Tag Archives: writing

The Ban on Adverbs

DandelionsWhen I first got involved in the writing side of the publishing industry, in 2012, I soon heard a mantra of sorts: Never Use Adverbs. Having been an editor for a dozen years before that, it struck me as one of the most arbitrary and useless rules I’d heard. Today, I at least understand how the ban on adverbs got started, even if I don’t agree with it.

What’s interesting to me is that many of the so-called rules that some novelists live by are not the same rules as those their editors profess. In fact, they are often at odds with each other. A writer might say, “Never start a sentence with a conjunction.” An editor will say, “That rule has gone by the wayside, and thank goodness. Clarity is more important.”

The uncompromising ban on adverbs is another such rule that editors are unlikely to support. It is famously summed up in a quote from the author of On Writing:

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. —Stephen King

He goes on to liken adverbs to dandelions, saying one is pretty but soon your lawn is taken over by them, so you must get rid of all of them.

And that right there is the problem. We cannot rid our writing of an entire category of words. We can use them sparingly, because one is pretty but a hundred are not; however, there is no reason to give them up entirely. It isn’t even possible to achieve. (Full disclosure: I once gave my mother a bouquet of dandelions. She loved it.)

Now that I have edited more new writers and seen just what a field of dandelions an author is able to grow, I understand the temptation to throw them all out and just say no, don’t use adverbs. Some writers sprinkle every sentence with two or three adverbs when the sentence would be stronger without even one.

Quickly rounding the bend and hurriedly entering the dining room, I found the decorator busily arranging the centerpiece on the beautifully laid table.

It’s easier to live by an all-or-nothing rule and cut all adverbs always. But easier isn’t always better. I have seen several manuscripts in which the author bent over backward to avoid an adverb and it left me scratching my head.

I rounded the bend at a fast pace and entered the dining room in a hurry to find the decorator arranging the centerpiece at a fast clip on the table laid with beautiful decorations.

To me, moderation is key to all things in life — even adverbs. Adverbs help writers to express how someone is feeling or the manner in which an action was done. They intensify adjectives and tell readers when and where an event took place. Yes, weak adverbs abound, but they aren’t all weak. Some are tantalizing. And even the weak ones can be useful at times.

I sped around the bend and entered the dining room to find the decorator hastily arranging the centerpieces. The decorations were lovely. Beautiful in fact.

So cut your adverbs freely, make sure that each one has earned its place in your writing, but please, do not weed them all out. Writing benefits from diversity and decoration. A ban on adverbs eliminates that.

PerfectBound by Katherine PickettLike this blog? Find more advice and insights in the award-winning book Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Left Bank Books, and other fine retailers

10 Key Questions for Evaluating Your Book’s Competition

So much invaluable information about what is and is not already available, what the industry conventions are, and how you can make your book better than anything else on the market, can be gleaned from the competing titles in your area of writing. This is part of the planning that goes into creating a high-quality book.

Photo courtesy of douceurs d'etre, http://www.flickr.com/photos/midstofliving/.
Photo courtesy of douceurs d’etre, http://www.flickr.com/photos/midstofliving/.

Nevertheless, researching the competition can be overwhelming. As you sort through Amazon listings, print editions, and ebooks, you may begin to ask yourself, “What is it I’m  looking for again?” The following 10 key questions will help you remain focused while you evaluate your competition.

1. How does the author’s writing style compare to yours?

This doesn’t have to be a question of whose writing style is better — although that can be a factor. The point here is that you can set yourself apart by showcasing your own writing style. A different writing style may appeal to a different audience, one that is still looking for what you are providing. Thorough editing can help.

2. Is the book an appropriate length for the target readers?

When thinking about length, you must consider the attention span and sophistication of your readers.  Are all of your competing titles around the same length? By matching the competition, you can be sure you are meeting your readers’ expectations. By departing from the norm, you can perhaps provide a more comprehensive, or conversely, a more accessible, volume.

