MS Analysis Service

THE MS ANALYSIS SERVICE
For the past dozen-plus years and on a strictly limited basis, I have occasionally agreed to read the ms of another writer and report back on what I see as strengths, weaknesses, and possible fixes. These reports are detailed, extremely frank, and substantive, but while I frequently edit segments of the ms in order to illustrate what I'm suggesting, this is not an edit. It is an overview of how a promising project can be raised the required number of notches to bring it to the point where an agent and a publisher are most likely to take it on. Call it an extended and very detailed Master Class.

I bring to this effort the experience of 30 years and some 18 novels – published by the likes of Random House, Bantam Doubleday Dell (before they were one and the same) and currently – as Beverly Swerling – Simon and Schuster and Viking Penguin. (Who are now, of course, Penguin Random; my writing life has come full circle. ) Before that I was a free lance journalist working for major publications. My fiction has been translated into over a dozen languages and is for sale in Europe, Asia, and S. America.

I take two weeks to read and report and the charge for this service is $3,000, payable in advance (the slot isn't promised until payment is received).

I am also happy to look again at a ms for which I've already done a Ms Analysis on the following basis:
• I am always happy to communicate by e-mail while you are rewriting. There is no charge for this.
• I will read a specific scene or scenes up to a total of 3000 words (generally 10 – 15 pp) at no further charge.
• For lengthier material that is sent to me as discrete scenes, or is highlighted or otherwise marked for reading within the ms, I will happily do so and edit/annotate if necessary at my customary rate of $200 per hour, billed on completion. I try to turn the project around in two to three weeks time.
• If a full second reading is required the price is the same as for the first as the same amount of my time is required.

At the end of all this, and presuming the ms is at a point where we agree it's ready for prime time, I will be happy to take it with my personal recommendation to a selection of agents (up to seven or eight) whom we both agree are right for the work. (You'll have veto power after seeing their track records.) I can of course make no guarantee that you will be offered representation, much less that the agent will sell the book to a publisher, but I can guarantee that the agents will take a serious look.

If you are interested in pursuing this possibility, please fill out the email contact. If I think I “hear” you (everything isn't for everyone and if I don't get your voice I'm of no use to you) I'll write back telling you of my times of availability and we can arrange for payment.

POINT OF VIEW

POINT OF VIEW

This is so basic I'm probably telling you what you already know, but I see so many examples of POV mistakes that it seems worth reiterating this fundamental technique of narrative.

When you begin a scene you are telling your story—and I'll explain in a minute why this is relevant for both fiction and non-fiction—you are of necessity speaking from someone's vantage point. Strictly as a hypothetical, if you start by saying: “Shelly had long considered the house inadequate. Now, speaking to John about why it could not be sold, she must make a different argument.” You have established he scene as being in Shelly's POV. You cannot then tell us what John thinks. You have instead to tell us what he says and/or what Shelly believes he thinks.

When you end that scene and you are no longer reporting that particular conversation you are perhaps free to invoke a different POV. (Unless, of course, you have set up this particular story as being in what's called limited third person. In that case you are telling the story entirely in Shelly's POV, but using third person: “Shelley had long considered.” Rather than, “I had long considered.”)

A really skilled technician can break this rule and tell a particular scene from multiple points of view, but doing so can really mess up your pace. Something you don't want to do.

Or you can elect a different approach and divide your story precisely according to who is doing the telling. In the opening of Gillian Flynn's runaway bestseller GONE GIRL she starts with Nick's POV and says: “When I think of my wife I always think of her head. The shape to begin with.” Later she will switch to Amy's POV and tell the same story from a very different perspective. The point is to make the reader consider which of the two major POV characters is telling the truth. Flynn thus played with what proved to be a game-changer in commercial fiction, the unreliable narrator. (Though to be fair that's a conceit employed by the likes of Paul Scott or E.M. Forster.)

Returning to the question of applying this principle to non-fiction—whether article or book length—you still have the same considerations. In non-fiction you're more likely to have begun by immediately establishing who Shelly is and why we should care what she thinks about a particular house, whereas in a novel you might choose to let those reasons unfold as the drama moves forward. But in terms of POV it comes to the same thing.

Readers want to be—indeed almost always need to be—in the head of one person at a time.

Working with Beverly

I've had the joy of working with other writers for a number of years and I enjoy it very much. I get to interact with people who love to do what I love to do. Often I can be of real help to them. And they are always of help to me because I get to flex my editing muscle (to a greater or lesser degree) and that makes me a better editor of my own work, and that of the next client. What's not to like?
Essentially of course if you're a writer thinking about working with me you're seeking publication. And if you're considering having me on your team, you're after traditional publication. (I have done a little self-publishing of a few of my own old novels, but I'm no expert on that subject.).
Bringing me to rule number one. To get a traditional publisher you need an agent. Helping you achieve that is what I do in two different ways.

