Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Verb's the Word

I don’t even know if they still teach parts of speech in grade school anymore, but back in the dark ages when I attended public school it was required learning. Back then they taught me that sentences were all about the noun and the verb, with everything else cast as helpers. And sometimes, those other words don’t help at all. But as a person selecting books for publication, and getting my own work out there, I can say that one of the best ways to upgrade your writing is to upgrade your verbs.

Genre fiction is almost always about the action, one way or another, and that’s what verbs represent. The subject of each sentence, the main noun, is pretty much fixed. How you describe what that person, place or thing is doing is the difference between an interesting statement and a boring one.

The easiest and least interesting verbs to use are forms of the verb to be. You know… it is, you are, they were, etc. Those words simply denote existence, and are almost always the worst choice.

Likewise there are the most common terms for movement that have dozens of cooler synonyms. Like go, for instance.  Sure he went home, and maybe he walked home (better) but he could have run, skipped, raced, sauntered, wandered or found his way home in several other ways. He hit the ball but he could have slammed it, whacked it, clobbered it, smashed it… you get the idea.

Here’s a short paragraph I’ve stolen and re-written from a recent submission we received:

A crystal chandelier was overhead and below, the tile floor was black and white.  Fresh sunflowers sat on a tea table in the center and beyond it an oak banister went up a marble treaded staircase. She went from this to Barlow’s I thought, she sure as hell wanted out.

Now that is perfectly serviceable prose, and delivers the message – it’s real nice here but she ran away anyway. BUT here’s what the author really wrote:

A crystal chandelier hung above my head and a black and white tiled floor flowed before me. A tea table in the center held fresh sunflowers and beyond it an oak banister led the way up a marble treaded staircase. From this to Barlow’s I thought, she sure as hell wanted out.

I hope you can feel the difference. This is not purple prose, not flowery or wordy. But by choosing better verbs she has made the descriptive passage much more inviting.

So after you’ve laid down your first draft go back and stare at every verb to see if a stronger one is available. This will also help you to eliminate adverbs (helpers that don’t really help your writing) and even prompt you to occasionally slip in a better noun. SO, did she speak softly, or did she whisper? Did the light shine brightly or did it glimmer? And did you write that passage succinctly or did you compose some terse, pithy prose?  

Sunday, July 24, 2016


In May of 2012 my two partners and I officially incorporated - we formed Intrigue Publishing LLC and nothing has been the same since. Going into business changed not only our lives but the lives of the dozen authors we have signed contracts with (aside from me of course.) It is amazing how much has changed in that time.

We started with a focus on four genres and that hasn't changed, but received submissions have varied a lot. We've gotten a mountain of crime fiction manuscripts and published a few. Death and White Diamonds has won two conference awards so far. Likewise, we've seen a pretty good stack of Young Adult tales and put some fine ones out. I can't explain why Girl Z: My Life as a Teenage Zombie (our content editor's favorite Intrigue book to date) is not a best seller. It's a fabulous, well written tale. On the other hand the equally wonderful Y-A The Boy Who Knew Too Much won an award at the Love is Murder Writers Conference. 

On the other hand, we have yet to receive a contemporary drama manuscript we like enough to put out there next to B. Swangin Webster's Let Me Just Say This and its sequel, Let Me Say This Again. And we had been in business for three years before we got a romance we loved enough to publish. This fall Center Courtship and The Inheritance will explode onto the scene (at least, I think they will.) In all the genres we cover, we are determined to publish Writing That Can't Be Ignored.

We went into this business thinking we'd move a ton of ebooks and that if we called enough bookstores we could get our books onto the shelves one store at a time. Ebook sales have not been what we expected but now we have an arrangement with Small Press United (a subsidiary of Independent Publishers Group) who have people who call bookstores to get books onto shelves. We've recently been able to pay someone to call bookstores to set up book signings, allowing us to put new authors on limited, local tours. Liza Brown, author of Center Courtship, already has three book events  - two at Barnes and Nobles stores - for her book which we will release September 15.

From the beginning we have sent books to all the major reviewers hoping they'd notice us. It has been a steep hill but we've made progress bit by bye. The aforementioned Center Courtship is our first title accepted for review at Publishers Weekly. BTW, Jacqueline Seewald, author of The Inheritance, has previously been reviewed by PW so we're optimistic about a repeat.

From the start we have endeavored to behave like the big guys: pay advances and royalties, promote our authors, work to sell other rights, publish award winning books, etc. So far, I think we've earned a reputation as a legitimate, professional and author-friendly house. I'm probably inordinately proud of that.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Windup… And The Pitch

As I write this I’m halfway through a great weekend at the Public Safety Writers Assoc. Conference. I’m here as both a writer AND publisher, so I have had the pleasure of taking pitches from other writers. Some of those pitches were excellent, but on a panel I was asked what makes a good pitch. Since it’s fresh in my mind, I’ll share that information here too.

First, please don’t bring a manuscript. Or a printed synopsis. Or anything else for me to read. You want me listening to you, not reading while you talk. In fact, there’s no need to hand me anything except a business card if you have one.

It’s good to start with your elevator pitch. That’s something you should already have in your arsenal – a 30-second response to the question, “What’s your book about?” It’s the plot of your novel, boiled down to its basic essence. And don’t read to me. You should know your own book well enough to lay it out for me. Do practice what you want to say. You should be able to do this in a relaxed manner without stumbling and stuttering.

