Archive for October, 2014

Bad Pitches

October 9, 2014

I have written a number of blog posts on query letters. All of them get plenty of reads and shares. There are people who charge a lot of money to coach writers on how to write effective query letters. It seems as if every issue of Writers Digest has an article giving lists of tips on making the perfect query that will land you a 6 figure advance. I don’t think query letters are difficult to write. There are only about 9 things you really need to know. I have also said many times and continue to believe that a bad query letter won’t kill a good project and a good query letter won’t help a bad project.

All that being said, it’s important to remember that agents get dozens of query letters every day and tend to skim through them quickly. You need to have the right tone, to provide the relevant information, to avoid verbosity, and to sound professional. Here are some particularly bad pitches I see frequently along with some commentary by me.

“This is a fiction novel.” [Editors don’t like redundancy in writing. Agents don’t like redundancy in query letters. Rather say “This is a novel, or this is a work of fiction – and maybe include the genre as well.]

“This is a non-fiction novel” [More common than you would imagine and a particularly clueless pitch; one that elicits squeals of laughter when agents bring it up with each other and with audiences.]

“I know you probably won’t want to represent this book, but here goes.” [ It’s really a very convincing pitch. The writer has given a compelling reason for me to reject his project. If the writer doesn’t have confidence in his book, then why should I?]

“I’ve already been rejected by 25 agents, but here goes.” [Similar to the previous. Most agents are aware that writers make multiple query submissions and that is perfectly ok. You don’t have to call attention to how many rejections you have received, though.]

“There is nothing like this book that has ever been published.” [ This is the opposite of the examples above. It’s one of the worst pitches you can make. It sends the message that you have delusions of grandeur and will be a difficult client to manage. And it also raises the reasonable question of whether there is, perhaps, a good reason why such a book has never been published.]

“I am wondering if you might possibly be interested in considering….” [ Literary throat-clearing like this in a query letter is indicative of literary throat-clearing in the text of the project. It’s horrible style. Better would be “I am submitting” or “I am submitting for your consideration”]

“Because you represent NAME OF A GREAT SCHOLAR, FAMOUS POLITICAL JOURNALIST, etc, I thought you might be the right person to represent my work of erotic women’s fiction.” [This bad pitch needs no further comment.]

“I am looking for an agent to represent my film script.” [It’s ok if the agent you are querying represents film scripts, but most literary agents don’t or else they work in collaboration with an entertainment agent.]

“I am submitting to you because you represent” GENRES THAT I DON’T REPRESENT.” [Similar to the previous bad pitch. Do your research and make sure you are sending projects to agents specifically interested in the genre of your submission.]

“I am looking for a New York agent who….” [A particularly hateful pitch to me. First of all, I have a big chip on my shoulder about “New York agents”, because it no longer matters whether the agent is in New York or elsewhere. Second of all, the author needs to do his research and find out if the agent is, in fact, a “New York agent.” Many of us are not, thank God!]

“I submit for your consideration my Literary-Commercial novel with YA possibilities.” [There are numerous variations of this. Although there are times when a project can only be described as cross-genre, frequently this pitch is simply indicative of the fact that the writer can’t decide who his audience is.]

“This book is bound to make a great movie.” [ I’ve never known an author who didn’t think his novel would make a great movie. And that’s ok. But you can probably leave it out of a query letter. Most book and entertainment agents are probably better suited for deciding if a story is a good bet for film adaptation than the author. It also sends a message that the writer may have delusions of grandeur.]

“Oprah/Terry Gross will love this book.” [Another indicator of delusions of grandeur. Avoid mentioning Oprah at all.]

“This book is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Malcolm Gladwell.” [These books are the most often cited comps. Realistically your book is not going to sell as well as Eat, Pray, Love or the works of Gladwell. And realism is a very important virtue in a writer.]

“This book is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” [I don’t particularly like this kind of blah blah meets blah blah kind of pitch. But some agents do. So if you are going to do it, try to at least make the comparables intelligible. Otherwise it’s just name dropping.]

“This is a combination diet book/ memoir” (or any other combo that includes a memoir). [Sneaking a memoir into a book of another genre is almost irresistible, and there are some rare instances where it makes sense. But if you aren’t, in fact, writing a memoir, it might be a good idea to leave yourself out of it. If you are writing about, say, how to discipline your child, the reader is looking for answers for themselves, and is likely not interested in your life experiences, fascinating though they may be.]

“This book was previously self-published, but I want to have the marketing power of a commercial publisher behind me.” [It is unrealistic to expect that a commercial publisher is going to put lots more resources into promoting your book than you already have as a self-published author. What is true, though, is that you are more likely to get review attention or get placed in a bookstore if your book is commercially published.]

“This book was previously self-published and had very good sales.” [Normally when I look into this further, I discover that the writer’s idea of “very good sales” means about 500 copies, which is to say it had not very good sales. You need to be honest in this business. Probably best to tell the agent exactly what those sales were. But even if your sales were very good, if you were selling your e-book for 99 cents or, as is often the case, giving it away for free, it isn’t all that impressive a pitch.]

