Friday, January 7, 2011

Back from Holiday and Off to a Running Start; Workshopping

Happy New Year, blogosphere! I have just found my computer buried underneath the piles of work that have accumulated during our holiday breaks and thought I would provide an update before I dive back in and attempt to save Lyla from being overcome by paper cuts and writer's cramp.

As the headline states, this year has started off fast. I am finishing up my Master's in English Language and Literature this Spring and have also joined a local writer's workshop, both of which are keeping much busier than I have been of late, especially when added onto our usual workload here at the office. Now that I have gotten my ill-conceived attempt at a segue out of the way, today's topic will involve workshops and why I think they are an integral part of the writing process.

For those who have never been a part of a writer's workshop, it's a group of people who wish to hone their craft by providing their work for critique by other people as well as critiquing the works of others. No writer is good right away. It's a painful reality that each of us must come to terms with before we can be anything other than an amateur. No work comes out gleaming gold, but instead requires tweaking to make an okay work into a great one. Finally, no writer writes from a vacuum, and no published work ever entered into a vacuum; a writer may as well get a test-run or two or three or twenty of their work before they try to send it out to an agent or publisher. That's where a workshop comes in handy.

There are many web equivalents of a writer's workshop out there, but there seems to be a preponderance of Poetry ones. Yet, some people (me, for example) prefer the intimacy that face-to-face contact offers when getting their work critiqued. Meeting with people in real life provides a connection with them, where they get to know your work and can provide you with constructive criticism that grows with you as a writer. They can provide feedback on what you consider your weakest points to be, letting you know when you have improved upon them and when you need work harder. With a face-to-face workshop, you're not just a faceless writer of just one more work a person may have skimmed through or simply commented "tl;dr." This brings me to my second point for face-to-face workshopping: it cuts down on trolls, who will comment on your work solely to rile you up or cut you down.

A workshop that meets on a regular basis can also encourage you to write more steadily, for it will provide a deadline that you must meet in order to have a piece to be critiqued when it comes your turn. A workshop provides a place for you to constructively critique another person's work, helping them to grow as a writer. The great thing about this last part is that it also helps you to become a greater writer, for it lets you see your strengths and weaknesses when compared to other people's work. Comparing your work to that of those you know provides realistic goals for you, allowing you to evolve your craft rather than just give up when you don't suddenly write on par with a bestselling author. You can also find things that you like about another person's work, which you can attempt to emulate in your own work (such as tone, pacing, structure, etc.) or learn from their mistakes and avoid having to make them yourself. Finally, a workshop can provide a great place for support for your writing, whether you just want it to be a hobby or intend to make it a career.

Next post, I will go over some rules of etiquette that should help a writer's workshop go smoothly and with minimal bruising of pride.

Also: Tune in for our upcoming segments, new this year: Weekly Writer Roundup, where we will provide links to other blogs that we found interesting and helpful in the ways of writing.

Zach U.

PS: Has anyone seen my stapler?

Edit: If you're wondering how/where to find writer's workshops in your area, I would suggest checking such websites as Craigslist, MeetUp, and the like.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What's my name?

A skit on a recent "Saturday Night Live" episode featured a game called "What's my name?" Contestants were challenged by people they see every day (a doorman and a cleaning woman) to tell them their names. Of course, the contestant confronted by the doorman had no idea what his name was, nor did the woman know the name of the cleaning lady who emptied her work trash every night. And, of course, "Norman the doorman" and "Mary the cleaning lady" were ridiculously offended.

Everyone wants to feel important enough to be addressed by name. Even publishers. Over at John Kremer's blog, a guest post by Jeff Rivera (founder of stresses the importance of not addressing your query letters, "Dear Agent."

It should really go without saying that this is a no-no, but...

The same thing happens to publishers who receive un-agented submission. We receive queries just like those received by agents, so we're just as frequently the recipients of cool, impersonal salutations like, "Dear Sir" (with the unfortunate assumption made that only men work at the company), "Dear Sir or Madam," or even, "To whom it may concern."

All of the above (with the exception of "Dear Sir") are appropriate when--and only when--there is no possible way of knowing to whom the letter should be addressed. Before addressing it this way, however, I highly recommend you do everything you can to find a name. Look up the company online, find the department you're contacting, and find a person whose name you can use. Or call the company's customer service or information line and ask to whom your letter should be addressed.  At least then, if you still can't find anything - even after looking up the publisher in the Writer's Market or Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents - when you write "Dear Publisher," you'll be confident you had no other option.

- Lyla P.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Best Seller, Schmest Seller. And: Why go with a trade publisher, anyway?

More of your questions answered. And, finally, we get into the "Stump the Publisher" questions readers sent in. Our boss hasn't been stumped, yet, so keep sending them in. Remember, too, that the purpose of this site is to be a resource for writers who want to know more about the publishing industry. Consider it "everything you always wanted to know about publishing but were afraid to ask." If you have or want a publisher, or have or want an agent, and have questions you're afraid to ask those you hope to work with, ask us. 

Now, to the questions.

Isn't it always a good thing to be a New York Times bestseller?
The New York Times bestsellers list is the most prestigious and by far the most recognized bestseller list of books in the world. Any authors who have made it to the New York Times bestseller list will have bragging rights for years to come. However, making the list doesn’t necessarily mean your work is good. It simply means it's sold enough copies in one week to be placed among the top sellers for that week nationwide. Rather than it being about the book, it is far more about sales and your ability to market well enough to get people to buy your book in a given week. Books that already have a buzz, like Harry Potter, automatically secure a place on the list because of their following.  If the New York Times is your goal, go for it. Just know what it's about: not quality, but quantity.    

