Category Archive: The Road to Publication

Pitching 101: Twitter Fishing for Agents

If you have pitched a novel in the last few years, chances are you have at least considered using a Twitter event. Pitching a manuscript to agents and editors this way is not without tribulations, and frankly it’s a bit like fishing. You’re casting your best tweet into the teeming waters of the hashtag feed and hoping an agent will drift by and take a bite.

Twitter Fishing-1A bite, in this case, means an agent will hit the heart, signifying they have an interest in reading your query letter and sample pages.

As with any pitching experience, you risk the sting of going home empty handed, but with Twitter your rejection is a public experience. It’s the ultimate pitching plunge; an intimidating shock, followed by hours of waiting around to see if anyone noticed your pretty little word lures.

I’m going to assume you’ve already weighed the pros and cons, and decided this is the right approach for you and your manuscript.

That means you have:
1) A finished and edited project.
2) A manuscript that is not already self-published.
3) A manuscript that is not under contact with another agent or publisher.
4) Read the pitch event rules carefully. Even if you have been in this contest before, read the rules, because rules change. Be prepared to obey the rules to the letter.
5) A query letter and a synopsis ready to accompany your sample pages should your tweet earn any favorites. You don’t want to keep an excited agent waiting.

Even with all these preparations, you still need the best tweets and just describing your book (the main character, the conflict and the stakes) may not be enough to hook an agent.

Here are a 4 more ways to help your tweets float to the top and get noticed.

1. Snag More Views with Keywords:
During these events, thousands of tweets are flooding the same stream. And few agents will even see most of them; it’s just impossible for someone to read that many pitches. Using keywords is like fishing with the right bait. Agents make use of hashtags, abbreviated genre codes, keywords and qualifiers (YA, MA, etc) to search the feed. Insuring your tweet has the proper descriptive terms won’t guarantee an agent favorite, but it might lead to an agent noticing your tweet and that’s a start. Get comfortable with hashtags, know your genre codes, and figure out what publishing terms might help distinguish your work before the contest starts.

2. Lure Readers with Your Unique Voice:
You will often hear agents say that a writer’s voice is their first clue they might be interested in the author’s work. That’s because agents and editors can help a writer fix a plot flaw, but voice is something a writer has (or doesn’t have) instinctively. Agents love finding a fresh voice and they fight to sign those with truly special voices. Pick words and phrases that give your tweets the flavor of your writing style. Whether your style features lyrical prose or lots of gore, including these aspects will help make your tweets shine. It also wouldn’t hurt to update your Twitter profile to reflect your voice, especially since that’s the first thing an agent will notice when they hover over your Twitter handle.

3. Hunt for the Quietest Pools:
There is a clear pack mentality at Twitter pitch events. Many people set their tweets up in advance and have them posted on the hour and/or on the half hour. Using an app makes sense; it’s the best way to get the largest number of allowable tweets posted during the pitch window. And it lets the writer go about daily duties uninterrupted. It also helps with all those pesky time zone issues, a common problem for many of us. However, if you can arrange your schedule to manually add your prewritten tweets, that’s the best approach. Not only can you time your tweets to appear during any natural lulls in the posting feed, but you can respond to comments in real time and up your feed ranking. This also gives you the chance to drop a tweet when agents specifically say they’re online reading pitches.

4. Pull Up Anchor and Change Tactics:
There is an accepted tweet formula for pitching (Protagonist + Conflict + Goal/Stakes) but if you have already spent a contest (or two) pitching this formula without any success, you might want to consider shifting to your antagonist’s goal for a tweet. Maybe bring in the love interest and their problems and concerns. Or include a tweet about some aspects of your subplot. Try including your comparable titles in a tweet. Never stick to the same formula if it’s not working. Including different aspects of your story in each tweet broadens your chances of making a connection with someone ready to love and champion your story.

Twitter pitching is not for everyone, but it has opened doors for many writers who have met and signed with their dream agent, or publisher as a result of the experience. Remember to do your research. There are people who use Twitter pitch events for predatory practices. No reputable agent or publisher should ever ask you to pay a reading fee. Protect yourself and your work, don’t send pages to just anyone. When in doubt, ask other writers and check websites like Predators and Editors.

There are Twitter pitches running all year long, including one of the biggest #PitMad which will take place again on September 8th.

Good luck and happy fishing.


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Pitching 101: Finding Perfect Book Comps

Pitching 101(2)The cornerstone of all marketing is the pitch. It is used to sell everything from political candidates to dish soap. I think every writer should know how to pitch, even if they have no interest in working with agents or publishers. Don’t you want to pitch your books to readers? And should you want to grow your self publishing empire, maybe you will want to pitch to reviewers, small bookstore owners, librarians and movie companies.

Regardless of who you plan to pitch, the foundation of book pitching is made up of the same basic parts. That’s why WriteOnSisters is running this Pitching 101 series all month. We are trying to help demystify the many stages and moving parts of the pitch. I’d originally planned to talk about the query letter today, but I realized it was still too soon. There is one more critical step in the process I wanted to talk about first: The Comp!

