Series Books that Stand Alone

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If I fall in love with an author’s world and characters, it’s wonderful to discover that there are more of them—a series, available to buy and read now.

On the other hand, I hate starting to really get into a book and then getting the sinking feeling that I’ve missed something. That this book is part of a series, and to follow along I really need to read the previous however many volumes first. This forces a decision: do I go to the trouble of buying the first book(s), or DNF and read something else in my TBR pile?

While reading the books of a series in order can be rewarding, that’s not always how we discover them. As subsequent books come out, there will always be new readers checking them out.

I like it when authors make it easy for us to read their series out of order.

If I’m reviewing manuscripts submissions for possible acquisition, I look for this quality in a sequel. This means giving the sequel its own beginning, middle and end. Giving it its own villain, or at least introducing the villain of previous adventures in a new way, in action. Likewise, all characters need to be introduced again. Prior episodes should be treated as backstory, with the focus of the book on the current conflict, goals and motivation.

A book can become overcrowded if the characters of previous books appear for no reason other than to wave at the reader and announce the birth of their youngest child. If the cast is too large, a story can sometimes lose focus.

Of course I realize there are many series that tell one long story and are really best read in order. But if the stories are independent enough, why not write the series so that each book can work as a stand-alone read?

Chocolate Diamonds Are What’s Wrong With Society Today

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It’s Valentine’s Day here at the Carina Press blog and I’ve been thinking about the elements of romance and, not coincidentally, the elements of romance fiction. The other day on TV I saw a commercial for these chocolate diamonds which are supposed to be very special but just reek to me of gimmicky consumer manipulation. Instead of a classic, crisp, sparkling jewel, you get something that looks like it was dropped in coffee too many times. I get the need to be different, but sometimes a classic is a classic for a reason and doesn’t need to be changed.

In researching a different bit of writing the other day I came across a discussion from a few years back of the most hated cliches in detective fiction. After a bit of discussion of some of the most common cliches, the discussion veered off into a side discussion of whether the cliche was the issue or if the execution of the cliche was the problem. We’ve all seen tired and worn-out story elements and stock characters revived and renewed in the hands of a master. We’ve also all reveled in a book or movie or television show that may not have broken any new ground, but did everything we as a reader or viewer wanted it to do and did it well.

This is also true in real life. Many an hour has been spent trying to plan a unique date or a unique proposal or any other extreme way to differentiate our actions from those that came before it, but most times it’s not the gimmick that works, it’s the person behind the gimmick. So as we celebrate Valentine’s Day here as readers, and writers, and husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, and proud singles, let’s remember that it’s all about the heart and soul of something more than the gimmick.

What current novels, movies, or TV shows do well with the classical elements of fiction?

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

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If you believe the theories, tomorrow, December 21, 2012, is the Mayan Armageddon (and not the good one with Aerosmith tunes and Ben Affleck). Way to ruin my birthday, Mesoamerican Long Count calendar!

Personally, though, I think we’ll all be here come December 22. We better, as I have theater tickets for Saturday and a hard time pronouncing the word “apocalypse.” While I’m not prepared for end times in the stockpile a bunker way, I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two about surviving in a post-apocalyptic world from reading many a book set in the aftermath of doomsday.

But what if “your” world ceased to exist before you were ever born? This question provides the backdrop for Eleri Stone’s Twilight of the Gods series. Although those around them are living in Earth as we know it, there are people for whom the apocalypse has long been a reality. In Demon Crossings, readers were introduced to the denizens of Ragnarok, Iowa, folks who can trace more than bloodlines to mythological times. They’re the descendants of the ancient Norse gods, a people who found refuge on Earth when their own world, Asgard, was destroyed.

What little magic remains in Asgard leaks through fault lines between worlds…but so do demon threats. Imagine being charged with protecting the lives of your own people as well as those of the unsuspecting humans around you. It’s a duty and a burden shouldered by the heroes and heroines who, while never having experienced the old way of life, are stilled ruled by it. But let’s face it, if I was starting over after the destruction of this world, Aiden and his hunt are people I’d want guarding my back!

