Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Look Back and Forward

As we come to the end of another year, it seems only natural to look both back and forward. 2010 has certainly been an interesting year in publishing. When publishers finally woke up to e-books, they did so in a big way. The variety of e-book readers has expanded. First there was Kindle, then Sony, now Nook, Kobo, iPads, and others galore. Even Google has launched its own cloud.

As the paradigm shifts, the tone of the conversation about these changes shifts as well. Whereas in past years these changes made some publishers, writers, agents, and readers portend doom and gloom, in 2010, these changes brought a renewed energy to these dynamic conversations. As publishers embrace e-books, so do readers, with sales of e-books beginning to exceed sales of print books in several important instances. For example, some statistics show that voracious readers, like those who love romance, are ones most likely to buy e-books. As agents and writers embrace new media and formats, there’s a renewed sense of collaboration in the partnership to find the best outlet for writers’ work. It’s all rather exciting to be here as the paradigm shifts.

What will 2011 have in store? Sadly our crystal ball needs polishing and our psychic abilities have taken their leave on this subject. But what we do know is that those of us who love books will continue to love them. We’ll read them, we’ll buy them, we’ll collect them. We’ll treasure them. Those who love storytelling will continue to spin their tales. They’ll push themselves to write better and better books that more imaginatively bring to life their stories for the rest of us to read. Competition does bring out the best.

Here at the agency we have a marvelous group of talented authors who write great books. For 2011 we renew our commitment to work hard on behalf of the authors we represent. We look forward to finding new authors who also have wonderful stories to tell. And as we enter the holidays, we urge everyone to take a moment to find a good book and enjoy.

Happy Holidays! Elaine & Naomi

Friday, December 10, 2010

Teenage Dream: Writing for Young Adults

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of partial manuscripts for young adult novels. In my opinion, YA is one of the hardest genres to write. There are so many subsets of YA—historical, fantasy, and everything in between. It can be difficult to address teenagers, yet I think YA novels are so important. Adolescence is a turbulent time, and having something or someone (a fictional character, perhaps?) to relate to can be very reassuring. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help make your YA novel stand out.

In my eyes, character development is especially important in YA novels. But how exactly does one write a realistic teen? Tap into your high school self. Remember what it was like to be your character’s age—trying to find yourself, create meaningful friendships, and navigate the world on your own. Write these issues into your novel. Including a character who struggles with similar issues helps your reader to feel connected to the story. When creating your characters, be sure to think about age, because just a few years make a huge difference in maturity level. A thirteen year old and a seventeen year old will face massively different problems and situations.

Finally, don’t feel like you need to keep everything squeaky clean. The situations should certainly be age appropriate, but that don’t be afraid to provoke and challenge your reader. Also, avoid throwing in references to teenage heartthrobs and pop culture phenoms just because you want to appeal to your audience. Instead of speculating about what teens like to read about, just go with what you know; your novel will feel more real.

I hope this helps!


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

And the Rest is History...

Historical fiction is a genre that has so much potential—you can take a true story and retell it differently, make up a story and frame it within a certain historical time period, or even change the facts of history to suit your narrative. There are so many possibilities, and yet many writers seem to get stuck in the “history” part and never quite make it over to the world of “fiction.” In other words, some of the manuscripts I read have me wondering if I’m reading an original work of fiction or a history book.

The main mistakes I see with this type of writing are stories with too many historical details inorganically inserted throughout the text, so concerned with sounding authentic that the overall tone is very distant and, frankly, rather boring to anyone who’s not a diehard history fan. My guess is that the problem stems from a desire for authenticity—which I get. When you’re writing about a family in 19th century America, it would probably be best to leave cell phones out of the discussion, and certain aspects of 19th century life would likely need to be explained to readers. However, sometimes authors get a bit carried away with the history and forget the story.

I sometimes read manuscripts of historical fiction that have passages similar to something like this: “Lady Anne took up her hat, which had been purchased from Madame Beauregard’s hat shop in town. This particular hat shop was famed for being the most fashionable hat shop in the whole country, and had been founded in 1858, introducing the French style to England. The first hat shops in England were actually founded many years prior to this, such as Henrietta’s Hat Shop, established in 1832.” (I’m completely making all of this up, but you get the point.) Does a history lesson on hat shops actually further the plot? No, and on top of that, it’s boring; it takes the reader out of the story if every time a character uses something period-appropriate, you take a moment to give a dry, awkward history of said object. Relevant things should be explained, but not at the expense of coherency—remember that you’re writing a story and not a collection of facts. Besides, even history textbooks have to be coherent—you can’t just leap from one fact to another like they do in those bing commercials. History can be a great tool for a writer, but it shouldn’t crowd out the story in a work of historical fiction.

Hope this helps!


Friday, November 19, 2010

When Spell-check Fails: Proofreading and Your Manuscript

Everyone’s experienced it: you finish a paper or a story that you’ve spent hours and hours working on, read it through one last time on the computer, and print it out. You then reread the hard copy, only to find a spelling or grammatical error that spell-check didn’t catch. What went wrong?

The problem is in the proofreading—namely, the fact that most of us have become pretty lax about it. We depend too much on spell-checkers that don’t always fix everything. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read manuscripts that have grammar or usage errors – from something as simple as mistaking the word “reed” for “read” to something bad, like repeatedly conjugating the same verb incorrectly.

Basically what I’m saying is that before sending your manuscript to us, make sure it’s been proofread. Now, a badly proofread manuscript probably will not make or break our decisions on whether to accept something—after all, it is easier to correct a few typos than it is to develop a character or to change the pacing of a story. What it does do is give us the impression that the writer does not care as much about getting her manuscript published, which is something I’m sure none of the writers sending in materials intend.

It’s even more important to make sure that query letters are well proofread, because they are our first impression of you and your ability to write. We are less inclined to request materials from someone with a poorly written and proofread query letter, again because it gives us the impression of apathy on the writer's part.