You can read about each of them in detail here  and here. But before you click we need to be clear about the essential difference between the two. (And why one is a lot more expensive than the other.)

In one case I'm saying, “These are excellent choices of agents for you to approach with your work and here's how I think you should do it.”

In the second, I am—as my salesman dad would have said—fronting you in. I am personally recommending your work to the agent and my name and reputation are going on the line with yours. Before that can happen I need to read your ms and discuss it with you in great detail. And you probably need to do some more work. Then, if and when it's ready, I will take it to some likely agents.

There's no silver bullet in this business and I have none to offer. But if you're ready to take a crack at prime time, maybe we should talk.

Don’t Begin at the Beginning

Don't Begin at the Beginning

Nothing is harder to do than to start writing. And when you look for advice you're quite likely to be told to begin at the beginning. Personally I think the beginning is an awful place to start.

Whatever truth you're about to tell—the opening of a thriller (N.B. no good novel is ever untrue) or the first paragraph of an article for the local paper—your task is to grab the reader's attention. That's never been easy to do. Nowadays there are so many competing demands on what used to be called “reading time” it can be a monumental task.

You need to look for the heart of your story—what makes it alive—and start there. Maybe you're writing a memoir about your life singing with a blues band. Please promise me you won't start by talking about your mom and dad back in Omaha, and how the only music they cared about was produced by the church choir.

Much better to start with perhaps the first time you set foot on stage. How you came on after the guy with the harmonica had been waving you forward for what seemed like forever. And then, when you finally worked up the courage to walk on stage, you were so overwhelmed with the smoke drifting up from the audience you were sure you'd choke as soon as you opened your mouth. And how that's exactly what happened.

As for the folks back home in Omaha and how they got there, you'll get to that. And you won't forget how the family reacted when Grandma married her sixth husband. But this is a story about what happened to you, not them. So begin with something that actually still lingers deep in your gut, Do the head-parts, the stuff you know but don't necessarily feel, in flashback. (And I promise a piece on flashbacks in the not too distant future.)

A Room of One’s Own…

The view from my office. Which I religiously do not face when writing! 

A fairly long time ago I remember someone telling me that the way to start writing each day—which every writer knows to be the hardest part of the job—is to, “apply backside to chair.”

All these years and books later I think there's more to it. Yes, essentially you have to commit to it and do it, but there definitely are ways and means that can serve as effective jumpstarts. Aids to getting you into the zone, if you will.  

One that underpins pretty much everything else, is where will you write. For me, Virginia Woolf's famous advice is unbeatable. A writer requires “a room of one's own.”

Woolf was speaking of women at a time when they were unlikely to have a study, much less a home office – such were the domains of men – but the issue remains one to be addressed.

I have written in a number of different settings because I've had to, but even when I couldn't claim an entire room (living in an inevitably cramped Manhattan apartment for example), I've carved my working space out of my home.

 I know writers who rent office space, or go to a café, or arrange for a writing desk at a library or some other public venue. But it strikes me they're mostly men. Getting away from the kids and the cooking and the cleaning.

 Women, not so much.

Daisy, in my office, doing her share of the work.

 I wrote my first novels on an old LC Smith manual typewriter and thought bliss was an electric IBM. These days I dock a (heavy) laptop and have a full size keyboard and monitor on the old pine door with legs that serves as my desk. So I can free up the laptop and take it with me if I must, but I'm not tortured by the screen size or keyboard limits. (And if you're younger than I you may not have issues with what I see as limitations. Different strokes for different folks…)

 Another critical component is a good chair. I bought an Aeron years back with an unexpectedly excellent royalty check from Norway. (On City of Dreams, a story set entirely in pre-Revolutionary New York City. Go figure.) As for the chair, best investment ever. They're cheaper now I believe, but the Aeron is worth whatever you have to spend for it.

Also, I must face a blank wall. Which I admit is quirky and maybe crazy, but there it is.

 I have one other pre-writing ritual that works for me though I don't know that it would for anyone else. I play a couple of hands of solitaire (sometimes more!) before I get going.