This book will sell millions of copies.” [Delusions of grandeur.]

“Anyone interested in women’s health will buy this book.” [I see this frequently in book proposals. You need to be able to distinguish between an “audience” and a “demographic”. There are, for instance, about 4 billion people in the world interested in women’s health. In all probability, most of them will not be reading your book.]

“This book is side-splittingly funny.” [Humor is difficult to write and very subjective. This pitch is another indicator of delusions of grandeur. I have represented a number of books that to me actually were side-splittingly funny. But I failed to sell them, because the acquisition editors didn’t “get” it.]

“This book is darkly comic.” [I hear the pitch for “darkly comic” a lot. To me that usually means “not particularly funny”.]

I have written about pitches and query letters in a number of blog posts. You can check these out:

How to Pitch to an Agent
The Art of the Pitch
The Best Query Letter Ever Written
9 Tips for Effective Query Letters

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Tawni Waters on Beauty of the Broken

October 1, 2014
tawni headshot

photo copyright Joe Birosak

beauty of the broken coverEvery once in awhile, you read a book that grabs your heart and won’t let go. It doesn’t happen very often. When it does, it stays with you forever. For me that book is Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters, released this week by Simon/Pulse. I suppose you could say this is a YA lesbian coming of age novel. But that’s a little like saying Moby Dick is a book about fishing. It’s the story of Mara, a 15 year old girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico in a family that raises the meaning of “dysfunctional” to a new level. On the first page, Mara’s drunken father smashes her beloved brother, Iggy, with a two by four causing permanent brain damage. The stakes are raised when Mara  finds herself falling in love with the new girl in a town where lesbians are considered “abominations”. The scene describing Mara’s recognition of this first love is one of the most memorable portrayals of that universal experience I have ever read.

Early readers have characterized Beauty of the Broken as “heart wrenching”,  “devastating”,  and “unforgettable”.  And, indeed, when I read it, I found myself finishing the book at 3 AM and sobbing like a baby. But it’s also a triumphant and  life affirming book and one that gives a universal message of the virtue of human courage. Beauty of the Broken is an astonishing book.

Today we are going to interview Tawni Waters and talk to her about her creative process.

Andy: Tawni, can you tell us a little about how you conceived of Beauty of the Broken.

Tawni: Honestly, I didn’t conceive of the novel.  I conceived of a character named Mara, a brilliant, tormented girl who was dealing with some really ugly abuse, trying to come to terms with her identity in a hyper-religious small town.  It’s so cliché, but I swear, I didn’t invent this thing.  Mara told me her story, and I wrote it down.  She was that real to me.

I didn’t originally write Mara as a lesbian character–that part of her emerged slowly, as I was writing later drafts of the book.  She would wax poetic about Xylia [the new girl in the school], and finally one day, I said, “Hey, wait.  I think Mara is in love with Xylia.”

Beyond wanting to write a story about this character who just grabbed hold of my heart , I wanted to write a book about the struggle between love and dogma.  I always say, “If your dogma is stronger than your love, you are in danger of atrocity.”  Mara’s sexual orientation only heightened the themes that were emerging as I wrote the first draft.

Andy: When I read the book, I knew on the first paragraph that it was special. But you wrote it years ago. Why did you wait so long to try to get it published.

Tawni: Because I thought it sucked.  Not really.  Actually, I thought it was good in the early years.  I tried to publish it, but when nothing came of it, I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it.  I’d take it out and dust it off every once in a while.  But for the most part, I let it lie fallow.  It was nothing more than a faint memory by the time I sent it to you, believing you’d think it sucked too.

Andy: How has the book changed from your first draft.

Tawni: Where do I start?  In the first draft, Iggy [Mara’s brother] remained lucid throughout the book and died in a war.  Xylia was his girlfriend.  Mara and Xylia’s love affair didn’t really develop until late drafts of the novel.  In the early drafts, they were just close friends.

The only thing that has remained constant during the various drafts is the Stonebrook family dynamic and Mara’s character and voice.  Everything else was a crapshoot.  You know that Stephen King quote, “Kill your darlings.  Kill your darlings.  Though it break your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  Well, I’m a professional darling killer.  There are probably a thousand pages of Beauty of the Broken lying on the cutting room floor.  Very little of what I wrote made the final draft.

Andy: People are just beginning to read BOTB. The reactions by readers is unbelievably emotional. The book seems to be touching them in some deep place. Can you describe that and maybe explain it?

Tawni: I was talking to my students about this subject today.  I told them a story from my life–the death of my beloved father–in all its gory detail, and almost cried as I was telling it to them.  I wasn’t trying to manipulate them emotionally, nor was I trying to cry.  I just let myself be vulnerable and honest.  I let myself feel the emotion of the memory.   Because I was so deeply invested in my story, they all became emotional too during the telling.  Then, I told them that the intensity and emotional connection I displayed during that telling is where they have to go if they want to touch readers in a deep, true place.

