Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Spreading Some Agent Love

Some of you may be published or represented by a literary agent. If that's the case, and if you'd like to share some info about your agent or what drove you to them, please feel free to share the love and give them the credit they deserve.

Or, if you're an agent seeking new authors, feel free to comment and let us know your wish list.

We'd love to hear the story.

Monday, June 28, 2010

One of these days...

Writing is a lonely business.

You write your query letters and send them off to your agents-of-choice. Then you wait. It's horrible. The excitement and frustration is difficult to explain to your non-writing friends.

You check you email every day, multiple times, hoping to see something encouraging from one of those agents. Occasionally, something shows up, but it's usually not very encouraging.

But the sun does break through the dark clouds every so often. Every once in a while, there's a request for samples, and that's when your heart races with new hope. So you send off the samples and go back to waiting. Yes. It's a lonely business.

So what do you do to fill the time? Do you go back to your WIP and continue writing it or editng it? Do you return to your recently completed novel and tweak it a bit more, even though you have fulls and partials out to agents who've requested them. Do you start thinking about a new story?

I know I'm going to get lots of different answers on this one. So type away and tell us what you do to fill the waiting time.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Can you say "Pissed off?"

My breath rushed in when I realized what she was planning. “Oh, my goodness!” I said.

What? Oh, my goodness? How bland. How boring. You would have to work pretty hard to write that with any less emotion or tension. Have you ever had one of your characters say something like that? Or something equally innocuous? Sometimes it works. Other times it’s really painful, and it feels totally wrong to have to resort to something so weak. You know, and your reader knows, what the character should be saying. And sometimes it ain’t, “Oh, my goodness!” Sometimes it’s more like:  

My breath rushed in when I realized what the crazy bitch was planning. “Holy Jesus on a treadmill!" I yelled. "Have you lost what's left of your fucking mind?”

Obviously, it’s a little tricky saying what we really want to say in a middle grade manuscript. And, we’ve all been middle grade students in the past. If I remember correctly, we had a different vocabulary we used among ourselves when there were no grown ups around. Didn’t we? So how do you stay true to your character? How do you clearly convey what the character is feeling when you have some genre-imposed restrictions on your vocabulary? What's permissible? What's forbidden? And should those restrictions be lifted occasionally? You tell me.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My Characters

Today I wanted to offer some personal info about my writing style. Perhaps you have similar stories to share, and I hope you will leave a comment if that's the case. I wanted to speak about my characters and how I get to know them as the story unfolds, and how I make sure they continue to inspire me with their words and actions.

When I get far enough into the story to know what my characters are like, I print out a picture of each one and tape it to my wall. In Cannibal Island, Brad Pitt seemed like the ideal person to become Richie Armstrong. Jackie Chan was perfect for the role of Kuko, and Sean Penn filled the villain's spot as Hans Von Hisle. Naturally, Angus Callahan could be played by none other than Sean Connery, and Sandra Bullock was the only choice for Wren Remington. I usually cast the entire character list with the actors I feel would best reflect my image of the story characters. Having them looking at me while I'm working tends to keep me honest to their actions and dialogue.

So what do you do? Surely you have a few little secrets you can share with us. We won't laugh. Well, not loud enough for you to hear us.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What would you do?

You've finished your book. You've edited until you're blue in the face, or maybe indigo. Beta readers have added their suggestions, and you're ready to query it to agents. So you do.

Excitement fills your heart when you get a request for a full. You send it off right away. Time crawls by while you're waiting to hear how much they love your work. Then the email finally arrives. Your heart jumps a little when you see it in your inbox, and you get rid of all the other emails, saving that one for last.

Unfortunately, it not exactly what you were hoping for. There are some nice words complimenting your writing and your plotting, etc., but there was something that prevented the agent from falling head over heels in love with it.

So what do you do? Do you chalk it up to personal preference and move on? Or do you write back to the agent and offer to revise those things that were mentioned and ask if you can submit it again?

You tell me. I'd love to hear your input.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Strange Query Tale

Our story begins the first week in May of this year. At that point in time, I had created a query letter for my most recent manuscript. I mailed that query to an agent who will remain anonymous. Within two days, I received a form rejection. Nothing too unusual about that, and I appreciate it when agents are quick to reply, even if it's a negative response.

The plot thickens now. (Eerie music builds in the background.) I rewrote the query a few times. I think it was in its fourth of fifth iteration when I sent it out again the first week in June. Now, I was either having a senior moment, or I temporarily and totally lost what's left of my mind, because I sent this new query to the same agent that had rejected my original query. And a strange thing happened a week later. The only thing I can deduce is that the new query was so unlike the original that it didn't sound even vaguely familiar to the agent. She requested a partial.