Pitching 101_ Finding Perfect Book CompsThe comp, or comparable title, is a term the publishing industry uses to help sort books beyond the typical ranges of genres and sub genres. It’s a valuable marketing tool for every stage of a novel. It demonstrates the author understands their novel, their writing style and the marketplace they hope to dominate. When authors find the right comps, everyone benefits. Good comps not only help sell books to agents, but agents use them to sell books to publishers. They are so critical to the traditional publishing process that the comps often follows a manuscript all the way to the final book jacket blurb.

Including two to three comp titles is typical for a standard query letter, but narrowing down your list to the right titles is not as easy as it sounds. Here are 7 tricks I use to find comps:

Read your genre:
I love to read in my writing genre, but I know lots of writers don’t because they worry it will influence their writing. I respect that. You have to understand your writing process and do what works best for you. However, once the book is done, it’s time to read the popular titles. Reading is not just the best way to find comps; it also helps us understand what is on trope and what is unique about our stories. It’s always useful to know the difference. One helps the story fit in and gives readers what they expect, while the other makes sure the story breaks new ground. The balance and contrast of these two forces is what makes each book feel special, or too reminiscent of another book. When I’m looking for comps I never expect to find a perfect match, so I strive to find titles that invoke a sense of the manuscript in at least two to three different aspects.

Research your short list:
Once I’ve pulled together a small group of titles, I do research on them. I want to get a feel for each book’s popularity. Is the book still selling? Does it have a lot of reviews? What do readers on Goodreads and at book blogs have to say about the book? I’m looking for books that have done well, and would be recognized by someone who keeps track of the genre. I avoid self-published books unless it’s an exceptionally well-known title, and/or it’s by a successful hybrid author. Researching the market is also a great way to get a feel for the current landscape of any genre and it provides clues about where the genre is heading in the future.

Weed out the genre’s top 1%:
Using the names of the stellar standout authors will just get the comp titles dismissed. I try to pick comps written by the new rising stars of the genre, or mid-list writers with a solid track record of sales. I also try to pick books that have been published in the last two to three years. The one exception to the 1% rule is the mash-up. You often can’t pitch a genre bending project without poking a stick at the literary canon. In those cases it’s best to take the biggest name you can think of and make it work.

Create a contrast comp or mash-up:
When working with a genre-bending book, it’s often necessary to create a mash-up comp. The way you do this is select a title that shares some critical elements (most likely it uses the same masterplot as your story) and you team that title with something that reflects the other half of your book’s style. This type of comp shows up a lot in retellings and in books that cross genre lines. These crazy what-if creations are often strangely compelling and can make fantastic taglines. For example:
If SLEEPING BEAUTY was told by Stephen King and set in a time-traveling alien universe.
(BTW I would totally read that book.)

Look for other sources:
Novel titles are the most common source of comps, but they are not the only source available to you. Consider using movies, comic books, music videos or TV shows. If you decide to research other sources you can use older titles. With DVDs and other types of on-demand media content, there is a much longer shelf life for these examples. When using media, make sure you clarify your source. After all, there might be a book with the same name and you don’t want to confuse people.

If you get stuck:
This is not supposed to be easy, but it should be possible. If I can’t find any comps, I go back to  the bookstore, or jump back into Goodreads and Amazon to start over. Goodreads is a solid source of book topic lists. Amazon works best for me after I’ve already pinned down one perfect title, then I can use their book suggestion algorithm to find a second book. I also ask people who have read my manuscript for some suggestions.

Important tip:
Avoid saying your book is a better version of some other classic or popular title. Even if it is better, you don’t want to be the one saying it. Publishing is a small world; a negative comp will stomp on someone’s toes. Reading is subjective, what you hated, others loved. You don’t want to use your comp to attack another author, instead compare your project with titles you respect and admire.

Knowing your comparable titles shows people in the publishing industry you did your homework. For self-published writers, it helps defines who and where the likely readers are, and that makes focusing any marketing efforts easier. When we understand our readers better, I think we write better books. Personally I’m swayed by comps as a reader; I just pre-ordered something mostly on the basis of the comps. However, I’m interested in hearing what you think. Do you worry about finding good comps as writers? And do comps influence your book selections as readers?


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3 Reasons Authors Need Style Sheets

Style Sheet ImageI have always used style sheets. This might be because I come from an academic background where adhering to style criteria is a required component for a submission. So I found it strange to learn most fiction writers skip this helpful step.

What is a style sheet?
A style sheet is a single document where you define all the writing rules that apply to your project. The sheet must include all your grammar preferences, for example using American spelling vs British spelling, and any unique aspects of your style. A good style sheet includes anything and everything that might cause an editor to have a red pen moment or to scratch his or her head in confusion.

The items found on style sheet vary based on each book’s need, but some examples are:
– If you want to include contractions, or not.
– If numbers should be spelled out every time, or not.
– If you want to allow for misspelled (or misused) words to indicate a character ‘s lack of education, or not.
– If ellipses dots should include a space between dots, or not.

The creation of this file will help you stay consistent while you write, but it takes on its greatest role once the work is finished and you send it off for publication.

Here are three reasons every writer need a style sheet.