Part of this probably goes back to my dramatic training.  I was an actor for years, so I think sometimes my acting bleeds into my writing.  I know how to authentically emotionally connect to artistic material.   But beyond that, I just have a gift for living in the moment, for really feeling things.  (I call it a gift now, but ask me if it’s a gift after a couple of glasses of wine, or after some cruel creature has broken my heart.)

Ultimately, I think that people respond emotionally to my writing because I am responding emotionally when I write.  I am giving them an authentic, vulnerable piece of myself.  I think our society often conceives of art as this thing that elevates an artist over her audience, but I think of it as a bridge that connects equals.  The first storytellers were connecting with their clans around campfires.  I don’t put a literary method on the page.  I put my heart on the page.

Of course, I’ve taken years to hone my craft, so I’ve learned how to go back and clean my heart up after it’s on the page.  This is important too.  Hearts are pretty, but they’re sloppy sometimes.

Andy:  I like Nietzsche. In his Birth of Tragedy, he talked about Greek tragedy as being a combination of the rational spirit of Apollo with the ecstatic sensibility of Dionysis. The words of the play being Apollonian and the music, the chorus, being Dionysian. I see this same dichotomy in the creative work of writers, particularly writers like yourself who seem so in touch with an inexplicable creative spirit. It seems to me that stories come to you almost effortlessly, but then you need to do the hard work of perfecting them.  Can you tell me about this?

Tawni: You had me at Dionysus.  Really.  I’m a sucker for all things Greek.  I think for me, creative writing requires two distinct processes.  During the first, I let down all my walls, write whatever comes into my pretty little head.  I barely lift my fingers from the keyboard.  I don’t censor myself.  I just let whatever wants to be written–good, bad, or ugly–make its way onto the page.  I think of creating a literary work of art as being something like creating a sculpture.  You can’t make a sculpture without clay, so during the first draft, you are just throwing clay in a box.

But during the second draft, the second process, you are really starting to shape the clay.  You are cutting out the ugly stuff.  You are moving things around.  You are killing the hell out of your darlings.  I have great reverence for art, so I take my darling killing seriously.  If the writing isn’t masterful, it hits the cutting room floor.  And I don’t stop at a second draft.  I worked on Beauty of the Broken on and off for fifteen years, so you can imagine how many drafts went into hat.

Andy: Barnaby, New Mexico is the small town where Mara lives. The spiritual life of the community is dominated by Reverend Winchell a fire and brimstone preacher, who sees homosexuality as an “abomination”. Your father was a clergyman. I don’t imagine he shares any similarities with Reverend Winchell.

Tawni: Actually, my father, the late, great Timothy John Hackett, was the antithesis of Reverend Winchell.  He was the most loving human being I have ever known, and if I can be remembered as being even a tenth of the human being he was, I’ll be happy with my life’s accomplishments.  He was the one who taught me unconditional love, who taught me the difference between a loving God and cruel religion.  I deliberately dedicated this book to my parents, saying they taught me the way of love, so that no one would ever confuse them with Reverend Winchell.  I feel like I owe everything that is good in me to the influence of my wonderful parents.

I actually based Reverend Winchell on a preacher I heard once in Roswell.  He screamed, “God hates fags!” from the pulpit.  I sat there trying to pick my jaw up off the floor, utterly astounded that there were people in the world who were that dark and closed-minded, and outraged that he was foisting his bigotry and hatred on God.  If you’re going to be that stupid, dude, at least take responsibility for it.  Don’t drag God into your idiocy.  (That preacher had a big truck.  I think he was compensating for something.  I’m just saying.)

Andy: Beauty of the Broken has been characterized as a lesbian coming of age story. As I said at the beginning, that doesn’t begin to do credit to the book. But that’s a big part of the story, Mara’s discovering her attraction to Xylia. Are you a lesbian? Is this a story that is mostly going to resonate with lesbians? Or is there something more universal here?

Tawni:.  As I said, I didn’t set out to write a lesbian novel.  I set out to write a story about the battle between love and dogma.  Mara’s character emerged as a lesbian, but that was secondary to her humanity, as well it should be.  Anyone’s sexual orientation should be secondary to his or her humanity, yes?

Am I a lesbian?  Every time I tell people I have written a lesbian coming of age novel, they ask me this question.  The answer is no, I am not a lesbian.  I am not a huge fan of labels, at least not for myself.  I believe firmly in love.  I believe love–true, selfless love–is holy in all of its manifestations.  I love who I love, regardless of the package they come in.  I am a love-ian.

Andy: Tawni, that’s a good note to leave on. Tawni is going to be doing events at various venues throughout the country. Here are a few:

October 4: Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona

October 18: Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico

November 7: Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

November 10: Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania