Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Your final interview/manuscript might be spectacular but we will never have the chance to see it if you send us a poorly written cover/query letter. To a certain extent a cover letter is a stock item, something you can take to every interview; send to every company, and so is your query letter. As a matter of course all query letters should include:
- A standard sized S.A.S.E (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope)
- Note: the pull and seal envelopes have the advantage of not self adhering in the heat and humidity.
- The letter itself, one page single spaced. At most it can be two pages but like a resume shorter is better. A cover letter with bad grammar and spelling does not get you to the interview and it does not advance your query.
- Contact Information: email and phone generally suffice.
- Literary Achievements
- Marketing: place your manuscript on a shelf in a bookstore and tell us that genre. Please make sure that it’s a genre that we represent.
- Word Count
- Be Professional: As Elaine has mentioned, a professional and cooperative relationship between author and agent is the best chance a manuscript has of getting published.
Those are some elements every query should include and none are longer than a line or two of text. At this point describe the manuscript you want us to accept. Please do not use bullet points; a query is a cover letter not a resume. The query description is where you can throw out teasers like “has a surprising twist at the end” or “with a sub plot romance that becomes significant later on” and we will simply want to read more. However, if you use vague descriptions like that in the synopsis you include with the partial we will be less than pleased.
Submitting a partial without a synopsis is like going to a job interview naked. We can see that you have shown up but clearly you are not wholly invested in the getting the job. This of course only applies to intentional nudists. We are happy to give the absent minded professor types a few minutes to get dressed and let them send in the synopsis a little late. The same can be said when an author leaves off the ending in the synopsis; you’re mostly dressed but you seem to have misplaced your pants. It just looks very odd and makes it difficult to evaluate your manuscript as a candidate. We almost prefer the professor since once he has his clothes on, he has them all on.
The most important thing to remember about the query letter is that it is your manuscript going on the interviews and applying for the job, not you the author. We know it’s hard sending them out but not every company is the right fit for every manuscript and it is only a matter of finding the right one. Just so long as you don’t let your manuscripts walk out of the house naked they can get through the rest of the interview on their own.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Hi. My name is Gail, and I write Victorian steampunk romance.
You probably know what “Victorian” is: pertaining to the era from 1837 through 1900 when Queen Victoria ruled in England. You probably know, or at least have an idea of what romance is, in terms of writing. A romance novel has a love story as the central plot, and an emotionally satisfying, uplifting ending, according to the Romance Writers of America. Which leaves that other qualifier: Steampunk.
Steampunk as a term comes from the science fiction subgenre “cyberpunk,” which deals with computers, cybernetics, artificial intelligence and other things of that ilk. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered to be a classic in the genre. The word “Steampunk” was adapted when stories set in the era of steam, with science fiction and fantasy elements became popular. The movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or The Golden Compass are examples of steampunk stories. In the science-fiction/fantasy world, fans of cyberpunk are often fans of steampunk.
And at the end of December, (just in time for you to use your Christmas gift cards, wink, wink) my book, Heart’s Blood, will reach bookstore shelves.
The story is set in mid-Victorian London, but it’s a London in which anyone can work a little magic, if they have a talent for it. Most people can only work simple spells of one sort or another. A mother’s spell to warn her when her children are wandering out of bounds. A blacksmith’s spell to make the fire burn just a little hotter. Then, there are the virtuosos. Those who can heal terrible injuries, or speak across thousands of miles.
The hero of Heart’s Blood is the black sheep son of a duke who has defied his father’s dictates to learn magic, and has risen to become the magister of the English conjurer’s guild—the best conjurer in the country. When he awakes in the gutter of an alley near the docks, under the protection of a street urchin who insists on becoming his apprentice, not far from the battered corpse of a man murdered by magic—well, you can see how his world might get turned a little topsy-turvy.
Greyson Carteret, and his apprentice, Pearl Parkin, must lay ghosts and talk to spirits. They must harness the power of innocent blood calling out for justice and use every drop of magic at their command to discover the one who is murdering people to call demons. They must stop not only the murders, but the demon’s rampage. And while they’re busy with all of this, they learn that falling in love doesn’t mean giving up independence so much as finding someone to fill in your blind spots.
If you like urban fantasy, or historical romance, or paranormal romance, I hope you’ll give steampunk a try, and I hope you’ll give Heart’s Blood a try. There’s an excerpt on my website at http://www.gaildayton.com/HeartsBloodex.html for a little sample taste of the story. And if you absolutely can’t wait, the first book in this universe, New Blood, is available right now. (The excerpt for New Blood is at http://www.gaildayton.com/NBexcerpt.htm.)
Steampunk is a mash-up between science fiction/fantasy and history. Steampunk romance adds romance to the mix. What kinds of mash-ups do y’all think would be fun to read? And if they’re out there already, what are some of the titles? I’m always looking for new good books to read. Share!
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Letters like hers raise the question: why have an agent? Have agents become just a necessary evil -- the only means to an end, that being to publish with a large trade house?
Certainly over the years I've been in the business, there has been a shift with fewer and fewer NY houses accepting over the transom submissions. Everyone's simply too busy with the demands of the day to day to get around to reading much unsolicited stuff. So more and more publishers are restricting their submissions to only those that come through agents. Some publishers still accept direct submissions, and in the genres I represent (romance and mystery) editors often attend conferences where they agree to accept materials straight from authors. But often, even then, if they are interested in acquiring something, they urge that author to get an agent to negotiate the offer.
So, if agents are the only path to get to the publishing house you desire, does that simply make us the necessary evil that you should otherwise simply tolerate and order about?
If you do, you're certainly going to miss out, in my view. You want an agent not just because that's the only way to submit to a publisher, but you want an agent to be your editor, your advisor, and your guide through the process. Frankly, that's why you should be paying the commission. Agents spend a great deal of their time talking and working with editors. They know what houses and what editors are looking for at any given time. They know the style of book or type of story that particularly tickles the fancy of a given editor and they know which editors are inclined to work with authors to provide the support they need, including help with structure and editing issues. That kind of agent can get your manuscript not just to any person at a publishing house but to someone who really is likely to love your project and work hard both in-house and out to market and promote your book to ensure it gets the best attention possible. Such support (or lack thereof) can easily make or break any book in today's crowded marketplace.
