Thursday, March 11, 2010

Publishing Advice

Musing's special guest today is Laine Cunningham, a publishing consultant for over fifteen years and the owner of Writer’s Resource, a company specializing in editing, ghostwriting and book proposals.

Laine recently answered a broad range of questions from me.  I think you'll find her answers insightful and valuable.

What is your #1 recommendation to first-time authors who are seeking the attention of Publishers and Agents?

Present yourself as a professional author. That means a one-page query and a book proposal…both fiction and nonfiction authors should use both these tools to pitch their project (and themselves) to agents and/or publishers.

In your experience, what is the toughest obstacle for authors to overcome in their manuscript?
The opening pages. There’s often a lot of throat-clearing in the opening sections. Authors state the need for readers to know the main character then dump a lot of that person’s history into the opening sections. And that equals dull, slow pacing almost every time.

The trick is to weave that historic material into the opening section. The main focus should be on something that is important to the character. As opportunities arise, slip in a few sentences or even a few paragraphs with relevant bits of backstory.

Special note: Avoid flashbacks! Use them only infrequently, and make sure to use them for all the right reasons. Too often it’s an easy way for authors to handle backstories. It is well worth the effort to weave the material in. The flow will be smoother, and agents and publishers know that’s a mark of a true professional author.

Do you believe any work can be edited to become publishable material, or are there times when you should just toss your work into the wood-burning stove and start fresh?  If so, how can a writer recognize when it's time to move on?

Here you have to define editing. Editing can save a work that has extreme technical issues…that is, the skill level of the writing is poor.

Editing cannot address storytelling aspects, the structural issues such as character development, plot milestones, beginning and ending, etc. These can only be addressed through revisions.
Nearly all works can be rescued either by editing, revising, or a combination of the two.
What sometimes cannot happen is the shift of a manuscript from one category to another. If someone brings me a genre work and wants to shift categories, a heavy revision including rewriting can achieve that goal.

For example, a romance writer wants the manuscript to become a mainstream drama or a mystery author wants the manuscript to become a commercial thriller. In each case, the changes must address both plot and writing style. This often results in such heavy revisions and fresh writing that the plot might be similar and the theme the same but the book is entirely new.
In some cases, even this extreme level of work won’t reach the goal. Most of the time that’s due to the plot being unable to carry the weight of a different category or simply being too thin to handle the more in-depth treatment required by a different category.

What is the best way to query an editor?
For acquisitions editors at publishing houses and agents alike: Always research what they are asking for and give them exactly that. Often it’s only that one-page query. For those who want a query plus author bio or query plus synopsis, savvy authors who have already written their book proposals can just cut and paste the appropriate section out of their proposals and print it off as an additional page that goes with the query.

How can a writer judge if an editor's fee is fair? Is there a standard?
Just to be clear, acquisitions editors at publishing houses don’t charge fees. If a “publisher” is asking for fees, then that company is not a publisher. It is a printer. Don’t let the growing popularity of self-publishing confuse you. Know exactly what you want and go to the right place.

Now, for freelance editors, fees are obviously going to be discussed. There is no standard, really, because an individual editor’s experience can be very different than the next person’s. In general, though, the lower the rate, the less experience that person has.

That doesn’t mean they can’t do a good job. It does, however, mean they might not be as good at targeting how to change the words on the page. Editing is like cutting a diamond. There are a lot of people who can cut diamonds but you have to cut at the right place and shape it in the right way to achieve the diamond’s full potential. Same with manuscripts!

Is there any such thing as a natural query writer, or does everyone learn from practice?
Sometimes people have a knack for the query. Often they don’t. It’s not because they can’t write well; it’s because the query is a sales tool and few authors, fiction or nonfiction, are trained in sales techniques.

Queries have a second obstacle built in: until an author is published, they often don’t know what the publishing industry expects them to include in the query or the book proposal. They don’t know the buzzwords, they aren’t sure how to position their work in the market, they don’t know what trends are current and what is fading rapidly away. The mistargeting of only one of these items is enough to make an agent or publisher stop reading and move on to the next query.

Practice is fine. Publishing industry savvy is much, much better.

In your opinion, can authors successfully maneuver between genres-or is it best to stick to writing in one genre?

Almost always, it is best to stick with one genre until the third book. Publishers want to keep the foundation of readers generated during the first book’s sales life and build on that with a second book that is in the same genre. 

One you have a third book out, you and your agent can discuss whether you have enough name cache to be able to switch genres. If you do, you can switch to something similar. If you have achieved bestseller status, of course, you can write just about anything you like!

Are there any organizations you recommend for new writers to join?

Get together with a feedback group. Set up connections with other authors who are as serious as you are. It’s not necessary for them to be in the same genre. It is critical that they be as passionate and hardworking as you so you can support each other. Nothing puts out the spark faster than realizing that your writer’s group is just a coffee klatch.

What was the most important lesson you learned early on in your career?

You must know the market before you approach publishers and agents. You must hold their hands and guide them through the process of understanding why your book is a good financial risk for them to take.

You are the best advocate for your own work. Own it, and own your skill.


Laine Cunningham has been a publishing consultant for over fifteen years. She is the sole owner of Writer’s Resource, a company specializing in editing, ghostwriting and book proposals. She has been quoted on CNN Money, Media Bistro, Gannett Newswire and international media on issues such as the demise of Harry Potter, the Oprah effect and Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter. 

She can be reached toll-free at 866-212-9805.


laineATwritersresourc DOT us

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