1. It saves money on editing:
I bet that got your attention! Who couldn’t use a new way to shave a few bucks off editing costs? Style sheets can save time, and Time = Money! The reason style sheets work is because editors read everything from the perspective of what is “correct” within their set of grammatical truths. However, sometimes while trying to make your work fit their rigorous rules, editors disrupt the prose. That means someone (you or the editor) must go back over the novel again, pulling out these changes. This extra level of work will cost you, if not in money, then in time. You might miss a critical deadline during these revisions. A good style sheet prevents this problem from happening in the first place by clearly conveying your desires to your editor.

2. It helps sell more ebooks:
If you’re a digitally published writer (and who isn’t at this point), keeping a style sheet just got a whole lot more important. Last week Amazon announced their intention of publicly red flagging ebooks that suffer from any formatting and/or writing mistakes.

The official Amazon notice was:

This policy means proof editing and ebook creation done by a professional ebook designer is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Believe it or not, a good style sheet will also help your interior book designer. While coding your files, they will need to adjust the layout of your work. That creates opportunities for a good designer to catch mistakes. However, it also introduces the possibility they will inadvertently fix something you didn’t want them to fix. A style sheet creates an additional layer of coverage, and helps you get you the highest quality end product for your ebook.

3. It makes writing a series cleaner:
Between projects even within the same fictional universe, it’s not uncommon for the details to get fuzzy over time. You might not care if the first book in the series features curly quote marks and the second book has straight quote marks, but someone else will. And that person will make it sound like a grammarpocalypse in their review. A style sheet serves as a resource for these details and for invented spellings, unusual capitalization, proper names and/or italic rules. Make sure you expand your style sheet document with a record of the fonts and visual affects your cover designer and book formatter used on the first book. This will help keep any new books in the series looking visually akin to the older ones. Since every writer wants to stick around for a long time, and share new adventures from their fictional worlds, the lovely style sheet you made for book one is going to come in handy every time you create a new project in the series.

Although fantasy writers are often the neediest genre for a style sheet, in part for their large custom lexicon, every writer needs one. We all include personal writing variations. Oxford comma anyone? Perhaps you like to start sentences with “and” or to occasionally end with a preposition. Maybe you have a character that’s big on using clipped speech or sentence fragments. We often don’t think about our writing preferences, until someone else comes along and questions/fixes them. By then it may be too late to convey your wishes to the right people.

Although some editors send their clients a style sheet form, having your own document is still important. For one thing it communicates what you feel needs special attention within your work, rather than relying on your editor’s judgment. Don’t skimp on this critical part of every novel, and when you’re done creating your style sheet, add a copy to your author bugout kit for safe keeping.

If you’re looking for an example of a style sheet template, you can find a nice one over at Sue Archer’s blog.

Do you have a style sheet? Please share your experiences (good or bad) in the comments.


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Guest Post: Advice from a Slush Pile Reader

Welcome guest blogger Alex Hurst! As a slush reader for a Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine, Alex has first hand experience getting stories out of the slush pile and into the hands of editors. And today she’s going to share what makes her recommend stories and what makes her pass…

Slush PileI have been a slush reader for a while now. I read for the semi-pro SFF magazine Fantasy Scroll Mag, and I love my work there. I read 10 to 20 submissions a week, and I probably flat out reject all but a handful every month. The reasons why are numerous: the author failed to check our magazine’s genres before submitting, I’ve read (and accepted) far too many stories with similar characters and theme (yes, zombies and vampires are still a hard sell), the story was not well-edited, etc.

While I don’t want to go on a tangent regarding the last, I will say this: some authors post that editing should not matter as much as it does, because, well, the publisher has editors for a reason. And yes, on the very, very rare occasion I read a story that is absolutely fantastic, sans some editing concerns, I still pass it on to my editor because the value of the story makes up for its structural woes. However, most markets are competitive and most (proper) markets pay you by the word. They want to be paying for good, polished words. Not second or third drafts.

A story with typos, syntax errors, and improper capitalization, among other things, gives slush readers huge red flags. Fantasy Scroll Mag prides itself on reading submissions all the way through, even when we’re pretty sure of our decision by the end of page one, but not every market has that luxury. Reading a story takes time, and especially for short fiction markets, the moment our mind starts thinking about how much longer it will take to finish reading, the “reject” has occurred.

In short, the old adage that your story’s first sentence, first paragraph, and first page are the most important elements is true. You typically have one page to convince a slush reader to keep reading. But that, alone, is not enough to get a slush reader to slap a “YAY” on your manuscript.

Here are four things that I’ve come to understand, as a slush reader, make the difference between the stories that end up in my reject pile, and those that I happily send off to my editor.

4 tips to get your story in the YES pile


This is, by far, the most common form of criticism that pops up in slush reader comments, but I think a lot of authors have trouble understanding what this really means.

The greatest writers that the world knows (Poe, Tolkein, Fitzgerald, King, Gaiman, etc.) all have one thing in common: their writing is recognizable. These writers employ cadence, alliteration, and deliberate vocabulary, elevating the act of reading until it is in and of itself part of the story experience.

Think of the litany of teachers, speakers, politicians, actors, and news anchors you have listened to in your lifetime. Think of that uncle of yours who has practiced telling his best stories so many times that, though embellished, you can’t help but listen all over again. Think of the greatest of those orators, and what made them great, or what made them… not. Apply that to your own writing.