As for editing, some agents do more than others. But all of us, even those without an editorial background, know what is likely to work and what will not. They can identify holes in your story or inconsistencies in your characters; or other similar things that often arise from spending so much time immersed in a draft that objectivity is lost. Ignoring an agent's advice about strengthening the characters or heightening the suspense or conflict is a sure way to sabotage your publishing efforts. Editors also appreciate getting a clean manuscript (and authors often get "points" taken off for a house having to do a lot of copy-edits.). That's something else with which an agent can help.
But frankly and most importantly, I don't want an author who tells me what to do. That's not a good way to initiate a relationship, in my opinion. But the same token, I also don't want an author who does everything I suggest, without giving it independent consideration and seeing how it fits their situation and their goals. The agent/author relationship has to be a partnership to work well. To me that means establishing open channels of communication, sharing information, and working together (not at cross-purposes) for a common goal -- the publishing success of the author.
Any author whose query letter suggests a different approach (like the query that inspired this rant) is an author I'm not interested in working with no matter how wonderful her book. And, I suspect most editors who would confront such an unbending author would agree.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
It's easy to make your query all about plot: When a shipment of dynamite falls from a B-757 over the city of Chicago, igniting a massive explosion that demolishes the city and spreads into a Midwestern apocalypse, it's up to Jimmy Smith to stop the chaos before the world ends. Sounds like possible blockbuster foil for the movies, but how does it fare as a one-sentence query? If demolition, dynamite, 757s, and apocalypses are your thing, not bad, I guess (if we ignore the leap of faith that takes us from the Midwestern apocalypse to the end of the world and the implicit assumption that the reader is fascinated by the end of the world). But this query would be a lot stronger if we knew more about Jimmy Smith. Why is he the one who has to stop the impending destruction of the world? Who made him Atlas? Is he a reluctant or eager hero? What's his personal motivation to stop the end of the world? What are his stakes?
Those are more questions to answer than you'll likely have room for in your query. However, they're all designed to make the query reader care about your protagonist. If your protagonist goes through the worst tribulations the world can offer, it's all for naught if the reader doesn't empathize with her. So, give us a clue in the query letter as to why s/he's special and why the plot is unique to her/him.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Recently I have received several synopses that approach ten pages, single spaced. Right away this page count tells me one of two things: that either the author did not bother to check on our criteria for partials or that the author lacks sufficient self-editing skills. Often the synopsis itself answers this question, but the partial confirms it.
The problem with the first possibility is that it demonstrates a lack of effort on the part of the author. Completing a manuscript is difficult, but in order to get your work published more effort is required at every stage of the process. A lengthy or sloppy synopsis indicates a certain lack of follow through that we can be reluctant to take on. As an agency we want to know that an author is as invested in the manuscript as we are and willing to work with us to get it published. Even before the publishing house gets a hold of your manuscript it goes through a certain amount of editing within the agency.
The second possibility, a lack of self-editing skills, presents a different problem than a lack of follow through. A long synopsis, without any evidence of editing, tells me that the author may not know their own story well enough to separate the main plotline from its subsidiaries. Such an understanding is important for both the agent and the author. We want to help you turn your manuscript into the best possible version of itself and we are willing to put in the time and energy required. Unfortunately there is only so much time for editing, and a distinguishing characteristic of success is utilizing editing skills to make several later drafts unnecessary.
As an intern, I most often find myself recommending requesting full manuscripts from those partials that have a well-written synopsis. A drastic change in writing style from the synopsis to the first chapters of the manuscript makes me question how much polish went into those first three chapters, editing that might not be seen in later chapters. Since a synopsis deals with the same plot and characters as the manuscript, I expect to see the same traits in both pieces of writing. A well-constructed synopsis paired with intriguing characters and a strong voice always gets my recommendation. It makes me want to find out exactly how those characters deal with the plotline indicated. Knowing the major events and the ending does not affect my enjoyment of the work because I want to see all the little details and nuances that complete a book and that a three-page summary can not possibly contain.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Nothing whatsoever about her book was included. I don’t know whether the book is women’s fiction or romance (which I do represent) or science fiction or literary fiction (which I do not). I don’t know whether it has a contemporary, historical, or futuristic setting nor do I know anything about the characters, plot of themes. In short, there was nothing there on which I could possibly base a decision to ask to see a partial. So I said, “no thanks.”
What a waste of her time and energy -- and mine! You might say, “why didn’t you ask to see the partial anyway? Or why didn’t you ask for more information in a second query?”
Both of those could have been possibilities, except that I had another 149 queries to answer that week, and, except for the fact that I have several shelves full of partials already waiting in my office to be read. Of course, I also represent already a number of very talented authors. Whatever “extra time” there is needs to be devoted to helping them step up their careers, talking to the editors, monitoring sales, brain-storming marketing ideas. That week, I actually had manuscripts from two of my authors on deadline who were waiting for my comments before delivering their final manuscripts to their editors. So, I really couldn’t give any more attention to this cryptic query.
Remember if you submit a query to me (or for that matter to any other agent), it is YOUR responsibility to make that agent fall in love with your project. You have that one chance to grab my attention, peak my curiosity, and convince me that my life won’t be complete if I don’t read your manuscript. Don’t waste your opportunity.
Books. Books. Books. When I was a child they lined the walls in my closet – a walk-in sort of thing that my dad fixed up with pillows and small shelves and a good reading lamp. It was my pretend place, where I could flee the pains of growing up without a mother and soar into worlds unimaginable until some wonderful writer imagined them.
It has been that way ever since those eerie 1950s days and, yes, nights.
Books were and are my passion; but I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be able to write one. Then a friend challenged me—and my latest adventure began. Latest, because in my life I’ve been a soda jerk, a secretary, a Mary Kay consultant, a graphic artist, a caterer, an editor, and now my current persona—a professor of literature at our local university. From editing I learned to be terse with words, like Hemingway. From all the other jobs I had I met all kinds of people and stored away all sorts of information about how people tick. That information helps me teach literature and write my books. Both teaching and writing go beneath the surface of what people do to explore why they do it.
