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I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

Hi. I’m a book doctor (a.k.a. freelance editor) in the Pacific Northwest. A client of mine is working on a memoir, and I’m trying to give her some wordcount guidance. Folks on Twitter said I should ask you: For a first-time memoirist, what’s the sweet spot on length?

The client’s memoir is presently pushing 150,000 words, and she’s not done with it yet. My gut says “ooh, too long,” as in, most publishers will pass given that it’s from a first-time author. However, my gut is trained on novels, not memoirs, so I’m dis-inclined to rely on my intestinal authority in this case.

Care to educate my gut a little?

Not really. The intestinal metaphor is just awful and using the word “gut” three times is unforgivable. That said, no one has asked about word count and it’s a good topic — so thank you on that score.

I love to tell writers to cut their books in half and see if they are missing anything (especially those coming in at 150,000 words or more). I would bet you five bucks that most books would be improved if they lost anywhere between 10-40 % of their body weight. That said, the correct word length is the number of words it takes to tell your story. The reason I love poetry, well one reason, is that every word counts. The best works of fiction and non-fiction hold themselves to that standard.

I also counsel beginning writers to write in long hand and to use a typewriter. I guarantee you will be more careful and precise. The length isn’t what makes editors groan, it’s overly long sloppy writing that gives you a stomach ache.

Is your manuscript too long? Does every word count?

If You Liked It Then You Shoulda Put a Ring On It

Dear Betsy,

I was fortunate to have a friend recommend me to her agent. Said agent is on my A-list. A-list agent and I exchanged pleasantries via email, and she invited me to send my manuscript, which had won two substantial novel-in-progress awards in 2009. In October 2009, I mailed the ms. Soon after that, I received an extremely generous critique from another agent who loved the work but felt she couldn’t take it on “at this time.” With that agent’s suggestions in mind, I did a substantial revision and feel that the novel is much improved. Of course, I will ask agent #2 if I can resubmit to her. Meanwhile, I haven’t heard back from A-list agent. It’s been four months. I would love to send her my revision, but I don’t want to annoy her. It is possible that she hasn’t seen my original version. What is the protocol? Ask if she’ll accept a revision? Wait for her to respond to the ms I already sent?

Thank you for any suggestions. I love your blog.

“Wife Number Three”

Dear Three:

This is classic. Classic! Though a little confusing. Usually when an agent says she can’t take on something “at this time” it means NEVER. It means not now, not ever, which spells never. “At this time” is like a guy who doesn’t call back after you fuck him. If he doesn’t call the next day or the day after, will he ever call back? Highly fucking unlikely. Maybe a few months later in the middle of the night when he’s drunk. Maybe. That said, this little minx gave you substantial notes. You don’t give substantial notes unless you would like another role in the hay. So, sure, send it again.

A-list agent has not read your book. No agent reads a manuscript, wants to take it on, and sits on it. A-list agent may have started it, didn’t get into it, put it aside, knew she should give it more time because of the friend connection, but as time passed it became increasingly difficult to revisit . Why? Think of all the books you’ve started, left on your side table, mean to get back to…same thing. Send her the revision. If she hasn’t read, good. If scenario two is to blame, then this gives her a fresh start.

It’s so hard to apply common sense where your writing is concerned. Every action or inaction feels loaded. You can scrutinize this shit to death. It just took me a month to send my screenplay out to someone who INVITED me to send it. I’m no different when it comes to sending out work. I’d rather chew off my arm.

Any missing limbs out there?

Joining the World of Missing Persons and She Was

Thank you for your wonderful blog.
I hope this question doesn’t seem too trivial. On the matter of sending a snail mail query letter: Does it make any difference if the letterhead is professionally printed (e.g., from Office Depot) or does it suffice to go with 24-lb stock and your own laser printer? Will that matter to an agent?
Again thank you.

Dear Kind Person: No question is too trivial, especially after a day like today.* The more trivial the better. Anyway, you don’t need professionally printed letterhead. In fact, you don’t need letterhead at all. In fact, you don’t need paper. Most agents accept email queries. If you still want to send snail mail, just format your letter as you would a business letter. Letterhead always looks a little too, um, self-important. Worse is when the letterhead comes with a little illustration of a pen, for example, or a typewriter, or some mind/body symbol that encourages one to break free. I hope that answers your question. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Remember the “pounds or pages” challenge? Well, I just had my first writing session with my boot camp coach. I gave him an assignment to write three pages on something that relates to his story. He did a great job (far better job than I am doing shedding weight), and it was very pleasurable to be in a teaching mode. To talk about basics such as tense, pov, pacing, conflict and tension. I liked slipping my agent skin, not thinking about whether something was saleable, or fighting over an e-book royalty, or chasing a royalty statement, or rejecting a project that has so much going for it, but you just don’t feel it.

How are you all doing? I think we said thirty pages or ten pounds by April 1. If you’re not going to make your goal, adjust it. As my trainer says, a 70% success rate is a very good outcome.