If you can harness your own voice, and use it consistently throughout your work, nine times out of ten, any slush reader looking at your work is going to stay glued to the page until the very end. 


There is a modern trend in fiction that has, to an extent, abandoned the concept of the great epic. Long, drawn-out stories of battles and moral wars and the thousand deeds of Hero of the Year are out of style. Readers want to get up close and personal with the soul. This is true of any genre. Character is king.

This means that readers need to care about your character before the stakes are raised. The edgy hook that throws the reader into a moment of high tension at the very beginning (more on that in a moment) is starting to lose its effectiveness on slush readers, who, due to the style of reading required by the job, must read, not for casual enjoyment, but critically, straight from the outset.

Character development is particularly important and tricky. Character development is not simply getting Sally from Point A to Point B. It involves exposing her true nature by putting her in situations that she never would have been in before the start of the book and showing the reader what happens when she fails (more on that later, too). Strong characters equal strong story. Think of the characters in Catch Me if You Can––the plot is simple. It has been done a million different ways in a hundred different genres. But it is the characters, especially Frank and Hanratty, who carry the movie. It became more than a chase scene. More than a blue-collar James Bond. The film was alive with their juxtapositions and banter.

Go deeper with your characters. Make sure they are real people. Do that, and the plot might not even matter. The same can’t be said going the other way.


“The Hook” has been a long-time favorite device among authors to skip the boring preamble of a book and get straight to the action. It, on its own, is actually very effective. Most Hollywood movies use it to great effect––the audience’s heart rate starts pumping and excitement fills their veins… problem is, it’s been used to death in fiction, especially short fiction.

Some stories can still get away with using The Hook. I’m not advocating for the complete avoidance of it (and any advice that tells you to always or never do something should be taken with a grain of salt anyway), but I would caution authors to take care. The Hook can be very effective as long as the tension introduced is maintained for the rest of the story. Using a hook to draw the reader in, only to follow it up with a page or more of backstory, exposition, or flashbacks, kills any tension the opening provides, and for me, it’s generally hard to drum up the same level of energy again. Yes, your opening needs to be strong. But it’s also just the starting line. Tension should rise toward a climax in Western storytelling. Don’t fire all your pistons at once.


Finally, I want to talk about conflict: the thing that turns a room full of characters and the events in their world into a story. Conflicts come in all sizes and all complexities, but you’d better make sure your story actually has one, and you’d better make sure that your central characters have a crucial part to play in it. If all of your major conflict is happening, or worse, being resolved, off-screen, slush readers are going to wonder why they’re even reading about Axe Warrior Kraven at all. Character is king, but conflict proves his mettle.

It seems impossible, to some, to imagine a story where there is no conflict. But conflict also needs to match the length of the story in question. A 500-word story is going to have a simplistic conflict by necessity. A 80,000-word novel could not retain that same conflict, without adding an intense amount of complexity. As well, a story may have conflict, but it isn’t compelling or believable. Frank dropping his ice cream cone isn’t exactly compelling, but it could work for a flash fiction, if the author’s voice and character building are superb. A woman busting into a man’s life with the answers to all of his problems and the faults of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t really believable, and besides, if she never stumbles, there’s no conflict anyway, right? (No, his reluctance to commit isn’t really a conflict, either.)

Make sure that your characters are responding to the conflict stimulus in genuine, meaningful ways. Make sure they are in on the action. Make sure they need to be there to make the story work.

I’ll be honest with you. You don’t have to harness all four of these things to make your story work. But at the end of the day, my editor only allows me to give him one of three words: Yes, No, or Maybe.

One word to encapsulate all of your blood, sweat, and tears.

I can say “Maybe. This story was amazing, but the prose (author voice) never really drew me in.” Or I can say “Yes. I loved every word of this. The characters were believable and the story (conflict) kept me guessing. So well-written (author voice)! I couldn’t put it down until the end (not just a “Hook”).” Which one would you choose to spend your time on, as an editor with a limited budget and a maximum number of words to fill?


portrait-ii-version-3Alex Hurst was raised in the wilds of the south. Lightning storms and hurricanes created the playpens of her youth, and in the summers, she used to spend all of her time dodging horseflies in a golden river, catching fish and snakes with her bare hands, swinging from vines, and falling out of magnolia trees. These days, she tends to move a lot, and is currently on her way to Vancouver from Kyoto.

Alex writes primarily character-driven fantasy, when she’s not slush reading for Fantasy Scroll Mag. When it comes to fiction, Alex loves realistic characters in unreal worlds, high stakes and meaningful reflections on what it means to be human (or nonhuman).

Visit her at

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Beta Readers: Who, What, Where, Why & How

Beta Reader ImageFor some reason, the term beta reader confuses a lot of writers. They are not sure what they are, or why they need them. Even experienced writers often don’t know how to use these readers effectively to improve their work.

For a well-constructed book, beta readers are the last stop before the proof editor. And for a poorly-constructed manuscript, they are the last safeguard against wasting time and money editing or pitching a manuscript that’s not ready.

Beta readers are not:
– close friends and/or family.
– proofreaders or editors.
– writers, although they can be in the right situation.
– members of your critique group.

