Title: Untitled

Titles are a funny thing. The good ones intrigue book browsers, grab attention, and are memorable. The best ones describe a whole book in a few words. (Some, on the other hand, are not as clever.) And so it’s normal that writers spend a lot of time stressing over giving their manuscript the very most intriguing, grabby, memorable title.

However, from this side of the table, I gotta say, titles are about the least important part of the work I’m considering. Yeah, it’s nice to be catchy in a query. But I’d estimate about eight times out of ten (four out of five, then), a title changes, sometimes multiple times, before it hits shelves. In at least one case, I’ve seen a title change after it was published.

Even if a title doesn’t change, it’s almost always part of a discussion at some point in the editorial process. So when writers and clients ask me what I think of their title, the truth is that I generally think of all titles as “working titles” until they are printed on jackets. It’s not something I focus on in critiques or edits, unless I think it’s wildly inaccurate or misleading. But as part of the query process, it’s not a make-or-break aspect. Make it as good as you can, but also know it may change a dozen times, and then a couple more.

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Let’s Talk about Stet, Baby

Or, revision in general, really, is what I want to hit on. Because no one really teaches us how to do it, and it’s the most important part of writing.

Because what is it, really? You’ve already “finished” your novel, so maybe revisions are just about moving commas around and changing some dialogue and maybe cutting a paragraph or line here and there. Yes. It’s those things. And it’s SO MUCH MORE.

Here’s the analogy I like to use: Your book is a house you built out of Legos. Your editor looks at it, and tells you there are some things missing or not working, and hands you over a whole new pile of Legos. Your job isn’t to stick the new bricks all over the outside of what you’ve already built. That’s not going to fix anything, really, and in most cases will make things worse. Your job is to completely take apart what you’ve built to incorporate the new stuff. Not all of it will fit, and some of what you’ve already got will have to go to make way for the new pieces, but in the end, the whole structure will be stronger and more aesthetically pleasing.

Often when I’m doing face to face critiques, I’ll tell a writer something that their manuscript needs and they will point to the printout and say “where should I put that?” as though I’ve told them their room needs and end table, to extend the house metaphor. And that’s when I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t fully grasp revision. I can’t tell you what to put where to fix things, because it’s not that easy. As the writer, you must consider the new pieces and think about shifting things around to make it work as a whole.

And you may have to do it 3 or 4 times before you submit your work to an agent. And then you might have to do it 2 or 3 times before your agent sends it out. And then you’ll have to do it 3 or 4 or 8 times with your editor. And all of that renovating is before the line editing, where you finally get to move commas and tweak dialogue (painting and floor waxing and choosing fixtures). And after that is copyediting (dusting and vacuuming and filling vases with fresh flowers before company comes over). And only then do you get to say “stet”.

After all, Rome, or houses, or Lego houses, weren’t built in a day.

My Mantra

I have a simple mantra I use at work that helps tip me to a decision: Maybe is no.

It may sound a little harsh, but hear me out. I see dozens and dozens of submissions, and in between, I critique manuscripts for conferences and hear pitches. Most of those are no (because they have to be) and a very few are yes. The rest, I’m afraid, are maybes. And maybe is ultimately Not Yes.

I struggled for a long time with the maybes. Seeing the potential in something that isn’t all the way there yet, or not close enough, anyway, is hard. I get excited when I read things that could be good if only they…I have spent cumulative weeks of my career hemming and hawing over the maybes. And 99% of the time, it’s just wheel-spinning.

Sometimes there is a very exciting maybe-plus. And those do get some extra-attention, usually in the form of an invitation to revise and resubmit. Some days I wish I could work with all the maybes to get them to yes. But unless what comes back is a YES DEFINITELY, it’s still a maybe, and maybe is no.

Too Many Cooks!

I’m doing a webinar in a couple of weeks about how to be a great critique partner (hey, it’s my blog, so I can self-promote all I want), and as I prepare, I keep coming back to a side point.

Having friends/your writing group/beta readers/classmates read your work is invaluable. Getting outside opinions can help get through those rough patches, or fix that plot hole, or round out flat characters. But having too many readers, or having readers too early, can make a potentially rich stew into yesterday’s oatmeal. The problem is not having the work critiqued, it’s having the work over-critiqued. Too many cooks spoil the manuscript.

I sometimes get queries accompanied by a litany of other editors and agents who’ve offered up their opinions on the work, and those I read with trepidation. You know how in art class when you’re learning to mix colors, and you add in one too many and it all turns to an indescribable shade of poo? That happens with editorial opinions, too. Too many dull the edges instead of sharpening. (Mix metaphors! I don’t care!)

Something I’ve noticed of late is that many manuscripts (and books) seem to fit the same mold. Nothing really stands out loud and proud. I can’t say for sure why this is happening, but it seems to be a symptom of writers trying to incorporate too many opinions too soon. If a manuscript is critiqued after only one draft, how does the writer have the time to find that bold, weird, singular voice and style before the group steers them to a safer place? How can a story take a bizarre, unexpected turn if the hive-mind wants a predictable path?

