5 Things Africa has Taught Me as a Writer (a guest blog from Curt Iles)

January 30, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Lagniappe.  It’s a French word denoting, “A little extra.” And it’s a common expression in Louisiana’s Cajun culture. In the local Lugandan language along Lake Victoria’s northern shore, the word is enyogeza. It means a little extra at the market. Two small potatoes added to the dozen you purchased. This story is lagniappe (or enyogeza.) A little extra for you to ponder from my personal journey in Africa.

My wife DeDe and I have lived in Africa for two years. Often I look around and am shocked at how far I am from my Louisiana piney woods roots. It’s been an eventful time full of growth, frustration, change, disappointment, and joy. Very similar to life back in the good ol’ U.S. of A. I’d like to share five lessons loom large in what these years has taught me as a writer and person:

It’s always a draft. 

2013 and 2014 have been years of constant change:

  • Selling our home where we’d raised our family and lived thirty years.
  • Leaving the Southern rural culture for the red dirt of east Africa.
  • Learning Swahili to work in Democratic Congo, then being switched to South Sudan and Arabic. Hatuna matada for sure!
  • Our country, South Sudan, descending into chaos and anarchy as we watched our new friends suffer and doors close. The future is poised with more of the same. It seems change is the only constant.

Due to daily change, I’ve learned to live and journal in pencil. Life requires erasers. Our African journey has been similar to the process of writing a novel: sometimes our characters take over and send us in directions we didn’t choose. But the end result is almost always a better novel as well as a richer life.

In spite of the change and uncertainty, I’ve never been more excited about life, our mission, or my writing than today. I’m confident that God is still in control and still trustworthy.

It’s always about the story. 

Regardless of our genre, we’re all storytellers. Our challenge is putting down words that attempt to accurately describe we first heard, saw, or imagined.

I’ve stepped from one storytelling culture into another. African culture is rich in gripping stories, proverbs, and history. The best stories are always about the lives and struggles of people. Stories put a personal face on both tragedy and triumph. Instead of statistics about the daily struggle Africans face, I share about a ferry ride with a young island boy returning to the mainland for a new school term. His mother holds a long stringer of fish in one hand and a plastic bag holding two live ducks. The boy grins. “That’s how she’s paying my school fees.”

Numbers can be cold. “Over 1000 dead in South Sudan and 250,000 displaced.” But the story of one person’s journey is better than dry statistics. I think about our Nuer friend Kun, trapped in the capital’s UN compound for three weeks. He is paralyzed with fear that certain death by Dinka soldiers awaits him outside the gates. Our team listening to his frantic calls coupled with our inability to help.

It’s always about people. It’s always about their stories.  Our job is simply the struggle to tell them well. As poet Mary Oliver aptly wrote, our job is to:

  1. Pay attention.
  2. Be astonished.
  3. Tell others.

That’s what I do. That’s who I am.

It’s always about humility.

Writing and the subsequent attempt at being published is an extremely humbling experience. Sharing our thoughts and words with the public is akin to running down the street in your underwear. (Do other writers have that dream as often as I do?)

This public inspection and attending rejection is so deflating that many abandon the journey due to the disappointments that are part of the process. I know about rejection. I can proudly assert that my rejection folder is as thick as anyone’s. However, Africa has humbled me like nothing else.

I speak the local language on about a three-year-old’s level. The nationals laugh, correct me, yet still show me grace. The taxi driver who delivers me to the market is fluent in five languages. I’m an American so you can easily guess how many I’ve mastered. I’m greeted daily with cries of “Mzungu” and requests for money or assistance in “coming to America.” Each day gives me opportunity to look odd, stupid, and awkward and I seldom disappoint. It’s part of the experience. It’s all about humility.

I’ve always believed the humble writer is truly the best writer. Africa has allowed lots of practice. I wouldn’t trade it for all of the tea in Kenya or coffee in Rwanda.

