Once again, I find myself preparing for another apocalyptic weather event. My winter weather preparedness rituals are overblown and ridiculous, but I can’t help it. My family moved to Georgia when I was ten, so I’m conditioned to react to the word “snowflake” much like those in areas with active volcanoes react to the word “eruption.” As soon as the weatherman forecasts a dusting of snow, I descend upon the grocery store and stock up for the end of times. Only this time, I’m not going to.
You see, I’ve lived in the St Louis area long enough to know the forecasters are seldom correct. I don’t believe them anymore. They’ve built up tension, and my heart has raced in response. And, when their catastrophic winter weather event turns out to be four snowflakes and a gust of wind, I’m left with seven gallons of milk, ten loaves of bread, and two kids who keep whining, “I thought you said it was going to snow and we wouldn’t have school tomorrow.”
I can’t go through this again. I feel lied to and betrayed by all the metro-area meteorologists. I’ll buy one loaf of bread and that’s all. Okay, maybe two, but that’s it. And some soup. And… NO!
So, what does St Louis area weather forecasts have to do with writing?
As writers, we must deliver what we promise. It’s okay to build up tension, but at some point we must allow that tension to boil over, otherwise readers are left feeling like the metro-St Louis weather watchers–skeptical and cheated.
Example #1: The Unromantic Romance Novel – In a romance novel, it’s common for the author to bring the hero and heroine together only to pull them apart. The male lead character is a fraction of a second away from getting the female lead into bed, but something happens to thwart his plans. Or, just when the hero and heroine are beginning to get along, an unfortunate misunderstanding tears them apart. I expect to see some of this in a romance novel. The building tension and occasional frustration keeps me turning the pages, desperate to reach a satisfying conclusion where all wrongs are righted and the characters have their happily-ever-after ending. But, if I get to the end of your romance novel and the hero and heroine hate each other, I am going to be a very unhappy reader. I understand that in real life, things don’t always work out. If you’re bound and determined to end your novel on a tragic note where the hero is married to someone else and the heroine is lying underneath a freeway overpass crying her eyes out, please don’t categorize your novel as romance. Call it literary fiction, call it women’s fiction, but don’t call it romance.
Example #2 The Anticlimactic Action Scene – Your book must have a climax. Period. Whether it’s a big scene where secrets are finally revealed or a big shoot out, your book has to have some sort of Holy Crap moment. If your main character has been chasing a psychotic killer throughout the book, with each murder scene more grisly than the next, the eventual capture of said criminal better be exciting. If your characters have been forming an army through half the book in preparation for an epic battle scene, please don’t end your book with everyone talking out their differences, shaking hands, and promising to meet next week for coffee. I understand you don’t want your characters to get hurt or experience discomfort, but if you’ve built up tension throughout the book and used foreshadowing to lead me to predict a cataclysmic conclusion, please don’t let me down.
If your book is lacking in tension, I might still like it, but I probably won’t remember it by mid-next week. But, if your book utilizes tension correctly, resulting in a Holy Crap moment, I’ll rush out and brag to my friends that I was the first one to read it. I’ll beg them to read it too so we can all sit around and talk about its awesomeness. And, I’ll anxiously await the sequel, stand in line for the midnight release at my local bookstore, and sit up until five o’clock in the morning reading it.
Don’t be a St Louis Weather Forecaster. If you promise a huge epic blowout ending–deliver on your promise. A steamy erotic novel that promises to blow my socks off won’t succeed if the characters never get past first base. A battle to end all battles won’t win over those hardcore fantasy fans if you skimp on the battle. A fast-paced thriller isn’t thrilling if your hero never leaves his living room.
Just remember: A blizzard isn’t a blizzard if there isn’t any snow.
Attorneys are expensive. Few of us starving writers can afford to hire one, but when faced with a publishing contract, can you afford NOT to hire an attorney?
Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to make a few things very clear:
The prospect of publishing your first novel can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. By the time your manuscript has been polished to perfection, you generally have a good idea where you’re headed in regards to your publishing options. Let review those options briefly:
I’m not here to tell you which option is best for you, because I don’t know you or your personal situation. Even then, I wouldn’t venture to tell anyone else what to do with their intellectual property. I am not an expert. What I can recommend is that you hire an experienced attorney to look over any legal documents you might sign–before you sign them.
When you finally (after months of querying and rejection, in many cases) receive a contract from an agent or publisher, it’s only natural to want to sign your name right away, but DON’T! A reputable agent or publisher will understand if you need to take a few days to seek legal counsel. I know you’re smart. I know you read all John Grisham’s novels and you might think you know how to interpret a simple ten page contract. I know your cousin Jimmy went to law school for a year before he got kicked out, and he told you he already learned everything he needed to know. Unless you or Uncle Jimmy are licensed attorneys, you aren’t qualified to review that contract. Sorry, but you aren’t.
There are all sorts of scary things in a publishing contract–things you might not find in a real estate contract or any of the other contracts you’ve encountered. Some of these strange clauses might seem reasonable when you’re still basking in the warm glow of someone else telling you your book is good enough to publish, but you might see these clauses in a new light once you’ve worked with the publisher for a while and things aren’t going the way you expected. Is there a first rights clause? Is there a time limit on it, or did you just sign over rights to all your future work until the end of time? Is there a reversion clause? What happens if there are major errors in the final manuscript and the publisher refuses to fix them? Or, if the publishing company is composed of a married couple who decide to divorce? There are so many, many things I haven’t listed here, or haven’t even thought of, and you need an experienced, licensed attorney to make sure you are protected.
Not all agents and publishers are reputable. Not all agents and publishers are competent. While seeking the advice of a licensed attorney might put your mind to ease that the contract is in order, the attorney might not know whether or not the agent or publisher is experienced, or well-respected in the industry. It’s up to you to do a bit more research to make sure that choosing to sign with the agent or publisher is a good decision, or a good match for you and your book.
There are some excellent writer’s resources out there that can help you vet publishers and agents. Some of these sites even have forums where authors (both published and unpublished) discuss common publishing contracts and clauses to watch out for. While these sites are great places to visit in order to get an initial feel for a publisher or agent, I do have a few cautions:
So, how can you tell if the agent or publisher you’re considering is a match made in heaven? Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes things don’t work out. It happens. But, a carefully constructed, well researched contract which has been tweaked and approved by a licensed, experienced attorney could be the difference between you spending a couple of tough years with a lazy agent, or you spending eternity locked into a contract with an incompetent publisher.
What can you afford?