer. These people start with a plot. They create every twist and turn, every multilayered goal and mini-quest in a road map of storytelling awesomeness. They know exactly how the story starts and ends, and everything in between, before they even put a word on paper. But the thing they don’t know? Their characters.

Characters are pawns to these writers, often showing up in outlines with nothing more than a placeholder name. The ins and outs of personality aren’t important unless they drive the plot. And often, that becomes a problematic downfall. Dull, cookie-cutter, two-dimensional characters are a hazard, a quagmire that too many plot-centric writers fall into. Just like the lack of plotting abilities in a character-centric story, the lack of rich characterization in a plot-centric work can destroy an otherwise amazing book.

Plot-centric writers have to pay extra attention to character development if they want any chance at resonating with readers emotionally. Plot only holds a reader’s interest so long; it’s the characters we really remember after we reach “The End.”

Idea-Centric

Outside of the character vs. plot debate is a third camp of writers — the idea-centric crowd. We (because this is the approach I use) are content to let the character and plot people duke it out over which element is more important because we go at it in a completely different way. The idea-centric writers don’t start with a character or a plot arc, they start with an idea, a concept. This can be a question — E. L. James has said she started with the question, “What would happen if you were attracted to somebody who was into the BDSM lifestyle, when you weren’t?” for her mega-hit 50 Shades of Grey. It can also be a point of inspiration — Marie Lu’s Legend series started with her curiosity over how the central relationship between Jean Valjean (a famous criminal) and Javier (a prodigious detective) in Les Miserable would translate into a more modern tale. It can even be a deeper message —The Hunger Games is actually a statement against the voyeuristic tendencies of American Television according to author Suzanne Collins.

When done well, the idea-centric approach combines the best of the other two, creating an extremely rich experience readers tend to remember long after they finish the book. But the key there is “when done well.” Idea-centric writers have to be careful that they don’t start to sound preachy, especially those with a message to impart. Character and plot can both suffer if the focus is too heavily placed on the root idea, resulting in an even bigger trainwreck than either of the two previous approaches. So while this is the method I use, I’m definitely not saying it’s perfect.

There are many people who will try to tell you their method is best. I’m not one of them. You find characters the most appealing part of a story? Go for it! Be character-centric. Just keep a watchful eye on your plot. You think plot is the all-important end-all? Great! Plot-centric it is. Have fun guiding us through your labyrinth of action. Just make sure you don’t forget about your characters along the way. And if, like me, you find plot bunnies lurking in the weirdest of places, go with it! Some of the strongest works on the market started that way. Just make sure you rein in your high horse before you reach preachy-ville.

Regardless which of the three starting points you choose, there will be things to watch out for. Each has its strength, and each has its weakness. But knowing the pitfalls ahead of time lets you avoid them before they ruin your masterpiece. The point is, there really is no right or wrong method, no matter what random people on the internet say. If it works for you, use it. If it doesn’t, look for something else that does. That’s really all there is to it.

As for our chicken and egg conundrum, you tell me — which comes first? Character, plot, or idea?

Creativity and the Fear of Offense

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST IS LIKELY TO OFFEND AND CONTAINS UNPOPULAR OPINIONS. READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.

Social Media. Everyone knows it; everyone uses it. It’s a place to connect, to feel supported by like-minded individuals, to stand up for one’s beliefs. And lately, it has become toxic. Activism comes in many forms, and is a basic human right, but there comes a point when I feel it starts to do more harm than good.

Does the world need to change? Absolutely. Should people fight to be heard? Yes. But when that fight goes from being advocacy for a better world to mob mentality with a hair trigger, we’ve gone from progress to living in fear — the fear of offending.

This is exactly what’s happened to the online writing communities over the past few years. There’s a movement within publishing which advocates for more inclusive literature. And it’s a movement I actually agree with, before anyone tries to twist what I’m saying and claim otherwise. Everyone should have books, characters, stories they can see themselves in. But the problem is that the fight for that inclusive diversity has started to poison the very cause it seeks to spotlight.