However, do not fret because there is a very easy way to proofread your writing: read it out loud. When we read silently it is far easier to skip over parts of a piece, but reading aloud forces us to spend time with every word. You are much more likely to catch little mistakes by reading aloud – I promise. If proofreading is not your forte to begin with, just ask a friend who knows their grammar to help.

It's worth the time and effort, because we are sure to notice both good and bad proofreading. Keep up the good work, and happy writing!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

New Release & Free Read!

This month marks the release of Mail Order Cowboy, by Laurie Kingery. With beaux scarce in post-Civil War Texas, practical Milly Matthews and her “Spinster Society” friends have their hands full protecting their ranches. Their only hope: advertising for mail-order grooms. But aristocratic British cavalry officer Nicholas Brookfield isn’t exactly Milly’s idea of a cowboy—or a man she can trust. And the more Nick proves himself as a ranch hand, the more he must hide his past from the woman he longs to make his own. Learn more about the book by clicking here.

Also this month, Naughty or Nice by Tawny Weber is available exclusively as a free online read at Mari Madison wants only two things for Christmas: to help her mother win the town's annual holiday decorating contest and to reinstate her good-girl reputation so that she can start her business on the right foot. Then across the street she spots the best-looking Christmas package she's ever seen…and realizes it's Declan Cole. The man who ruined her reputation in the first place. The man who's sure he's going to win the contest. To read the serialized story (with new chapters being released daily), click here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Character Overload

When I’m reading manuscripts, or anything for that matter, I like things to be clear. It seems that the biggest enemy of clarity is attempting to do too much. Lately, my number one critique when reading manuscripts is that there’s too much going on. As Becca mentioned in her last blog post, too many details can really take away from a great manuscript. The same is true of too many characters. A manuscript with excessive amounts of character is an immediate red flag for me; if I can’t keep track of them all, I’m likely going to become confused and overwhelmed.

We all know how important character development is to a great novel. The main character needs to be fully fleshed out and at least somewhat likeable or relatable. After all, your reader will be hanging out with her for 200 pages! Secondary characters, on the other hand, are a bit different. Although these characters can be a significant part of a finished product, it’s important to remember that they aren’t meant to be protagonists. These characters have to take a bit of a backseat to the star of the show.

Too much background about less important characters can take away from the focus of a manuscript. Though it’s nice to get to know minor characters, the reader doesn’t need to know about every aspect of their lives. Plus, too much detail in secondary characters can lead to excessive storylines. If there are numerous characters and they all have their own things going on, it’s easy to overwhelm the reader with information. Be sure any secondary plotlines don’t take precedence over the main plot.

The important thing to remember when working on a manuscript is to make sure everything you write is important and necessary to the plot. As hard as it can be to eliminate a character you’ve grown attached to, sometimes you just have to do it! Cutting out some excess can really help to turn a good partial into a great one. Plus, you can always save those extra characters for your next novel!


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Let's Talk Dialogue

Dialogue is a great tool for a writer. It lets you communicate what a character’s thinking—or at least, what the character wants others to know she’s thinking—in her own voice, and it contributes to character development by allowing you to show how characters interact with one another. Dialogue makes it possible to allow your character to speak directly, rather than having to filter the speech through a narrator. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to have your character explicitly state: “I like ice cream!” rather than having the narrator describe that “Sarah likes ice cream.”

Good dialogue is also fun for the reader, because the verbal interaction of characters helps the reader get engrossed in the story. People in real life talk (I’m fairly certain verbal communication in some form or other is one of the human race’s great pastimes), so it makes sense that dialogue can be a great way to pull your reader into the story. For this reason, a lot of authors use dialogue as a way to reveal exposition or setting.

For instance, rather than telling us that Johnny is wearing a red shirt that looks like it came from the 80s, one could simply have another character (let’s take Sarah from before) say: “Ugh, Johnny, where’d you get that ridiculous shirt? That red is so out of style and, um, in case you haven’t noticed, so are the 80s.” (Note: this does not necessarily reflect my opinion of the 80s.) Now, Johnny’s red shirt isn’t terribly important—actually it may be, depending on where this story’s going—but you see how the reader learns what it looks like through the dialogue? This is often a more interesting and, importantly, a more subtle way to convey factual information.

However, there is a fine line between using dialogue to subtly reveal facts about the plot or setting and simply piling tons of exposition into a piece of dialogue. Say Johnny and Sarah are mechanics; if I have to read line after line of them explaining some mechanical process that’s apparently crucial to the plot, it just won’t feel right. Dialogue like this is stiff and wooden, and frankly, unnecessary. If they’re both mechanics, why are they explaining this stuff to each other? Even if one of them were not a mechanic, it's still awkward. Obviously the writer is trying to explain the relevant elements of mechanics to the reader, but if the explanation is going to be a long one, dialogue is not really the best way to do this. Instead you can leave this kind of thing to the narrator, because at the end of the day, characters should sound like themselves, not as if they’re mouthpieces for the narrator. (Of course, this can get complicated when the narrator is a character as well.)

An information dump can work in narration, but in general, if the information is extremely technical and/or does not sound natural to the character or the situation, you want to keep that out of your dialogue. The reader wants to hear the characters talk, so give them something worth listening to. Best of luck!


Friday, October 22, 2010

Creating the Fantastical

As an intern, I spend the majority of my time reading through manuscripts. And, admittedly, a lot of them tend to blend together. That’s why I get so excited when I come across a fantasy romance manuscript. Getting lost in another world for 50 pages? Yes, please. But, as fun as fantasy can be, it has the tendency to go awry.

One thing that seems to pose a problem for fantasy writers is defining their setting. Some writers seem to assume that the reader already knows the ins and outs of the fantasy world they’ve created. Don’t assume that! Writers need to define the setting and situation to help the reader better understand what’s happening. You don’t want your reader to feel lost or confused after just a few pages. If it seems like the characters all know something the reader doesn’t, they’ll feel disconnected and they won’t want to keep reading.

Fantasy is supposed to be fun, so don’t make your reader work to understand it. There really aren’t limits to what you can do in a fantasy world, but there needs to be something to allow the reader to relate to the characters. There has to be some grounding in reality. If the reader can’t identify with any of the characters or situations, they won’t be interested in the story. Don’t isolate your reader!