That tension between duty and the old clan ways and modern, earthly desires is one of the things that make this series so fun to edit—and read. And a conflict that takes center stage in book two, coming in June 2013. Hopefully you’re all still around to enjoy it!

What traditions/customs from our current culture would you want to see make it through to a post-apocalyptic world? What fictional character would you want at your side if you had to go into survival mode?

Giving Thanks for Series

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Happy Thanksgiving to all those in the U.S (and happy Thursday to everyone else)! Depending on when you’re reading this, I’m either helping prep an intricate turkey dinner, enjoying that delicious turkey dinner, or napping after said tryptophan-laden turkey dinner. Yum.

Today, many around the country are thinking about the things they’re thankful for. Me? I’ve got all the usual biggies on my list: family, friends, health. But on a lighter note, I’m just thankful I was able to finish the first five books in George R.R. Martin’s gargantuan A Song of Ice and Fire series before the end of 2012.

Cue the theme song

Like many recent fans, I was spurred to pick up the books after watching the HBO show. I downloaded Game of Thrones to my ereader on January 31, 2011 and turned the final page of A Dance with Dragons in the wee hours of October 29, 2012. Whew! Now I know why it’s called epic fantasy.

Reading a series—whether made up of thousand-page tomes or shorter, but more plentiful volumes (J.D. Robb anyone?)—requires commitment. And I don’t know about you, but I have some personal quirks when it comes to series. Aside from the length and my snails’ pace reading, one thing that slowed my journey through A Song of Ice and Fire was the simple fact that I bought the first book but checked the second out of the library. Because I’m a weirdo who doesn’t like to own some books in a series but not others (and who hates spending my precious book budget on things I’ve already read), I was at the mercy of the library wait list. See what I mean by quirks? Lesson learned: buy the book bundles!

All about instant gratification, I prefer to start a new series when there are at least two or three other books already available. I have mixed feelings about cliffhangers, but keep me interested and I’ll keep reading until I feel burned out or need a palate cleanser. Not that I haven’t fallen out of love with series in the past—sorry, Stephanie Plum. Sometimes I’ve fallen behind (again, J.D. Robb anyone?). And a recent post at the Dear Author blog sparked a thoughtful conversation about whether a seemingly endless run can possibly be detrimental to a series.

Still, despite the time investment reading a series demands, when an author creates a world or characters that capture the imagination, I’m happy to come back again and again. Treat me right, authors, and I’m a loyal reader.

What about you—series, yay or nay? Do you have any quirks about reading a series?

Feedback: An Editor’s View

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by Jeff Seymour, Carina Press Freelance Editor

A little over a month ago, Carina announced a special feedback opportunity. For every submission sent in during a week in October, we the editors would provide a few lines of personalized feedback. We would also provide responses within six weeks.

The opportunity caused no little excitement in the freelance editor pool.

Judging by all the submissions we got, it must also have been exciting for the writers who submit to us, and I wanted to take the time now that it’s winding down to let you know how the opportunity has looked from where I sit (which is on a couch, usually, but also sometimes at a desk, with a laptop or an iPad to work on, if you’re curious).

During the feedback opportunity, I received 25 submissions to read (plus a few that weren’t part of the opportunity). I went on to read full manuscripts for seven of them.

Just so everyone knows, that speaks to the overwhelmingly high quality of the submissions I received (this was true for other editors as well). I’m usually quite happy if I find three fulls to read out of 25 submissions.

The seven fulls I read totaled 693,000 words in length (though to be fair, I didn’t finish every one of them). I don’t have exact numbers for the other freelance editors, but I got the feeling that this was not an unusual amount to have selected to read. Of the seven fulls I requested, I went on to recommend one for acquisition. I ended up writing 1,682 words of feedback in total.

There were 10 of us, plus Angela, who participated in the feedback opportunity. That adds up to a whole lot read and written.