So, I guess the point of this narrative is that, if you get rejected with your original query, you might want to consider rewriting it and sending it out again, even to the same recipients. It was a complete accident on my part, but it had a surprising result. I hope that's a good sign.

That's it. Feel free to leave your comments.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Great post at Query Tracker today!

Since we've been talking so much about query letters, there's a great post on Query Tracker today. If you want to read what twenty agents have to say about how to put together the perfect query, read HERE!

And if you're not a subscriber to Query Tracker, I would highly recommend it. There's always new and fresh info on writing, publishing, new agents, etc. It's a good thing.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

There are no new story ideas.

I read an interesting post on Nathan Bransford's blog back in March. It's stuck with me, and I wanted to devote today's post to further exploration and get your opinions on it. Nathan sez there's an old saw that we only have a dozen or fewer stories that just keep getting rewritten with new characters in new settings. (My apologies if I'm paraphrasing it incorrectly, but that seemed to be the gist of it to me.)

If that old saw is true, then there are no new stories in the world of literature. Every possible plot, or outcome, or chain of events, except for some potential twists and turns, has already been created and printed. I'm not certain I agree with that. Are we not creative enough as writers to come up with something completely original?

What do you think? Is your finished novel, or your WIP, a copy of someone else's plot? Chime in and tell us what you think. Do you agree or disagree that all the story ideas have already been written?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

No Dumping Allowed

First of all, my sincere apologies for not posting yesterday. Google was experiencing some type of glitch in their technology, and I was unable to post anything. Apparently, that's been fixed now and we're back on track. So, let's get on with it.

A recurring question, and one that continues to plague writers, is as old as the craft itself: Where do I start? Today we're going to look at that question and provide some examples on how other writers have done it. Before we get to those, I want to discuss one habit that's quite common to new writers. It's called info dumping. As writers, we're very generous. We want to provide our readers with all the background information ahead of time so everything works out in a neatly choreographed narrative and makes sense from the first word. That's not always necessary, and many times it's not what you need to do.

From our previous posts, you'll possibly remember the importance of that first sentence and first paragraph. So, if the recommendations in this post sound slightly familiar, it's because that idea is still valid. It's very important to hook the reader as soon as possible. Many times, we begin before the action does with what's referred to as "backstory." The reader starts reading, and they'll continue reading until one of two things happens. Either you finally give them something interesting, or you take too long to get there and the reader's patience runs out and they close the cover.

Let's look at a couple of examples that will better explain what we're talking about. We'll start with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which he begins with:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

He doesn't tell us that it was a dark and stormy night, or that the house was two stories with a long staircase leading upward. He doesn't tell us who lives there, what kind of furniture is in the living room, or what color the house is painted or that the cars are driving past the house and the water is splashing from their tires. We don't need to know that the story is taking place in Cleveland, or Seattle, or New Brunwick. With a mere dozen words, he's pulled us in and the story has begun. We're on board from that point on.

Stephen King also uses very few words as he lures us into Cujo:

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.

Again, there's no info dumping before that grabber sentence. He doesn't say what year it was, what the weather was like, or where Castle Rock is located. We don't care that there are lobsters just offshore that the fisherman go after every morning in their wooden boats as the gulls squawk above them, hoping the fishermen will toss them a morsel. He just tells us what happened and challenges us to read on and find out. And we do.

George Orwell entices the reader to continue with this opening line from 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This is one of my favorites. It's from Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz:
When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.

These are but a few gems that I've collected today, specifically for this post. There have been many great books published that don't captivate the reader so completely in so few words, but the purpose of this post is to repeat an earlier suggestion to be frugal and choose wisely the words you use for your opening. It can make a big difference in getting a request for more material.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Punctuation? Punctuation!

In addition to spelling and grammar, punctuation continues to be a thorn in the side of many writers. There are so many rules that it's hard to keep them straight at times. Especially for those pesky commas.

Here's a great site I just found that has all the rules you could ever ask for. In addition, it has more interactive quizzes on punctuation, usage, and grammar than you can imagine. When you get to the site, you'll see a drop down menu at the top. Just click it to see the extent of the contents. It has everything you could ask for. Bookmark it so you can find it and get a quick answer to your question when you're stumped.

Excellent resource.

 CLICK HERE and bookmark.

Picture Book Checklist

From Guest Blogger Laura Backes —

A big Thank You to John Bard, Managing Editor at CBIClubhouse, for providing this info when I requested it. Since some of you write picture books, and we haven't really discussed that very much so far, I thought it would be good to pass this along to those of you who write those great early book that we all remember.

