Tag Archives: getting published

‘Dear Lucky Agent’ Contest

Do you write women’s fiction? Check out this contest!

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Source: ‘Dear Lucky Agent’ Contest

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10 things that red-flag a newbie novelist.

This is one of the best compendia of guidelines for troubleshooting a novel-in-progress that I’ve recently come across. My own constant struggle is the interior monologue, wherein my character thinks through her motives. Some of this is necessary, but in my current very rough draft I’m noting again and again, “Too long! Cut!” Fortunately, I have an excellent writing group that will call me out on this sin.
I’m working on a post about what has stopped me from finishing some of the books I’ve been reading in my quest to understand the indie landscape. Hamilton’s list captures many of the problems that I’ve encountered (and fight like crazy not to commit): 1) Lack of a story arc–in a couple of cases, everything seemed to be resolved mid-novel; why keep reading? 2) Detail-heavy, clunky prose I had to wade through. 3) Pages and pages of setting and character-building before anything happens. I love the comment that we all should wish to see ourselves as others see us! Hooray for honest readers. May they long thrive!

THE PUBLISHING BUSINESS, WRITING CRAFT

10 THINGS THAT RED-FLAG A NEWBIE NOVELIST

Red_flag_waving.svg

by Anne R. Allen

Beginning novelists are like Tolstoy’s happy families. They tend to be remarkably alike. Certain mistakes are common to almost all beginners. These things aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are difficult to do well—and get in the way of smooth storytelling

They also make it easy for professionals—and a lot of readers—to spot the unseasoned newbie.

When I worked as an editor, I ran into the same problems in nearly every new novelist’s work—the very things I did when I was starting out.

I think some of the patterns come from imitating the classics. In the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, novels were written to be savored on long winter nights or languid summer days when there was a lot of time to be filled. Detailed descriptions took readers out of their mundane lives…

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Victoria Strauss’s Year-End Post List

Hand in books

Something here for every aspiring writer! Strauss is one of the best resources around! Info on contracts, social media, marketing, promotion—check it out!

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Which is Most Important: Character, Conflict, or Crisis?

Book with heart for writersAs I’ve been reading around in the Indie-verse, I’ve found a couple of books I’ve decided not to finish. As both a writer and a reader, I’ve thought about what triggers me to abandon a book.

One feature that has stuck as a cause for my reaction can be summed up in advice Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest provided at the Writing Day Workshop I attended in Indianapolis in October:

Begin with conflict, not crisis.

Typewriter with questions marks

In other words, writers I’m deciding sadly to give up on often begin with their characters in crisis. But Klems’s advice reminds me of a cruel but vital truth:

If I don’t know your character, I don’t care about her. If I don’t care about her, I honestly don’t care if she gets her brains blown out.

Sorry, but there it is.

Gangster with gun

When these writers begin their books, they have three Cs to deal with: Crisis, Character, and Conflict. It may sound counter-intuitive to state that, of the three, Crisis is the least important!

I know, I know: begin in medias res. But not when the folks in medias are just names on a page.

Can you pile on character, conflict, and crisis in opening scenes? I thought I’d try an experiment to find out.

Consider:

Sally found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. She stumbled backwards. He fired. The shot narrowly missed.

Crisis, big time. And a couple of what Paula Munier calls “micro-story questions,” the elements that help to deliver what she calls “narrative thrust.” Who’s shooting at her? Why? Will she escape the next shot?

cartoonguns.jpg

Okay, I’d read on to the next bit. But if the following three pages consisted of her efforts to flee his escape, I’d be flipping ahead to see whether things got more interesting than an abstract flight-and-pursue.

What if, instead, you read:

Of course Mark was going to pull the trigger. When he threatened, he always delivered. Sally flung her hands up, stupidly, since they wouldn’t stop a bullet, and sprawled on her butt on the wedding dress jumbled on the tack room floor behind her. The gun went off in a brain-numbing explosion, the bullet slamming into the row of bridles hanging just above her head.

Beautiful sexy girl with gun

Take that, Mark, you scum!