This kind of exploration is an enormous help when I’m developing characters for my novels. In mysteries, motivation may be the single most important character attribute for both hero and villain. I spend hours working up a character sketch for each person who people my books.
Thank goodness only a few of my characters are like me. I want to do everything. I want nothing to stand in my way and nobody to tell me that I can’t do something. I’m a Gemini. And no Gemini can settle for one thing and one thing only. So I don’t limit myself to writing in one genre. I write everything—from romance to women’s fiction, from young adult comedy to mystery. Thus far I’ve written 18 novels, 15 of which have already been published. One (Prime Time) was honored with Romantic Times Magazine’s Best Glitz Novel award. And the other three? I’m finishing them to send to Elaine English, my agent.
After viewing that twisted career path, can there be any doubt that I truly believe if you apply yourself and want something more than chocolate, anything is possible?
Currently I’m at work on a series of mysteries for Five Star Publishing. Each is set in my home state of Rhode Island in the 1930s and stars two not-so-typical Roman Catholic nuns. Sister Agnes of the Merciful Sisters of Mary is a horror to her Mother Superior. She is not, and never will be, a “good” nun because a different kind of horror follows Aggie wherever she goes. In the first novel (A Killing on Church Grounds) she discovers a dead body sprawled on top of a carrot heap in the convent’s cold cellar. The search for the killer leads Agnes and her friend Sister Winifred on a chase that includes investigating Rhode Island’s underworld and trying to dig out a well-hidden enemy who doesn’t hesitate to spill blood in the pursuit of evil.
The second book in the series is on the shelves now. A Killing in Retrospect leads Aggie and Winnie on a simple quest from a favorite student: to discover the truth about his mother’s death. It should be simple. The Providence police investigated and deemed the death an automobile accident. But now Sister Agnes is involved. She sees beneath the surface, and discovers that the wife of Rhode Island’s crime boss was murdered!
Publisher’s Weekly called it “gripping,” Harriet Klausner of Amazon.com says it’s a “solid mystery that fans [of the cozy genre] will enjoy,” and Kirkus Reviews deems Sister Agnes an “endearingly disorganized heroine” – exactly what I intended.
It’s safe to say that Sister Agnes is the only nun with a gun you’re likely to meet. And she serves up great mysteries—with fabulous Rhode Island recipes, too.
I love to hear from my friends and fans. Visit me at my website: http://www.barbarcummingsbooks.com/.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Recently I've had occasion to think about how even small historical details related to social etiquette can substantially strengthen or weaken a story. Historical social etiquette can be used to communicate volumes about characters, their relationships, and their perception of the world. Clever use of social etiquette can be particularly useful to show rather than tell the reader important information. For example, think of how a subtle slight or obsequiousness could convey important details to the reader about the characters. On the other hand, a story suffers a loss of credibility if the characters seem to act inappropriately for the setting. For example, what if a character set in Victorian England had the social grace of a hippie from San Francisco in the '60s--far out, indeed!
Some creative research could help avoid such a bad trip. The trick is to find a research source which the author can first mine for details to enhance the realism of her story and secondly use to get into the correct mindset for her storytelling. To illustrate, let's imagine an author's story takes place in colonial America among affluent planters in Virginia. In this case, she could read "George Washington's 'Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.'"
This small book originated sometime before Washington's16th birthday when young George's teacher assigned him a dual-purpose task. He was to practice his French while also polishing his social grace by translating a French etiquette book into English. The book contained 110 rules governing all types of social interactions. An author could easily follow these rules when crafting various scenes in her story.
Similar sources could be found for any historical setting. I believe such research is a crucial investment. To mishandle the etiquette component, could be as disastrous as portraying a caveman wearing a suite of armour while speaking on a cell phone. -- Matthew Bergstrom
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Friday, October 30, 2009
Good luck & happy writing! (& happy Halloween, too!)
Thursday, October 22, 2009
"Wait," you may say to yourself. "But isn't the point of the query and submission process to prove the quality of my plot and writing--not that I can string together one to five pithy/profound/intriguing words for a title?" Yes--of course. When I'm reading query letters, I'm reading first and foremost for the substantive goods: plot, voice, characters, writing style. If a query matches up with what I'm seeking in those categories, I'll request to see more ASAP. But sometimes, I might be on the fence after reading a query letter. Maybe the plot sounds intriguing, but the writing's a little off. Or maybe the plot sounds a bit generic, but the protagonist sounds compelling. It's then that a title might tip the scales in your favor. If the title piques my curiosity, I'm much more likely to request material at that point.
Finding the right title can be a difficult process. It's worth spending a bit of time brainstorming to make sure that your title fits your work well. But don't stress too much. A title will certainly never break whether or not I request to see a partial manuscript after readng a query. However, it just may make it.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Deciding what level of detail to go into in your writing is partly a personal stylistic choice, but it is also influenced by your audience and your genre. For example, in romance your reader expects to know exactly what your leading man looks like--and it better be hunky!--while other details, like what your characters eat for breakfast or what their couch looks like (unless that couch is the scene of a little action) aren't as important. In writing mysteries, you better make sure your reader gets enough information about the suspects and various pieces of evidence that they can follow along as your protagonist solves the case.
In general, the level of description you give a particular person, place, or thing should somewhat correspond to its relative importance in the story. The reader should have a good idea what your major characters look like, the locations where most of the action takes place, and various objects that are important to the story. But we don't need a lot of information on very minor characters or things that just are not relevant to the story. Before you start writing a page of description, consider whether your reader really needs to know that much about whatever you're describing, and when you're editing, make sure you've given the reader enough detail about anything that plays a large role in the story.
And remember, when you're trying to describe something to the reader, show instead of tell.
