Writing Tips

5 Ways to Outsmart the Editor

This past December, the list of “read immediately” submissions was longer than my winter scarf. We masochists love a challenge, especially if it involves staring at words. Reading for eons is a pleasure–not to mention my job.

I tackled this assignment because it was the end of the year and that’s what vacations are for. Open doc, read, make notes, decide yay, nay, or maybe. I got into a zone. Sometimes it took two pages or a whole chapter before I knew the verdict. After years of urging writers to focus on the whole book, not just the first three chapters, I’ve changed my mind. With our increasingly complex world of fast vs. thorough, we are in an age of just-get-me-through-the-door. On the traditional publisher path, here is what a writer might face.

I am a meaner reader than I used to be. It takes less time for me to decide if I want to keep reading, which is why I am now urging writers to pay extra special attention to those opening pages. Time is limited. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a new Cynthia Rowley sweater. It’s important that you grab an editor’s eye quick–and keep it. Read on, and don’t be distracted, not even by this.

Tip 1: Make that first paragraph, first page count, even if it drives you to eat twenty of these. Elmore Leonard has a helpful list of writing rules. Every little bit helps, right? I’m not a stickler, but weather descriptions are a bore unless you’re in an elevator and you have no idea what to say to your neighbor. And don’t be distracted by everyone’s tips, even these really good ones!

In this vein, if you start off with dialogue, it better sparkle like Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. No mundane comments, like “How does this dress look on me?” Start with a big moment, without throwaway lines. Instead of showing off a dress, maybe she sees a dead body on her doorstep; her test says Not Pregnant which is funny given the kicking in her stomach; as she walks down the aisle, she notices the man she actually wants to marry and he’s officiating the wedding…and you have no idea who your groom is. Or you can knock your reader’s socks off with irresistible points of view (Hello, every Kristan Higgins novel).

Tip 2: So I hear you detail your car. Do that with your first three chapters. Go over every sentence. Every word. Every feeling, movement, description, conversation. Is there balance and flow? Do you repeat “very” and “definitely” and “actually”? As your editor shrink, I suggest you and your book become intimately involved. Does your voice shine through? Do you find cohesion in your plot? This is the moment when you pare away unnecessary sentences, without going overboard. Bribe yourself with treats (candy, beer, cat nip) all the way through.

Tip 3: I love a romance checklist, though you can distill all advice into one question: Will your reader care? If you have those first three chapters the way you want them, have gone over them a million times, and you definitely feel, Yes, my reader (and future editor) will care, you could be ready. But read the next tip first.

Tip 4: Pretend you’re at a glamorous reading for your book. Your hair/makeup are perfect. You manage to appear scholarly and hip at the same time. You have the voice of Maggie Gyllenhaal or Colin Firth. Read your chapters out loud to an audience. As you listen, mark down parts that don’t sound right. Fix them! Read that part again like it’s your audiobook.

Tip 5: During writer/editor pitches, if the story appeals to me, I ask for the complete manuscript and a synopsis. So yeah, it’s better if your book is done. It shows you can write a complete book. But between us girls, you really should have those first three chapters polished and shimmering with wit. Readers like me will likely make a decision based on your beginning. If the writing is solid, she or he will eventually request the complete story. Send three chapters, synopsis and, while you’re waiting for an answer, get that complete manuscript in order.

Bonus Tip: Don’t worry that the editor has read so much and you can’t compete in the slush pile. You totally can! Even after reading 30 submissions, editors will keep reading if #31 is page-turning. We are professionals so we don’t reject an amazing story if we’re in a bad mood. A great book makes the editor forget the real world.

You made it through. It’s now time to work on the beautiful adventure that is your book. Do not click on this harmless yet tempting link.

I am waiting.

Romantic Life Lessons

Intimidation Motivation

In olden times, before a date I cared about, I took three hours to prepare hair, makeup, clothes, agenda. This ensured failure, but still old dogs. Now I over-prepare to hang out with intimidating people and it is a joy. Intimidation makes me work harder, though the intimidator immediately senses my desperation.

Over the weekend, Sam and I went to visit two spectacular beings. He can vouch for my three-plus hours of hair, makeup, outfit preparation, though he was asleep until five minutes before we left. Half a century has cured me of expecting celestial bonds, talking till all hours about lifetimes past, present, and future, our own TV talk show. Now I do my best to see an intimidating person as someone who also spends three hours to prepare hair, clothes, and agenda. As my brother says, “It’s all about making friends.” Then you have some fun. I did not even spill coffee on the couch.

Other moments from my week:

While looking for non-violent content and came across Gary Gulman’s The Great Depresh on HBO. I could relate to growing up super-tall and skilled at basketball in the 70s and 80s–and also the journey with depresh. Very worth watching and moving.

If you need something to counteract any endorphins, I recommend ordering A Warning by Anonymous. Because we need more books about that person. My tolerance of prose re: this administration lessens with each tweet and book. Who is ready for a good primal scream until he is out?

But I’m grateful for the unique voices that have come forward this week. Here is one (Sam and I are big fans). Was inspired by some of the courageous witnesses in the impeachment hearings. The great Dr. Hill! Now she is someone I would have to prepare at least a day to meet. Intimidating in the best possible way.

Writing Tips

Easy Romance Writing Tips

In the last week, I read 40+ submissions. You may not believe this, but I love reading slush! It’s not fun to walk in when you’re wearing new shoes, but slush is an oft-tarnished term that means a submission from the publisher’s general pile. What’s wrong with that? Publishers need submissions to survive, end of story.

As I was reading, I noticed once again (as I do with non-slush pile submissions) easy fixes for those about to submit. So, before I forget, here are items you can revise in your sleep.

Clean up your synopsis. Let’s get out of the way that you can’t write a synopsis to save your life. We know that already–though some of you are pros at crafting a summary of your book. One tip is to be aware of how many times you begin a clause with “When”. Vary your sentences. Even if you can’t write a synopsis, do try to write a good one. šŸ™‚

A comma of direct address sets you apart. Pet peeve alert! In the last ten years, maybe more, the comma of direct address has disappeared from many submissions. I don’t understand this. Or I do, but it’s still infuriating. For love of the English language, throw in that comma. I won’t say that leaving it out will make me reject a story, but…

Open your story in the right place. Often, there is an abundance of setup in the first few pages, which bogs down the pacing. I’m more interested in the voice, the character’s point of view as he or she experiences a remarkable event. I don’t care that she’s driving to a scene or getting ready for a party. I don’t need to know what she’s thinking as she goes up the hill in her Honda Civic, wondering if she’ll encounter her mean ex. I want her to be examining the zombie’s body and realizing it’s her lost husband. Some good examples of openings: The Morning Show, Mission Impossible 2, and The Bodyguard (the one on Netflix, not the Whitney Houston one).

Monitor your use of And, But, Actually, Apparently, especially at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs. Even with writers I’ve worked with for decades, I have to strike sentence misfires. It is so easy to start a sentence with And or But or He or She. And it adds to the flow of your paragraph. But it winds up sounding repetitive. And lazy! And did I say repetitive? At some point, you will need to go over every single word in your manuscript (don’t leave it to the editors). Be brave in getting rid of those easy words or at least use them sparingly.

So your villain calls your heroine a bitch. Do you envision a man with a twisty mustache, too? Since I first began reading romance novels, I encountered this same bad person. Forty years later, bitch is stale and dated. In the real world, don’t you think your villain would call her something…I don’t know…hard-hitting? Better yet, give your evil mastermind a creative way to insult the heroine. Think of Hannibal, who knew exactly how to push Clarice’s buttons without name-calling.

That’s all I’ve got on this Sunday. Happy Writing and those who are Nanowrimo-ing, keep on rocking those words! You can do it.

Shameless Promotion

Catch and Kill and The Morning Show

If you find yourself utterly demotivated and remembering sad, quiet stories, may I suggest a double dose of just desserts with Catch and Kill and The Morning Show. Not only do both feature journalists working hard, but they also offer solid fuck yous to corrupt establishments that have gagged victims and those shepherding their important stories to the public.

Catch and Kill is a formidable account of a network’s not airing a story about a notorious predator’s (I won’t mention his name because he sucks) reign of terror. The Morning Show stars Jennifer Aniston, who, in my opinion, makes everything better.

But seriously…first I raced through Catch and Kill, appreciating its sober tone as Ronan Farrow details his experience of reporting a story that would have put me in the hospital in the first week. I have his other “foreign policy” book buried under other such books (three issues of Vanity Fair).

Over the last thirty years, I’ve read shelves of books about sexual assault and I was expecting something different from Catch and Kill, i.e. a bigger focus on the victims individual stories. Then I realized that these stories were not totally his to tell. In Farrow’s writing, there is this respectful space between victim and journalist, where he reports what is there, what is told, but he doesn’t assume the victim’s story or take it on as his. His story is about the behind the scenes of bringing forward his bombshell findings. He reveals the sick culture where he worked and the levels of treachery those above him fought to cover up.

While Catch and Kill may be a trigger for some, for me, it wasn’t. I admire journalists even more, especially the work that goes into writing the truth–and the danger. If you can’t tell your story, there are those who will go to ugly places with you and on your behalf.

On a sudsier note, there is little ugliness in The Morning Show, except for what beloved co-anchor Steve Carrell does to more than one accuser. Obviously, his role is inspired by a real anchor who was fired for bad behavior (that real anchor also sucks). “Asleep at the wheel” Jennifer Aniston is left co-anchorless and the male vultures (including the sociopathic Billy Crudup with his evil, twinkly eyes) want to pick her apart and leave her 50-something bones on the curb. We know from Friends that Jen does tantrum like no other. And so does Reese Witherspoon, whose outrage over lack of truth will buoy viewers.

While I’m only done with three episodes, I already know The Morning Show is the female empowerment pill that I need. It–along with Catch and Kill–gives me hope that the stories will come out, the good will win, the bad will go away (lose all their money and go directly to jail), and there will be no more coworkers who squeeze our shoulders and say, “Oh, I guess I shouldn’t touch you because of Anita Hill, right?” or much worse and lame.

I’d like to put aside every decade I spent looking over my shoulder and be excited for a healthier environment for everyone. Everyone. A few obvious things would have to happen first and I’ll give you three guesses as to what I’m thinking.

Here’s hoping you find inspiration in the books or shows you’re checking out these days.

Uncategorized

Predators, Romance, and Customer Service

Often, my week exists in tidy list format, so much so that I’ve started to keep a folder. To balance my left-brain tasks, I’m adding what reading and pop culture items have influenced my thoughts, mood, and creativity. This list-thing might only last three days. Two tops.

Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: There are few things I love more than when predators’ misdeeds come to light and we can shun them forever. You can imagine my joy over Ronan Farrow’s gutsy reporting on the victims of Harvey Weinstein’s reign of terror. I’m thankful for the women who told their stories (and the ones who didn’t, you’re so brave too and I totally understand–really). I’m only halfway through and soaking up Farrow’s bold adventure.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston: My colleague handed me this book and said, “This is how romance is done.” Since starting it, I have only put it down to read the Ronan Farrow book, which is an anti-romance. McQuiston’s story is a big love story on steroids. You will turn into a human heart emoji while reading. Needs to be made into a movie ASAP.

I’ve followed Cat Marnell since she wrote for XoJane. I may not be alone in watching voyeuristically her skirting what seems a bottomless pit of demises. I am afraid to get too invested but am always happy when she shows proof of life. She has many talents and I’m grateful for her lesson on how to do a smokey eye. The one time I was on TV, the makeup artist gave me a smokey eye and it looked amazing. I haven’t been able to replicate it without appearing demonic. But Marnell does way more than this! Her insights, her travels are wildly entertaining. If you follow her on Twitter, you know she has a new book, Self Tanner for the Soul, on Audible after her first one, How to Murder Your Life.