Beta readers are: people who will read your manuscript and give you honest feedback, even if that information stings your pride. That’s why friends and family often make rotten betas. They don’t want to jeopardize their relationship with you by admitting your book is awful! You need someone who cares more about the story than they do about your feelings.

Before looking for a beta reader:
If you want to get the most out of a beta reader, polish your manuscript to a pristine condition first. The only exception to this rule is if you and your beta have agreed to a modification. Some betas will agree to read a partial, or even early draft. But that is something to clear with them in advance.

Who makes the best betas?
There are lots of qualities that make a good beta reader. First and foremost, they are people who love to read. And they should love to read in your genre. It’s hard for a person who only reads thrillers to say if your romance manuscript is fabulous. Also if they know your genre they can help catch overused or missing tropes. They will also tell you if the story reminds them too much of some other popular book or character. This is valuable data for any genre writer.

Second, find people who are in your book’s market demographic. If you write children’s books your betas should be children and their parents. All the adult readers in the world telling you the book is fantastic are pretty much worthless. If you don’t know any kids, reach out to librarians and teachers. They know what kids like to read.

Third, it helps if you can find beta readers with analytical minds, and can think logically about the big picture. Good betas can find plot flaws and problems other readers might miss. Critique partners are often too close to the story to see these issues.

Fourth, they are reliable; you can count on them to read the story cover to cover. Or they are people who tell you why they couldn’t finish your manuscript.

Lastly, betas with great memories for details are able to catch those tiny story slip-ups we all make, like when a character wearing a watch asks for the time. Detailed-oriented readers are worth their weight in gold when it comes to betas.

How to find betas.
– You will need at least 3 readers, and finding them is not always easy.
– Almost anyone is a potential source for a referral, but friends of family and friends are a good place to start.
– Talk to other writers in your genre and see if they have any betas to recommend.
– You can also try online writer groups. Many forums have threads for writers looking for beta readers. Goodreads has a user group where authors can make connections by pitching their book to potential readers. This step is tricky; a beta shouldn’t know too much about your plot in advance.

Don’t send your work to strangers!
– I would like to believe everyone in the world is honest, but it’s not realistic.
– Don’t work with betas or reader services that expect to be paid. There are plenty of scams out there; don’t get sucked into one.
– Interview your prospective betas and get to know them.
– Ask them about their favorite books and authors.
– Learn what experience they have as a reader.
– If they have read for another author, see if that author found the reader’s feedback helpful.
– Find out how much time the reader needs to finish your project.
– Figure out what format works best for them and try to be accommodating.
– Start out slowly. You may want to send an untested beta only one or two chapters. See if you and the beta are a good fit before you commit to sending them your full manuscript. This step should also help you decide if the other person is reliable.

Beta readers are doing you a huge favor, so act accordingly.
– They took time from their lives to read your work. Listen to what they say with respect.
– Request the kind of feedback you want, but always remember your manners. Say please, and thank you every time!
– Reward their support. Offer to send them a signed copy when the project is published. Or offer to read some of their work and give them feedback.
– Make an effort to treat talented beta readers with special care. They are a great writer’s secret weapon.

Betas are meant to represent the neutral reader. They are a fresh pair of eyes to read and report back with their honest opinions. That’s pretty much all betas are expected to do. Some betas can do more, and that’s very helpful to an author, but you shouldn’t expect a beta to do anything extra. If you want to make your story better, get some knowledgeable betas and listen careful to what they have to say. This does not mean change everything they didn’t like. It means think about everything the mention objectively and make changes to tighten up as needed. If you just want someone to tell you the book is destined for greatness, have your mom read it.

If you have experience with beta readers, please share your insight in the comments.

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Solutions for Common Writing Mistakes: Runaway Word Counts

Writer Sulutions: Word Counts

“A lot of first-time children’s novels are too long.” Charlie Sheppard, editor of Bone Jack by Sara Crowe

Recently I read a post in the Guardian. They interviewed some of the top editors in children’s fiction to discover the most common mistakes made by new writers.

{I’ve included a few of the Guardian quotes here, but I recommended reading the full piece.}

The article is illuminating, and it turns out almost every single issue they mentioned I’ve battled in my own writing.

Today, I’m starting a new series: Solutions to Common Writing Mistakes. I’ll be examining a common writing mistake and explaining why it’s a problem. Then I’ll lay out a step-by-step plan for dealing with the issue in your own work.

First Common Mistake: Word Counts

Although the Guardian interviewed children’s book editors, this one is for everyone! While book lengths are fluid in self publishing, they are fixed in all but the rarest of cases for those looking to break into traditional publishing.

Why are word counts such a big problem? The costs of printing and distributing longer books has just gotten too high, and most new writers can’t garner the necessary level of confidence from a publisher to gamble on a 150,000 word tome. Not when the publisher can increase their chances of turning a profit by printing two or three shorter books.

“First-time writers commonly mistrust their own writing…. First drafts are often too long and prone to repetition.” Kirsty Stansfield, editor of Cow Girl by GR Gemin

Since agents and small press editors know the score, they all expect to see your word counts in your query letters, right next to your genre and target age range. And they will reject your query without reading a word if the word counts are missing, or if they are unrealistic. This holds true for counts that are too low as well as too high.