3. Is the plot or argument fully explored and explained? Is it compelling?

The answers to several of the questions in this list can be gleaned without actually reading the competition. Not so for this question. You need to know what is in the book. Read critically to see what’s missing that you can provide. In nonfiction, the table of contents will speed this process. With fiction, you have to read, read, read.

4. In nonfiction works and children’s books, are there enough special elements such as boxes, charts, and illustrations to keep the reader interested?

Flip through the pages. Are there special elements that make the book more accessible and easier to get into? Are there so many special features that the reader is overwhelmed or the book feels cluttered? The right balance here depends on the topic and genre in which you are writing. Based on what you know about your audience, does your competition strike that balance? What can you emulate? What can you do better?

5. What is the quality of the artwork? Is there too much or too little?

Not all books have artwork — the industry term for illustrations, photographs, and line drawings. Should yours? Can you use artwork to set your book apart? If the competition doesn’t include any, that might be a place for you to excel. If the competition does have artwork, you might be able to make yours better (e.g., higher quality, easier to understand). If the competition includes illustrations and you weren’t planning  on having any, you may want to reconsider your plan so that you can stay even with your competitors.

6. Are any appendixes, references, endnotes, or a glossary included?

Some books benefit from extensive supplementary material. Is yours one? Again, if the competition is providing these types of value-added features, you should consider doing the same. If they aren’t, that may be a way for you to enhance your offering. Although these more obviously apply to nonfiction books, some fiction — especially sci-fi and fantasy — can employ these features to great effect.

7. Is there an index?

Indexes are specific to nonfiction, but they come in many shapes and sizes. You can have a subject index or a name index, or both. You can have an exhaustive 25-page index or a simple 8-page index. Or you can have none at all. Depending on the topic of your book, your readers might expect a certain type of index. You can learn this by looking at the competition. You should plan to give your readers what they expect.

8. What kind of front matter — such as a preface, introduction, time line, list of illustrations, list of characters, or map — is provided?

Similar to question 6, the more features you offer in your book, the more value you can add for your reader. You have to be selective about what is appropriate for your genre and topic, but that is just the kind of information you can learn from reviewing the competition. Note that both fiction and nonfiction can benefit from well-prepared, creative front matter.

9. What angle does the competition take? Who is the audience?

This question gets to the heart of finding a niche. What angles do your competitors cover in regards to your topic, and more important, what is being ignored? From whose perspective is the story or argument told? Is there an audience segment that is not being reached? By delving into the uncharted territory, you can make your book a great resource of entertainment and/or knowledge for a new group of readers.

10. Does the book educate or entertain? Is it enjoyable?

Virtually every book has some competition; most books today have quite a bit of it. But how many of those books are enjoyable to read? No matter the topic, reading a book can and should be rewarding. What are you going to do to make sure your book is enjoyable? Solid writing and editing go a long way in creating a pleasant experience for your readers.

Bonus Question: Is the competition selling?

Although the first 10 questions here are excellent for keeping your head on straight while reading and reviewing your competing titles, there is one more question to consider. As you look at the competition for your book, can you determine how much of a market there is for your book idea? Where do your competitors rank on the Amazon bestseller lists? Is the market burgeoning or glutted? Publishing the best possible book you can is of utmost importance. Making sure there are people willing to purchase that book is a close second.

Perfect BoundLike this blog? Find more advice and insights in Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Left Bank Books, and other fine retailers

Copyright Tips and Tidbits: How and When to Register, How to Format Your Notice, and What Not to Do

Self-publishers, take note: While it’s true that you hold an inherent copyright to your work just for the fact that you wrote it, should anyone try to infringe on your copyright you will be best served by registering with the US Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). That may sound intimidating, but it is actually a fairly straightforward process.

How to Register

Start by going to the US Copyright Office website. The Copyright Office accepts both online and paper applications, and the applications come with easy-to-understand instructions. The filing fee (as of 2015) is $35 for online registration and $85 for hard copy.

