Monday, June 22, 2009


I'm leaving town later this week to go to Maine for a wedding, so I had some errands to run and shopping to do this past weekend to get ready: a wedding present, a dress, a new book for the plane, etc. In the midst of all that, I went to see The Proposal--the new romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds--and I started to read American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Two totally different genres and formats, but both got me to thinking about pacing.

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

That's what she said

I’m sure the issue of writing dialogue has been covered before, but since I’ve noticed a lot of weaknesses in this area in the submitted material I’ve been reading, I thought I would add my two cents.

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!


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Synopsis

So, an agent loved your query letter and has requested a partial manuscript. Congratulations!

As an intern, my primary job is to read through the massive pile of partials sent to the agency and give my recommendation on whether we should pass on the manuscript or request a full. Today I wanted to talk about a piece of the partial that so many authors underestimate, but which is incredibly important to those who read it: the synopsis.

When we only see the first three chapters of a story, our understanding of the story is very limited. We can see if the introduction leaves us wanting more or if the author's writing style is something we care for, but we don't get to see the twists and turns of the story, the development of the plot or characters, or--most importantly--how the story ends. The synopsis fills in those gaps, explaining to us how the story progresses and eventually concludes. Your story may be brilliant, the best ever written--but if your synopsis doesn't explain that story to us, we may pass on the submission and never know what we missed out on.

I've seen a lot of mistakes with synopses recently, and wanted to share a few of them with all the authors out there who are preparing their partials so they don't fall into the same traps.

A synopsis is NOT a blurb: I've seen a few synopses which are nothing more than a paragraph that very briefly describes the major conflict of the story, similar to what you would read on the back cover of a book. This is not enough. This kind of description is appropriate for the query letter, which the agent has already read. We know, basically, the gist of your story, but now we want to know how the plot progresses in a bit more detail.

A synopsis is NOT a chapter-by-chapter summary: On the other hand, don't go overboard. I had a synopsis that was nothing more than a summary of each chapter of the book. While the author did include all the information we needed to see, we also got a whole lot more. We've received synopses that were actually longer than the partial. This is not good. The synopsis should explain the important bits of your story, but shouldn't tell us about every minor character, side-plot, or trivial detail. If we want to know that, we'll request a full manuscript.

A synopsis is NOT a trailer: Please, please, please tell us the ending. I read a synopsis for a mystery novel that explained the entire book up until the point where the mystery was solved. It's really hard to evaluate a story without knowing how it ends. Having an author say that the plot leads to a "satisfying ending" or "an unexpected twist" doesn't really tell us anything. As much as I hate people giving away the endings of books before I read them, in order for us to do our jobs we have to have the ending spoiled.

A synopsis IS important: Please be sure to include one. If the story is a sequel, also include information about the previous book(s). Formatting should be the same as the partial--use the same font style and size, double-space, and number the pages. There is no strict page limit for synopses since it depends on the book, but the best ones I have read were around five pages (double-spaced). Synopses over ten pages tend to be way too much, while two-page synopses usually just aren't enough. We should be able to read your synopsis and understand the entire plot without feeling like we've just read the entire book squished into ten pages.

In short, take care when writing your synopsis. We interns read a lot of stories on a daily basis, and the synopsis plays a large role in our decision of whether or not to recommend requesting a full manuscript of any particular story. As lovers of books, we want to want your story--so write us a synopsis that will have us begging for a full. Good luck!


Monday, June 8, 2009

Starting Out as an Intern

Here I am—a twenty-year-old English major with a fragile dream of making it in the publishing world—who now finds herself in a position to dispense advice to readers most likely much wiser than herself. So rather than try to impress with some profound insight on the publishing industry, I will start with what I know: The Intern.

Every partial or full which comes into Elaine’s office is first reviewed by at least two interns. While we certainly don’t have the final say in acquiring or rejecting submissions, our evaluations, along with Naomi’s input, help Elaine determine which of them is the most promising. If you’ve submitted your material for consideration at this agency, you may wonder, and rightly so, what qualifies us interns to form judgments on your work.