I Have Confidence in Rain

Hi Betsy,

You may not remember me… you gave me some good advice a few months ago and it led to this: I sold my book. You gave me a good kick in the pants and told me to move on. You should charge for advice, you’re so good! I hope sending the good news isn’t tacky… Thanks again for your wonderful blog, your straight forwardness, giving us struggling writers the straight dope on what goes on, your tough love.

cheers from a snowy DC

Snowy DC first wrote to me back in July. She was confused about how to leverage agent interest. And now look at her! People, take notice. Snowy DC snagged an agent and scored a book contract. And she still remembers us little people. Snow-eee! Snow-eee!

Dear darling readers of this blog, write me with your questions and you, too, can get your ass kicked. I promise, I won’t be gentle. And though Snowy rightly points out that I should charge, I don’t. So please, avail yourselves of this free public service “Ask Betsy” and I’ll do my best to help you, too, succeed.

But now, just for fun, and after you offer your congratulations to Snowy D, what is the single worst piece of publishing or writing advice you’ve ever received? (Mine was to go into publishing, ha ha ha.)

Every Year Is Getting Shorter

Here’s a good one:

Greetings! I am working on a memoir and nearly have the manuscript completed. After many years of working on it, I think this is the draft that I can start sending to agents. I have a feeling the manuscript will be ready around the holidays; at least, that’s my goal. I will be anxious to start sending it out right away. But is the period between Thanksgiving/Christmas a bad time to send manuscripts? Are there some general “bad times” in the year in which to submit? Is there a “good time” to submit?

I’ve consulted some of the great Talmudic minds over the last decade about when to send out books. And I would have been happy to share the information, but just like everything else in this economic climate — all bets are off. It used to be that you didn’t want to send out books in December or August. That said, I recently heard that August is new September. Does that mean November is the new December? As far as I know, August is still when most people take vacation.  And you  probably don’t want to send out your project before the Christmas holidays unless you’re submitting it to a Chinese food-eating, movie-going, beautiful young jewess like me.

 The best advice: send it when it’s ready — that’s the bottom line. Send it when you can handle whatever happens, and keep writing.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

A reader asks: Is it true that editors no longer edit, and if so, why?

Good question but kind of boring. Still, I have a couple of theories. My first is that some editors don’t really know how. Editing was always an apprenticeship and you would toil away for years working with a senior editor before you got promoted and edited anything on your own. Now, editorial assistants get promoted in a few years or take the hint and go to Law School. You also typed and filed your boss’ correspondence. The first agent I worked for wrote 6 page editorial letters to his clients; I didn’t just type and file them, I inhaled them. Today, most of the work of editing and communicating is done via email so the assistant is no longer privy to the editorial letters, etc. that are exchanged between an author and her editor.

The other reason is expedience; some editors don’t believe that an edited book is going to sell a single copy more than an unedited one. And many are probably right on that score. If you want to read about Mackenzie Philips’ drug fueled consensual sex with her father, does it really matter if the transitions are weak? And for all I know that book might have been brilliantly edited by a whip-smart young editor with a PhD in linguistics from Princeton — it probably was.

Do editors edit? I think most do, and some quite brilliantly. Most of us still believe that if you strive towards making the book the best it can be, sentence by sentence, word by word, that if you search for the perfect title and subtitle, get the perfect jacket, write sublime flap copy, etc. then you will give the book its best possible shot in the marketplace and give readers what they deserve. We also believe that if we clap long and loud enough a little fairy will come and save us. Or do we save her?

FAQ- How Important is My Platform?

Here’s a recent letter that touches on the “P” word:

Dear Betsy, My wife has a terrific idea for a book, a kind of sourcebook or compendium. She doesn’t work in the field, and has no qualifications that particularly scream Expert. Having said that, she has a prestigious MFA and excellent publications from small literary magazines in multiple genres. Assuming she had a knockout proposal, could she sell this book? Or would she get the No Platform cold shoulder?                      Sincerely,  “R”

Dear “R”, First, I have to admit that I am always a little grossed out when people write on behalf of their spouses. What’s up with that? 

Look, it’s impossible to answer without knowing the field– one field may be more forgiving than another. For instance, if she wanted to write about skin cancer then by all rights she should head up Sloan Kettering’s skin cancer department. Her other credentials aren’t nothing and may attest to her writing skills. We’ve all sold proposals whose authors had less than perfect platforms. It’s just so much easier when they do.

I used to work for an editor in chief who was obsessed with platform. In fact, he barely wanted to consider a writer who wasn’t from the Ivy leagues for starters. Ditto, journalists had to work at the top tier papers he deemed worthy. It felt like he had a scorecard for every project and if you could tic nine out of the ten attributes, you might get to acquire the book. While I was ripshit about this at the time, the unfairness of it all, as I grew up in publishing I saw how helpful it was to have the right platform. I came to see that not only my uptight boss but the rest of world wanted authors with mega-watt credentials. That’s how you got booked on TV! If you were from a top tier organization, the media would pay attention. Look how much coverage Frank Bruni is getting for his book about overeating, for example. If he had been a food critic for the Fuckme Herald, I doubt his book would have gotten any attention. Well, that’s not fair, I haven’t actually read it yet. The good news is that books and authors break through all the time, people without formal education or advanced degrees, people with sketchy resumes, people who couldn’t find their way out of a paperbag. It still happens, maybe with less frequency. The world is still blessedly unpredictable.