In addition to the application and the filing fee, you will be asked to provide a copy of the “deposit” — what the Copyright Office calls the work to be registered. If you file electronically you can send an electronic file or a hard copy of your work; file with paper and you  have to send a hard copy. (The Copyright Office prefers online applications, but you are not bound by that.)

When to Register

You can register your book either before or after publication. Although simple, it can be a lengthy process, as getting the certificate can take nearly three months for the electronic application and nearly six months for paper applications. During particularly busy times, those lags can be even longer.

The good news is, unless you have reason to believe you will not be granted copyright, you don’t have to wait until you receive your certificate before publishing the work. The date of registration is the date the office receives the completed application, not the date you receive your certificate. Still, copyright registration is not something you want to let slip through the cracks. I would recommend beginning earlier rather than later.

Upon publication, if you have a print book, submit a hard copy to be held in the Library of Congress.

What Not to Include

When you apply for copyright, you are making a public record. That means anyone can view the information you supply. The Copyright Office website offers this pointed advice:

Personally identifying information, such as your address, telephone number, and email address, that is submitted on the registration application becomes part of the public record. Some information will be viewable in the Copyright Office’s on‑line databases that are available on the Internet. For this reason, you should provide only the information requested. Please do NOT provide any additional personal information that is not requested, such as your social security number or your driver’s license number.

As identity theft is a real problem in this country, heeding this advice only makes sense.

How and Where Your Copyright Notice Should Appear

Your copyright notice belongs on the reverse of the title page in your book. A valid copyright notice includes the word “Copyright” or the symbol “©”; the year of registration; and the copyright holder’s name, in that order:  © 2015 Katherine Pickett

Some publishers choose to use both the word and the symbol for copyright as well as the word “by” — Copyright © 2015 by Katherine Pickett — but that is not required.

Pitfall: Preregistration vs. Registration

The Copyright Office provides the option of “preregistration” for works that have not yet been completed. (Important: This is separate from registration of unpublished works.) The fee for preregistration is a whopping $140. I suspect this fee is intended to be a deterrent, as even the Copyright Office notes that preregistration is not helpful for most people. Rather, preregistration is recommended only for those who meet these two criteria:

  1. You think it is likely someone will infringe on your copyright before the work is made public, and
  2. The work isn’t finished.

Note also that even if you preregister, you will still need to go through the registration process. Except in extreme circumstances, you will most likely want to register your work rather than preregister it.

 

Like this blog? Find more advice and insights in Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Left Bank Books, and other retailers

Beta Readers Aren’t Editors; Editors Aren’t Beta Readers

If you have spent any time in the writing community over the past five to ten years, you’ve probably heard about beta readers. These are unpaid people who read your manuscript and give you feedback. The type, quality, and extent of feedback you receive depends on the readers you have enlisted to help you. Editors, of course, are professionally trained and educated to correct a wide range of problems in a manuscript to get it ready for publication. Although beta readers can greatly enhance the revision process, they do not replace editors. Similarly, an editor should not be thought of as a paid beta reader.

Beta Readers Are Not Beta BitsEditors

The feedback you get from your beta readers can be hugely helpful for identifying and resolving problems with plot, characterization, pacing, or a weak argument. These readers give you the opportunity to share your work and find out how it strikes the average reader. They do not usually make the corrections the way an editor will, but rather offer suggestions for you to implement. When you choose your readers, I recommend finding a range of people with differing skills and backgrounds so that you get a well-rounded view of your manuscript.

There are a number of sources for finding beta readers — critique groups, colleagues, writing partners, people you connect with via Goodreads or a Facebook group, among other places. Each will have something different to offer, and you will need to assess and evaluate their critiques individually to determine what feedback to accept and what to reject. These people are not professionals; they are simply giving you their opinions as to how you can improve your writing.

Some authors think that if they get enough beta readers, they can skip editing. This is generally not true. In the case of really good readers and a talented writer, the beta-reading stage can lessen or eliminate the need for a developmental editor. As mentioned, beta readers may uncover big-picture issues such as an inconsistent timeline, poor pacing, poor organization, or unrelateable characters, and the author may be able to address and resolve these problems on their own.