Of course, I can’t broach the topic of fantasy romance without covering Twilight. I can hear your groans now, so I’ll be brief—avoid the Twilight effect. Many of the manuscripts I read tend to fall into this category, where wolf packs and vampire covens abound. Yes, Meyer’s series is a smashing success, but that doesn’t mean that every fantasy romance must include someone named Edward.

The most important thing when writing fantasy is to have fun with it! Reading fantasy is an escape from reality. Be creative and let your reader in. I’m looking forward to reading what you have for us!

--Beverly, GWU ‘11

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Devil in the Details: What to Leave Out and What to Keep In

I have a tendency to get incredibly concerned with life’s little details – you know, the ones that don’t matter in the slightest, like squeezing toothpaste from the end of the tube instead of from the middle. In doing so, I often miss seeing what my family likes to call “the forest through the trees,” or the big picture. Is squeezing from the middle of the toothpaste tube really more important than brushing one’s teeth? No, not really.

Being so caught up in detail is occasionally a problem for me, but it has been a big help to me here at Elaine’s where small details could make or break a partial for us interns. Over the past few weeks I have noticed that lots of writers add plenty of details and minutiae to the descriptions stories. Don’t get me wrong- this is a good thing- but it’s also something one should be wary of.

For example, many of the partials I read here contain passages similar to this one:

As Alice stepped into the foyer, he heard the click of her Prada stilettos echoing across the marble floor. Bertram tried not to pay her any attention, but her crisp white oxford shirt (with the top three buttons undone) and gray silk skirt caught his glasses-framed eye, and he turned his head towards her. She was a vision, with her seemingly endless legs moving closer and closer towards him.

For the record, the above passage is not something I read in a partial. But what’s wrong with it? If I were to read something like this (and trust me, I have), I would get annoyed at the level of unnecessary detail used to describe Alice. For example, it doesn’t make a difference to me whether the white oxford shirt Alice is wearing was ironed earlier today or a month ago. It’s not particularly important to the romantic A-couple plot, and definitely not something that needs to be in the partial. Her clicking stiletto heels are important because they signal her arrival to Bertram, but unless the story is about Bertram’s magical ability to pick out shoe brands by the sounds of their heels on marble floors, we don’t need to know that they are Prada.

As a general rule I am more interested in seeing how the characters react to seemingly insignificant details than we are in knowing the details themselves. Let’s say, for example, that a partial involving a banker spent at least half a page describing the rising mortgage rates at his bank (also not something I have actually read about). The mortgage rates themselves are not interesting to read about – what is interesting is whether the banker starts jumping up and down or smoking at the ears after seeing them. Likewise, the three buttons undone on Alice’s shirt are more interesting if they clearly do (or do not) affect Bertram in some way.

It’s a fine line to walk. If there isn’t enough detail it will bother us, but it will also bother us if there’s too much detail. But this problem is not unsolvable – there are ways to practice adding just enough detail. One way I learned involved verbally describing to a partner how to draw an object. You know what the object of choice is, but your partner does not. Your task is to describe to them exactly how to draw the object without naming the object itself. Sound’s easy, I know, but it’s actually a lot more difficult than it sounds. This exercise is something I learned in a writing class at Georgetown University, and it has been a tremendous help to me. I hope it’s a help to you too!

Until next time,


Sunday, September 12, 2010

What do agents do on vacation?

So what is it that agents do when they go away on vacation, you might wonder? Well, this agents reads.

So how do you tell it's vacation? Well, first, I get to read "real" books, the kind that are typeset, that have those lovely covers, feel so wonderful as you hold them in your hands, and have that divine aroma of glue and "new book." That alone kept me entranced for the first day. But then after that, it was just the pure enjoyment of the stories.

First, I finished Judi McCoy's Death in Show, a fun story about a dog walker who solves mysteries and uncovers the inside scoop on dog shows. As you can see, Harry was less than thrilled, because as a rescue mix, dog shows are just not his thing.

Then I lost myself in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. Wow, what pacing and could you raise the stakes for those characters any higher? Yes, I know I'm a bit late starting the series, but now I can't wait to get to books 2 and 3. Hopefully, I can squeeze in time for those before the next vacation. (Because you'll soon see, that my entire reading list is made up of bestselling books from 2008 and 2009. Just a little behind . . ..)

After that, I plunged into Little Bee, by Chris Cleve, a heart-wrenching story of not only the immigration issue but also what it means to try to do good.

Then it was back in time with Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Kathleen Howe, a most thought-provoking, fresh look at the era of the Salem Witch trials. If you're a history buff, I'd definitely recommend this one. It really sheds new light on what seems like much more probable explanations for the witch frenzy than just those hysterical young girls.

And, then I topped things off with Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. I'm a great fan of hers and have read, I believe, all of her novels and most of her short stories. Again, this was a book that really got me thinking -- not only about what was happening in the story but the larger, universal questions she raises. Organic rooftop gardens take on new significance in the kind of dystopian universe she portrays.

In fact, I was so into survival mode by this point, that when they announced Hurricane Earle was on it's way, I was ready to sharpen all the knives and stockpile food.

Ever find yourself so lost in the world of books that it's reality that seems to be unreal?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New Release

One Fine Cowboy, by Joanne Kennedy, is released in stores today! PETA activist and graduate student Charlie Banks finds a whole lot more than she expected when she visits a horse whispering clinic for research purposes in Wyoming, including a gifted, but broken-hearted, cowboy named Nate Shawcross. Click here to read more!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New Release

September marks the release of Riding the Waves, by Tawny Weber. When an uptight workaholic takes a vacation from her career aspirations, she finds a the perfect playmate for her fantasies in Mexico. She just never imagined her temporary boy toy coming back into her life after vacation. Read more about the book here!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dreaming of a Better Dream Scene

Last night I dreamt I was running, running through a forest of trees with number two pencils for their trunks. I was running toward the sea, except instead of waves there were the gentle, symmetrical humps of a book lying open on its spine, and where seagulls should have wheeled and swooped above the water, there drifted flocks of uncoiled paperclips…

No, I’m just kidding. But seriously: why are dream sequences in fiction so tricky and often so poorly executed? I ask because I’ve seen a lot of them, good and less good, come through the slush pile this summer and because, upon reflection, I couldn’t think of a single dream sequence I liked in any book, except, maybe, the opening pages of Rebecca (which just came to me, finally, as I was writing this sentence).