We still get to the crisis pretty fast, but now we have many more micro-story questions. First, we’ve got conflict: these people have a history. It’s not just a question of why he’s shooting at her, but what between them has happened before to trigger her recognition that this isn’t a joke. “Why and who?” becomes “How does she know this about him? What has he done to make her think this now?” There’s a whole history of people in those queries.

More importantly, that wedding dress. Wedding dress? How in the world did a wedding dress get in the floor of that tackroom? And why a tackroom? We now know that these people somehow connect with horses, and that someone (Mark? Sally?) has just been through (or approached) a wedding. And he’s the determined sort who shoots first and asks questions later, while she’s (at present) a bit reactive and self-derogatory (calling herself “stupid”). Conflict and character as well as crisis—leading to a cornucopia of story questions! And all in the same number of sentences, four.

Some of my writing group colleagues are absolute minimalists and would opt for the first austere and abstract version. But to me, pure action is not nearly as engaging as action involving people I know or people I’ve been made deeply curious about.

An experiment like this leads to me be suggest that if you must demote one of the three Cs, let it be crisis! What? Start flat, with just characters in conflict? Well, yes.

Torn up drafts

As Stephen King argues, narrative tension arises not from wild, boisterous action but from people in “situations,” where they must react to each other and to the problems their situation presents.

True, you can’t spend pages on this development. It has to happen in that medias res moment, through careful pacing and selection of details.

As an illustration of how little we need a doomsday crisis, consider these opening lines from Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist:

They said the typewriter would unsex us.

One look at the device itself and you might understand how they—the self-appointed keepers of female virtue and morality, that is—might have reached such a conclusion. Your average typewriter, be it Underwood, Royal, Remington, or Corona, is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. Add to that the sheer violence of its iron arms, thwacking away at the page with unforgiving force. Unforgiving. Yes; forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty.

Typewriter publish

We’ve got character, even though we haven’t met the speaker. We’ve got conflict: That nameless “they” is already on trial! I haven’t yet read this book Will I? If it lives up to this crisis-deprived opening, you bet.

 

 

 

 

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Quick Tip: Build Character with Stage Business

Typewriter publishIn my recent exploration of indie novels about horses, I’ve noticed a way that some of these authors could enliven their stories considerably: by making smarter use of stage business.

By stage business, I mean the interactions between characters and their environments, usually involving elements of setting and, in particular, props—the things they handle as they respond to each other.

Most of the authors I’m reading quite rightly use stage business to give readers a sense of setting, to give us a sense of “being there” in the scene, and to punctuate dialogue—for example, to break up a long speech. But this element can work a lot harder than it often does.

Coffee mug for writers

Make that cup of coffee talk!

For example, let’s look at the possibilities offered by a fairly common scene: people sitting around a table drinking coffee. To frame the dialogue, we’re told, “He took a sip of his coffee.”

I guess he would, if he’s got a cup and it’s likely to get cold. So there’s really no information here.

But what if:

He waved the nearly full cup around so violently she was afraid he’d sling the contents onto the spotless white table cloth.

Or

In his huge, clumsy hands, the mug looked as fragile as bone china.

Or

He lifted the cup with both hands clutched around it, as if grateful for its feeble warmth.

Suddenly, “taking a sip” tells us something about the character and the situation he finds himself in.Happy editing!

Here’s another example.

She put on her cowboy hat. “Let’s go see what’s up in the corral.”

There’s a big difference between that bit of info and:

She snatched up a dusty cowboy hat stained and dinged with long use and smashed it onto her short black curls. “Let’s go see what’s up in the corral.”

Lady 2 promises a lot more action once we reach the corral than Lady 1. Now that hat talks!

True, it’s important to practice this strategy in moderation. Pacing a scene requires an author to balance forward momentum with information, no matter how exquisitely revealing that information seems to be. I once got slapped down pretty good over a character fidgeting with a paper clip through a long scene. As I recall it, my reader’s marginal comment was, “That paper clip is really getting on my nerves.”Typewriter and flowers

In drafting, as is usually the best move, over-generate. Come up with stacks of double-duty stage-business gems. Then glean for the one best one, the one that really delivers the “telling detail.”