 

Writing tips – beginnings

Nothing is harder to do than to start writing. And when you look for advice you're quite likely to be told to begin at the beginning. Personally I think the beginning is an awful place to start.
Whatever truth you're about to tell—the opening of a thriller (and no good novel is ever untrue) or the first paragraph of an article for National Geographic—your task is to grab the reader's attention. That's never been easy to do; nowadays when so there are so many competing demands on what used to be called “reading time,” it can be a monumental task.
That's why you need to look for the peg of your story and start there. Maybe you're writing a memoir about your life singing with a blues band. Please promise me you won't start by talking about your mom and dad back in Omaha, and how the only music they cared about was produced by the church choir. (Or worse, your grandmother's trek west in a covered-wagon.)
Much better to start with perhaps the first time you set foot on stage. How you came on after the guy with the harmonica had been waving you forward for what seemed like forever. And then, when you finally worked up your courage to walk on stage, you were so overwhelmed with the smoke from the audience you were sure you'd choke as soon as you opened your mouth. And how that's exactly what happened.
As for the folks back home in Omaha and how they got there, you'll get to that. And you won't forget how the family reacted when Grandma married her sixth husband, the only black man for miles around. But this is a story about what happened to you, not them and it's your face on the book's cover (okay, your face from thirty years ago). So begin with something that actually still lingers deep in your gut, Do the head-parts, the stuff you know but don't necessarily feel, in flashback.

Agent Research

Agent Research was started in 1997 by my late husband, Bill Martin. Back then the Internet was in its infancy and for years writers had never had any objective information about what agents had actually accomplished for their clients. (Additionally the business was full of scammers who promised the earth and had never actually sold a book to a real publisher.) Bill, whose background in the co-operative and consumer protection movements had given him a very real rage for justice, set out to change that. And did.

From the first I was involved with helping Bill's clients make decisions about which agent was likely to respond to their work, and how the writer should approach that agent.

Nowadays there's a lot more hard info out there, and most of the scammers have been driven out of the agent business. But while I do a lot more with some writers in some instances, I've learned there's still a place for even a limited application of my kind of professional input. So here's how what we used to call the Customized Fingerprint has evolved.

I will read the first ten pages and the last ten pages of your ms (I won't make editorial suggestions, but I will have some idea of your voice). I'd also like to see a single paragraph synopsis of the story. Then I'll probably ask some questions. After that I will make agent suggestions with info about the agents and my thinking, and then work on the query letter with the writer. The cost for all this is a single all-in price of $469.00. You can order that service here.

My Books

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"Near perfect historical fiction…" –LOS ANGELES TIMES

"Fast paced, complex…compulsive reading that informs and entertains." –BOOKLIST

"Enthralling, evocative, and entertaining…" –PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

"Compulsively readable."—THE NEW YORK PRESS

"…a great swirl of plots and counterplots. Riotously entertaining."—THE WASHINGTON POST

"Nimbly weaves fact-based history and fast-paced fiction into a vivid tableau…"—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

"Rich, amusing, and sensual."—CHICAGO TRIBUNE

"The glitz of Broadway and the golden age of television…life in the fast lane…back then."—THE NEW YORK TIMES

"Winning, a grabber…and great good fun."—KIRKUS REVIEWS

"A fine-tuned understanding of the pulls and torments of women trying to find their own way in today's life." —HOUSTON CHRONICLE

"Sweeping…masterful…"—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

"Genre-blending… back and forth through time…"—BOOKLIST

"Intricately woven plot with voices from the past…"—KIRKUS REVIEWS

ESSAY; A Line Drawn in the Sands of Time

ESSAY; A Line Drawn in the Sands of Time

By BEVERLY SWERLING
Published: September 8, 2002

FOR the first time in memory no one could come. The dream was interrupted.

On Sept. 11, at 9:17 a.m., 14 minutes after the second plane hit, the Federal Aviation Administration shut all airports in the New York area as well as the rest of the country. Four minutes later, the Port Authority ordered every bridge and tunnel closed. We were isolated. For some 24 hours the activity that defines New York stopped.

No one arrived bearing that special unseen baggage, that carry-on, which in these cynical times in this often most cynical of cities is a tenderness regularly on display. The dream-bearers couldn't get in. First time ever. Probably since the original American Indian crossed the land bridge looking for who knows what: food, shelter, safety. Something better than what was. A dream.

Some events draw a line through history, create a solder mark that leaves a permanent scar. Whole generations of people speak of things as occurring before or after the war, and don't have to add anything to indicate that they mean World War II. In New York we speak of buildings as postwar or prewar with no need to add the dates. And prewar is more desirable, a mark of quality.

Sept. 11, 9/11, has rapidly become just like that. If you were here on that day, if you placed your bet on the city before the attacks, you belong in a special way. You secured your place in a long line that stretches back hundreds of years.