Besides nouns, there is one other thing that you need to describe: dialogue. Some of you may have heard the phrase "said is dead," and there is something to that--just having a dialogue described by "he said" "she said" is going to get boring. Spice it by using other verbs ("shouted," "moaned," etc.) in the place of said, describing things like vocal intonation ("her voice squeaked as she started to panic"), or telling us what the character is doing while he speaks ("he paced across the rug with his arms clasped behind his back"). Adding description to your dialogue will transform it from a dull script to a lively conversation.
All that said, make sure you don't go too far. Description is important, but don't let it overwhelm your plot: who cares what things look like if nothing is happening? The trap many authors fall into is that they add a lot of detail about things they happened to research and think they need to share all of that information with the reader. You don't. Information is good for non-fiction, but fiction needs plot, so when you edit, make sure your plot is constantly moving forward instead of being bogged down with description that your reader doesn't really need to know. This is especially true the first few chapters (hint: the chapters you send as a partial to agents!), where your reader wants to see where your story is going to decide whether they want to continue reading, not the detail of every single noun in the book.
Good luck, authors. Your readers (and especially us interns!) look forward to reading your stories!
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Now onto the good stuff. With all of the movies being made from books and the video game spin-offs, it can sometimes be hard for a writer to settle on one medium. Dreaming of your work becoming a huge success these days usually means dreaming of Hollywood wanting to option your book. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, of course, but it can become an issue for first time authors when they sit down to write a novel as opposed to a movie. It becomes a question of what determines personal success then. If your goal is to write the best book you can, then this is the place for you. On the other hand if you one day dream of seeing your work on the silver screen, you might want to change your approach and contemplate writing screenplays instead.
I’ve come across several partials and thought, “Wow, this would make an interesting idea for a movie or a T.V. show,” but they fall just short of being successful as novels. And at the agency, novels are the only medium over which we have any influence or interest. So when I read these partials, I can appreciate their potential but I can’t act on that appreciation. The manuscripts that make me think “movie” instead of “novel” often involve some of the following elements.
The more action oriented plot lines naturally lead to thoughts of summer blockbusters, but action can be done very skillfully on paper as well. I’ve found that authors run into problems most often in the “gearing up phase” of action sequences. What only takes a few seconds and a mouthful of intelligible acronyms on screen becomes as many as ten pages of alpha numeric codes on paper. The reader quickly loses interest while the viewer may be fascinated by all the shiny deadly bits shown on screen; it’s a basic rule of human nature. I’m not denying the importance of the information being given, quite the contrary. I’m simply saying that the execution of such scenes has to be nearly flawless in order to maintain a reader’s attention. Since I’m not a writer, I’m not the one to dispense advice. I can suggest you refer to your own favorite action writers and see how they deal with such scenes and take your lead from them.
The movie format offers more leeway with outrageous plot devices, even holes, and character foibles. A movie requires audience tends to be more forgiving towards directors and actors than a novel audience is with authors. The same is true for the setting. A script allows a screenwriter to minimize descriptive language of setting because it relies on the collaborative nature of the film. If you find yourself overflowing with plot lines that you can’t write down fast enough, but you struggle with your settings take another look at those stories. Do you see a book or a movie? Reworking such stories as screenplays might allow a previously unpublished author to find his or her potential, just in a slightly altered format.
If, as an author, you’ve considered how your manuscript would look on screen I would suggest selecting several significant scenes from your manuscript and formatting them like a screenplay. This link might help start you off. This change from novel to screenplay doesn’t apply to dialogue alone. Screenplays require detailed descriptions of scene and setting as well as costume in order to be well written and give the set designer, the costume designer, and the actors a starting point to create the visual reality. Film can even incorporate narration in the form of voice over and flash back sequences.
I see a level of creativity submitted to this office that could be used in Hollywood, at least in my opinion. I can only offer my opinion as someone who enjoys both literature and film and as an admirer of the creative process. If you have an idea that you are simply in love with but can’t seem to get sold as a novel, try a different plan of attack and get your story out there.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
This book also reminded me of Robin McKinley's books--especially Beauty. Any other good fairy tale retellings out there?
Monday, October 12, 2009
In Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, I enjoyed the following scene between our hero, D’Artagnan, and the cunning villainess, Milady de Winter (“milady” in the story).
At ten o’clock milady began to appear uneasy. D’Artagnan understood what it meant. She looked at the clock, got up, sat down again, and smiled at D’Artagnan as much to say: ‘You are doubtless very likable, but you would be charming if you would go away.’
D’Artagnan rose and took his hat; milady gave him her hand to kiss. The young man felt that she pressed his hand, and he understood that she did so, not out of coquetry, but from a feeling of gratitude at his departure.
I enjoyed this passage in which the narrator, speaking from the point of view of D’Artagnan, interpreted the body language of milady. Thanks to the description of the feelings and nonverbals, my imagination went to work and brought me deeper into the writing. Even as a 21st century reader I could enjoy the drama of this scene written in the 19th century and set in the 17th century. I could truly imagine milady fighting back a smirk, while D’Artagnan hid his own intrigue behind a façade. I could truly relate to the scene.
Indeed, haven’t we all observed such nonverbal clues and suspected we were an unwelcome guest at sometime in our lives? Do you remember how it felt to interact with someone you suspected to be insincere? Or have you enjoyed a scene in which two hostile characters were at each other’s throats while somehow maintaining a semblance of gentility and good etiquette (perhaps the beginning of Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds")?
Granted, this passage from The Three Musketeers did not rely solely on body language and nonverbals for drama. As mentioned, Dumas also provided D’Artagnan’s own interpretation of those signals, but this element only enhanced the tension while adding a bit of humor. It also provided our hero with an entertaining exit from the scene.
Would every scene benefit by using body language to enhance the drama? According to writer Francine Prose, it depends. She includes body language and nonverbal communication within her wider definition of gesture. In Reading Like a Writer, Prose wrote that the “definition of gesture includes physical actions, often unconscious or semi-reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentous actions. I would not call picking up a gun and shooting someone a gesture. On the other hand, language—that is, word choice—can function as a gesture . . .”
In her book, Prose gave many examples of effective use of gesture, but she also warned against physical clichés. She also cautioned against use of gratuitous gesture because “unless what the character does is unexpected or unusual, or truly important to the narrative, the reader will assume that response without having to be told.”