In movies and on television, it’s a different story, so to speak. I can think of lots of really haunting, effective, memorable dream sequences from the screen. (Tony Soprano’s ominous dreams about people he’s “whacked” are the first that come to mind.) But the advantages of the visual arts are easy enough to pinpoint. A producer and director and editing team can work together until a dream matches their collective vision exactly. Their toolbox of special effects and background music and quality acting seems somehow vaster than that of an author, her pen, and merely all the words she can think of.

Also, depending on how heavily laden with symbolism a dream sequence is, a character’s dream can seem too much like telling instead of showing. If the glamorous lead cheerleader in a YA novel keeps up a confident façade with her peers but then dreams about a mortifying situation, the author is taking a shortcut to tell us the character has self-esteem issues instead of showing us, perhaps through interaction with other characters, that there’s a problem. Also, a dream like this would be hard for readers to swallow because, come on—whose dreams are that clear?

On the other hand, if a dream is too full of abstract symbols and metaphors and the author is showing without any interpretation at all, readers either won’t be able to visualize the scene “correctly,” or they won’t understand the significance of the dream, just like the character probably won’t.

So I’d like to know your thoughts, readers. Are there fabulous dream scenes out there from which we should all draw inspiration and formulate strategy? What are some advantages to fitting a dream sequence into your novel? What are some disadvantages? How have you struggled with, or why have you avoided, scenes from the REM cycle?


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The What Ifs

Like many agents, the practice of using a rhetorical question to open a query letter rubs me the wrong way. I've never really been able to pinpoint why, but over the past month, I've heard ample pitches and read ample queries to allow me to figure this out a little better.

Many of the pitches I heard began with the rhetorical question that probably all authors ask themselves when they begin to write: "What if?" What if spaceships landed in the Himalayas and aliens infiltrated a Buddhist monk colony? What if a woman was charged with murder after the accidental death of her husband? What if Rachel Zoe was actually a zombie? What if The Breakfast Club took place on Antarctica? (In case you were wondering, these are not pitches that I heard.)

This question and the wonder that follows can be the root of inspiration for a story--the knot the author seeks to unravel; the beads the author worries into a plot. So the "What if?" can be a rhetorical question that the author asks herself. It doesn't bother me as part of a pitch. An in-person pitch has more room for conversation, after all, and rhetorical questions are often used in conversation. That being said...

The rhetorical question doesn't work as well in the query letter. I think it's because, in writing, it comes across as a lazy device. This book--an entire manuscript, thousands of words(!)--has been written by you, the author, and has been plumbed from the depths and heights of your imagination. One of the reasons I love reading query letters is because they offer glimpses into that imagination. But using a rhetorical question to start a query letter takes the onus of imagination off of the author and places it on the reader/agent's shoulders. This is a risky practice. It takes an agent out of the query letter and away from your story, when your query is your one chance to showcase the writing and imagination that you poured into your story. You'll be hard-pressed to keep a rapt audience with rhetorical questions, and you need a rapt audience to get the attention your query letter deserves.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Agency News

We're pleased to announce that Laurie Kingery has been nominated as a finalist in the American Christian Fiction Writers' annual contest, the Carol, in the short historical category for The Outlaw's Lady.

The Outlaw's Lady was released in August of 2009 by Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historicals and is the story of a lady photographer in the Rio Grande valley in the 1880's who i's kidnapped by a handsome stranger who may or may not be allied with Mexican bandits.

Congratulations, Laurie!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Texting 101: It's Here 2 Stay

We live in a world of convenience, and the technology in contemporary books obviously reflects that. Now characters have laptops instead of typewriters, and Prada suits instead of hoop skirts. We fly on planes instead of taking the stage, and we write about cell phones instead of rotary phones or telegrams.

Which leads me to today’s blog topic: how to use text speak/text messages in your manuscript.

With the emergence of texting over the last few years, it’s finally begun to weave its way into contemporary literature. And when done right, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! Even if you don’t text, you undoubtedly know what it is, and know your readers will, too. It’s almost expected, these days, that you include modern conveniences in your story. As a writer, what you have to be careful of is how you include those things in your work.

Though text messaging is far more prevalent in YA novels than it is in the varying adult genres, it’s still become a trend that I feel needs to be addressed. I’d say around 60-70% of our YA submissions include text messages in one form or another, be it an actual text message, or just a reference. That’s not to say you should take them out; I’ve seen a fair amount of text messages in recent published fiction. They’re woven in seamlessly, and there is, more or less, a purpose for it. They’re also done in such a way that the reader isn’t left guessing as to the text’s meaning.

However, in the submissions we receive, this is where I think things tend to get a little messy. There have been numerous times where I’ve spent a good 20 to 30 minutes trying to decipher all of the text messages an author has included in their manuscript. Words have been made up, or shortened to such an extent that they’re unrecognizable. In one instance, I thought the text messages were actually a code the reader was supposed to crack in order for things to be explained. I was disappointed to find out this wasn’t the case at all – it was just a failed attempt at including text speak in their manuscript.

That being said, I think there are plenty of books that pull off texting very well. Just keep the following in mind when adding texts to your own manuscript.

1. Things like “How r u?” and “I’ll c u 2morrow” are things easily understood by a reader. “W@ up d00d adsouyasdh” is not.
2. Is there a purpose behind using text messages? Could the information be incorprated in another (better) way? If so, it’s probably best to go that route.
3. If your characters are in the same room and could freely speak to one another, don’t resort to a conversation through text messages.
4. One of the main rules of writing is to show, not tell, how things are done. Texting is strictly telling, so you want to keep it to a minimum.
5. Keep it consistent. If you’re going to use text messaging throughout your novel, spell everything the same way.