It’s all about being a servant. 

Africa rewards the curious soul. During this past year, I’ve filled up numerous journals, taken hundreds of photos, and recorded dozens of voice memos. I have frustrated myself and others with my obsession to capture every image, thought, and face or smile. Our favorite word has become, “Wow.” It can mean many things in Africa.

Our missionary term is nearly half completed. I have mixed emotions about that, but am more determined to observe it all and capture it in my mind and heart.

It’s all about having a gratitude-filled life. 

My African teachers are so grateful for everything. Oftentimes, it seems they enjoy their little much more than our largess. Africans have so little compared to Westerners. They understand “Give us this day our daily bread” and thank God for the bread when it appears. I’m honing my degree of gratitude from this experience. Being thankful is simply a habit as are the twin sins of ingratitude and arrogance.

So I’ve been reminded of the real reasons I write. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. Presently I’m not entering contests or seeking daily for that ever-elusive contract. I’m simply writing. Last week, I started Journal #74 of my life journey. If I never published another word, I’d still write. It’s who I am.

A writer is someone who wrote today. My job in Africa is researching the unreached people groups of South Sudan. My assignment is to tell their stories in a way that will lead Americans to pray, give, and come over to help. My calling is writing with influence and impact for a reason. It’s Kingdom work and I believe it matters. Influence and Impact for the Kingdom.

Influence is how far our message can go. It’s the ripple effect of our writing. Impact is how deep our stories can dig into a person’s heart. It’s about depth. I hope wanting to have influence and impact isn’t sinful. If it is, I have sinned greatly.

The Internet Age opens so many doors for influence. I can tweet about a refugee camp in northern Uganda in real time as I share prayer needs and faces. As I write for influence and impact, my reward isn’t a glowing review, award, or publishing contract. It’s a Facebook reply that states, “I feel as if I’m over there with you.” It’s that volunteer, moved by a story, who comes to Africa and returns home with a fresh passion burning in her heart. That’s influence. That’s impact. It’s why I write.

===========================

CurtIles

Curt Iles currently writes from Entebbe, Uganda, where he and his wife DeDe serve with the International Mission Board. The author of eleven books, you can find out more about Curt at www.creekbank.net. This story comes from his new short story collection, Trampled Grass, now available as an Amazon ebook. All proceeds will benefit the IMB’s Lottie Moon Mission Offering.

Posted in Deep Thoughts, The Writing Craft | 0 Comments »

My Ten Publishing Predictions for 2015

January 28, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Okay, so I’m a little late… I always try to make some predictions for the coming year, just to test out of my gift of prophecy. This year it took me a while longer to put together my list, but I’m trying to squeeze this into the month of January, so it still more or less counts as a “start of the year” column. As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see…

1. Barnes & Noble will make a comeback. Honest. I think they’ve shrunk, re-focused their stores on profitable items, and I think this year they’re going to see a lot of growth with B&N.com. So while they’ve had a few tough years, I believe authors and readers will renew their appreciation for the country’s largest book retailer, and they’ll once again be seen in a positive light. (Note that I said nothing about the Nook. My crystal ball is smoky whenever I ask about the Nook. No idea.)

2. Subscription services are going to explode. Oyster, Scribd, Entitle, and Kindle Unlimited have all been growing, as people begin to look at them as the Netflix-for-books. But the reason we’ll see even more growth this year? Google will get into this in a big way.

3. Authors are going to fight like mad over Kindle Unlimited. I have a couple authors whose earnings are down significantly due to KU. They’re not happy, and they aren’t alone. I think a number of successful self-published authors are going to pull back from the service. It’s great for helping a new author build a readership — not sure it’s as great for successful authors who watch a bunch of their book get read without earning much money.