But I want to talk about more than the numbers today. Speaking for myself, and I think for many of the other editors as well: this has been fun. It was a break from the normal, and while cranking through 693,000 words of submissions in a week was hard, it was also exciting. Before I started working in publishing, I used to do things like climb huge mountains and paddle in long-distance canoe races. The feedback opportunity had a bit of that same “Oh my God, how can I possibly do this…oh my God, I just did” feeling for me.

It also had a bit of the old pizza and slush-reading party camaraderie that I associate with publishers whose editors all work in the same building. That, for me, was a lot of fun as well.

And I’d like to thank everyone who participated in it for that, from the bottom of my over-caffeinated heart.

So that’s what the feedback opportunity looked like from my couch/desk (Couchdesk? Somebody please send me a sci-fi with couchdesks. Bonus points if they have some kind of direct-brain, tentacular interface and someone’s big character tic is a mad conspiracy theory that they present an existential threat to human-(or other)-kind.).

What did it look like from yours?

The Devil is in the Details

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I was recently reading a contemporary romance for pleasure—not as an editor—and I had the annoying experience of being yanked out of a heartbreaking scene by some medical details that were inaccurate.

Did this ruin the book for me?  No.  Did I emit odd noises and mutter obscenities?  You betcha.  Do I imagine every reader of this scene had the same reaction as I did?  Of course not.  In fact, I went on to read quite a few reviews of the book, and apparently no one in the OB/GYN field happened to read this book and feel inclined to complain about this scene.  Go figure.

This experience made want to write here on the Carina blog about the special areas of expertise we have as readers that inform our experience of a book and cause us occasional “moments.”  In my case in my pleasure reading—we won’t get into my checking frenzy when editing—I unconsciously scrutinize medical details, anything in the financial field and use of the Spanish language.  Other readers can’t help but search for anachronisms in historicals, or see laws misunderstood or misapplied in romantic suspense.

I’m eternally grateful to fiction authors for allowing me to experience different worlds, bodies, careers, time periods, ages, situations, hobbies and passions.  Moreover, I think authors are incredibly brave.  They tread into the realms of their readers’ careers, personal experiences and passions.  Think of the knowledge an author needs to have to create a heroine who is a real estate agent, grew up in foster care and loves to parasail.  The authors I work with do an amazing job of researching for their books.  They interview people in the career fields of their characters, figure out the science behind breaking a car window, read countless history books and primary source materials to better understand a different era, find out how a person acts when coming out of a coma, and much, much more.

And does the work end there?  Heck no.  Now the writer has to weave in the details that enhance the believability of the story, without slowing things down or over-informing.  So, unless the information heightens the story’s tension or worldbuilding or characterization, readers don’t get every detail of it.  In my experience, fantastic authors tend to accumulate a lot of knowledge that doesn’t make the final cut.  (But I often get to see this overflow when authors respond to my queries in the margins.  Yay!)  This is also true in the genres of paranormal, fantasy and science fiction, where authors’ creative production in terms of setting, biology, history and language can be much larger than what appears in their books, and the authors fact-check against themselves to ensure consistency.

In a perfect world, all the various details in a book will ring true…ish, because reality is subjective, writers and editors are human, and you can’t please everyone.  So, have you ever read a scuba scene or calculated the time it took a character to knit a sweater…and groaned?  What are your specialties, the areas of expertise you’d like authors to write about after interviewing you?  And writers, what are you learning about for your current or next project?  What type of research do you find the most fun to do or most difficult?

Judging a Book By Its Cover (Copy)

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We all know that old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This may be true for all things except, well, actual books. A strong cover will catch the eye, suggest the genre, set the mood for the story—and compel a reader take the next step: click on the link or turn the book over to find out more! That’s where I come in.

Often when I tell people that I write cover copy, they are surprised to learn authors don’t write the blurbs for their own stories. Then they usually ask how long it takes me to read all those books. And I must confess: I don’t. Oh sure, I’d love to! Anyone in publishing who doesn’t like to read is clearly in the wrong line of work. But when there is a deadline to be met (and isn’t there always?) I rely on the synopsis.