If you don’t believe me spend some time reading any one of the many agent hashtags on Twitter, like #TenQueries, #500Queries, #1000Queries, #MillionQueries or #QueryLunch, and you’ll see just how common this complaint is.

Publishing pros (rightly so) feel the word count is one clue to a writer’s industry acumen. They don’t have the time or the interest in teaching new writers the basic skills anymore. Especially when there are thousands of writers in the slush pile who are meeting their word count expectations.

There is lots of information out there on ideal word counts; but here’s what Writer’s Digest has to say on the score.

If your project is too long, you can follow this step-by-step plan to revise your manuscript down to a realistic word count.

Step 1: Start by crafting a beat sheet outline.
This system of outlining is from Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and it’s the perfect tool for any revision editing. Heather wrote directions for creating your own beat sheet here. This method helps you see exactly were your novel hits (or misses) all the plot point milestones. If any milestones are missing, stop worrying about your word count and start figuring out how to plug your plot holes. You can find some help for that problem here. However, if your plot checks out, this step should help you pinpoint if your novel is structurally too heavy in one of the acts.

Remember perfect novel structure is approximately:
First Act: 25%
Second Act: 50%
Third Act: 25%

Step 2: Chances are in step 1 you realized you front loaded your book. Don’t worry, this is a common mistake. Remember that second editor’s comment? New writers tend to include too much repetition, and it’s usually up front in the form of an info dump or an unnecessary prologue.  Excessive backstory and world building is not helpful to the pace of any story. Tips for revising your opening here. And revamping a prologue that’s not working for you here.

Hopefully, once you have your book’s beat sheet and the beginning in shape, your word count is in the normal range and you’re ready for a fresh beta reader or two. If not, it’s time to create a plan for clearing out any remaining dead wood.

Step 3: Any scene that’s not included in your beat sheet outline is a prime prospect for cutting. Heather recently taught all of us how to test scenes for their value to the story. Turns out, there are some pretty simple litmus test for if a scene works to advance the plot or if it’s extra and it needs to go. Every scene should move your story forward in two different ways, find out more here and here.

Step 4: Create a new beat sheet for your revised novel and use it for any final edits. If you followed this plan, you should be well on your way to a trimmed, healthier novel.

Trimming your story is not easy. You worked hard to craft every sentence and each one feels important to you. I do understand. The longest historical novel I’ve written was over 140,000 words and I needed to cut it down to around 90,000 to pitch it to agents. It can be done.

What about you? Do you have a great tip for reducing your word count? Or are word counts something you never lose sleep over?

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3 Book Categories that Should Benefit Under the New KU

Reader KUToday starts the first day of the new Kindle Unlimited royalty program. As with so many things in life, there will be winners and losers. I gave my thoughts on the biggest KU losers last week and now I have the winners. Remember, this is just my prediction for the books that will fare the best under the new Kindle Unlimited per-page royalty system. Only time will tell if I’m right or I’m wrong.

Young Adult can do no wrong. I suspect this will not hurt young adult and longer length middle grade writers. Teens who read, read constantly! And if they’re paying for any portion of those books themselves they are going to be budget minded. That makes KU ($9.99 a month for all the books they can read) a good choice for them. Younger readers are open to new writers, and they like discovering something their friends don’t know about. Teens are also great at creating the next big book wave out of otherwise unheard of titles. Teen readers know what they like, and if a writer can deliver the goods, they will read a whole series of books cover to cover. In other words they are loyal and steadfast fans. Plus it’s summer. Teens in the zone between summer camps and summer jobs will spend some of those too hot days reading in the shade.


Romance should come out ahead. Let’s face it; romance is a publishing super star. They have devout and hungry readers and they exist in numbers too vast to ignore. Of course, the biggest winner in the romance category is going to be the historical romances. Those fat books packed with descriptions of castles and gorgeous gowns really plump up the page counts. It’s not uncommon for a historical romance to top 150,000 words. Although shorter than historical romance, new adult (NA) romance should also thrive. They were an e-book smash already and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

Mystery seems like the leader. Mystery titles have an advantage because once you start one, it’s hard to turn back. You want to know who the murderer is, or why they did it. Even if the book is a bit lackluster in the middle, you will keep going just to find out the ending, unlike a romance, where a reader might skip the last 50 pages since they know the couple is going to end up together in a happily-ever-after moment. Mystery is by nature a full book commitment, crime in the front, clues in the middle, solution in the back. Aside from some odd skimming, or too much gore making the reader set the book down, I think mystery writers can expect a book started under KU is a book most likely finished.

If you’re not an e-book author, you still need to pay attention to these changes. Book sales are about supply and demand. Since the e-book explosion took off, the supply has been growing. The market groans under the weight of all the new titles. Today the seeds of a whole new crop of indie writers gets planted. And these writers are going to know if their readers stopped reading. By necessity, many of these writers will adapt. They will rewrite those slow starts and mushy middle. Their readers, by the act of putting the book aside unfinished, will become the harshest gatekeepers of all. Indie writers will learn what it takes to keep readers riveted to the pages because it’s going to pack a monetary punch they can’t afford to ignore. It means everyone will need to write stronger books, or they should expect to get left in the dust by the writers who chose to step up their game.

What do you think? Will this change the overall quality of indies? Will KU readers become the next publishing gatekeepers?