I firmly believe text messaging in contemporary fiction is something that’s here to stay. So just be sure to include it in a way that makes sense, and doesn’t pull the reader further and further from your piece. After all, writing is about gaining a new audience, and once you have them, it’s up to you to keep them around.

Best of luck!


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Little Goes a Long Way: Writing Laughs in Chick Lit

Invariably—yep, I’ll stick to my guns on this one: invariably—chick lit features a funny heroine. There are as many versions of this heroine as there are types of humor, but Ms. Protagonist is funny, in her own way, no matter what curveballs life is chucking at her head. Definitions of chick lit readily acknowledge this basic element of the genre, but many how-to writing guides ignore it as a process to be broken down, unlike plot or character development.

I don’t know the magic humor ratio of a chick lit novel, but I know what seems to work (i.e. what makes me and reviewers laugh out loud) and, perhaps more important, what doesn’t. Take, for example, a passage from an upcoming project here at EPE. The narrator’s name is such that her old flame nicknamed her “Ju-ju,” and when they reunite after twenty-five years, he recoins the term of endearment immediately:
He gave a low laugh. “Sorry, Ju-ju. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was aiming for pleasant surprise.”

Ju-ju. Holy God, I hadn’t heard that name in twenty-five years. Charlie had coined it at the height of our heat. I was his Ju-ju, he’d murmured in bed, his fetish, his lucky charm. I hadn’t the heart to tell him Ju-ju meant “breast milk” in Korean.
Here, humor is introduced at the very end of the paragraph, which otherwise might have been fairly generic. The first three sentences of the second paragraph point toward the narrator feeling sentimental and nostalgic. But the fourth line, because of its placement and unexpectedness, comes off like a punch line, and readers smile in appreciation. The narrator isn’t feeling totally sappy after all. When the author can go on at length about the nickname’s history, she cuts herself short with a quick, clever joke, and when she can take the joke even further—e.g. “I didn’t think Charlie would have been too enthusiastic about calling me his ‘breast milk’ over and over, although my mother would have found it hilarious…”—she reins things in and moves along in the scene. The next line is the narrator’s reply to Charlie.

Herein lies something approaching a how-to for chick lit humor. It seems there are (at least) two major factors to keep track of when writing a funny chick: placement and unexpectedness. Placement deals with questions like whether a joke will ruin the tone of the scene, whether it will slow down a paragraph’s pace, or even whether it will distract a reader from the lines that come before and after it. If a narrator’s silly musings get so off track that they’re no longer related to the scene at hand, chances are the humor has gone too far.

Likewise with unexpectedness, if readers can see a joke coming from a mile away, its effect is diminished. Just as people will notice when someone is trying too hard to make a good impression at a party, so too will we sense when an author is focused on cracking jokes at the expense of plot progression or realistic character development.

These considerations are especially important in chick lit because of the aforementioned funny-chick narrator requirement, but as a diversely experienced slush reader, I know writers of all genres struggle with humor. Notable bedfellows are genres like YA (too-sassy teen narrators often make readers want to ground them) and thriller novels (you’re being shot at from a plane and you have the presence of mind to voice hilarious one-liners to your partner in crime—really?).

This post is certainly not a how-to for writing funny narrators. (If only I knew it so well!) It’s a call for caution, or at least for awareness. An author’s fabulous sense of humor will not necessarily transfer, intact, to her heroine, but it’s important that if a narrator is aiming to be funny, she does so pretty successfully. A narrator who is trying for laughs but failing is often not engaging enough to spend the length of a novel with. My time so far at EPE has taught me that, indeed, the reverse—a narrator who isn’t trying for laughs but gets them anyway—is the trickier but preferred route.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lost and confused: Point of view changes

Last time I wrote about captivating the wide, tricky YA audience. This time I have another tricky topic to cover: multiple narrating characters. There is nothing more confusing when reading a partial manuscript (a.k.a. the first three chapters or the first 50 pages) where the narrative point of view changes without any indication. I have been befuddled and completely lost within the first ten pages of several partials and left to decipher which character is narrating. Nothing is worse than having a confused reader because it leaves them feeling either unintelligent for not being able to follow the reading, or uninterested in the novel completely. Neither of these options are good for you as the author.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the writing mastermind behind narrative POV changes and I have read numerous published books and a few partials that nail this and allow the plot to completely open up through multiple characters. There are two main differences between those partials that nail this literary concept and those that flop: the lack of signaling and consistency.

Signaling is not difficult, but necessary. This can be done through each chapter being titled with the characters name (i.e. William Faulker’s As I Lay Dying), diary entries/time stamps, noticeable spacing, etc. It is important to have a clear indication that the reader can easily identify.

Also important is that you are consistent with how you indicate to the reader the change in POV. In addition, be consistent to the POV you allocate to each character. If Jane is introduced using third person narration, while Bob is introduced using first person, then Jane’s narration should consistently be in third person and Bob’s narration should always be in first.

Point of view changes are manageable, so don’t be discouraged. If you believe your novel should be told through multiple viewpoints, my greatest suggestion would be to proofread your manuscript yourself or have a proofreading buddy. If you become lost, or your buddy becomes lost because of the switches, then don’t send the partial in. The last thing you want is to send your partial to an agent and have the agent and interns lost before your partial submission is complete.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Revise First, Celebrate Later

Last time I talked about the recent upsurge in prologues, and how I usually make a note to myself that the piece would be stronger without one. Flipping through my notepad while trying to come up with something to talk about today, I realized another common theme had emerged: proofreading and editing.

Imagine you’ve just finished writing your first manuscript. You get that rush of pride, pump your fist, maybe go out and celebrate. Then you’re hit with that rush of adrenaline and decide, instead, to immediately begin querying. Because you need to get your Awesome Incredible Manuscript out there for agents to see! And rightly you should!

Just not yet.

Finishing a novel is a major accomplishment, so definitely take the time to celebrate. Did you know that of the massive amount of people who attempt to write a novel, only 3% actually succeed? So you’ve already got one up on most of the population. That’s definitely something to be proud of! But trust me when I say that first draft is not what you want to send out to agents.