So who are we, exactly? For one thing, we are all lovers of books. We have to be; otherwise we would probably never venture into this chronically unstable industry where it can take years to make one’s way up the totem pole only to find oneself the unemployed victim of another merger.

So we have probably all devoured books since we learned to read. As we’ve grown up, we have developed our own literary tastes, drifting from Nancy Drew mysteries to The Hobbit to Ian McEwan or Jodi Picoult. We’ve learned what it is that makes us connect with characters, driving us to keep reading until two in the morning to learn what happens to them. As students, we’ve delved into Faulkner and Joyce, written papers on Arthurian literature, and learned to recognize what sets great books apart from the rest, despite radical differences in story and form.

Now, for the first time, we have the opportunity to start putting what we have learned into practice.

I’m lucky, then, to be able to spend the majority of my day doing what I love—reading. But here there is no curling up on the sofa, propping a book open with one hand and sipping hot cocoa with the other (actually, that is not quite true; our interns’ office contains a plush sofa which I often monopolize). We plow through page after page, chapter after chapter, taking notes and then typing up reader reports. You might argue that this method disadvantages the writers we are reviewing. After all, it’s easy to get a little jaded after reading the fourth consecutive political thriller in which the President is abducted by aliens (okay, haven’t come across that one yet).

But despite this I think there is a genuine advantage to the method as well. By its very nature, the process of reading such large quantities at a time accentuates the strengths and weaknesses of the writing itself. Stories which lack originality or sharp prose fade unmemorably into the day’s piles of material, while writing that is fresh and compelling will instantly stand out as such. In other words, the cream rises to the top of the bucket.

We interns may not be the most experienced, but we know what to look for in a book, and we’re desperately eager to discover the treasure hiding in the slush pile. So to any writers out there with material waiting on an intern’s desk, take heart! You’re in good hands.


Friday, June 5, 2009

The Heart of a Woman

Harlequin is celebrating its 60th anniversity with an exhibit at Open Gallery in SoHo entitled "Heart of a Woman: Harlequin Cover Art 1949 - 2009." I wish I had known while I was in NYC over the weekend; the exhibit looks amazing. It will be on display until June 12th, but if you won't be in New York before then, check out the Flickr album from RT Book Reviews.

Also to celebrate its 60th anniversary, Harlequin is giving away 16 free (free!) e-titles. Check them out here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

a number of queries

How many times is too many times to query an agent about the same project?

If you’re doing it via email, of course, there’s always the possibility that it got lost in the ether of the internet, fell into a spam filter by mistake, or was accidently deleted by the miss-slip of a finger. Should you send it again just to be sure?

There’s one author who has now sent me the same email about the same project at least 50 times in the last six months. No, I’m not exaggerating. If anything I’m probably under estimating. I’ve gotten so proficient at deleting them, that I’ve probably forgotten how many. Some weeks I get his email two or three times a day. I dutifully responded to the first four or five – treating them all as though they were new queries. Next, I deleted a few with no response. Then I asked the author not to send the query any more. But the emails keep coming.

Someone suggested maybe the author has the query on some kind of auto-send and doesn’t realize the same query is going out to the same group of agents every time. But what author would do something like that?

I put his email on my list of addresses to block and still he manages to get through. Perhaps he really is just one of those cyber-stalkers. No spammer has ever been this relentless. Maybe I should be worried.

If he hasn’t gotten the message yet, I’m really not interested in his project (no matter how wonderful it might be) and harassing me with emails is not going to change my mind. Once would have been enough.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

New Release

Yesterday brought the release of Celeste Norfleet's book Sultry Storm, the next book in Kimani Press's Mother Nature Matchmaker series. When Mia James drove into the eye of a hurricane to save her father's home, she never anticipated rescuing deputy sheriff Stephen Morales, their passionate chemistry or the tumult that could keep them apart. Read more about the book here. Congratulations, Celeste!