Consider this both a warning and an encouraging hug. Write the story. Write the whole story. Let it consume you, and then rewrite it and feel brave in your weird ideas. Don’t listen to your inner critic, and by all means, finish it before you share it with your outer critics. But like, truly finish it. Don’t start asking for opinions before it’s done. And for the love of cayenne pepper, be bold about your work. Stand proudly in it instead of meekly offering it up.

You don’t start a stew and invite your friends over to season it in the middle. You serve it to them when you think it’s perfect. And if they have opinions, you take some and you leave some and maybe it comes out better next time. As that old earhanger says, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

Expectations

I’ve noticed something over the course of the years that writers do. I didn’t really think about it until I was watching Ruby on The Great British Bake Off. Remember how she always took her bakes up to the judges and went “Oh, it’s just dreadful, isn’t it?”

And then they’d be all, “Ruby, you’re mental. This is delicious and beautiful.”

And she’d be all, “Really?”

So many times, I open my inbox to find a revision I’ve been waiting for (yay!) and it’s filled with a couple of paragraphs of what’s wrong with it (boooo!). Or it’s the complete opposite. It’s a revision or draft of something I’ve been waiting for (yay!) filled with all the praise beta-readers and critique partners have sprinkled all over it (booo!).

(I mean, none of MY clients do these things. I just want to clarify that point. My clients are all perfect.)

How could either of those things be bad? In the first case, the writer is giving me a heads up on what to look for, what they think might not be working yet and would like a hand with. In the second scenario, they are feeling pretty good about things and isn’t that also important to know?

So let’s address that first part: what’s the matter with someone telling me where the dents might be that they need help un-denting? Well, my first thought is usually, “Why didn’t you fix it if you know it needs fixing?” But also, and maybe bigger, I now have things in mind to look for, so I can’t read with a truly clean slate. If this draft or revision is from someone I know, generally we’ve spoken about what needed attention. I have some things in mind to keep an eye out for. But now I’m looking for different things, and instead of just feeling the bumps when they come along, I’m looking for them and anticipating them and way more focused on them than I might normally be.

So what’s wrong with the other way? Why shouldn’t you tell me that expert reader #1 thinks this draft is shining and perfect and whole? Two reasons: If I don’t agree, then I think your expert reader might not be the genius I was led to believe and that’s just unfair of you to taint their reputation. [insert winky face here] But moreover, I start to read with the attitude of “I’ll be the judge of that” and that’s a dangerous place for your reader to begin. If I don’t think the draft is glowing perfection, I may wonder whether we’re on the same page regarding glowing perfection.

When you set expectations, either low or high, you’re not allowing the reader to come at it with clear vision for a pure reading experience. And isn’t that the whole point of asking another person to read it?

It’s totally fine if, after I’ve read it, you think I’ve missed something huge and you say “did you notice the thing I thought was a big problem?” I might say yes and we can discuss, or I might say no, and it’s not an issue and we can move on to other things.

It’s not always possible to pass on a draft silently, and it’s probably never easy. The urge to explain changes is powerful. But 99% of the time, if you can simply say, “Here it is,” without setting expectations, you’ll get a better read from an agent or editor.

Too Soon!

Oh, the excitement of a manuscript request! An agent or editor has shown interest in the work you’ve labored over for so long and nothing could be better! But instead of the contract you were hoping for, they send editorial notes for revision.

The best thing you can do, while you have their interest, is to dash off your edits as quickly as possible and make sure all their questions are answered before they forget about you, right? Preferably overnight, and no more than three days, yeah?

SUPER LOUD NO.

I hear from editors and agents all the time who spend days, weeks, possibly even months, reading and considering a manuscript, thinking hard about ways in which to fix it.  And then a writer turns around and sends it back in less than a week. Pub pros, can I get a collective AAARGH?

This is frustrating for a few reasons, but here are my top two:

  1. It seems like you haven’t spent any time digesting my notes, or letting my ideas simmer and gel with your ideas. I cannot believe you’ve made the most thoughtful revision in a day or two. I’m glad you’re eager, but I’m bummed that you’re not being careful.
  1. Once something is off my desk, I’ve breathed a sigh of “done!” and moved on to other things. So when that thing appears again immediately, it’s like those effing birthday candles you can’t blow out. Just like I want you to spend some time apart from your manuscript to be able to approach it with fresh eyes, my eyes also need freshening. Plus the 50 other things I’m working on also need my attention.

I’ll paraphrase every writer ever: There is no writing, only rewriting.

Nothing brilliant is dashed off in an hour. You may want something to be finished, but more, you need to want it to be perfect. I’m a firm believer in putting a draft away for a week or two before digging back in. Let yourself forget what’s in there, and take the time to imagine how your story will look with new ideas implemented before putting fingers to keys. And if you think what you wrote in the last hour is gorgeous flawlessness, put it away for a week. You might find some flaws when you return. Revise. And then sit quietly and twiddle your thumbs for a bit. Then re-read and revise again. Then read out loud to your cat and revise again. THEN send it back.

Agents and editors aren’t going to forget you. You’re not going to lose the attention of a truly interested pro if you take the time to write smartly and considerately.

Let your email garner a “Yay, it’s here!” instead of a groan of “But I just sent those no-ho-hooootes.”