Nevertheless, a case of writer’s block or a scene suffering from dullness could both be cured by a dose of body language for dramatic effect. For a concise review of these topics, see the Wikipedia articles on body language and nonverbal communication. They remind us that “body language may provide cues as to the attitude or state of mind of a person. For example, it may indicate aggression, attentiveness, boredom, a relaxed state, pleasure, amusement, besides many other cues."
Alexandre Dumas most certainly understood that 60-70 percent of all meaning is derived from nonverbal behavior.* It explains why so much of the The Three Musketeers consists of sword fights. -- by Matthew Bergstrom
*Engleberg, Isa N. Working in Groups: Communication Principles and Strategies. My Communication Kit Series, 2006. page 133
Friday, October 2, 2009
I, Intern Miriam, have finally succumbed to the siren call of the internet generation and entered the blogging fray. A little bit about me: a recent graduate with an English Literature/Psychology double major, I have been with the agency for over a year, and hope one day to join the editorial workforce in NYC/London/Sydney/etc. Things I like: books, bananagrams, cooking, and organized listmaking. On that note, I was finally motivated to blog about Banned Books Week (Sept. 28th- Oct. 3rd) because the idea of forcing people not to read is basically against everything I believe in, and hopefully adding my voice into the discussion will make a difference, even if you just can go to your library and finally read a book you have thought about reading (try the index on this website).
I thought about compiling a list of my particular favorites (Lolita, 100 Years of Solitude, any Harry Potter book, His Dark Materials, The Great Gatsby, etc.) from the official banned books list, but quickly realized that my list would be too long. Instead, I decided to point out a few issues I have with the idea of banning books.
For one thing, don't we have enough trouble getting kids these days to read (not to age myself up or anything)?! I constantly and loudly bemoan the dropping numbers of kids who love reading and devour books like some of us did at a young age, but I also believe that it is easy for kids to follow media trends by choosing video games and TV, as often it might be easier for them to find the hottest new PSP game than search for a book they might enjoy. If we, the "wiser" elders, who are supposed to show them the way of the world, try to limit their choices further, it harms their ability for mental growth and imaginative play. Banning books in the school system means that these children are less likely to pick up something that might be able to compete with the onslaught of provacative media. As an example, the Gossip Girl books are frequently challanged as not appropriate for the age level, but there is a TV show based on them that is wildly more "graphic" or "inappropriate" that is quite easily asscessable and seen by a huge youth demographic as the coolest show around. That seems like an insurmountable double standard, as the ruling against books in a learning environment is merely depriving them of the joy found in books, to be replaced after school with vapid, over-sexed TV shows.
Honestly, I dislike the ubiquity of the Gossip Girls series and the myriad of spin-offs or copy-cat books (and I am not counting the Luxe books, as I am newly obsessed); I don't think they are very well-written, and it bothers me on a fundamental level that now materialistic/brand descriptive phrases are somehow okay (i.e. Ralph Lauren blue), but I do think that they are available as ways to get kids to see reading as cool, or at least acceptable in their peer groups. I would rather see freedom of choice (even if the books aren't what I hold as up to literary standards) and people enjoying books than being stifled and turned away from libraries and schools.
The standards for banning books are the most irritating part of this whole mess; rather than using the quality of writing as a standard, the censors use Puritanical concerns about vulgarity or racial/gender/orientation insensitive claims against morals. To Kill a Mockingbird was brought to court over the use of the n-word, which, when I read it, did shock me. However, we hear that same word in rap songs all the time (I happen to have competing obsessions for Nabokov and Lil Wayne, for which my friends constantly mock me) and they seem somehow whitewashed or less offensive than reading it. I think we should be seeing the horrible effect of reading that word at a young age, in books like Beloved or To Kill a Mockingbird, so people won't think it is "okay" to use just because their favorite recording artists use it. In those books, we get the sense that it is derogatory and offensive and also about power dynamics, and we learn the moral value of respecting people who are different from us.
In fact, many books taken to court for "vulgarity" (Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer) are just as deliciously dirty or crude as some of Shakespeare's work, yet you never see people trying to ban him, even realizing that banning Shakespeare is taking things too far. There is an absurd website (I deliberated whether or not to link to it here, but decided to do so in the name of freedom of speech, but when I unfortunately tried I couldn't find the website again) that claimed they didn't object to Shakespeare, despite objecting to pretty much every other book, but did they ever read Titus Andronicus or Measure for Measure?! The clever, witty banter of Shakespeare and his infinitely glourious work is leagues ahead (in quality) of books like Twilight, but people have tried to object to Hamlet and King Lear before objecting to that poorly written, slightly abusive series (I may have to save that rant for another post). I find that working in the romance/erotica genre has taught me to see beyond what some call "smut" and into the success of the realistic fantasy scenes. The best parts of the romance novels, much like real life, are often the culmination of a "vulgar" desire, and the consummation of love. But aren't these scenes even more powerful when they are well-written, about characters who a reader feels strongly about? I liked Henry and June maybe in part because of the titillating sexual freedom but more because of the raw emotion and vulnerability that bled from every page.
As this post has started to reach epic proportions, I feel the need to wrap it up (and refrain from a Joycean dirty pun) and promise that not all of my posts will be so long! In closing, I must note that while I often object to various books on the basis of the quality of writing or plot, I feel very strongly that we must have the freedom to choose, and the ability to create a dialogue about our books. We cannot allow books to be banned and set up for persecution, especially because that often leaves readers at a disadvantage (should we not revel in the beauty of Orhan Pamuk's prose because he is seen as a political dissident? Or marvel at the intricacies of Rushdie's fantastical language because it is said to be taunting a particular religion?). And rememeber, as Heinrich Heine once said, "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." The banning of books, then, can only mimic the ignorant minds of those who will end in the banning of human beings that they consider to be corrupt or unsuitable.
P.S. Some other links to check out, enjoy!
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Right now, my buzz word is tension. In every manuscript that I read, I'm looking for tension, tension, tension. This encompasses a variety of elements. For starters, as a given, tension necessitates that the manuscript contains some sort of drama (this is as true for comic writing and light fiction as it is for thrillers and dramatic plots; conflict = drama).