Agents and editors are now looking for books which include diversity, yes, but in their attempt to listen to the calls of the community, we’ve turned diversity into a selling point, a box to be checked. The marginalized groups fighting to be heard are not token elements to be thrown into a story simply to increase its chances of acceptance. That’s not how this works. My personal belief is that diversity should just be, the way it is in real life (though I’m well aware that the fight for equality in real life is far from over, and yes, fiction should do better than reality in that regard). Those characters and elements should be treated first and foremost as people, not whatever race/religion/sexuality/disability they might possess. And — here comes a highly unpopular opinion; brace yourselves — I don’t believe that every story needs to feature these things. Forcing a story to be inclusive when, by its nature, it doesn’t want to be, is actually a disservice to the marginalized voices you’re trying to represent.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying that we should go back to the way publishing used to be. No, what I’m saying is that writers who are distinctly unqualified to write about something outside their own personal experience should STOP DOING SO. There’s an undercurrent in the queries I’m seeing, in the whispered opinions no one is brave enough to voice in public, that writers feel they must chase diversity in order to be published. No. That’s absolutely not true. And I’m sorry, but unless you have the personal life experience to pour into your work, you’ll never accurately portray the reality of whatever marginalized group you’re trying to represent. I don’t care how much research you do, or how many sensitivity readers you have, you cannot do them justice if you do not belong to said group. So move aside, let the writers who can tell those stories tell them and tell them well.

These are opinions I’ve held for awhile now, but have never really made public. Why? Well, did you notice what I did there? I put disclaimers and explanations and the equivalent of written cowering in those last few paragraphs. Because I’m a cis, heterosexual white woman, and therefore what right do I have to say any of this? And this, my friends, is exactly what I’m talking about. This is the subversive toxicity that’s permeating all forms of social media. I haven’t said these things because I’ve been afraid of the torches and pitchforks that will likely follow.

But writing is about expression. Creativity is supposed to be free, to represent a piece of the person’s soul. It’s not supposed to be muzzled with the fear of offending the mob, stifled by the terror of being torn to shreds if you make the wrong move. And yet, that’s exactly what’s happened to my own creativity. It’s the reason this blog has fallen semi-dormant; it’s the reason I’m not writing anymore. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. I am afraid. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing, of unintentionally causing someone pain, of having my life torn apart by the bloodthirsty mob for a single misstep, even one I’d gladly apologize for and learn from. So instead, I hide. I let the fear stifle my creativity until it’s nearly gone completely. Because the toxic environment that has become the online writing community tells me my voice isn’t worthy. My opinions are wrong. I don’t matter.

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that problematic opinions and stories should not be called out. What I’m saying is that we’ve gone past the point where we’re educating the ignorant, where we’re moving forward, where we’re making the world a better place. Instead, we’re inciting fear; we’re terrorizing those who make mistakes instead of helping them do better, be better. We’ve taken our supportive little community and turned it into a piranha-filled cesspool where only the arrogant, the prejudiced, the assholes feel safe, because they simply don’t care.

Is that really what we want, though? In fighting to be heard, do you, Activist Authors of the World, really want to push away the people who are willing to listen, to correct their ways and be respectful? Do you really want to make them feel so crippled with fear that they stop creating anything at all? To me, that seems like the exact opposite of the intent behind the fight for equality in literature. Perhaps, instead of a social media feed that’s constantly filled with anger, and hate, and vitriol, we should try not being dramatically offended by every little thing. We should try approaching the conversation civilly, without the shaming, the threats, the destruction. We should realize that, in a world where someone will always be offended by something, no writer can ever be 100% perfect; that no one can ever avoid all the possible land mines out there and still sound like a person. Maybe, just maybe, we cut each other some slack and punish only those who truly aren’t willing to grow. But then, what do I know? I’m not one of the marginalized, so I’m not important, right?

Featured From the Archives: How to Fix a Morphing Voice

Lately, my blog seems to feature nothing but publishing/editing related topics and the occasional book review. That’s largely because those are the dominant activities in my life — editing and reading. But behind the scenes, I’m still working on my own writing, still hoping to someday be a published author in my own right. I’ll be doing some posts soon about the process I’ve been going through in my attempt to fix my nemesis WIP, but this seemed like an appropriate one to feature today, given that I’m still dealing with the same problem. Only now, instead of choosing Option 1, as I mention at the bottom of the post, I’m definitely doing Option 2.

Anyway, here you go, three strategies for how to deal with the curse of taking too damn long to write something. Enjoy!