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4 Book Categories that may Suffer under Restructured KU

Kindle-UnlimitedLast week I wrote about the royalty restructuring of the Kindle Unlimited program. The new system goes into effect July 1, 2015 and it’s going to drastically change how authors are paid when a program subscriber borrows their participating book. This new system only affects writers in the Kindle Unlimited program and authors are given the option of taking their books out of the program should they choose. Currently everyone is arguing over how these changes will effect participating authors. Some writers are convinced every author will benefit under the new system. They believe the new royalty split will help remove some of the authors currently manipulating the system for higher gains, thereby leaving more funds for the remaining authors to share.

I’m less convinced and I’ve picked four groups of authors I predict will suffer under the new system. However, in the interest of fairness, there are some groups I think stand to gain, and I will have my predictions for that group next week.

Now my best calculated guesses for the writers that stand to lose under the new system.

  1. It will hurt anthologies: Prior to these changes, if a small press (or indie author group) talked one hugely popular author into contributing a story, everyone benefited from a KU loan. The anthology creator could count on the full loan revenue from every rental as long as the readers read past the 10% mark. Under the new system anthology editors looking to take part in KU are more likely to skew page counts toward the most popular writers, if for no other reason than to help recover their production costs. However, this sort of defeats the egalitarianism of making an anthology, the whole point in the past was to give unknown writers a leg up by using the star power of one or two respected authors as bait to entice readers to buy the book. I’m sure anthologies will still be made, but now the organizer behind the anthologies are bound to perceive unknown writers as an even greater liability, especially if they’re under pressure to earn back costs or turn a profit. It also might shove anthologies out of the the KU program altogether.

  2. It will weaken payouts for children’s ebooks. This one upsets the mom in me the most. School is out so the kids are home and bored. Summer is when they can and should power down some books. Yet younger kid’s books from picture book to beginning chapter books are (in deference to their fledgling readers) shorter, often just 16 to 50 pages long. Also the cost associated with image heavy books in all forms are fairly high, and these books get the double whammy of paying higher Amazon downloading fees, something that comes out of the author/publishing side during a sale. They didn’t need to pay the downloading fee on a KU loan, letting those authors keep a bit extra with each unit borrowed under the old system. I’m also concerned that under the new KU universal page count system, a 16 page picture book might end up counting as only a few pages. The current Unlimited picking for younger kid’s books has never been fantastically large, I can’t see how reducing these author’s payouts is going to help that situation.

  3. Nonfiction of every kind stands to lose out. It’s hard to know how the page count system will effect image-heavy books. Will a graph or table count as a full page? What about an illustration or photo? As I mentioned above in kid’s books, image heavy books get charged a different download rate, making the KU loan program attractive to both fiction and non-fiction authors with larger graphic loads. However, non-fiction books are notoriously under-read or skimmed. It’s not uncommon for me to get a cookbook and only look at a few recipe categories. Other readers might read only one or two chapters of interest. Granted, as other bloggers have mentioned, nonfiction has seen some heavy abuse from writers trying to game the old KU system. Reports of repackaged Wikipedia pages or books (where only the first 10% of the book is legibly written) show up as common complaints. Obviously, everyone wants to see KU abusers weeded out, but even if the new official page count system fairly takes into account images, this change could adversely impact many nonfiction writers.

  4. We may witness the end of the serial fiction boom. Readers will still want serials, they’re hooked. But writers who relied on the profitability of serial installment are in for a big shock. Before the Amazon loan program, serials (and most short stories) grew in popularity because of their sale price, usually under one US dollar. It was easy for readers to sample unknown writers without a huge financial commitment. For authors, that under-a-dollar sales price means about .35 US cents for each copy sold. Not great unless you sold a ton of books. Under the old KU payment structure, that number skyrocketed to over a US dollar per title borrowed. Remember, short stories were getting the same pay rate per title as a full length writer was getting on each book. Writers jumped into the format, creating a boom in short works. The profitability of short fiction created resentment with longer fiction writers and led to claims of widespread abuse, namely writers carving up single novels into parts in order to create more borrows. I think it’s safe to say popular short format fiction writers will still do okay under the new pay structure, but only if they don’t lament the advantages they’ve lost. If you are one of those people who thinks longer books should have the royalty advantage, you might not be too worried about this one. But I enjoy reading a tightly constructed short story or serial and I would hate to see the format lose all its steam.

So what does this all mean to you?

If you’re currently publishing (or planning on an ebook career) in one of these areas and counting on the Kindle Unlimited program to power the bulk of your revenue, you might want to rethink that! I don’t see any of these types of books doing particularly well under the new system. Come back next week when I’ll announce the 3 types of books I predict will be big winners under the new system.

What do you think? Will some authors take a larger hit with the new KU royalty rate? Will it drive some authors out? And if so is this still an acceptable loss so that book length writers can enjoy a better royalty ratio from the program?

