Friday, October 30, 2009

Revving the NaNo Engines

I love this time of year. Leaves are changing. The air is cooling (but not too quickly, please, and not too rainy, please). Everything smells beautifully fresh and old. There's a buzz in the air that's building and will (very) soon become the unmistakable clackety-clack of thousands of writers doing NaNoWriMo. Whether or not you use NaNo in your own writing, you have to admit, it's a pretty glorious thing. The tight timeframe requires shelving self-doubt and vanquishing writer's block and wrecklessly embracing the cause of writing a complete novel in a month. You can do it!

Good luck & happy writing! (& happy Halloween, too!)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Titles

I have to admit, I'm a cover girl. Let me clarify. Not a beauty queen, fashion model, Halle Berry, ANTM kind of Cover Girl. Rather, a "'kə-vər 'gərl: n. a female who is a sucker for killer book covers" kind of cover girl. Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but when browsing, a sharp, snappy cover will get a book into my hands for at least two minutes--long enough to read the back cover copy and maybe the first few pages, and more importantly, long enough to make a decision on purchasing aforementioned book with the sharp, snappy cover. Prior to publication, of course, you don't have the luxury of a professionally designed cover to help would-be buyers (agents, editors, etc.) make a "purchase" decision. However, you have something even better: your title.

"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


Next week, the twelfth book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series will be coming out, which makes this a great time to talk about description in your writing. I know our audience leans more towards romance rather than fantasy, so let me explain how I got on this topic. Robert Jordan, like many fantasy authors from J.R.R. Tolkien to Christopher Paolini, uses a lot of description in his books. He can go on describing something as simple as a dirt road for pages and pages on end, giving the reader every microscopic, inane, and irrelevant detail on any person, place, or thing. Robert Jordan has many fans. I am not one of them.

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

Mixed Mediums

Given the current FTC debacle, and I do consider it a debacle, I thought it prudent to give a bit of background about myself. I was an English major at the University of Maryland where I participated in several internships that allowed me to assist in editing an encyclopedia and aid the acquisitions manager at a small independent publisher. Now I am lucky enough to be one of the interns that read the submitted materials here at Elaine English Literary Agency. It is as such that I offer my opinions on how to get your manuscripts past us and accepted by an agent, namely Elaine.

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

Fairy Tales

I had forgotten how much I enjoy retellings of fairy tales until I recently read Ash by Malinda Lo. Ideally, any story that I read will take me down new paths and around unexpected corners. However, for the unexpected to be revealed in the retelling of a fairy tale is something entirely different. Fairy tales are one of the final communal vestiges of a story tradition that most people carry with them from childhood: maybe from an elementary school librarian's reading circle, a parent's bedtime story, maybe from the Bros. Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson or from Disney. Regardless of the source, many of these stories stand as touchstones in our understanding of stories and understanding of the world. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood all conjure the same basic plot lines and images. But instead of churning out the tropes and clichés that could accompany a hundreds-of-years-old story, Lo's imagery, narrative, and protagonist make the story of Cinderella brand-new and magical. And, better than anything, it makes me believe in love forever-after.

This book also reminded me of Robin McKinley's books--especially Beauty. Any other good fairy tale retellings out there?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Show, Don’t Tell: Body Language and Nonverbals in Writing

In reviewing submissions, I’ve given more thought to the challenge of ‘showing, not telling’ in fiction, or as Henry James would say: Dramatize! Dramatize! Dramatize! Like all writing techniques, this can be done well or badly. To illustrate this dual-edged sword, I thought it would be appropriate to provide a swashbuckling example.

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

Banned Books Week

Hello blogosphere!

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!