What are some of your best “stage business” lines? I’d love to hear!Book with heart for writers

 

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Visiting Bryan Garner’s “Language Change Index” for Grammar Rules

Bill, the dog, critiques

When in doubt, I ask Bill.

Lurking around on an NCTE forum for English teachers, I learned about Bryan A. Garner’s Language Change Index and thought it nicely complemented some thoughts I’ve posted on this blog about grammar and usage. An interview and a critique discuss his efforts to do more formally what I did informally in ranking usage practices by how widely they’re likely to actually be noticed (see “split infinitive”) by the learned folks aspiring authors need to impress. What emerges for me, based on the examples in these articles, is how idiosyncratic grammar prescriptives can be. BTW, “hopefully” is now a Stage 5, not, in my view, because it ever was an “error,” but because it has been recognized as a perfectly good sentence modifier along the lines of “unfortunately” or Garner’s example of a “correct” sentence modifier, “regrettably.” No identifiable subject has to “hope” any more than an identifiable subject has to “regret.” So there.

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Correction to 3 Lessons, 4 Resolutions from the Indiana Writers’ Workshop

An earlier version of my post incorrectly stated that Chuck Sambuchino was in charge of this one-day workshop in Indianapolis on Oct. 24. In fact, he was subbing for another volunteer. The workshop was actually coordinated by Jessica Bell, of Writing Day WorkshopsTypewriter publish. I thought folks might appreciate learning about this organization, if they aren’t already familiar with it. It hosts a range of workshops at different locations around the country, and will definitely be on my list of possible conference options.

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3 Lessons, 4 Resolutions from the Indiana Writers’ Workshop, October 24, 2015

Novel!It’s unusual to find a conference that changes the way I think about my novel and about myself as a writer. This one-day conference, less than a day’s drive away, did just that.

The Workshop featured presentations by Brian Klems, online editor for WritersDigest.com. The basic fee covered four all-group presentations by Klems and a “first-page” critique by four agents of randomly selected submissions. Participants could pay extra for ten-minute pitch sessions with up to six agents and for a personal query-letter critique by Chuck Sambuchino, author of a number of books and blogs on writing as well as humor books.

Klems’s presentations covered a huge amount of nuts-and-bolts information most valuable to writers who had not attended many conferences or mined the web for information on the business of writing. The pitch sessions were well-coordinated; all three of the agents I queried were generous listeners. The published schedule did not build in meals or receptions for the social networking that many writers find rewarding.

So what made this conference so productive? Two things: Sambuchino’s critique of my query and the “first-page” session, at which some 20 or so of the first pages submitted were thrown down and stomped upon.

First: Query-Letter Critique

I didn’t receive Sambuchino’s comments until the Thursday night before the conference, and Friday was hectic, so it was evening before I could settle into my motel room to digest the veritable armada of comments he had supplied. Everyone reading this can probably empathize with my stomach-twisting lurch when I realized that the back-of-the-book blurb I had workshopped over and over with multiple audiences was No Good. Basic questions—what is Michael’s wound, his need? What is at stake? How does this event lead to this one?—still loomed. Sambuchino wanted A LOT more information than any back-of-the-book was going to accommodate.

The feeling of utter inadequacy that settled over me produced a complete rewrite. Was that the right strategy? All I know is that when I sat across from agents and talked from the notes they were glad to let me use, not one broke in with a confused frown to tell me I wasn’t making any sense. (Believe me, this has happened.) There’s no experiment that could tell me whether my response to Sambuchino’s comments made the difference. But I do know that when I revise my query letter, the pitch itself will look a lot more like the one I wrote Friday night than the one I have now.

Lesson learned? First let me talk about

First Page Armageddon

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How Much Grammar Do You Need, Part V: Rules I’ve Seen Erudite People Break–

—but that other erudite people will definitely notice!

One of Joe Williams’s categories included errors erudite people make but no one notices. Even the erudite people preaching against the error make it and don’t catch themselves.

Bill, the dog, critiques

He tells me when I’m wrong!

But another category: errors erudite people DO notice, and react negatively to—the implication being that these are errors erudite people scrupulously avoid.

Ahem.