 

How to Fix a Morphing Voice

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 6/7/13

After last week’s motivating tirade of snark, I found myself perusing Unmoving, trying to get reacquainted with the characters and plot.  I know, re-reading while in the drafting phase is a cardinal sin. But I had to, because (and this is going to horrify a lot of you) it’s been about 7 months since I last looked at the darn thing! And with a bazillion plot bunnies constantly distracting my muse like an ADD dog in a field of squirrels, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident that I remembered where I was going with poor Derek. I’d cruelly left him stuck on his park bench, and trust me, he’s quite pissed about it.

But anyway, I was reading — okay, skimming; I do know the story better than that — along, everything was going well, I was getting inspired, the muse focusing, and then Bam! Derek’s voice shifted, and not in that it’s-just-this-scene kind of way. No, it shifted in the I-took-too-damn-long-to-write-this-and-now-I’m-a-different-writer kind of way. And I realized I had forgotten the biggest reason why you should never be a slow writer like me — the morphing voice.

When it takes you an eon to write a novel, you’ll run into this problem. (And yes, that makes Reason #382 why you don’t want to be me, in case you were counting.) Growth is an inevitable part of the process, just as it is in life. Creative influences will come and go, creeping into your style and changing it without your permission. Your perspective on things will change, and suddenly your character does a complete one-eighty in their personality. Or you simply improve, because, as they say, practice makes perfect. Regardless of why it happens, when you take too long on a project, you’re bound to find yourself staring down the barrel of the morphing voice. And that’s a blow to your manuscript editors won’t forgive. So how do you fix it? Well, that’s the tricky part.

The way I see it, you have three options.

Option 1: Edit and Hope it Works

This seems like the logical choice, right? You’ll have to edit anyway, so why not just shrug it off and deal with it later. But that’s not actually a good plan. Depending on how dramatic the shift is, trying to edit it into submission can turn into a giant pit of tar you’ll never escape from.

Chances are good the problem lies in the beginning of your story. And the thing about editing is that it’s like throwing a pebble into a pool of standing water. Even minor tweaks can create disastrous ripples, impacting the entire manuscript and obliterating the later parts in a tidal wave of mess. It can be done, but only if you possess an editor’s eye for structural inconsistencies and can accurately assess exactly where the voice distorts and why. Or, alternatively, you could bribe an editor with those skills to help you out. I suggest a large plate of brownies. Or money. Money works too. The point is, it takes a valiant effort on the part of the editor (whether that be you or the poor soul you lured in with the promise of chocolate) to save a story from a shifting voice. And even then, the result is likely to be stilted, rocky, and forced. Which is why I would probably go with Option 2.

Option 2: Rewrite

Ah, rewrite. Every writer’s most hated nemesis. (Except me, but I’m weird. We established that a long time ago.) In this scenario, though, it’s actually your best friend. Unlike editing, where you can tweak and twist and try your darnedest to force your manuscript and characters into submission, rewriting provides a clean slate. Okay, a partially clean slate.

In this strategy, you actually start over with a blank page, using the original work as a template. The key is to hold on to the scene itself, not the words. By picturing the scene and divorcing your words, you can try again to capture it in your new, improved writer-voice. Instead of ending up with the strange, forced sound that editing alone gives you, you end up with an organic, natural-feeling version that should coincide perfectly with the later parts of the story. Sounds like the perfect solution, no?

The problem is that many writers are unable to step away from that original version. Maybe it was particularly painful to do the first time, or they just can’t kill their darlings. Whatever the reason, they dig their heels in and resist. Personally, I have no problem saying “See ya!” to a section and starting over, but I can understand why it would be hard for others. Rewriting like this requires a blind leap of faith. You’re trusting yourself to recapture the scene in a different way; trusting that it will be better than the original, that it will convey the same message in a shinier package. And that kind of self-belief can be hard.

There’s no doubt that this approach is the most difficult, both in what’s required and in the amount of work involved. But I believe it’s usually the best option. Once you get over the fear, rewriting can become a freeing experience, and you might even be surprised at how much stronger the scene is the second time around.

But, for those unconvinced cynics out there, there is a third option.

Option 3: Scrap the Whole Thing and Walk Away

Hey, I didn’t say you would like it! 😉

If editing has made your manuscript a bigger mess than when you started, if the idea of rewriting has you screaming in horror and feels like an Everest-sized task you’d rather die than tackle, then you’re really only left with one choice: scrap it and walk away. Brutal, yes, but what else can you do?