However, unless one of your readers is a professional editor who has done a complete line edit on your manuscript, you will still need a copyeditor at some point. If you find a publisher, the publisher may take care of the copyediting; if you self-publish, you will need to arrange the editing yourself. (For guidance on how to do this without getting taken, see my series of posts How to Hire a Freelance Editor in 5 Easy Steps.)

Employing beta readers in your writing journey is an excellent idea that can save you time and money. It is essential, however, that you know the limits of what such readers can do for your manuscript.

red penEditors Are Not Beta Readers

One major benefit beta readers do offer is a fresh set of eyes when a  writer feels she has taken the manuscript as far as she can on her own. Perhaps this is why some authors seem to think of their editor as a paid beta reader. Again, that is incorrect and may lead to problems.

In most cases, an editor should not be the first person you share your work with. You can go that route, but you can likely save yourself some money — potentially, a lot of money — if you get the outside, free opinion of beta readers first. Find out what average readers think and get the manuscript nailed down as much as possible on your own before investing in editing. Editing is expensive, and the more refinement you do on your own, the less you will have to pay someone else to do. (Read this article for more thoughts on this topic.)

Beyond that, working with an editor is different from working with beta readers. For instance, editors need a certain level of understanding about what it is you are trying to achieve with your book so that they can help you achieve it. Whereas you may want your beta readers to approach the manuscript with no preconceived notions, editing is more efficient — and better — when there aren’t a lot of surprises. So if your book has a twist at the end and you aren’t sure it’s working, you will get to the solution faster if you tell your editor what you suspect. It means revealing the twist, but that’s OK. If you aren’t sure it’s working, your editor can keep that in mind while she reads. If she agrees, she can then let you know why it isn’t working and how to improve it.

In addition, the corrections and suggested changes you receive from your editor deserve more weight than those of a traditional beta reader.  With both editors and beta readers, you as the author have to decide whether the changes further your vision for the book. However, professional editors have years of experience and training in their field, and if they see a problem, it’s likely other readers will too. If they have changed your grammar, punctuation, and syntax, it likely was incorrect. If they have suggested ways to strengthen your argument, you likely need to address that problem.

That does not mean you need to take every suggested change from your editor, but you should make an educated decision. If you don’t know why a change was made, ask for an explanation before overriding your editor. Assuming you have vetted your editor (see step 2 of How to Hire a Freelance Editor in 5 Easy Steps), you know you have chosen someone with the credentials to help you make your book the best it can be. Avoid negating that expertise by ignoring your editor’s feedback.

Beta readers aren’t editors. They don’t have the training, the experience, or the expertise. And editors aren’t beta readers. They want to get to the solution as fast as possible, and that means revealing aspects of the manuscript you may be hesitant to reveal to a general reader. Beta readers offer opinions; editors offer a professional’s perspective. Each of these roles has something to offer writers on their journey. For best results, do not confuse the two.

 

Like this blog? Find more advice and insights in Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Left Bank Books, and other retailers.

Mompreneur: Writing and Publishing a Book with a Babe in Arms

In December 2012, when I was six months’ pregnant, I began writing a book. In a rare aligning of the stars, three of my scheduled editing projects were pushed back a month, and I found myself with some time on my hands. I had been kicking around the idea of writing a book to help new authors understand the book editing and publishing process so that they could avoid costly mistakes, and the opportunity to actually follow through on that had just presented itself.

The idea was that the book would benefit my clients and other writers while at the same time helping me to grow my established editing company. I had given some well-attended workshops on the same topic, and I knew that there were new and aspiring authors who needed this information. I set to work pouring all of my ideas onto paper. I knew the baby was coming soon enough, and I think being pregnant made me all the more determined. I completed my first draft in a little over three months; it took another 12 to finish my revisions.