I recently read the following in the New York Times:

The Arlington police had went to the Classic Buick GMC dealership Friday just after 1 a.m. when a caller reported that a man was standing on top of a car in the lot “stamping on the windshield trying to break it,” according to a 911 call.

I’m not posting this here as a statement on the events being described (you can learn about that elsewhere.) I’m providing it because it commits—in the New York Times of all places!—one of those fairly egregious errors an agent or editor or any other “well-educated” reader definitely will notice—and judge.Sad Editing!

(Tip for that NYT writer: if “have” or “had” is part of the verb phrase, go with the past participle. Otherwise choose the simple past.)

So Rule #1 that won’t be overlooked is use the correct verb form!

Rule # 2 on this list: Know the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

Trivial? Absolutely. Will not knowing the difference really matter? In some cases, you bet.

I suspect this one results from writing too quickly and proofing on the screen with a deadline looming. If by some chance keeping these straight plagues you, there’s unfortunately no easy way to remember, unless it’s to go with the one that makes the least sense. You’d think a possessive, like “The dog chased its/it’s ball,” would take an apostrophe, wouldn’t you, since possessives are formed with apostrophes? But “its,” the correct choice, is kin to “her” and “his.” Just fix in your mind how silly “He ate hi’s supper” would look, and you may be able to remember to pick the one without the apostrophe.

While we’re on the subject of apostrophes,

Rule #3 on this list is do not form plurals with apostrophes.

I saw this done in the crawl on Good Morning America! But it’s like announcing that the writer has been reading more roadside veggie stands than novels.

Rule #4? Do not put commas in these two places.

Comma rules can look complicated. Recently I eavesdropped on professional editors trying to decide whether to insert a comma based on whether they heard “a pause” or not. But people hear pauses in different places. There are “rules” for commas. I find that the basic list of uses for commas in handbooks, or on sites like this one, make sense.

I consider commas one of the most important tools for clear writing. They mark off sections of sentences and help me, as a reader, know what’s coming next (are we still in the appositive, or have we returned to the independent clause?). In this post, I just want to emphasize two places where I’ve seen commas sneak in. (And my agent from years back said specifically that she’d stop reading a query the minute she spotted one of these.)

Forbidden place A) Between a subject and its verb. “Gloria, went out to lunch.” I don’t hear a pause there. Do you? Or, more understandably: “One of the reasons I don’t like that play, is. . . .” Here, the length of the subject phrase may make a writer feel as if it’s time for a pause.

The only time a subject should be followed by a comma is when some kind of “interrupting” element comes between the subject and its verb: “Gloria, however, hated the restaurant we’d chosen.” Or “Gloria, who hates Chinese food, went with us to the Chinese buffet because it was cheap.”

Forbidden Place B) After a coordinating conjunction.

The most dangerous place for this interloping comma is after the conjunction between two complete sentences: “I hope you will consider representing my novel but, I know you have many submissions to read.” The comma goes before the “but,” never after, unless there’s an interrupter, and then you need two commas: “I hope you will consider representing my novel, but, like all agents, you have many submissions to read.”

None of these errors directly impacts communication. At worst, they create little hiccups in the flow of the text. Except that, as Williams points out, error is in the eye of the beholder. What’s a hiccup for me might well be a coughing fit for someone else. Agents and editors qualify, at least in general, as erudite readers. Even if the staff of the New York Times didn’t catch that “had went,” they probably will.

Do you have your own candidates for rules you really can’t get away with breaking? Leave a comment and let me know!

Cats as kibbitzers

They have their opinions, too!

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Five Questions Indie Authors Should Ask Agents

A couple of posts ago I linked to an article that took me to this post from Dean Wesley Smith, in which he informed us that the current industry standard in traditional publishing is “life-of-copyright,” which basically means that we will never regain the rights to our work, regardless of the publisher’s intentions for our books, and that the most we can expect in the way of advances is $5000 or so.

I’ve posted questions about these claims to a couple of active blogs on the business of writing, including to an agent’s blog, and will be posting to others. In my searches, I came across this post about how indie authors should expect agents to protect their rights, which is directly relevant to these issues.

This appeared on the web site of the Alliance of Independent Authors. I’m following their blog and will share interesting information.

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