I know, I know: many (most?) authors hate writing them! But a good synopsis won’t just get your book noticed by an editor, it can also help a copywriter craft a killer blurb that will entice readers to buy your book. While I do read some or all of a manuscript if necessary, it can be too time consuming when I’m working on several books at once (especially when I get sucked into your story and am “forced” to keep reading when I should be writing!)

So what do I look for in a synopsis? The basics: your name/pseudonym, the title of the book (if known), the series name (if it’s part of one), the genre. Often this information is missing, probably because it appears in the query letter or manuscript, which I may not have. I usually check out the copy for your other books, and try to reflect the same tone where appropriate, especially when the books are connected. So having this basic information in the synopsis itself is helpful. Yes, I can get it from my Carina contacts, but if I’m writing copy at 10 pm on a Saturday night (such is the glamorous life of a freelancer!), I’m working with more than one synopsis with no title or author name, and the copy is due Monday…

Along that same line, it’s also helpful to know the basic facts about the hero and heroine: full names, occupations or titles, as well as where (and when, in the case of historicals) the story takes place.

If you have a tagline, “elevator pitch” or a really brief description of your story, please feel free to include it (I may even end up using some of it in the final blurb.) Not to worry, I’m not suggesting you need to write your own copy. But if you can’t sum up your story in a few lines, it’s probably going to be difficult for me to as well.

Perhaps most important of all, spell out the conflict and motivation for both hero and heroine–what exactly is keeping them apart? How are they going to resolve it? If your synopsis only reveals what makes the heroine tick, it can be difficult for me to factor the hero into the copy. You might be surprised how often I read a synopsis that says next to nothing about the hero except that he’s “sexy as sin”, even when his point of view is strong within the book itself.

If your story is erotic, I need to know so I can turn up the heat. More than once I’ve written copy that was sweet rather than spicy because there was no indication in the synopsis that there were any sex scenes at all, never mind explicit ones! You don’t have to go into all the juicy details—just include “erotic” in the genre, and I’ll take it from there.

Lastly, if the story is told in first person, it would be great if this was indicated in the synopsis. Sometimes I struggle to get just the right tone in a piece of copy, only to have it all fall into place when I realize the book is in first person. The synopsis doesn’t have to be written in first person, just as long as you mention the book itself is. (I’ll still often write the copy in both first and third person to see which version works best.)

So you tell me, do you judge a book by its cover (copy)?

Bad Signs in Query Letters

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by Jeff Seymour, Carina Press Freelance Editor

Ah, query letters. Bane of the budding writer. One of the most frustrating aspects of the submissions process.

And yet your first chance to show your stuff to an editor, as well.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear that a bad query letter does not kill your chance of getting published. I start reading every submission that crosses my desk, even if the query letter on top of it makes me doubt that I’m going to read very far.

There are lots of good places to get advice on writing a strong query letter (Nathan Bransford’s blog is a good place to start). I’m not going to cover that here. Instead, I want to share some query letter problems that often predict issues in manuscripts themselves. My hope is that if you find them in your query, you’ll stop and look for the corresponding problem in your manuscript before you submit. Or better yet, hand your book off to a beta reader or critique partner and get his or her opinion.

We all want your work to be the best it can possibly be when it comes to those of us on the other side of the desk.

So without further ado, here are some bad signs in query letters:

1.) “This book can be released as (insert number) books or as one.” I know this is occasionally true. I know there are great books that have been split into parts by publishers in the past. But when I see this in a query letter, I often find structural problems in the submission attached to it, and I suspect there’s a reason for that. If you find this in your query letter, take another look at the structure and pacing of your book. Make sure your chapters link together seamlessly, the tension never flags, and the reader is never left wondering where she is and why.