Writing picture book fiction is quite possibly the hardest type of writing there is, and yet editors receive more picture book manuscripts than any other genre. To make your work stand out from the crowd, you need to do more than study how to devise a winning plot and create believable, unique characters. You need to polish your prose until it sparkles. Here’s a checklist to help with the editing process:

* Check the pacing. Picture books are generally 32 pages long, which means you’ll have about 28 pages of text and illustration. So break your text into 28 chunks and place each on a separate piece of paper. Staple the pages together to look like a book and read your story as you turn the pages. Notice the pacing and how the action unfolds. Does the story flow evenly, or are there several pages where nothing special happens? Does something occur on the right hand page or each two-page spread–a rise in action, a recurring phrase, a funny moment– that makes the reader want to turn the page and see what happens next?

* Note the illustration potential. Since you’ve made your manuscript into a "book," think about what the illustrations might look like. Are there enough changing scenes to inspire a different illustration on each page, or at least every two-page spread? Is the story told with a lot of visual elements (actions and events the reader can see)? Are there long scenes of dialogue that go on for more than one book page? (Note: Making your manuscript into a dummy book and thinking about the illustrations are for your benefit only. When you submit the manuscript to a publisher, you’d type it double spaced without identifying where the page breaks would go. You’d also refrain from discussing any illustration ideas until the editor asks for your thoughts.)

* Cut words. If you use two words to describe a character, try to find one more exact word to do the trick. Eliminate verbal clutter– words like "big," "little," "very," "almost"– that don’t add any real meaning to the sentence, and instead choose strong, active nouns and verbs. Strike any sentences or scenes that don’t directly advance the plot.

* Use concrete images. Be sure to convey the story through concrete visual images the reader can see and the illustrator can draw. Describe abstract concepts such as feelings with sensory details the character (and the reader) can smell, hear, touch, see and taste.

* Craft a satisfying ending. Does your plot have an identifiable yet surprising climax in which all the action comes together and the main character solves his or her problem? Is this climax contained within one book page? After the climax, is the story resolved (wrapped up) quickly? The resolution must feel complete and satisfying for the reader, but shouldn’t be drawn out. Make it a book page or less, and your readers won’t hesitate to revisit your story many times over.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Nary a Brave Soul Answered the Call

Which leads me to believe that you avoid the dreaded query letter at every opportunity. Like the plague. Or the license bureau. Or your dentist's office. So, it's time for me to speak to you like a Dutch uncle. You're going to have to get over that fear if you're going to get published.

Without a good query letter, that jewel of a manuscript you've written is never going to see the bookstore shelves. Readers are never going to savor your perfectly chosen words and rejoice with your characters as they overcome the odds to reach their goal. They're never going to experience the fear your hero has rushing through him as the villain gets closer and there's no way out, or feel the tears stinging their eyes when they read the emotional and perfect ending you've labored over. And that's just wrong. The story you've put your heart and soul into needs to be shared and enjoyed. You know it does.

Perhaps this exercise was more work than you had time for. That's understandable. If you've got a WIP (and I hope you do), you need to devote the time to it. But someday soon you're going to have to write that query letter for your opus, and this exercise is one that could have proven extremely valuable in that endeavor. And I'm not going to let you miss that opportunity for improvement without giving it another try. You'll thank me someday.

The driving force behind writing this blog is to help writers realize their dream of becoming authors. Nothing would give me more pleasure than knowing I had been of some help in your journey. It's very important to me that you gain something from this site. So, let me dangle a carrot. It's so important that you make an effort to do this exercise that I'm willing to cough up ten bucks for a Barnes & Noble gift certificate. Even if you don't win, the experience and the effort you put into it will be worth it in the long run. I promise.

So I want you to write the query for the story I posted yesterday (just below this one.) In order to get maximum participation, I'm not going to pick the winner until we have at least 25 entries. There will be no maximum number, but the entry window will close at 11:59 p.m. CST this Sunday, June 6, 2010. I will be judging this one (for the first time ever) so dazzle me. Read the previous post again. Watch the video trailer and get the feel for what the story is about. If you've never seen the movie, you can watch the whole thing in ten installments on YouTube. Just search for Stand by Me. It's all there. Or rent it if you'd prefer. When you're ready, put together that sparkling query and paste it into the comment section directly below this post. I know you don't want to, but you need to do this. And I know you can, because you're a writer. It's what you do.

NOTE: Although you all know that a properly written query includes "Dear Agent Name" and, perhaps, a reason you're submitting your query to them, that's not necessary this time. Also, the title and word count and genre aren't needed on this query. Just start in with the first sentence (and grab me with it) and end before all that closing business about "I would happy to send, blah blah blah." Just give me the body of the query.