Chalk it up to a learning experience, hide away the embarrassing evidence in a drawer somewhere, and move on. It doesn’t mean you failed. It just means that maybe that wasn’t the project you were meant to complete. It was a practice run, a chance to stretch your literary wings. And now you can fly with the next one.

See? It’s not all bad and dreary. In fact, I bet all of us have at least one half-finished manuscript lurking around somewhere that already serves this purpose. It’s okay to have more than one. They can be buddies, then.

As for me and my conundrum with Unmoving, I’ll be choosing Option 1. Usually I go with 2, but in this case, I think I can salvage it. At least, I seriously hope so. I shudder to think how long it would take me to complete it if I had to start over. At that point, I might just chuck it at the wall (or a blazing fire) and go with Option 3. There are plenty more plot bunnies where that one came from. But I don’t think it will come to that. Will it, Derek? *sends a pointed glance at the stack of pages on the desk*

Obviously, the best fix for a morphing voice is not to end up facing it in the first place. But I’m curious, have you had to deal with this issue? How did you fix it? Share your strategies in the comments below.

The Types and Importance of Queries

Scattered Books Photo

Queries. Pitches. Synopses. Three words that strike fear into every author’s heart. And rightfully so — selling your book to an agent or editor depends on your ability to encapsulate your story’s heart into a few simple sentences. For most people, that’s a nearly impossible challenge. But perhaps if we look at why this practice is necessary, it will help you understand how to do it. So, I’m going to show you what I look for in a query. Keep in mind that these are solely my opinions, and other agents or editors may look for something else, but if you plan to follow along with #REUTSsubs in the near future (I’m currently working on resurrecting that feature), this will give you a glimpse at the thought process behind my decisions.

Let’s start by looking at the three potential ways you go about introducing your work to an agent or editor. They are:

  1. The Traditional Query Letter & Synopsis
  2. Pitching in Person
  3. Elevator Pitches on Social Media

All three serve the same purpose — hooking your audience into asking for more. That’s a phrase I’m sure you’ve all heard thrown around in writing seminars, but what does it actually mean? In essence, it means you break through someone’s focus enough to grab their full, complete attention and get them to react. In other words, it’s a sales tactic.

Now, I know many of you just groaned. Sales is about as far from writing and creativity as you can possibly get. But the truth is, publishing is a business. There are bottom lines to be met, production costs to worry about, returns on investments that have to happen, etc. So when you send in a proposal (which, let’s face it, is what these things really are — sales proposals), what you’re really doing is arguing why we should become your business partner for this venture. And you’d darn well better be convincing. Don’t you think?

So, how do you achieve that? What makes a sales proposal appealing to the potential buyer? How do you turn indifference into “OMG, yes, I must read this”? Well, I look for a couple of key ingredients:

  • Interesting concept and premise
  • Unique attributes
  • Market potential

That’s it. Every time. Seriously.

Whenever I’m reviewing a pitch/query/etc, I ask myself the same three questions:

“Does this make me excited as a reader?” (This is more of a visceral reaction than a true question. Basically, I’m looking for that internal pique of interest, that “oooooo” factor.)

“What makes it different from everything else in its genre?” (The more specific the better on this front. Diverse cast? Unique twist or angle on the familiar? New setting?)

“What is it similar to/where would I put it on a shelf?” (This is ultimately the most important because it tells me A: where it fits within the REUTS catalog, and B: where it fits in the larger market and who its readership might be.)

All right, now let’s look at how you apply that insight, shall we? Because each type of pitch listed above is a slightly different opportunity to sell your work, and you shouldn’t use the same blanket strategy for each.

The Traditional Query Letter & Synopsis

First off, a query is not a synopsis and vice versa. They’re two separate entities used to achieve the same goal, but one is the lead singer, and the other is the band. You need both, but they serve completely different roles in the process.

Your query letter should be no more than 3-5 paragraphs, and its sole job is to pique the reader’s interest. It has to fit that criteria I listed above. It needs to give just enough information for me to tell whether or not it could be a fit for REUTS. So focus only on the most important aspects — the conflict and stakes that drive your story, sprinkled with a little info on the world/character and just a hint of what makes your manuscript different from the rest. Give me the heart of the tale; I don’t care about the rest yet.