2.) Random punctuation. I don’t expect a flawless manuscript or query, though I love to receive them. But when an author hasn’t taken the time to study (and I mean study–read Strunk and White! Read the Chicago Manual of Style! Painful as both can be, you’ll probably only have to do it once) how to use colons, commas, semicolons, and other marks, he or she probably hasn’t taken the time to study other aspects of writing either. If you find this in your query letter, look at the writing in your manuscript and make sure it’s clear and grammatical.

3.) Boldface. I suspect that the use of boldface to direct attention to important aspects of query letters has its roots in advertising, but it raises red flags for me. If you don’t trust me to find the important elements in your query on my own, are you trusting your reader to recognize the important details in your novel? If you find this in your query letter, make sure you’re not overdoing the telling in your manuscript, like showing your reader an important detail and then underscoring it several times with dialogue or narrative.

4.) Repetition (“Dripping with power and wealth, Malcolm has a lot of money and isn’t afraid to throw it around to get what he wants.”). Repetitive descriptions in query letters tend to presage books containing the same. If you find this in your query letter, look at the descriptions in your manuscript and make sure you’re not saying the same thing two or more times.

5.) Excessive passive voice. I’m usually a defender of the passive voice. It has lots of good uses (establishing rhythm and cadence, varying the tone of a paragraph, allowing a character to speak or think in his or her own words, etc.). But, like other grammatical constructions, it has a time and a place, and every sentence in the first paragraph of a query is not it. If you find a lot of passive voice in your query letter, go over your book and see what happens if you strengthen some of your passive constructions.

6.) “My book is great because it’s full of great characters who do great things and have great relationships.” If you tell me this rather than show it to me, it bodes poorly for the show vs. tell ratio in your novel. If you find sentences like this in your query letter, have another read of your novel with an eye for showing details to your reader versus telling him or her about them.

Something Old, Something New

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I love books that turn an idea on its head to make something new. Books that show me a new perspective on an old trope. Books that cast a familiar character in an unfamiliar plot.

Actually, I like this concept applied to my real life, too. I love book art — sculptures made from the pages of a book are the ultimate in taking the familiar and creating something new. And have you seen how unbelievable some of these sculptures can be? (The Guy Laramie pieces are truly breathtaking.) Last year, when my husband and I were planning our wedding, we decided to use books as centerpieces. (And favors!) But I wanted something to gussy up the big stacks of mysteries and romances, and came across these: Book vases.

So I set about making dozens of vases to scatter across our tabletops. Though the tutorial above shows how to make a book vase from a hardcover, I found that I preferred the size of mass markets. Tiny vases are just so adorable!

If you’d like to give tiny vase making a try, you’ll need:

1 well-read mass market paperback, the thicker the better

an X-acto knife

craft glue

cardboard (to make a template)

pencil/marker (to help give the vase its shape as the glue dries)

tape

2 small c-clamps (optional but very helpful)

 

First, decide on the shape you’d like your case to take. A simple curve is a good way to start. Cut your piece of cardboard down to size.

Remove the covers from the book, being careful not to cut the glue that holds the papers at the spine.

Now, if you’ve got a c-clamp, clamp the template to the book, and clamp both of those to a sturdy table. It’s best to clamp either end of the book, inside the cardboard template. That way, when you slice through pages, they’ll fall to the ground and your book vase will be securely affixed to the table. When I made this round of vases, I couldn’t find my c-clamps, so I just held everything together very carefully instead.

 

Begin cutting away pages. Be patient, go slowly! And be careful not to angle the blade in & under your template — you’ll end up with too-short pages that way.

Sometimes it helps to move the template down through the book as you cut (especially if you’re cutting sans c-clamps).

 

Don’t worry if some of the page edges are ragged — you can fix that (or at least smooth out the roughness so it’ll be less noticeable on the finished vase.


Spread out the pages of your vase, Don’t be too delicate — you want the spine to be pliable in order to get the best result. That’s why it’s great to use a well-worn paperback for this project. (For our wedding vases, I scoured my local St. Vinnie’s for very old mass markets.)

I really like to make two vases per mass market, so when I’m finished with the main shaping, I go back and cut the vase in half. If you want to do this, make sure you create a template that will give you two vase shapes!