Next, tell me the basics I want to know to eliminate the most obvious possible objections: the genre, the length, the fact that it is finished, Tell me who the intended audience is. If you can compare your story to another popular novel, or compare your protagonist to another fictional hero, do so. That tells me you’re familiar with your market.

Then, tell me a little about yourself. If there is a reason you’re uniquely qualified to write this book (A SWAT team member writing about a SWAT team, for example) let me know. If you have prior published works, tell me so. Have you won writing awards? Been blurbed by a big name? Share that stuff. And if you have any natural platform tell me what that is.

All that will take surprisingly little time but when you’ve gotten this far, it’s time to be quiet. I’ll have questions, and want more detail on some of these points. I might ask about your protagonist, or why you wrote this particular story or what you’re working on next. The point is, stop pitching when you’ve finished your pitch and let me ask what I want to know. With luck, our conversation will end with me asking you to send me a synopsis and some chapters.

And yes, I am expecting several submissions from the current Con.  

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Submitting To A Small Press

As the editorial director of a small press - Intrigue Publishing - I’ve learned that there are many misconceptions about who we are, what we do and most importantly, how to work with us. I’d like to try to clarify some of that confusion.

Our relationship with any author begins with a manuscript submission so let’s start with how that goes. We don’t have pre-readers – all the principals of the company will read your book before we make an offer. Our acquisition process considers three things: you, your story and your writing.

Because we’re a genre fiction house any manuscript we are attracted to must have a good (read interesting) story. Often a well written synopsis will reveal that. Like many small presses we specialize in specific genre: crime fiction, family drama, romance and young adult. If your story doesn’t fit into one of those categories it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s not for us. And note our name – we are looking for stories with intrigue! It’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Generally our President, Denise, determines if the story is for us. If she says yes, the book comes to me.

As the Editorial Director I focus on the writing. But before I evaluate the prose I evaluate the submission. Did the author read and follow our submission guidelines? Like many small presses we specify the font, size and margins we want. I look to see if the header is what I want, if the pages are numbered, if it’s double spaced. If your manuscript doesn’t look professional, and if you didn’t follow our submission guidelines, I may never read any of your prose. If I do, I’ll evaluate the strength of your writing. Have you mastered the basics of spelling, grammar and sentence construction? How well do you handle pacing, conflict, tension, suspense and character development? Does your story have a nice hook at the start and build to a big and satisfying finish? At the end I ask myself “Was it fun?”

If I love it, it goes to Sandra, our Marketing Director. She will read it with a different consideration – can we sell this story? Do we know how to market it and who to market it too? If her answer is yes (and she loves the read too) she’ll go to the internet looking for you. We need to know if you have a platform – a group of people already predisposed to want your book when it comes out. AND, do you know how to make friends and get them on your side? She’ll look for a web site, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and a blog. She’ll want to see if you’re engaging, and even more important, do you post frequently? A web site advertising events that happened a year ago is worse than no site at all. The same goes for a Facebook page that you haven’t posted on in a couple of weeks.      

If we love your story, love your writing, believe we can do you justice marketing it, and believe you’ll work with us to make your book as good as it can be and get it into the hands of readers, you’ll get an offer from us. I’ll talk about what that’s like next week. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016


We’ve been discussing publishing choices: do you submit to a major publisher, talk to a small press, or self-publish. Before you decide you need ask yourself what’s important to you.

Are you a control freak? If you are lucky enough to get a contract with a big publisher, know that you will surrender almost all control of the final product. I’ve had authors tell me that they hated the cover of their book when it came out, or the title the publisher chose, or that it was being labelled with the wrong genre. Small presses vary, but almost always you’ll get to at least discuss important choices. If you self-publish you will have control of every bit of your published book.

Are you in a hurry? With today’s technology you can self-publish a book in a matter of weeks. Major publishers can often take two years to get your book into stores. Small presses vary a lot in this regard, but I think one year is about the longest you’re likely to have to wait.

Do you understand the rights? Aside from hardcover and paperback, your story might work as excerpts, audio, ebook, or even a movie. All these options can be sold differently. Major publishers will want to own all those rights, plus foreign sales rights and probably a few more that I can’t think of right now. This is the real value of an agent – they will negotiate which rights you give up. On the other hand, a small press probably won’t ask for the rights they don’t know how to take advantage of. We at Intrigue Publishing don’t buy film rights because we don’t have the connections to market your book properly to that industry. Of course, if you self-publish you keep ALL the rights to your property, so if someone wants to make a movie from your novel they deal directly with you.

And how will people find your book? The big publishers have excellent distribution set up, to push their books into lots of bookstores across the country and many ebook outlets. Small presses don’t usually have the level of distribution the big guys have. And if you choose to self-publish you will find it very hard to get your book onto bookstore shelves outside your immediate area. Remember, not everyone buys their books from Amazon. So if you want to be widely known, this might be a consideration for you.

And finally, are awards important to you? Many major book awards are only available to books published by major publishers. Small presses can submit you to many but not all of them. And self-published authors are still blocked from some of the most coveted awards.

One final word: Your choice doesn’t have to be exclusive. You can submit one book to publishers while self-publishing another. You can submit to large publishers and if you have no luck turn to smaller ones. Just know the differences, and do what’s best for you.