Did I answer the question? Your wife has a chance in hell unless that proposal really does come at the earth like a meteor. Now, can I ask you a question? Is this really about your “wife”?

I Bet You Think This Song Is About You

A reader writes in: I thought this might be a good question to ask “Betsy the Blogger.” Before we continue, let it be known that Betsy does not like being referred to as “Betsy the Blogger.”

So, I’m writing a memoir on painkiller addiction, and much of my story involves my experiences in “Drug Court”.  Proof positive: I attract junkies. And as I’m writing, a nagging voice keeps suggesting to me that perhaps there is a book in the Drug Court story alone… so, a few questions:
First, is it completely solipsistic of me to think about a second book before finishing the first? YES.
And, if it were reasonable for me to contemplate a second or “follow up” book, should I be concerned with how much subject matter I cover in the first? NO.

I have trouble evaluating at any “communication” in isolation. That’s the great existential joke. The writer is often that last person to know if his work is any good, and by that I mean if it communicates or reaches other people. That’s why it’s usually so terrifying to put it out there, worst fears confirmedI think everyone will agree that it is worse to be met with silence than rejection.

So, is it crazy to think about your sequel before the book you are working on has found its place on the shelf? Yeah, of course it is. But it may also be a sign of mania, and/or what I call the rapture of the deep. This is where you’re so deep into your work that you think everything you see and touch is related to the book. That it’s not just one book, but two, and maybe a series.

Dearest writer with checkered drug history, just remember, one book at a time.

FAQ: Don’t You Want Me Baby

Anonymous writes:

What’s the protocol when an agent makes an offer of representation and there are other agents interested in the book, too (i.e., agents who have requested fulls)?  Is it kosher to ask the offering agent–after expressing genuine delight and great interest–for a short period of time to notify other interested agents before giving an answer?  How do agents really feel about this–are they accepting of the competition, or resentful of being made to wait?

Dear Hot One:

It would be good to know if you told the agents in your query letter that you were sending your work out on multiple submission. Then they would certainly understand. But even if you didn’t, you’re fine. That’s the beauty of being in demand. It isn’t every day you get to be in the driver’s seat, just remember to take it slow and be courteous.  

You ask if the first agent will feel resentful. The agent may be miffed. He did read the novel and get back to you first. He  has gushed to you and wants to represent you. No one likes to find out he’s not the only guy in a tux with a corsage standing outside your door. But it’s not a race. Being first says a great deal about an agent’s enthusiasm, but how the agent behaves upon hearing that you have it out with others will tell you even more about that person. If he or she is gracious, that’s a good sign. He wants what’s best for you. If he puts enormous pressure on you, well, I wouldn’t like that. But this happens all the time, and my philosophy is: clients should have their choice (if they are fortunate enough to have a choice), and they will likely pick the agent who is right for them.

Anyway,  here’s what I would do:

  • Tell the interested agent that it’s out with others and you want to talk with all interested parties before making a decision. There are some agents who will only consider work if they have it exclusively. I think this is bullshit. But obviously if that is the case they will tell you and you will have to decide. Most of us understand that most writers are approaching multiple agents.
  • Tell the other agents that you have interest and could they get back to you in a week or two.
  • Have conversations with all interested parties, better yet come to NYC and meet them if at all possible.
  • Don’t drag it out – agents don’t mind waiting, but nobody likes to be jerked around.

Anyway, Anonymous, don’t forget to write and tell us how you make out. Way cool.

Is It Soup Yet?

A writer from New Hampshire asks: how do I know when my novel is finished?

Dear Live Free or Die:

Poke it with a fork and see if the juices run clear.

It’s a really tough question. I don’t have any answers, just some guidelines. First, whenever it is you think are “done,” put it away for a month. A whole month, and then look at it again. You just might gain some perspective for starting the revision process.

Get feedback. Give it to three or four readers (not anyone you’re sleeping with, or the person who gave birth to you). Sometimes a writer will tell me that all of his readers had different opinions and now she’s more confused than ever. I think that indicates that the writer has yet to control the story, has not yet gotten his readers where he wants them: in the palm of his hand. If all your readers tell you that the ending doesn’t work, it probably doesn’t work. If everyone hates a certain character, you need to develop that character more deeply so that we come to love his or her flaws.

Also, if you have a nagging suspicion that it’s not quite there, it’s not quite there. I think a lot of people write without being completely certain what it is they are trying to say, the writing itself is a kind of reckoning or awakening or grappling with. But when you think it’s done, you should have some clear idea of what it is you wanted to say. What is the operating metaphor? One of my favorite quotes (paraphrased here) is by Bernard Malamud who said he wrote the first draft to get it out, the second to improve the prose, and the third draft to compel it to say what it still needed to say.

Then, I gather, it’s done.