Finally, if we don't get 25 entries, I'll let it go. Reluctantly, but I will. I'm climbing down from my soapbox now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Becoming Stephen King

If you haven't seen this movie, I've included the video trailer to give you an overview so you can participate along with those who've seen it. And, aside from entertainment value, there's a reason I've added it. It will make sense as you read on.

Today we are going to look at the dreaded query letter. I know you hate them. But they’re a necessary stop on your journey from writer to author. We've done some exercises on queries in the past, but today we’re going to discuss them in detail and learn a little more about how to make them effective.

There’s an old saying that form follows function, and that is especially true with the query. I'm going to give you a form that will work effectively a bit later. But first, let's look at the function. The purpose — the only purpose — of your query letter is to create enough interest in the agent’s mind for them to request a sample of your writing. That’s it. It’s a sales tool, nothing more. Nothing less. It must be written in such a compelling manner that it will create interest and sell your product (sample chapters or a full manuscript). And the quicker it does that, the better.

We did an exercise a while back regarding opening paragraphs. We did another writing session on one-sentence pitches. The purpose of those posts was to encourage you to start out with something intriguing, something that made the reader want more. That same tactic is critical when crafting your query. This captivating opening is often referred to as "the hook." If the great writing in your query doesn’t occur until the second paragraph, chances are the agent isn’t going to read it unless the first paragraph makes them want to continue. If your first paragraph is weak or boring, you’re slush pile bound.

After you create that wonderful, grabbing, intriguing, enticing first sentence or first paragraph, you can continue to weave your query and give the reader more info. There are specific things that need to be included in an effective query.You should address these four questions.

1. INCITING INCIDENT: What happens to change the MC’s life?
2. SOLUTION: What can the MC do to fix it, to make things better, or solve the problem?
3. OBSTACLES: What’s standing in the way? What’s stopping him/her?
4. STAKES: What is the MC risking? What happens if the problem isn’t solved or the goal isn’t achieved?

Let’s look at an example. In The Body, by Stephen King, Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp and Vern Tessio take off on a hike to find Ray Brower. If you’ve seen Stand by Me, that’s the movie this novella was based on, and you know the story. If we were to write a query for it, we could answer those four questions as follows:

1. INCITING INCIDENT: Vern is under the porch, still trying to find the pennies he buried, when he overhears his brother and a friend discussing Ray Brower. He runs to the tree house to tell his friends, and the boys decide to hike to Back Hollow Road and find the body. If they discover where he is, they might get their names in the newspaper.

2. SOLUTION: They come up with a plan to tell their parents they’re tenting in the back yard so they can be gone without being missed.

3. OBSTACLES: There are many along the way: Miles Pressman and his killer dog, Chopper (Sic. Balls.), a train that almost runs over them as they’re running across the trestle, the leeches in the pond, and the frightening sounds in the woods when they camp that night. And finally, Ace Merrill and his gang show up and tell the four adventurers that they’re taking the body and claiming the fame. Above it all, is their fear of seeing a dead body and the uncertainty of whether they really should be doing this.

4. STAKES: This is a coming of age story, so the emotional level is high. The boys are afraid, but they’re determined to carry out their plan despite their fear. If they don’t continue and achieve what they've set out to do, they’ll have to live with the shame of their failure. This is especially obvious in the confrontation with Ace when the boys refuse to back down.

So, now that we know the elements, here’s an exercise for you to complete. Pretend you’re Stephen King. You've just finished your final edit on this story and it's ready to send out. Write the query. Be sure to include a dynamic opening paragraph and the four elements listed above. You can either write it directly into the comment section or create it in Word, do a little editing, and paste it in. Make me want to read the book.

It will be interesting to see the different results in each one. Spend some time with that most important opening sentence. I’m looking forward to seeing how you write it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Nathan Bransford Contest

If you're not familiar with Nathan Bransford, you should be. Nathan is a literary agent with Curtis Brown. And if you're not a subscriber to Nathan's blog, you really should consider it. Seriously. He has one of the best, most informative, well-written blogs on the internet. Highly recommended.

And here's the news. He's having a contest right now that you might want to enter. If you have an action scene or a chase scene in your novel or your WIP, this is for you. Here's the link. Check it out.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Contest Opens Tonight!

Here's a great opportunity for all you middle grade and young adult writers out there. And it's timely, too! Remember the exercise we did a few days ago with the one sentence pitches? Well, my friend Kathleen Ortiz from Lowenstein Associates is judging a contest at Query Tracker, and you've already practiced for it if you participated. How serendipitous, as Wren Remington from Cannibal Island would say.

To enter, you'll need to send a one sentence pitch and your first chapter. Check the Query Tracker blog for the details. It opens at 9:00 EST tonight to the first 100 entries.

Now sharpen those pencils, and good luck!