After some exploration of my options, I concluded that self-publishing was the way to go for this niche project, and to increase the book’s chances of success, my husband and I decided to start a publishing company.  In March 2014, with our infant daughter at the babysitter’s, my husband and I drove to the offices of the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation in Baltimore and officially formed Hop On Publishing LLC. This was a definite complication that we did not have to undertake, but given the glut of self-published books vying for attention, we wanted to let our readers and reviewers know that we were serious about making a high-quality book. Taking this extra step to demonstrate our professionalism was worth the additional work and expense.

Proud of my page proofs
Proud of my page proofs

Our first book, Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, releases September 1. The book has received great advance reviews, we have a number of promotional events lined up, and we are excited about all that is possible.

That’s the “preneur” part. The “mom” part wasn’t so easy.

Although I was able to get a first draft completed before the baby was born, revisions were squeezed in during nap time and after the little one went to bed. Middle-of-the-night feedings were brainstorming sessions for chapter titles and cover ideas. I relied heavily on my husband to keep the house running when I had a full day of work and a full night of rewrites. Adding writing to my busy editing schedule set my work-life balance off-kilter, and I struggled with how much time this project was keeping me away from my new baby.

But when I think about the story of how this book and this company came to fruition, I also think of how proud my little girl will be when she realizes what I have accomplished. She might be 25 years old before she understands what it takes to write and publish a book, not to mention the added challenges of doing so with an infant in the house, but that’s OK with me.

What may be most notable is that I almost certainly would not have embarked on this adventure if I had waited until my daughter was born. Rather, I feel I hit the sweet spot. I built up just enough momentum while I was pregnant to keep me writing through the baby’s first several months of life, and at not quite 18 months, she is much more self-sufficient now, allowing us to charge full-tilt into marketing mode.

As we consider the possibility of growing our family, my husband and I have joked about what my next book would be to go along with a new baby. Just the thought of it makes me sweat. Although I can’t say I would ever again write and publish a book with a newborn at home, I can say I wouldn’t have done it differently this time around.

IMG_2238

Like this blog? Check out Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Left Bank Books, and other retailers.

 

“There’s Nothing Else Like It”: Why Researching Your Competition Is Essential to Publishing Success

When I ask potential clients about their projects, I often hear, “This is a completely new idea. There is nothing else like it.” This statement brings two thoughts to my mind:

  1. I bet there is something like it, you just haven’t identified it yet.
  2. If there really is nothing like it, why would that be?

Answering both of these points requires thorough knowledge of what your competitors are doing.

To Identify the Competition, You Have to Look for It

Before you determine that there are no other books on the market like yours, be sure you have done an extensive search for competing titles. There are many resources for this: Amazon.com, other online and physical bookstores, Books in Print (from R.R. Bowker), city and university libraries, and more.

Most people begin online. To help make your search as thorough as possible, generate a long list of keywords that relate to your book. You can start with the words in your working title (or titles) and move out from there. You may wish to use one of the many keyword generators now available online, such as Google’s Keyword Planner  or WordStream, to help you. Plug these keywords into Amazon.com, BN.com, Books in Print, and any other searchable book database and note the titles that come up. These are your potential competitors.

Although it may seem passé, actually going to the bookstore can also be a big help in your research. Many less popular books don’t show up in online searches, and what you do find online is dictated by the keywords you select. If you miss the right keyword, you could be missing important competitors. So go to the nearest bookstore, find the section of the store most likely to carry your book, and note those books that target your audience.

As you search, keep in mind that you want to find both direct competition and comparable books — those books that are similar in setup but covering a different topic. If you are writing a children’s nonfiction science book on tuberculosis, for example, your competition would be other books on tuberculosis aimed at kids. Your comparables would include children’s nonfiction science books on other illnesses.

Researching the competition can be tricky. Ideally you will find at least a few books like your idea (to show there is a market for it), but not so many that it becomes clear the market is glutted.*

Comparables in particular are great for determining the size and makeup of the market you are trying to reach. When someone says there is nothing else like their book, often it is because they have not reviewed the comparables.