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The New Kindle Unlimited Royalty Scale

Kindle-UnlimitedMonday morning, June 15th, the self publishing world absorbed the shock wave from the latest Amazon announcement. In case you haven’t heard, Amazon revealed a major monetary restructuring of the royalty calculations on their Kindle Unlimited program. Unlimited is the program that allows Amazon shoppers to pay a subscription fee to borrow an unlimited number of books from a list of over 600,000 titles. In the past, authors of ebooks in the Kindle Select program received a flat rental fee once the borrower read past the 10% mark of the total pages. The new system, effective July 1st, will create a per-page-actually-read pay scale. That means each author will only get paid for the number of pages a borrower actually reads in their book.

Feel free to pause and have a Big Brother Is Watching moment if you didn’t already know Amazon was keeping such a close eye on your page counts.

First some history: Amazon launched a rental program about two years ago, revising it to the current Unlimited system last year. At the launch, there were a lot of upset publishers and authors. They didn’t want the program tied to KDP Select. They were doing fine and they didn’t want any changes at all. Almost everyone hated the idea of a fixed payment rate set by Amazon. And that the amount had no relationship to the book’s sale price, or the length of the book. Many authors found their sales and their revenues plummeting after the loan program launched. Avid readers, the backbone of all book sales, loved the Unlimited program. For the cost of buying one or two e-books they could read as many books are they wanted each month for $9. 99 US dollars.

Amazon Ad

Once the uproar died down, some authors embraced the system and tried to create higher profitability by shifting away from book-length fiction, the superstar of the first indie boom, and moving into creating novellas, short stories and serials. The growth of short fiction offerings in the last two years was exponential. However, since readers could consume four times as many 50 page titles as they could 200 page titles, the pool of money being used to pay the authors had to spread to more titles, and the amount paid out per title started to fluctuate and shrink. Amazon pumped money into the pool to inflate the payout, but many established writers still pulled out of the KDP Select program so their books would not be part of the loan system. The remaining book length fiction writes have been upset about the system ever since.

Although Amazon hasn’t released too much information, they did say the new payment rate will continue to change month to month based on how much money is in the payment pool and how many pages the borrowers read. Currently a number of self publishing bloggers are wildly overestimating how much that per page payment will be, perhaps their optimism comes from Amazon’s own press release. Capture

I suggest you run these numbers. Do the payouts represented here look remotely plausible? They don’t to me. And they don’t take into account the vast number of books that are put aside without finishing. Or that readers may take several months to finish a book. Although there are too many unknown variable, like what Amazon considers a page, I think it’s pretty safe to say the payout for many authors will go down. However, we will not know the facts on how this development will effect indie writer’s bottom lines until we see the August 15th KDP sales reports.

Before you wipe your brow and happily dismiss these changes as irrelevant to you, think again. These changes could affect all of us in one way or another. This isn’t just a monetary restructuring of the Kindle Unlimited program, but a publishing development that might cause some serous ripple effects. We have never seen book royalties tied to the number of read pages before. It’s truly shocking.

Next week I’ll be talking about how these changes will affect all fiction writers. And giving my predictions for the types of books that will suffer the most under the new program.

What are your thoughts? If you write indie books and have them included in the Unlimited program, are you concerned? Or are you optimistic?

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G is for Genre

BLAST_GMany writers are so overwhelmed by the number of fiction genres and subgenres they can’t decide where their story fits. If you want to land an agent or self publish, picking the right genre is crucial because it helps your book connect with buyers. Being between genres might sound exciting, like you’re breaking new literary ground. However, in a market bulging with choices, getting on the radar of readers who will enjoy your book and leave favorable reviews is a must, and the best way to do this is by putting your book in the correct genre.

3 Tips for finding your genre:

  • Look at the big picture. Analyze your story from first page to last, and list all the themes and important plot aspects of the story. Don’t pay too much attentions to minor aspects of your novel. If your book is funny in two chapters, you are not writing a humorous book. Pick one or two (no more than three) of the most likely genre matches. Ignore sub-genres at this stage.

  • Compare your book to the genre’s tropes, or to a few best-selling books from that genre. Be honest! Will your book compare favorably? Or are you too far outside the traditional readers’ expectations? If your book is too different, start over and compare your book to another genre. Repeat until you find the right fit for your story. If you honestly can’t find a single genre that fits your story, you may not have isolated the main themes. Go back to step one and try again.

  • Answer the W questions. Who is your ideal reader? Age must a consideration. Which books or authors are on that reader’s to-be-read list right non? In which part of a store would your ideal reader look for their next book? Would they find your book in that same area? If not, why?

2 Examples:

I’ve found some good infographics that make ruling in or out a genre quite easy.
Do you think you have a YA Romance? Find out for sure here at SwoonReads.

Or have you narrowed your list to dystopia? This chart from Erin Bowman will help you.


IsItDystopia_flowchart CC BY-NC-ND

1 Link for more help:

We have a few posts on genre (you can find them with our search bar), but I’m picking this one from Writer’s Rumpus. I think it has a number of helpful tips and chronicles one writer’s journey to find the perfect fit.

The most important consideration when picking a genre is connecting with the readers who will love your book! It takes time, but it’s worth it.

And in case you’re just dropping in for the first time, here’s our April A to Z BLASTOFF to Stellar Writing list thus far:

A is for Antagonist
B is for Backstory
C is for Character Change
D is for Dialogue
E is for External Conflict
F is for False Stakes

And coming up next:

H is for Hero
I is for Internal Conflict

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