Proofreading, editing, and revisions are a major part of the writing process, and cannot be overlooked due to your overwhelming excitement. You’ve got a complete manuscript in front of you, and that’s an incredible feat. But now you need to refine it. Sometimes it helps to step away for a week, or even a month. You’ve been pounding away at your keyboard for months (or years) trying to finish your story, and a break after that kind of work is needed. Even if only for a few days, it will allow you to clear your head and reevaluate what you’ve written.

I can speak from experience. I spent seven months working on the piece I’m currently querying. I wrote it in three months, then rewrote half of it, then revised and edited for another four months. It was hard not to start sending out query letters as soon as I’d finished that first draft; I understand completely how hard it can be to reign yourself in at times. You wrote a novel! You want people to see it! But those months of editing and revising really helped to improve my manuscript to the point that, when I finally began sending it out, I knew I was sending out my best work.

The thing is, it took a lot of time and effort to get there. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read through my work trying to find mistakes that needed to be fixed. So what did I do? I took the advice of some writer friends and got myself two critique partners. And let me tell you, it was the smartest decision I’ve ever made. There are lots of places online where you can find them, or even local writing groups. The key is to find a reader who is going to be honest with you and tell you what things in your story can be improved upon. Because it’s your work, you obviously have the right to veto any comments they make, but think long and hard about their suggestions. As much as you love that scene between Little Red Riding Hood and your Darth Vader-esque villain, is it really necessary? Or that argument between Mom and Dad about the ratty old couch – does it help to advance the story, or is it just filler?

Critique partners will also help with proofreading and line edits. They’ll hopefully catch the occasional tense change, or make note of a character who is suddenly coming across as a completely different person. Those kinds of changes are pretty easy to fix, and trust me when I say proofreading goes a long way. When I’m reading a manuscript and there are a bunch of typos on the first page, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the piece. Usually those typos go all the way through the story and lets me know that the author didn’t take the extra time to look over their work. Massive amounts of typos really pull the reader out of the story, and that connection you were hoping to make can’t really happen.

Over the course of this summer I’ve read a pretty good amount of work that felt very much like a first draft. While the plot might have been great, the characterization fell flat, or jumped around a lot. Or maybe the characters were awesome, but the plot was so confusing it became impossible to follow. There are times when a story told in first person will suddenly jump into third, which results in me having to go back over what I’ve read to make sure I didn’t confuse myself. Wrong words take the place of what was obviously supposed to be there, and nonexistent words like “anyways” and “alot” show up. Those kinds of things are problems that might have been resolved by a careful read through, or a critique partner.

So, congratulations on finishing that novel! Now it’s time for the real work to begin. Take your time revising – you’re in no rush. In just a little while you’ll have a shiny manuscript that’s all ready to go, and then you can proudly send it out into the world, head held high, because you know it’s your very best work.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Additional submission information

Congratulations to Laurie S! She's the 500th person to submit a query to me since I reopened to queries in mid-May.

Well, technically, she's not the 500th person to submit. I have been trying to keep up with my backlog. At first, it was only a week's backlog and then a couple of weeks, and then the back log slipped to a month. So, in fact, Laurie S. is just the person who happened to submit when my counter first made it to 500. A milestone that doesn't make me very happy. It means that despite my best efforts, I can't keep up to the tune of 500 backlogged queries.

But I do promise and commit to continuing to use my best efforts to try to stay on top of them. (Flash: I'm having visions of sinking in the oil-soaked Gulf, at this particular moment. Wonder why?)

But as I was going through some queries the other night (yes, that's when I do most of them, at home with Harry at my feet), I realized that maybe if I provided a bit more information, it would make things easier for me as well as for those authors who are submitting queries. I'm seeing some common patterns of submissions for books that just don't appeal to me. So I thought I might as well come clean.

I don't like stories about Al Qaida or terrorists in general. I'm really not into war stories, either. And, despite the fact that I live in DC, political or CIA thrillers rarely excite me. (Perhaps I see too many of them in real life on a daily basis.) I'm just not that into action adventure (what I call "guy stories"). This doesn't mean I would never be interested in a story set during war time, but my focus really is on fiction that appeals to women. When I say I'm interested in thrillers, I'm much more fascinated by psychological thrillers where the focus is on the characters and who and why they're doing what they're doing, rather than on the plot-driven, action adventure thrillers that I seem to be seeing in great profusion.

I am also not likely to be interested in stories about pedophiles or defrocked priests. And stories with too many illnesses (cancer, etc.) just make me sad.

While I never say never because I am constantly amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of authors and their ability to create something wonderful from an otherwise unappealing plot idea, I do find that I have lots of queries for things that don't appeal to me.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with these kinds of projects. Best-selling authors, obviously, have made their careers on just these kinds of stories. But I do think agents gravitate towards things they like. I know it would be hard for me to effectively represent something that I didn't like or couldn't properly evaluate.

So, please, save us both some time and if you have one of the projects I've described above, you're probably better off going to another agent with it. In the meantime, I'll continue to hum only 500 queries to go, only 499 queries to go. . .

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

They're Just Not That Into Me: The Art of Rejection

The first word of the rejection letter I received yesterday was “Though.”

And the first word of my reaction was “Ouch.”

I’ve submitted, and been rejected, often enough to know nothing promising can come of a letter that opens with “Though.” Granted, the thin envelope should have tipped me off—thin is never good in the world of literary submissions—but I was still taken aback by how quickly my brain was forced to conclude, Yeah, it’s all downhill from here.

And indeed, the remainder of the message on the little blue cardstock upheld its opening tone: “Though your work has been declined by our editors, we thank you for allowing us to consider it.”

My writerly half was a bit stung. According to my experience with rejection letters, this one was committing quite a few egregious fouls. There was no personalization, no signature (fake or otherwise)—and the length! My work has been declined so summarily that I can’t even get twenty words? I reiterate: ouch.

But my volunteer/intern half took things in stride and attempted to console my writerly half: Think about how many submissions you’re up against; think of those punk slush-readers who just don’t pay enough attention; think of how much money X Review apparently needed to save by way of this crappy rejection mini-letter; etc.

I know these arguments are more legitimate than “How dare they!” Any agent or editor who accepts material electronically will tell you e-mail opens up an agency or publication to hundreds more submissions than they received via snail mail, and in most cases this makes it logistically impossible to send each writer a detailed, personalized response. I also know literary reviews are struggling right now in an economy of readers who still can’t justify an extra $50 a year for subscriptions. The magazines cut their own spending in turn, and this often trickles down to smaller, plainer rejection letters, which reduce printing costs, and shorter messages, which might allow a staff member to help out with a project other than tailoring rejections with names, titles, and addresses.

A few of my graduate classmates used to tell urban legends about receiving helpful, detailed critiques from certain editors along with extensive line editing in their actual manuscripts, but I’ve had no such luck. I have become accustomed, instead, to polite and concise notes that let me know someone appreciates my submission but is sorry to say my story cannot be used at this time. These, I think, are successful enough in their missions. They let the author down easy, but they include a dash of hope, of encouragement for the author to submit more work in the future. And I find myself wondering whether I would really want the intensive feedback I mentioned above. Knowing how specific certain publications are, I’d fear an editor would mold my story to his exact standards but would render my work ill-fitting for anywhere else. And knowing that feedback from writing workshops can be extremely contradictory, I’d also worry that one review’s exhaustive revisions would alienate big groups of readers who might like my story as is, that maybe X Review truly wasn’t the right place for my work.

But still: “though?”

So as I lick my wounds today, I’m also contemplating what makes for a “good” rejection, and whether there even is such a thing. I know, from internships with different reviews and literary agencies, that if a rejection letter is too soft, some authors will re-query, unsuccessfully. I once opened an e-mail that simply asked our agency (not EPE) to “indulge [his] request that [we] take another look.” My supervisor was furious at this author’s demands on her time and at his presumption that our agency didn’t know what it was doing when we first turned him down. (Our second rejection letter was…um…clearer (but we still didn’t start with “though”).)

These, I think, are two ends of a definable spectrum: too nice and not nice enough. In between there are countless nuances of rejection letter etiquette. Too long, too brief, too personal, too generic, et al. Ultimately, however, it helps me to remember that even the nicest, most delicate, or even flattering, rejection letter is still a rejection letter at the end of the day. I’ve found, from a writer’s standpoint and from an agency's, that honesty is the common denominator in all valuable feedback. And if the price of X Review’s honesty is a message that starts with “Though,” then so be it (she grumbles).


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stop and Think

Knowing your audience is extremely important for Young Adult authors. When I read young adult partial manuscripts I first think is it something I enjoy (since I could be considered at the highest tip of the young adult audience) and then I think is it something I would want my younger siblings to read (who are at the bottom and mid-range of the young adult audience) and if they would enjoy it.

Unfortunately, I find the content in the young adult partials inconsistent. Either I like it, but would cringe if I saw my younger siblings read it or overall the partial is too childish. For example a character may be described as thirteen but swears like a sailor, or a fifteen-year-old character is acting more like a two-year-old (who wants read a main character having a tantrum?). If your character is thirteen, have them be thirteen not a thirty-year-old with a mature cursing vocabulary. Curse words don’t have to be added randomly into a young adult novel to make it be current or relatable. A character using curse words randomly seems like the author is trying too hard to be hip. Curse words are tricky because they can work well. If they are consistently (but not overly) used with the character being drawn, then curse words work well in creating a YA novel for all ages.

So again I want to encourage young adult authors to stop and think about whether the actions of your characters are plausible and can reach the wide YA audience effectively.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Release

As the summer reading season begins, we're celebrating the release of Celeste O. Norfleet's latest book--Heart's Choice. Football legend Devon Hayes has always fantasized about Hollywood actress Jazelle Richardson. When Devon and Jazz finally meet, their chemistry is off the charts--but Jazz is determined to live her life away from the spotlight, and she's wary of the man who loves being a celebrity. Learn more about the book here, and happy reading!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Ups and Downs of Prologues

While reading through submissions the last few weeks, I’ve noticed an upsurge in the use of prologues. I’d say roughly 20-30% of the partials we get have that little extra something at the beginning, and more often than not, the first line on my notepad is: remove prologue, or something to that effect.

As a writer myself, I can understand the lure of including a prologue in your manuscript. It’s an easy way to offer the reader some backstory, to explain something that just doesn’t fit well within the novel itself, or to hint at what’s to come. An enticement, or sorts. And really, that’s what a prologue should be. It needs to grab your reader’s attention right off the bat, and make them want to continue on to chapter one.

That being said, prologues are usually completely unnecessary. You want your story to begin in medias res (“in the middle of affairs”), so pouring information into a prologue or the opening chapters ultimately does your novel a disservice. There is always a place within the story that you could place the same information, and it would allow for a slower progression of facts, which is much easier on the reader. Think of your favorite book. I can pretty much guarantee that the first chapter or two aren’t information dumps. A family’s sordid history is usually explained throughout the course of the book, not front-loaded. It’s easy to forget while you’re writing, but I think sometimes we all need a little reminder.

With prologues, you can’t give away too much. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve come across lately. I recently took a trip to Barnes & Noble to pick up some YA titles I was interested in. One book in particular really struck a chord with me, in that the prologue basically gave away the entire plot. The opening pages did what many prologues do in that it explained the history between two characters. And while that can sometimes work, this one didn’t. Within the first three pages, I knew exactly what was going to happen between the main characters, and how the story would end. Talk about feeling cheated. While the book itself was pretty good, I was still frustrated that nothing came as a surprise. I like having to work to figure things out, and the prologue for this story spelled everything out. You don’t want your prologue to be too obvious. Leave some room for guessing!

One book that I think has an excellent prologue is Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush. It’s a great example of how these monsters should be tackled. It explains some of the history of the story, while leaving plenty to the imagination. The tension is palpable within those opening pages, and carries on throughout the entire novel. You get to meet certain characters, but you don’t find out who until later on. It’s vague, but at the same time, it’s not. By the end of the book, you can really appreciate the information given in those few opening pages. That is how a prologue should work.

Now, don’t take this post to mean that if you’ve written a prologue, you should immediately go and delete it. Don’t! But really consider its function in your story. Are you dumping too much information on your reader? Would you notice its absence if you deleted it? Is it an integral part of your novel, or just something you wanted to include for fun? If it really is important, by all means, keep it. But if you find that your book would be exactly the same, or better, if you took it out, do the right thing. You’ll be happier for it, your manuscript will appreciate it, and the first line on my notepad can instead be: I’m hooked.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Worthy cause

If you haven't already heard, Brenda Novak is once again holding her on-line auction to raise money to support diabetes research. Since she started in 2005 she has already raised over $770,000 for this worthy cause. Diabetes among children continues to be on the rise. Research to understand the disease and unlock a cure is critical.

The auction has something for everyone -- but especially for readers and writers and those who love books. Yours truly has donated a critique of the first three chapters and synopsis, as have more than 60 other agents. Editors have donated critiques as well.

But the auction ends on May 31st, so you only have this week to check it out. I know economic times are tough, but reaching out and giving is always in season.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Themes in Queries

I love a good, academic literature class. A class that dissects the thematic elements of a novel, its narrative and character arcs, or, better yet, a discussion that posits a novel's significance in a particular cultural or political landscape is more stimulating than a piece of dark chocolate. Seriously. (Ok, sometimes, at least.)

It's likely that many authors consider themes when writing their manuscripts, also. There are "issue" books in YA and middle grade--books that focus on divorce, drugs, peer pressure, etc., just like the infamous after-school special. But even outside of "issue" books, themes crop up when discussing and pitching all kinds of fiction: YA and adult; commercial and literary. I see the touchstones of these themes in query letters--words like "loss," "self-discovery," "grief," "journey into manhood," etc.

Now, if you were worried that I was going to add ONE MORE THING to your query checklist, have no fear. I don't think theme needs to be mentioned in a query at all. You can scratch it off your list. That being said, if you feel it's important to mention theme in your query, give your query letter a few extra double-checks before you send it out.
  1. Does your mention of theme add a unique element that you can't add through plot or character description/summary/pitch?
  2. Or does it rely on clichéd, broad tropes to do your dirty work instead of the fresh, specific language of your story, your plot and your characters?
If the latter, that is, if you're assuming that clichéd theme words will get your query letter in the door and close the sale while your good, special manuscript words are all hanging out together at home taking a nap on the recliner, make a new assumption. Herd those words you've got in manuscript form together, and send them out on the door-to-door sales calls. If you want to send them out in tandem with your theme words, they might make a good team--just don't send those poor theme words out all alone in their dusty grey suit hugging a battered briefcase filled with used tracts. It's a lonely sight to see at your doorstep, and it looks just as lonely in an agent's email box.

The best themes are subtle and incite conversation, maybe in class, over a post-dinner port, in book club, or with your critique partners/agent/editor while revising your manuscript. So be a little judicious in employing theme in the query letter. Otherwise, an agent might think that your manuscript has a didactic tone, not an engaging plot, and you might not get a chance to have the discussion about theme during revisions.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

New Release

As promised last week, this week marks the release of Celeste Norfleet's Cross My Heart--a story about a savvy, sexy single mother and the unexpected romance that comes her way. Read more about the title here, and pick up a copy today. Most importantly, happy Mother's Day to all of the mothers reading!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Have you seen those stamps?

I don't usually make it to the computer keys. There's so much more to do around here, what with sleeping under the desk, sitting in the chairs, and monitoring those guys in the blue/brown uniforms who bring stuff to the office.

But today I'm really excited and I wanted to share. Our office now has the most wonderful U.S. postage stamps to put on our mail. There are handsome pictures of THE most wonderful dogs and even some of those intriguing creatures that I think they call cats. Sitting up there proudly on those envelopes, my friends look very nice. One of the stamps even shows a dog who could really be my cousin!

But as a rescue fellow myself, I clearly know the importance of these stamps. Of course, it's better if you can, adopt a pet, but in the meantime, support all of us adoptees by buying stamps.

Thanks, Harry

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Note on Synopses

When reading partial manuscripts, the first thing that I always read, before even taking a peak at the partial itself, is the synopsis. As of late, I have found this to be a particularly troubling element for many writers who have submitted their work to us.

Some writers submit synopses with not enough information. I like brevity and conciseness, but when I see a synopsis that is only a few paragraphs long, I am always concerned. Usually these synopses give a hint of what the story is about, but they don’t outline the full plot, leaving me to guess what kind of climax and resolution the story might have. They almost always end with something like, “Will John Doe learn to let down his defenses and go after the woman he loves?” These teasers drive me crazy! How am I supposed to know whether or not your novel has a decent climax and resolution and is something that we can market if you don’t tell me how the story plays out?

And then there are the writers who submit incredibly long synopses (usually four pages or more), outlining every single detail of their story. When I see these, I feel like I’m back in high school, reading Cliff Notes or Spark Notes, in which every minute detail in every single chapter is spelled out. I don’t want to feel like I’m cramming for a test on a book that I didn’t read. I just want to know what the story is about, generally speaking. Who are the main characters, and what is the plot arc, including conflict, climax, and resolution? That’s all I need to know. I don’t need to know every single detail—that’s why I’m reading the manuscript.

A synopsis can make or break your chances. After your query has been accepted, it is your first chance to make a good (or bad) first impression. You have to find a good balance between saying enough and not saying too much. Generally speaking, if it is only a few paragraphs, you haven’t written enough, and if it’s more than three five pages (with 1.5 or double spacing), you’ve written too much. Think of the synopsis as a sales pitch in which you have only a few minutes—or pages, rather—to convince us that your story is worth publishing. Don’t tease us, don’t ramble on forever. Just tell us what we need to know.

~ Jenn