I love reading writing tips. A lot of them, I already know, but they can still refresh your process. Sometimes, there are things you haven’t tried. For me, mystery writing is a skill that has eluded me, so these tips gave me hope that I do could commit many homicides in fiction.

A happy story of the week: As a last resort for my hair, I turned back the clock twenty years and went to a nearby Aveda store in search of their humectant pomade, the product I used in my thirties. I know, this is way too pretentious for words. It gets worse. The saleswoman was so kind that I asked her advice if I was using the right things for coarse, dry tree bark in a desert hair. She said yes, but then asked about my shampoo and conditioning habits. Long story short, I walked out with a bag of product (including samples). Good customer service seduces me every time. The Aveda woman and I could become best friends. Her colleague told me that my purse was washable. Before I left, I donated to breast cancer research.

Including shopping the Aveda on Fifth Avenue and 19th, I recommend blocking off three hours to watch Amazon Prime’s Modern Love episodes. I only watched the first one, which unexpectedly made me ugly cry. I haven’t felt an emotion beyond mildly dead inside for a while, so this was amazing.

Happy new week to everyone!

Uncategorized

51? Okay…

I am about to enter my 52nd year. Here are the monumental things that I’ve learned in the past 370 days:

The news is still terrible. My daily goal is not to make it worse.

I put half & half in my coffee now. WHO KNEW IT WAS SO DELICIOUS?

Instead of dessert after every meal, I keep it to once a week. Apparently, sugar is bad for you.

If you’re depressed, it helps to read something outside your realm, maybe even out of your depths. For me, that’s been jewelry, economics, and French philosophy. This didn’t make me smarter. In fact, I would still fail economics today, but I am way more pretentious now.

I’ve kicked my bad habit of going to Old Navy and buying shit that I only wear once. I hear Brooks Brothers is nice.

What has happened to my hair? Please advise.

My parents drilled into me the importance of doing chores. But since I’ve given up my bad Old Navy habit and will try to cook, I bargained with God who said it was okay to pay someone to clean the apartment.

Now I understand what Nora Ephron meant about her neck, but screw it. I am not a moviestar (yet).

The colonoscopy was not so bad. Having the stomach flu is way worse than the prep, but it’s comparable to IBS. The propofol was AH-MAY-ZING and I’m lucky to have health insurance.

I complain about little things now and I hate it.

When crimes are committed by people in our government, are there any repercussions? Just wondering, since I’m planning how to live my next life.

Sandwiched between light-hearted issues is grief. One of my precious elders died this year. When I think about him, it dawns on me that he’s really gone. He won’t call me “Space-tience” or help me make parallels between now and Ancient Rome (see what I said about being pretentious). Luckily, I still hear him in my head. Hic, haec, hoc, Mr. Cobb!

More and more, I sound like my mom, but she’s hilarious so that’s okay.

The Americans is so good–and eerie as hell. Under no circumstances do I think about exercising to the extent that I could look like Keri Russell. Instead, I ponder the Reagan years and how they contributed to today’s geopolitical (?) distress. Discuss.

Leopard prints. So maybe I went to Banana Republic and bought some embarrassing new pants I’ll only wear once (BR lets you use Old Navy credit card!!!).

With each year, my list of errands seems to grow. Is this real or a fabrication? I wonder what would happen if I didn’t run errands for a week.

I think about the children in cages every single day. I don’t even know what to say about this. It breaks my heart every day. If I had any skills, I would use them. For now, I just write a check.

This thought began in my twenties. If suddenly I had to live on a deserted island, would I be okay? There are a few things I would have to pack. Am I packed? Oh God, I should pack just in case. Friends, this is why my purse is so heavy.

I wrote another book but I’m afraid to admit it.

Fear of flying is gone. Fear of before-flying is the same.

Every day, I still wonder how I lucked out with Sam as my partner in crime. I can’t believe it–STILL. He cracks me up daily and is just so dreamy. Do I love him more than I did when he first stepped off the plane on December 17, 2009 for our first date? Yes, 10 years more!