From a publishing company's perspective, a New York Times bestseller is great -- but only if it's a consistent bestseller. When there's a spike in sales of the magnitude generated by a NYT bestseller listing, a lot of money goes into trying to maintain it. If the readers don't continue to buy it, the publisher eats the promotion cost and has to wait for book two (or rely on other consistent sellers) to make up for it.

And here are the first two stump-the-publisher questions:

Convince me that traditional publishing is worth the effort, if a writer's goal is something other than becoming a household name and/or making a million dollars. (Submitted by MK)

Well, I don’t know that I could really convince anyone of anything he or she already has a strong opinion about. Traditional publishing is the route for those who want to have shelf space in the traditional bookstore. Such placement gives your book visibility it's extremely difficult to achieve as a self-publisher. Going the traditional route doesn’t ensure name worthiness, and certainly not riches. However, it's a start. An author ultimately has to decide what is best for him or her. Both avenues can lead you to success. I prefer having the strength of a publisher on my side to create a much needed synergy. I guess I believe in the old adage, “Two are better than one.”

What exactly is "Slipstream"? (Submitted by Ian)

Slipstream is a sort of convergence of hyperbolic fiction and conventional literary fiction, seen as crossover fiction for its ability to exists in and speak to two genres. The phrase was first used by Bruce Sterling and has become known as “the fiction of strangeness.” Slipstream in and of itself is not actually a separate genre but rather a literary effect.

More questions answered next Thursday. Remember: if you have questions of your own, we want to answer them. (And don't you want your shot at $50?) We love talking about publishing more than we love talking about almost anything else. (Writing may tie.) Contact us here. Also, remember we're accepting query letters for critique.

- Lyla P.

Monday, November 22, 2010

No day off on Thanksgiving: your questions still answered.

We're down to our final question in our initial list of questions writers commonly have for publishers, which means Thursday we'll start digging into your submitted "stump-the-publisher" questions. So: to be posted Thursday - yes, Thanksgiving day, because we're that devoted - answers to the following three questions (unless our boss is, in fact, stumped):

Final commonly-asked question: Isn't it always a good thing to be a New York Times bestseller?

Stump-the-publisher questions

Submitted by MK: Convince me that traditional publishing is worth the effort, if a writer's goal is something other than becoming a household name and/or making a million dollars.

Submitted by Ian: What exactly is "Slipstream"?

You can only eat so much turkey. Eventually, you'll need a break. And we'll be here. See you Thursday.

- Lyla P.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Your query critiqued - in person! (Sort of.)

Of the many painful, time consuming, and dreaded tasks writers are faced with in the hunt for a publisher, writing the query letter may be the most painful. Sure, writing a synopsis is difficult - how are you supposed to capture the meat of a book and show the conflict progression and give a healthy taste of the characters in the requested one-page synopsis? - but a query is worse, because the query is the "Hi!" to the agent or publisher that's supposed to, in a single page, make them want to read your manuscript.

It seems like it should be easier than it is. All that's asked for is a page, after all, and the format is pretty standard: hook, brief synopsis, bio. Simple, right?

Have you tried writing a hook and a gripping synopsis? offers very helpful query-writing instruction that includes a detailed explanation of what's expected, and even sample hooks. If you're having trouble, or if you're unsure of the basic query format, I recommend taking a look.

Our boss (the one you're still trying to stump so you can win $50) wants to help you write a successful query letter, so he's inviting you to send your letters for a critique. It could be your first one, or it could be one you've been sending around for a while and just haven't had a response to - if you want to know why it may not  be working (or whether it will work), send it in. Selected letters will receive an in-person (that is, video recorded) critique we'll post here on our video page, as well as on YouTube.

Alternatively, if you have a query letter that has been very successful, our boss would like to see that, too, and share it with those who may be struggling so they can learn from your technique.

Attach your letter to an email as a Word doc. and send it to (Your name and the title of your work will not be shared during the critique.)

- Lyla P.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stump the Publisher: E-Book Rights, Money, and Self-Publishers; Oh, My!

Well, our boss continues to amaze us. You sent in your questions and he was able to answer them without breaking a sweat. This week's Stump the Publisher tackles three questions that have been causing many of us to scratch our heads for a while. To be honest, I personally didn't know the answer to a couple of these, and were it me attempting to answer them, we would've had ourselves a winner already (and that would've made our recurring contests a bit of a misnomer). Thankfully, our publisher came through with the information that is much more important.
If you're curious about what this contest is all about, click here for details.
For everyone else: questions and answers after the jump.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Stump the Publisher and win $50.

We (Lyla P. and Zach U.) keep hearing from our boss that no one has yet asked a question about publishing that's stumped him, but we're pretty sure there's someone out there with a question he won't be able to answer. We said, "What if we put the question out there to your twitter and facebook followers? We bet one of them can stump you."

"Okay," he said.

We made it more fun by suggesting he pay whoever stumps him $50. We weren't sure he'd go for that, but again, he said, "Okay."


"Stump the Publisher" will go on until someone, well, stumps the publisher. Stumping the publisher means asking a question related to publishing that the publisher, our boss, cannot answer. In the meantime, we'll be posting our answers to the submitted questions, 3 at a time, every Thursday. The person who does manage to stump the publisher will be notified in a blog entry (and on twitter and facebook) and then asked to provide us with a mailing address or paypal account information so we can make the payment.

Questions may be submitted via Twitter (follow us on Twitter), as Facebook comments ("like" our facebook page), or in the comments section of this blog.

Good luck! Game starts: NOW.