Monday, June 1, 2009


I'm back from BEA (and a bit more rested than I was yesterday), and I think it was all it promised to be. Yes, it was more scaled-back, but everyone knew that would be the case before the show opened. Attendance-wise, it wasn't even that much smaller: according to the statistics I read, attendance was up 30% from last year's LA show, but down 11% from the 2007 NYC show. Instead, the main tightening of the belt buckles seemed to be on the exhibition floor: fewer exhibitors, smaller booth spaces for even the largest publishers, less physical galleys and more e-galleys. In an industry whose business model has arguably tended a bit toward gluttony (more on that later), maybe a leaner BEA isn't a bad thing.

And, even with the smaller show, there was still tons to see. In the arena of pure spectacle, there was the Javits Center itself--a gorgeous place for an industry trade show; Clifford the Big Red Dog in huge, inflatable attendance; the new Cool-er e-Reader being shilled by dancing women in sequined bikinis and headresses being followed by a trio of men with drums. In the arena of galleys, there were still plenty to pick up from well-known authors: Mitch Albom, James Patterson, et al; celebrities & celebrity brands: Serena Williams, a Top Chef team; as well as those from small presses and debut authors. Elaine practically advised me to only pick up the galleys I was interested in reading. I thought I was judicious in my selections, and my shoulder still ached at the end of the day.

Last, but nowhere close to least, it was a great and interesting day for business. I got to meet some foreign co-agents with whom I had only ever exchanged e-mails. I met some new editors. I got to meet some authors. I also attended several interesting seminars and panel discussions. One session focused on foreign rights and trends in Italy. (During the session, one publisher asked about Italy's market for erotica, and, after the presenter shook her head no, an audience member piped up to explain, "We have the Pope.")

One featured Chinese author and publisher Lu Jinbo--a pioneer in the internet literature phenomenon in China. Lu Jinbo's company publishes 200,000 online titles per year (yes, that's two hundred THOUSAND), and authors retain 2/3 of the profit. Some tips and business models that have helped make it such a success: online usage practices instead of the printed book are the point of departure; content is serialized (users pay about 3 cents per 1,000 characters); and users can use their mobile phones to pay for the content (they enter their cell # for the transaction and it is included on their cell phone bill). The numbers and scale in this venture are pretty astounding.

One of the most interesting panel discussions that I saw was at the end of the day on Saturday, Stupid Things Booksellers & Publishers Do. It was a discussion that was, at times, heated--although more with passion than alacrity.

One suggestion floated from an audience member involved reducing first print runs, to create heightened demand for first editions of books. If, for example, a first print run for prolific author & Guinness record-setter, James Patterson, well exceeds all wildest or even reasonable expectations of sales, why would a reader buy the book in its first-run, hardcover edition--knowing that the value will only depreciate? Why not wait, or check it out of the library? One might resist talking about books in such stark terms of capitalism, but it seems likely that bibliophiles (even the mildest bibliophiles) are the ones who will keep the print industry alive in some manifestation. Those of us who, when asked why we like books, start talking about the way new ink smells and a hardcover book spine cracks on first open, and the weight of a book in our hands when we're reading, and the world that grows with each turn of the page, are often the ones who are interested in investing in first editions or hardcovers of books. If the excessive supply is decreased, will the bibliophilic demand for books increase?

Another audience member (in response to panelist Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks) jokingly suggested putting Espresso Book Machines in every bookstore. The idea was not roundly scorned by panelists, which raises the questions: What do we get out of books? Out of reading? Out of reading communities? How are local bookstores conduits for local communities? How are those communities expanded in bookstores, and is that community dependent on the selling of books? How are those communities recreated online?

This forum, as everywhere in BEA this year, was rife with questioning: of business models, purposes, etc. But in every conversation, participants were obviously committed to the business of books (as we know them now or may know them in the future) and, therefore, committed to the written word. Needless to say, it was an exciting time.