Next, tension relies on well-paced exposition (you already know how I feel about pacing). This is as important in the meat of a story as it is in a story's prologue; even scene-setting should build tension by foreshadowing drama and conflict. Also, it requires a stern editing eye to pare down step-by-step mundanity of everyday life and foreground only the important plot elements. (E.g. Your protagonist botches things at work and loses the company's biggest client. That night, she comes home, cooks dinner, sets the table, eats, clears the dishes, watches TV, goes to bed, wakes up the next morning, gets dressed, goes to work, gets fired by her boss. Major plot drama exists in those two sentences, but the tension is totally diluted if all of that mundane filler is included.)
Finally, consider the stakes for your characters and their world. Tension exists (and can be executed beautifully and flawlessly) in the small scale of daily life, but it can also be vaulted beyond that if the conflict holds consequences beyond the scope of your protagonists. Bottom line? Synergize your plot elements out of the box to create a tension sea change in your manuscript. :)
Monday, September 28, 2009
From what I’ve seen, authors who go into self-publishing with their eyes wide open and who have a strong sense of what they’re doing and why, have the most success. One of my authors, Bettye Griffin is a great, recent example. She is the author of sixteen published books of romance and women’s fiction with such publishers as Kensington, Harlequin and BET Books. Her latest, A New Kind of Bliss, was released by Dafina in May of this year.
Well, Bettye had this story that she had been thinking about and working on for several years. It’s a modern-day marriage of convenience story involving a strong, independent woman who finds herself in the U.S. illegally and the two men who offer to come to her assistance. As her agent, I had tried on several occasions to interest editors at traditional publishing houses in the story, but no one seemed to want to take a chance. So this year Bettye just decided to publish it on her own.
First, Bettye did what every good author must do. She wrote the best manuscript she possibly could. Then, because she understood the value of a good editor, she actually hired someone to go through and professionally edit her manuscript. I championed this decision because I know how hard it is for any author to see all the forest for the trees when she is deep into a manuscript. Everyone slips up from time to time (e.g., changing a character’s name on page buried deep in the story) and it takes a neutral party trained in such copy-editing skills to really work the kind of magic a published book needs. Then when the manuscript was polished, Bettye set out to handle all of those things that publishers typically do.
She designed an interesting cover, wrote clever and engaging cover copy, and with the help of the printer that she secured for the project, selected the size, fonts, page layout, and made all the other design decisions necessary to pull off a professional product. Once she knew she would have a great looking book to sell, she then went out in search of distributors. You’ll see that her book is available at Amazon (both as an e-book for the Kindle and in print form) and on her own website. She's also working on local bookstores, both to carry the book and for signings. All of these are arrangements that she has had to make on her own. She also contacted friends and reviewers and sent out copies so that she could get reviews posted to entice people to buy her book. As I understand it, sales are going well and Bettye’s delighted at the decision she made. To read more about how she made her decision to self-publish, see her blog, and definitely be on the lookout for her book -- a great read.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and my advice cannot replace talking to your doctor about how to optimize your personal computer setup.
1. Adjust your keyboard. Right now I’m doing something very, very bad: I’m typing with my keyboard on a desk that is above my elbows. According to Cornell University, this is possibly the worst position for a keyboard, although I know that this is how a lot of people type. Who knew using your laptop on—gasp!—your lap would actually be the best typing posture?
2. If you can’t put your keyboard on your lap, or you find that you still are having wrist or hand strain (I find that my pinkies and ring fingers are usually the most affected by prolonged typing), look into an ergonomic keyboard. These keyboards help force your wrists into the proper posture and often are designed to involve less strain on your fingers.
3. Turn down the lights—the brightness on your monitor, that is. When you use a computer monitor, you are essentially staring into a bright light for hours on end. Look for a little sun-shaped icon on your laptop keyboard or desktop monitor (check your computer manual if you can’t find it) and turn the brightness down as low as it can go. If you use your computer to read a lot of eBooks or long documents (as opposed to browsing the web), look into getting an eBook reader with electronic paper technology, such as the Amazon Kindle or the Sony Reader, which does not use any backlighting.
4. Also, make sure your screen is the proper distance away from you. For those of you that wear glasses, many optometrists now prescribe “computer glasses” which are focused at the distance at which you use a computer (further than your reading glasses, but closer than your regular distance glasses) and which usually have an anti-glare coating to make the backlight easier on your eyes.
5. Another screen-reading tip: the beauty of reading on the computer is that you can adjust the size of the text you are reading without having to get the large print edition of the book. Look for the zoom option in your word processor, web browser, or pdf viewer and make the text the size you need it to be to see comfortably.
6. Finally, keep an eye on your overall posture. Many of us sit at desks all day, and if you aren’t sitting properly, you can be causing a huge strain on your back. Those of you who already have back pain may want to try a standing station, which is essentially an elevated surface for your laptop that allows you to read and write while standing upright. Also, try replacing your desk chair with an exercise ball to improve your muscle tone (and do pilates at your desk!).
Good luck vanquishing the dreaded carpel tunnel syndrome, my fellow computer users. Type safely!
P.S.- Happy Belated National Punctuation Day! Go semicolons!
Thursday, September 17, 2009
What kinds of YA are we representing? Almost all kinds: contemporary, fantasy, dystopias, boy and girl protagonists, commercial, paranormal, literary, multicultural, coming of age, and maybe even a dash of historical. In all of these genres, as always, we’re looking for great narrative voices, believable characters and strong writing.
As a sampling of my interests, I have a soft spot for the classic authors I grew up with: Lois Lowry, Madeleine L’Engle, L.M. Montgomery, etc. I love contemporary YA (John Green, Sarah Dessen and Walter Dean Myers stand out, along with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and stories about dystopias (The Giver still warrants a periodic re-read; Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy is fantastic). Fantasy feels like home to me—I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—and I like paranormal too (vampires [of course], but also unexpected angles, unique twists and new worlds [for example, I’m really enjoying Rachel Vincent’s My Soul to Lose right now]).
