Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Character in Queries

I know that it probably seems like we demand a lot from queries. Take your xx(x),000 word novel, synthesize it into a few paragraphs, add a little marketing/pitch overtone, highlight your hook (if you've got one), and just send it right off. No problem, right? Eh-heh. The good news is that the query system--while not perfect--does actually work really well. The bad news is that I've got another item to add to your query checklist: character.

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

Story finished? Now it's time to edit!

A few weeks ago, I read a letter in an advice column from a woman who had written a novel a few years before. When she finished the story, she sent out a few copies to publishers but never really expected anything to come of it. Lo and behold a few years later, she is offered a contract but her publisher wanted her to do some fairly substantial edits, and the author--since it had been some time since she wrote the book and was no longer as dedicated to the story--really did not want to do them.

I was baffled.

"Why would you send out a manuscript to publishers if you weren't willing to do edits?!" I thought to myself (and aloud...loudly). Because editing is a major part of the writing process, and is something any author who seriously wants to get their book published has to be willing and able to do. Many, many times.

I know writing a story is a lot of work. Trust me. A number of us interns came to the publishing industry after realizing that authorhood just was not in our futures. Coming up with an idea, plotting it all out, and then forcing yourself to sit down at your computer and type the entire thing... it's a long and tiring process. And when that first draft is finished, by all means help yourself to some champagne and take a few days off to celebrate.

But there's a reason it's called the first draft--because it isn't meant to be the last. At the very least, you're going to have some typos, but that is usually not the extent of the problems. Maybe you decided to change a character's name and your manuscript still uses both the old and the new name. Maybe it seemed like a really good idea when you were watching that documentary about typewriters to include a 10 page interlude about the history of the typewriter in the middle of chapter 12. Maybe you hit some writer's block half-way through and what you wrote in that section works, but it could be better. No story is 100% perfect the first time around.

Before you send a story to an agent, most authors have edited their stories a few times--they edited it themselves, they had a friend read it and give suggestions so they could edit it again, and then they edited it a few more times.

And then there is still work to be done, because your agent is probably going to want you to do edits too. And guess what? If you get a publishing contract, your editor is likely going to ask for some edits as well. Months/years after you "finish" that draft and have your glass of champagne, you will still be working on the same story.

Of course, many of you already know this. This is just part of the job description, and you know what you're getting into when you start drafting those query letters. But a lot of first-time authors (hello, NaNoWriMo participants!) don't realize that a story is never going to be finished in 30 days (NaNoWriYear?).

And trust me: we can tell if you just wrote "The End," printed off a few copies, and stuffed them into some envelopes without a second thought. This makes the interns cry, because really great ideas can turn into horrible stories without proper love and attention from their authors. And we'll cry some more if we can't sell a story we absolutely fell in love with because the author refuses to fix the gaping plot hole in chapter 7.

If you won't do it for the story, at least do it for the interns. We look pitiful when we cry.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Short Synopsis

When sending in a partial, the synopsis is key. I know we have blogged about this subject before but I can not overstate how influential a synopsis can be. A synopsis should be a concise overview of your manuscript’s plot, consisting of no more than 3-5 pages, preferably double spaced. It is important to remember that your synopsis is just as much of an example of your writing style as your manuscript. It is the first thing an intern reads and it creates the initial and most important impression.

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

How to Start Off on the Wrong Foot --

Several days ago, I received a query letter that stopped me cold. The author had a first novel she wanted me to represent. Rather than provide me information about the manuscript, she proceeded to tell me what publisher to whom I must sell the book and how she would not entertain ANY suggested revisions, other than the correction of the most superficial errors. She wasted a few more sentences telling me about her platform and how she enjoyed public speaking and then her email query stopped.

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.

Guest Blog: Anything's Possible

In honor of last week's release of A Killing in Retrospect, we're pleased to welcome Barbara Cummings to the keyboard today to tell us a little bit more about her career path and the Sister Agnes series. In her own words:

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

The Use of Etiquette in an Historical Setting

A good work of fiction requires mastery of plot, character, dialogue, etc. For some writers, that's not enough of a challenge. I'm writing specifically of those authors who choose an historical setting for their story. Not only must they master the basic elements of fiction, they must also depict the overlaying historical setting in a convincing manner. Of course an author runs the risk of jeopardizing her credibility if she mishandles the historical setting of their story.

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

New Release

This week marks another new release from one of our authors! Barbara Cummings's second mystery, A Killing in Retrospect, returns readers to Sister Mary Agnes and her cozy, prayerful crime-solving ways. In Depression-era Rhode Island, the 9-year-old son of a reputed mob boss turns to Sister Agnes to find the murderer of his mother. To learn more about this tale that Publishers' Weekly calls "gripping," pick up a copy today.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

New Release

The Mamma Lou Matchmaking series continues with Celeste Norfleet's new title, Love Me Now, out this week. Sexy, savvy fashion designer Kenya Whitaker only wants payback against Trey Evans--the ambitious (and charming) businessman who stole her father's company. But when her plan works a little too well, she needs to decide what (or who) she really wants. Read more here, and pick up your copy today!