The record is unclear about which Indian tribe bargained with Peter Minuit in 1626, the year Manhattan was supposedly bought. Most likely it was the Canarsee, and that they did not think they were selling the place called in their Algonquian language, Manahatta, the High Hills Island. They were merely giving the Europeans leave to peacefully use the land in return for 60 guilders — $24 — worth of ”duffel cloth, kettles, axes, hoes, wampum, drilling awls, jew's-harps and diverse other wares.” (Or something close. No bill of sale exists, but we know Minuit paid just that for what he referred to as the Staten Eylant.)

The Canarsee themselves were only summer residents. In winter, they lived on Metoaca, the Long Island. In summer they paddled over to Manahatta to do business. Their campsite on the southern tip of the island stood about where Wall Street is now. And since the Canarsee were reputedly the makers of the finest wampum in Ur-America, members of other eastern tribes arrived to trade. The Canarsee moved the store after Minuit cut his deal, and doubtless the 270 Walloons who were the first settlers of New Amsterdam felt more secure.

The agreement also meant that the canny men of the Dutch West India Company — who, different from the founders of cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Providence, were interested in earning power rather than theology — were free to invite the rest of the world. So many came from so many places that a 17th-century commentator described standing on the corner of Wall Street and the Broad Way at noon and hearing at least 18 different languages.

A long line indeed. But what of those who came after the divide, who stand on the other side of the wound? A friend who moved from Long Island to a new building on Chambers Street two years before the attack speaks of neighbors who fled in those first hours and decided not to return. My friend has new neighbors now, but she does not think they understand her grieving for what existed before the chasm opened.

In the blackness after Sept. 11, there were many small miracles. Surely among the wonders were those who decided to come to this city anyway, to arrive schlepping that special piece of bound-for-New York luggage. On Sept. 12, the bridges and tunnels were slowly reopened; two days later, a few planes took off and landed. And, undoubtedly, well before the tourists began to trickle back in a tentative stream, some gutsy someone packed up a dream and brought it here.

I know one 23-year-old who came from New Mexico six weeks after the attacks, because, she says, that had always been her plan. Come to New York and take pictures and write. She admits she called a friend who lives here and asked if he thought it was safe. ”What's safe?” he asked.

That made perfect sense to her, so she got on a plane and came. Now she lives in Brooklyn across the street from a firehouse, and she has become friendly with the firefighters whose silent witness seems to her an explanation and a bridge to all that happened before she arrived.

A MAN of 30 tells me he's from a small town in Iowa and has been waiting to come to New York since he was 11 and realized that he was gay. Easier to come out here, he thought. His mother, a widow, had progressive multiple sclerosis, so he waited until she died and didn't need him. A computer programmer, he got a job with a dot-com connected to a fashion house. His plane ticket would have brought him here on the afternoon of 9/11. He came a week later, and still regrets that he was not here before it happened.

He, too, sees the attack as a dividing line, something that separates real New Yorkers from the rest. I tell him to rejoice. He was among those who brought healing.

History matters, even in a city like this one where almost nothing from the past is allowed to remain standing. Because our European period began with the Netherlanders, whose practice it was to live above the store, we do not zone ourselves into the divisions between residential and commercial use as neatly as other American cities.

In New York, even brand-new luxury apartment buildings put a supermarket on the ground floor. Because the city's purpose has always been the generation of wealth, and laborers are a form of capital, in 1809 we laid down a grid. The early city planners recognized that you can get more people into a smaller space that way. Ever since, at least on the High Hills Island, we have lived with the intersection of population and transportation the grid requires at every corner. Like it or not, it is that constant friction that generates our energy.

It has always been the lyricists who remind those of us who live here that we are inside the dream, populating the mirage.

”Another hundred people just got off of the train, Stephen Sondheim wrote in ”Company,” and we nod and indulge a secret smile, because we're the ones who stayed, came in our 20's or 30's and proved we can make it here, so we can make it anywhere: thank you, Messrs. Kander and Ebb. And the Bronx is up and the Battery's down, and New York, New York, is a wonderful town, as we know because Ms. Comden and Mr. Green told us. Born here or more likely brought here, we sucked in self-belief along with oxygen; that's the New York way. But it remained for this generation's balladeer, Bruce Springsteen, to sing of the boarded-up windows and empty streets in our city of ruins.

Not permanently, however. Among those first Americans, the wampum-makers, it was the custom after a battle to select a few defeated enemies as captives and bring them home to be adopted, replacements for fallen warriors. Such tactics can never heal individual wounds, but they do much for collective loss. Rise up, rise up, Springsteen admonishes the ruined city. Few of us doubt that the rising will happen.

How can it not? Another hundred people, another hundred dreamers, got off the train and the plane and the bus maybe yesterday.

Beverly Swerling is the author of ”City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan.”

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