Still Think There Is Nothing Else Like It?

If you have carried out a thorough search of all the books that might be competing with yours and you still can’t find anything that matches your vision, you may have a problem. Now you have to ask yourself, why hasn’t anyone else written a book like yours? Is there no market for it, or have you identified a niche to be filled?

Niche is great for self-publishing because you can reach a small segment of the population that traditional publishers don’t want to bother with. If you are hoping to be traditionally published, however, you may need to expand your idea or conform to the competition. To do that, you have to know what the competition has done.

Now why would a writer want to conform, you ask?

(c) Kara Harms
(c) Kara Harms

Although there is benefit in being one of a kind, it is also true that readers don’t like to be too surprised. Fresh ideas, a new approach, a revolutionary solution to an old problem — these are all well accepted by readers. But if you look carefully you will see that most often, these new approaches and fresh ideas are couched in the comfortable and the familiar. Readers need to be put at ease before they are willing to accept change.

This is as true for fiction as it is for nonfiction. Even if you take one of the most revolutionary novels around — One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, beloved writer of magical realism — you will discover the book is really just a family saga, told over several generations and including major and minor life events. It is the way it is told that is so extraordinary. If Garcia Marquez had challenged every convention, the book would have been so difficult to read he would have alienated his readers. Instead, he balanced the predictable with the unpredictable to create an astounding work of fiction.

Successful publication of a book requires you to know your competition. Before you go touting your book as something the likes of which no one has ever seen, be sure you have searched high and low for competitors as well as comparables. There is a lot to be learned from competing books — including how you can make your book conform to reader expectations while excelling far beyond what the competition is offering.

*Glutted. I just realized the root of glutted is the same as gluttony. I love etymology!

Like this blog? Check out Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Left Bank Books, and other retailers.

Save Your Reputation: Edit Your Writing and Hire Pros When Needed

It might not be clear to all aspiring authors that their reputation is at stake with everything they put out into the world. A typo in a cover letter, a small factual error in a novel, a few misspelled words in a short story — who will notice? Who will care?

The truth is, although many people won’t be bothered by little errors here and there, enough people will be, and it is often these people who are the most vocal or are in a position of power.

The repercussions can include having your query to an agent dismissed, your short story rejected from a literary mag, or your novel blasted on Amazon and Goodreads. Unfortunately, you won’t get a second chance with an agent, and those online reviews never go away. Furthermore, once your reputation is tainted, it can be a major feat to get it back.

The ease with which a writer can become published via an e-book has magnified this problem. With an e-book, you can bypass every other kind of publishing professional, upload your first draft to Smashwords, KDP, or any number of other e-book sites, and — voila — in 24 hours you have an e-book. There are no gatekeepers and no one to save you from yourself. You can put out a low-quality product and ruin your reputation as a writer with the click of a button.

Don’t let this happen to you. Take matters into your own hands and shore up your reputation by producing the highest-quality writing you can. Here’s how:

  1. Perform thorough self-editing. There are lots of tricks to this. You can read my take on it here.
  2. Work with beta readers. Belinda Pollard has a nice article cleverly titled “How to Find a Beta Reader” with some helpful tips.
  3. Hire a professional editor. Editors abound. Find a good one to help you with whatever kind of writing you do.
  4. If you are self-publishing, hire a professional designer to help with layout or, at the very least, buy a template from Joel Friedlander.

While the professional design won’t help with textual errors, it will help your reputation. When you are self-publishing, anything you can do  to improve the appearance of your book will also improve your perceived professionalism and, therefore, your reputation.

Given how difficult it is to get noticed as a writer, the one thing you have to rely on is your reputation. Respect, integrity, professionalism, follow-through — no kidding, good editing can help you demonstrate all of these important characteristics through your writing. Mind your reputation from the beginning so that you do not have to fight to get it back.

Like this blog? Check out Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Left Bank Books, and other retailers.