Apply craft glue to the front and back pages of your book vase. Gob plenty of glue near the spine edge — that’s where you’ll want the strongest hold.

Wrap the pages around a pencil (or marker, depending on how thick your book’s spine is), pressing the glued pages firmly together. Secure with tape, as close to the spine as possible, to hold the vase together while the glue dries.


Remove the spacers and the tape, and fluff the vase pages out.

 

Enjoy!

Monster in My Closet - coverNow back to my original point: Books that take the familiar and create something entirely new. R.L. Naquin’s debut release, Monster in My Closet, does just that. She takes familiar creatures — closet monsters, brownies, dragons, reapers, and more! — and recasts them in a world that’s unique and wonderful. This is fresh urban fantasy, and when this manuscript came across my desk, I was delighted by the whimsy, imagination, and sense of fun within its pages. I highly recommend it!

 

 

The Moment

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How does an editor know that she wants to recommend a manuscript for acquisition? When does she know?

Does that special knowledge blossom after she’s finished reading the whole thing, or can she tell right from the start? Does she have to sleep on it, or does she feel she may immediately burst into flames if she doesn’t write the acquisition report right away?

For every manuscript, it’s different. Editors can often tell right away if they *don’t* want a manuscript (sometimes within three sentences!), but the moment that we decide we *do* want a manuscript — that’s unique and much harder to pin down.

In my role as an acquiring editor over the years, I can pinpoint only a few really vivid, concrete moments when I knew the manuscript I was reading was a yes. In one instance, it was the opening line of Chapter Nine, “The verbs were the first to go,” when the author introduced a POV character suffering Alzheimer’s. In another, it was a moment two-thirds of the way through a mystery, when a major character — who I did not expect to die — was murdered, and the entire landscape of the manuscript shifted around me into something bleak, heart-wrenching, and almost unrecognizable (um, in a good way!).

For Michelle Garren Flye’s small-town romance Where the Heart Lies, it was Liam’s first magic trick.

Alicia Galloway has lost her husband to war and moved to his small hometown to help out at his parents’ bookstore. On her first night there — a little overwhelmed, sad, and worried about how she’ll care for her two young children while working full-time — she meets Liam Addison. Liam was her husband’s childhood best friend, the town bad boy who grew up to be a physics professor at a nearby college. While Alicia is distracted, putting her infant son to sleep in the master bedroom, her daughter Gemma wakes up and finds Liam in the kitchen. When Alicia returns…

She found Liam at the kitchen table with Gemma, who was drinking milk and munching contentedly on a doughnut. In front of him sat a candle, a lighter, a glass and a bowl. The bowl held a little water and a coin. As Alicia paused in the doorway, Liam looked at Gemma. “Do you believe I can get the quarter out of the water without getting my fingers wet?”

Her mouth full of doughnut, Gemma shook her head from side to side. With a mysterious expression and dancing eyes, Liam lit the candle, placed it in the bowl and put the glass upside down over the candle. Gemma sat spellbound, staring at the dish, and then her eyes widened. All the water had been sucked into the over- turned glass, leaving the dish nearly dry. Liam picked up the coin and handed it to Gemma with a flourish. “For your piggy bank, madam.”

 

In that moment, I knew that Michelle had created a wonderful hero, and I knew that I’d be recommending the manuscript for acquisition. Alicia and Liam’s love story did not disappoint from there — it grew into a lovely romance that I’m proud to have worked on.

Where the Heart Lies will be released on the 16th — but you can pre-order it today. And even better, it’s on sale for 99 cents!

And Where the Heart Lies isn’t the only 99 cent deal this month — two other wonderful Carina titles  are up for grabs. Check out Only Fear by Anne Marie Becker for a thrilling romantic suspense, or By Royal Command by Laura Navarre for a sweeping historical romance.

 

No matter what you’re reading, I hope it’s wonderful — and I hope that you’re enjoying many of those OH YES moments when you know that the story you’re reading is exactly right for you.