Elaine’s tastes run toward the more straight-forward contemporary stories. She has had ongoing success with Celeste Norfleet’s YA titles, Pushing Pause and Fast Forward—even before we officially branched out into YA. We also have great relationships with YA editors at all of the major publishers.
I’ll be the primary contact for YA. I’ve been helping Elaine with her projects and selling foreign rights for the agency for over a year now, but this will be my first opportunity to develop my own projects. Elaine, of course, will continue to supervise and be a resource, and we’ll likely work on some YA projects together, but I’m eager, dedicated and thrilled to have the opportunity to jump into the mix with YA. So, we’re ready for your query letters. You can mail them in or e-mail them directly to me at email@example.com. Bring on the YA!
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
I love reading about first meets –even when they are re-meets, as many reunion stories provide. One of the most compelling parts of a story, to me, is that first impression. Because I write for Harlequin Blaze, that first meet also has to get across the tone of the line and the story – in my case, a little naughty and edgy. In FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME, Zoe Gaston is reluctantly returning to her small town high school reunion using the need to search of a video game wizard named Gandalf as her excuse to prove a few things to the class that voted her ‘most likely to die a virgin’.
Zoe watched a guy hurry forward to help collect the luggage. Something tugged in the back of her mind, but she ignored it in favor of watching the delicious view as he bent low to retrieve the scattered bags.
There it was. The finest ass she'd ever seen. Nerves fluttered in her throat and she tapped her finger against her bottom lip as she considered the odds of the front equaling the back.Long shot, she knew. Guys were either good to watch coming or going.
And it'd been a long cold spell since she’d seen a guy come.
The guy straightened, the luggage all reloaded on the cart and the embarrassed guest reassured. He turned toward her and stopped as if he'd hit a glass wall. Their gazes met. She felt the impact all the way across the room. Her tummy spiraling like she’d fallen off a cliff, Zoe’s breath caught. Her body went from hot to blazing.
Gorgeous, was all she could think.
Tawny Weber is usually found dreaming up stories in her California home, surrounded by dogs, cats and kids. When she’s not writing hot, spicy stories for Harlequin Blaze, she’s shopping for the perfect pair of boots or drooling over Johnny Depp pictures (when her husband isn’t looking, of course). In September ’09 Tawny launched Dressed to Thrill, a fun, four-author costume shop continuity with her release of FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME. And in January 2010, her novella, YOU HAVE TO KISS A LOT OF FROGS, is out in the Blazing Bedtime Story anthology. You can check out the video trailer for FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME on www.tawnyweber.com.
Tawny Weber's Feels Like the First Time, the first installment in a fun, four-author costume shop continuity, is available now in stores everywhere. Be sure to check it out, and read more about the title here.
Celeste Norfleet's new title, When It Feels So Right, also hits stores everywhere today. Read more about her title here.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Ms. Stockett made me think and she brought back a lot of memories for me, most pleasant but some very sad and still very raw. But the reason I wanted to blog about this book is not the subject matter but the incredible writing talent this author demonstrates. The novel has three main characters, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter. Each has a very distinct and different personality. Aibileen is loving and giving and has a calming influence. Minny is angry and hurt and has steeled herself in order to cope with life. Miss Skeeter, well, I’ll let you see for yourself, how she gradually has her eyes opened and grows to come into her own.
Each of these characters comes to life immediately upon the page of this book when she is introduced and remains consistent with her core throughout. Each of them changes, but never in a way that seems forced or unreal or inconsistent with her character. Other authors write memorable characters, this is true, but what Ms. Stockett seems to excel at here is the ability to capture a unique voice for each character, so it’s not just her telling us about them that makes them come to life, but it is their own words. She has developed a fresh sound for each which incorporates the characters’ language (word choice as well as pronunciation quirks), style and even cadence. It’s a remarkable skill for an author to acquire and seeing it in action is one of those things that can send an agent to literary nirvana.
Monday, August 17, 2009
For example, consider these two examples of a woman’s reaction to learning she didn’t get the job offer she was hoping for:
Still unemployed, after all, she realized, feeling crushed.
Still unemployed after all, she told herself, fighting the urge to fling her brand-new Marc Jacobs heels across the room.
Okay, contrived, but it was the best I could come up with as I sat on the Metro on my way to work this morning. But notice how the first example focuses on feelings, while the second focuses on actions (or okay, maybe a feeling regarding a particular action). The crushing disappointment is effectively conveyed without having to use the word “crushed” at all. You don’t have to always tell your readers how your character feels; they’d much rather figure it out based on a few strategically placed clues.
This brings me to another trap I often see writers fall into—the Trap of Excessive Modifiers. Don’t get me wrong—I love words, and I’m a frequent victim myself. The English language is a gold mine of vivid words, each with subtly different meanings and nuances, different tastes and textures. But sometimes when I’m reading, I have to stop a moment to count the number of adverbs encased in one paragraph, one sentence. It’s not uncommon to come across passages so littered with–lys that they outnumber all the other parts of speech combined. Do your future editors a favor and cull a few!
The point ultimately comes back to show, don’t tell. Strive to write vividly enough that your writing shows everything without needing all those telling modifiers.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Today marks the release of Laurie Kingery's new book, The Outlaw's Lady. When rebellious rancher's daughter Tess Hennessy is kidnapped to photograph the Delgado gang's exploits, she finds her kidnapper, Sandoval Parrish, isn't just the mysterious outlaw rogue that she expected... Read more about it here. Congratulations, Laurie!
Friday, July 31, 2009
Simply put, a book should start when the story begins. Instead of starting the story, a lot of authors spend more than a few chapters on the protagonist’s life before the story starts, giving background information and doing world-building.
While this information does need to get into the book, it doesn’t all need to be front-loaded into the first chapter. This is especially true when an agent asks for a partial because they only get to see a very small portion in the book (we generally ask for the first three chapters). If we read three chapters and absolutely nothing happens except that we are introduced to every person in the protagonist’s town even though we don’t know their role in the story yet, we’re not going to stay very interested in your story.