And this is where I say that I don’t care about my birthday so much. My best birthday gift is to keep hanging with my loved ones and not worry so much (that it could all disappear). I still want cake, though.

Romantic Life Lessons, Writing Tips

Hamilton

When Hamilton first appeared on Broadway, I didn’t care. My historian parents would soon discoverĀ its existence and make us see it anyway. As a late-forty-something and new iPhone addict, I no longer had the band-width for academic things. Plus, it seemed manipulative for a play to feed me American history. Why did I want to know more…about anything?

The buzz grew. As presidential candidates began their tap dancing, I heard you, Hamilton, and your room where it happens. Obama even went to see it, blessing it as the best thing to exist in this galaxy. At the office and on Facebook, friends treatedĀ Hamilton seats like winning the golden ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. OMIGOD, you’re seeing it in eighteen months? You are so lucky! (You could die before then)

I rebelled against this peer pressure, which meant I had a budding interest. What a great time to be in theater ticket estate planning. When I croak, my nieces could inherit my Broadway tickets. Smug in my non-history-play-seeing (but still alert), I returned for my tenth viewing of Frankie Valli vowing to pay off his bandmate’s tax lien in Jersey Boys. Meanwhile the scent of 250-year-old treasury secretary wafted its way down to the West Village, at which point my mother, a famous historian, said, “Get us 6 seats, orchestra, anything in the next month.” Sure, Bonnie. I’ll do that.

For my mom, I’ll snooze my way through a history lesson with its creative rethinking of the birth of our nation. For Mom, I’ll even accept thatĀ Hamilton has a man-bun. But alas, my computer laughed me silly as I tried to purchase 6 seats together in the same year. That’s not only impossible, it’s the price of a Honda Civic circa 1991 (fact).

Mom and I said, “Whatever” to these results. We didn’t want to see it anyway. What’s this about non-Classical music in a period piece? We don’t even listen to hip hop (My iTunes purchases say differently). So, American history, hip hop, and a scarcity of tickets. No thanks!

All around me, the hype continued and I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda on shows, being happy and excited, not the least bit tired or jaded over being a sensation–again! He was in the thick of that wonderful genius bubble where you create something meaningful for the world. Damn him!

My friend from work finally went to see it and came back saying, “It’s nothing you’ve ever seen before. Another level.” Her review weighed on me. Another level means another level. I bought Ron Chernow’s book and started to read. The text was engrossing, as was LMM’s adorable book of uplifting tweets (600 pages shorter, tho). Add to this the synchronicity of my giving a Hamilton bill to my takeout delivery person multiple times per week.

But, people, my fever broke. I gave up pursuing the secret dream. Sort of like when I knew I wouldn’t be able to score a ride, shelter, and Duran Duran tickets in 1984.

When LMM did Hamilton in Puerto Rico, I saw it as a sign of renewal. Go. I even entered the contest to win a chance to fly to PR (I don’t like to fly) to see Hamilton. The realization took years to appear like a banner in my brain: I have to see Hamilton. I really have to see it. Over and over, I thought this. Tickets still too much. But I still have to go. I checked calendars. Asked my husband wouldn’t it be nice. No, he said. When the play Charlemagne opens, he’ll be there (he likes France).

Weeks went by. After a couple years of not wanting to go but secretly wanting to go. I started to think about going by myself. No follow through.

Last weekend, Sam and I were dying of boredom (it happens even when you love each other). He looked through the plays and clicked a few icons and said, “We’re seeing Hamilton tomorrow, 3 pm.”*

So.

Everyone was right. I won’t go into detail because I’m running out of ink. Just know that it’s a masterpiece. I am still thinking mostly about the labor involved in creating those three hours of joy.Ā Hamilton is what happens when you work harder than anyone else. Great works take work. Writers who are stuck or crawling toward that agonizing finish line–answer that call to witness someone else’s talents. It might be the motivation you need at the exact right time.

The Hamilton ear worms are brutal, though.

(Okay, Mom. Now it’s your turn.)

*Yes, he’s really nice.