Other things I need to know are genre, target audience, and comp titles (comparable books that might bear similarity to yours). Genre tells me where it fits in the bookstore and who it might appeal to, target audience tells me who I’m going to get to read it, and comp titles give me an instant snapshot of what to expect in terms of feel/tone/theme/style, etc. (One caveat on choosing comp titles: aim for ones that aren’t genre heavy-hitters, but that are prominent enough I’m likely to have heard of them. Also, the more unique the mash-up, the quicker I’ll be able to pin-point my expectations as reader.)

And that’s it. 3-4 paragraphs should easily be enough room to capture all of that, once you isolate the key things an agent/editor looks for. Your final paragraph should be about you, what you bring to the table in terms of experience, etc. Honestly though, most of the time, we kind of skim that info. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it to us, just that more weight is placed on the content of the story than your particular pedigree.

IF you’ve achieved your goal and hooked my interest, I’ll dive right into the sample pages (because a great pitch does not always mean great execution), and if those pass the quality test, I’ll check out the synopsis. A synopsis is a glorified outline. It tells me the highlights of your story in 1-3 pages. It should capture the emotions, the main conflicts, some of the character motivations, and the entire narrative arc. The details of your world, sub-plots, supporting cast, etc, aren’t as important; the structure of your overall story is.

Manage to hold my interest through all of that, and guess what? You’ve just earned a full manuscript request. (I’m pretty sure this is the process most agents/editors go through, but some of the particulars may vary a little.)

Pitching in Person

Ah, now, this is a whole different game — one part speed dating, one part American Idol audition, all rolled into a giant ball of anxiety for everyone involved. But it’s a very viable option if you have the chance. Out of 55 total pitches I heard at the Willamette Writers Conference last summer, I requested samples (and even some fulls!) of 48 manuscripts. The idea behind this is much the same as the process above, except you only have 4-10 minutes, if you’re lucky, and have to talk to an actual person. Terrifying stuff, for sure.

So what’s the key in this scenario? Be a human. Don’t stiffly recite your memorized query letter while you stare at the table. Engage with us! Take that query you wrote above and hone it even more. In a 10 minute pitch session, your pitch should take up no more than 2-3 minutes, max. Give us the bare bones, the core of your story, and then let us come to you. Think of it like baiting a wild animal; you don’t give away the whole dinner up front, you toss out some crumbs and lure us into the trap. Or, in other, less poetic words, give us time to ask questions.

A face-to-face pitch session should feel more like a conversation, and every agent/editor will hone in on something different. So leave yourself room to answer those questions. If you don’t, and you babble through all 10 minutes, you might end up not getting a request at all. Because that tidbit in the middle that you glossed over? Yeah, that was the one thing that agent/editor was looking for, and you didn’t give them time to find that out.

Your mission in an in-person pitch is simply to get that business card (See? American Idol golden ticket, right?) and a request to see more. That’s it. You’re not going to be signed on the spot, and you’re not going to give us your entire book on a silver platter. It’s simply the first step to a longer conversation.

Elevator Pitches on Social Media

Have you guessed the reason behind this order yet? It’s because they get progressively shorter and shorter. Much like pitching in person, an elevator pitch on social media should comprise the basics of your story. It should only contain the hook, the thing that is most likely to get people to stop and say “ooo, that sounds good.” You have 140 characters, so every letter has to count. Which is why you really only want two things (aside from genre/audience): the stakes/conflict, and what makes your story different. Again, you’re not trying to cram your whole book into 140 characters; that’s madness. You’re only trying to get us to want more. Which is why including that unique-factor is crucial.

To win this round, all you have to do is get a favorite from one of the stalking agents/editors, which then results in a submission of what? The first type of pitch: a traditional query letter and synopsis. It all comes back around to create a massive circle of Submission Hell.

But there you have it, a breakdown of both why pitching is necessary and my particular thought process for evaluating them. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this article originally appeared on the REUTS Publications blog, and I have syndicated it here for a couple reasons. One, I realized I have yet to actually talk about queries over here, and I hate trying to rewrite something I’ve already written. And two, I wanted to bring that blog to your attention, in case you didn’t know we had one. As the Acquisitions and Editorial Director for REUTS, it’s my sometimes job to add helpful articles and info over there too, specifically in regards to a post series titled Adventures in the Slush Pile, which will showcase the query/response process in real time. So if you’re a fan of #tenqueries on Twitter, that might be something you’re interested in. And if not, then don’t worry. I’ll syndicate some of the more helpful articles here as well, when time and permissions allow.

Until next week, happy pitching! 😉