So the first chapter should contain the first scenes that show the major conflict in the book—when the love interest enters the protagonist’s life, when the strange newcomer enters town, or any other event that gets the ball rolling on the story. Yes, there is going to be world building or other introductory material in these first chapters, but if you don't have any plot, your reader is going to stop reading.
Prologues, on the other hand, serve a somewhat different role. A prologue is not simply the first chapter in your story; in fact, prologues really aren’t part of the “story” at all (and should be shorter than your other chapters). If the prologue is removed from a story, there shouldn’t be anything missing because the prologue is extra. Prologues are often used to hint at what will happen much later in the story (like the Twilight series, in which the books are opened with the protagonist discussing what happens at the very end) or to show a scene that happens far before the story begins but which is still important story. But even though it’s not necessary, the prologue is a great way to grip your readers and entice them to keep reading.
For example, today I read a partial in which the prologue was longer than any other chapter and provided all the back story of the story, including a lot of extra information about how the protagonist came to be where she was in chapter one that really could have been left out. Reading that much information before I even got to the actual story was a bit tiring—by the time I finished, I didn’t really want to go on to the next chapter. On top of that, I thought that, in this case, giving the entire back story at the beginning of the book detracted from the story and should have been revealed piece-by-piece later in the story to make the story more intriguing.
But I also read a very good prologue. It was only two pages long but managed to give the reader a taste of who the protagonist was, what his life was like before the story started, and the girl who was about to enter his life and turn everything upside down. It was to the point but extremely effective because those two pages made me want to keep reading.
And that’s what a good opening should do: make everyone want to read the rest of your book.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
I also learned that Naomi, Miriam, Lindsay and Katherine (my assistant and interns) have talents far beyond anything I could have imagined. I knew they were very fast readers and excellent at analyzing submissions and preparing cogent readers’ reports. But little did I know that their baking skills could rival those of Martha Stewart and the White House pastry chef combined.
For us, the open house set a great, positive tone for the conference. But as the weekend continued, it appeared that all conference attendees (even those not partaking in our festivities) seemed to be really enjoying themselves. The weather was wonderful. The hotel was beautifully landscaped. I understand the food was good and the market news that romance sales remain strong put everyone in a positive frame of mind.
It’s really invigorating to take part in such an event. The energy which seemed so taxing at the time stays with you and easily becomes a force spurring you on to do more – to find that great new book and to push those existing projects to greatness. We’re ready for those women’s fiction, YA, paranormal, contemporary and historical romance projects, so bring them on!
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
In American Gods, the first chapter sets up the drama and tension of the book. Shadow, the protagonist, is about to get out of jail--free to go home to his wife, the one woman who feels like home to him, and the job that's waiting for him from his best friend. He's vowed to live clean and straight; he never wants to return to prison. Shadow is released from jail a few days early when he finds out his wife has been killed in a car accident. On the flight home, he meets a stranger who tells him that his job is not waiting for him--his best friend was killed, as well--and who offers him a job (with sketchy and unknown moral implications).
At this point, all the plot points of the novel are not revealed; in fact, we don't even necessarily know what the main plot will be. However, the story already includes conflict, tension and drama: three key elements to pacing, and ultimately to plot execution.
Similarly, The Proposal sets out the conflict swiftly. Sandra Bullock's character is a cutthroat editor-in-chief for a book publisher. When she finds out that she is about to be deported back to Canada, she announces that she is engaged to the overburdened executive assistant who lives in fear of her--Ryan Reynolds's character. An INS agent threatens to uncover their engagement for the sham that it is, and before we know it (within the first 15-20 minutes of the movie), Sandra & Ryan are Alaska-bound to meet his family. The resolution of the plot takes us to the very end of the movie; and, really, would we have it any other way? Even though the audience knows how the movie will end (presumably), we would all be bored if we reached the resolution of the plot and had to sit in our seats for 30 more minutes.
Pacing is just as important as any other element when we're considering submissions. I recently read a manuscript where the crucial conflict of the plot was resolved 200 pages before the end of the manuscript (leaving only a secondary plot to meander to the end). I also read a manuscript where the true conflict didn't come into play until more than halfway into the ms.; everything before that was set-up. Conversely, I read another manuscript recently that was tightly woven until the end, leaving me anxiously turning each page to find out what happened next.
As you're thinking about pacing in relation to your manuscript, it may be helpful to map out the plot points of your story. Take note of each point that moves your plot forward. Next, look at where these plot points occur geographically in your manuscript: pp. 10, 267, & 400? pp. 100, 150, 200? If these are the mountains in your manuscript, take a look at what's going on in the valleys. Is it exposition? Is it character development? Is it interesting? Is it summary? Is it necessary? Does the writing propel the reader to the next mountain? Could you cut anything to make the pacing tighter?
So many questions with no one right answer, as always. *sigh* But know that we're all rooting for you while we're reading!
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The way I see it, there are two major components to writing dialogue well. The first of these is realism. Spoken language is very different from written. Creating convincing, interesting dialogue isn’t easy, though, because you really have to strike a balance between mimicking natural speech patterns and not boring your reader with the umms, likes, and extraneous “filler” chit chat which doesn’t help develop your characters or plot. It’s the difference between the witty banter on a TV show like Gossip Girl and the frequently tedious conversations which take place on “unscripted” shows like The Hills (no personal bias there, obviously).
The second component to writing good dialogue is context. I vividly remember a creative writing exercise from when I was in middle school. In this exercise, you are given four or five lines of pure dialogue—no he saids or she exclaimeds or anything outside the quotation marks. The challenge was to take those lines and create five distinct scenes around them. The scenes had to vary in setting, situation, atmosphere, and outcome.
The point of the exercise was to prove that the average conversation contains far more subtext than it does text. Words aren’t merely said; there is tone, body language. What are the characters doing while they talk? Not only can context enhance the realism of the scene (in real life, I find that really momentous conversations often take place while one is, for example, chopping celery), but it can subtly advance the plot—such as a seemingly innocent fidget which signifies that the fidgeter is not telling the truth.
Hope that helps!