4. The legacy publishers are going to drop their e-book prices. The research is pretty clear that low-cost e-books is the way to go, but the Big Five haven’t wanted to play along, since it devalues their product and reduces income. But I think the market will drive them to lower their prices (and that will mean another round of cost-cutting at the major houses). Look for overall lower prices from all the majors by late summer, and a bunch of very-low-priced value e-books as they all decide to mine their backlist.

5. There’s going to be an explosion of author coalitions. Most writers now see the value of being a hybrid author (some traditional titles, some small-press titles, some self-pubbed titles), so we’re going to see a LOT Of authors get involved in a coalition — authors banding together to share editors, cover designers, book consultants, and marketing experts.

6. But I think we’re also going to see a drop in the number of self-published authors. I could be wrong, but it feels like all those wannabes, posting bad novels with horrid covers, are slowing. Maybe they’ve figured out that Amazon isn’t Amway; that the mere fact of posting your crappy book on Amazon doesn’t make you an author, bring you instant recognition, and certainly doesn’t make you a pile of money. There are going to be plenty of success stories, and certainly more hybrid authors, but I think we may see a slowdown in the Tornado of Crap (as my friend Randy Ingermanson has referred to it).

7. There will be peace in our time. Or at least Amazon and the Big Five will have moved out of the era of open hostility.

8. But all the publishing houses will move to try and sell more books directly, rather than going through Amazon. Could they focus on selling through Facebook? Through Pinterest? Through Twitter? I could see this sort of thing, as well as a renewed push for publishers to market and sell through their authors’ websites.

9. Local bookstores are finally going to start working more closely with authors, particularly local authors. Your local indie store is eventually going to offer you front table space for a fee, even if you’re a self-published author. They’re going to negotiate highlighting you on their website, in their store, and through events — all for a fee. Why? Because indies need to figure out ways to generate more income.

10. And the big areas of publishing we can expect to see grow this year will include… You tell me. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to tell me we’ll see a bunch of books from hopeful presidential candidates (Hello Hillary! Hello Bush Family! Gosh… you’re back! Again… And we haven’t really missed you at all.) I have heard others say we will see a flood of Cuban literature, now that the barriers to Cuba are coming down. I’ve also heard people suggest that books on marijuana will be huge, with everyone in a rush to legalize. (The best part of that? Tokers will potentially purchase your book several times, since they’ll constantly forget they already own it!) My own prediction is that we’ll see renewed interest in travel books, since gas is now below two dollars a gallon in the US. And I think we could see several major names weigh in on racial reconciliation in our post-Ferguson world.

What do you see as the areas of growth in publishing for 2015? 

Posted in Current Affairs | 28 Comments »

How My Lack of Platform Helped Me Get Published (a guest blog)

January 23, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

It was every hopeful author’s dream. I had just finished pitching my book idea in front of seven other hopeful authors and (more to the point) an acquisitions editor. As we all stood up to leave, he discreetly handed me his card and said “Let’s talk.” Long story short, I am now a published author.

I have, in fact, shortened the story so much as to be deceptive. When he and I talked at lunch the next day, he didn’t even look at the proposal I had spent three months perfecting. First, he wanted me to address several issues. Six grueling months later, I sent him the revised proposal. To my delight, he loved it. But he wanted me to completely rework my sample chapters, which took another five months. Finally he believed it was ready to be presented to the publication committee.

As you may know, publishers are looking for three things in a proposal: 1) a great concept, 2) great writing, and 3) a great platform. But, as my editor said, they’re willing to over look one of those three if the other two make up for it. I had no platform, so my editor kept pushing me to refine and improve my concept and writing.

There were many points in the process that I wanted to give up. Two years is a long time to spend on three chapters. But because I didn’t have a platform to fall back on, I didn’t have a choice. And now, having seen too many mediocre books from well-known personalities, I’m glad I didn’t have a platform to lean on. I know myself – if I could have gotten away with less effort, I would have.

By the way, I’ve also seen a lot of authors fall back on “I can always self-publish.” I’m NOT saying that self-publishing is necessarily an easy way out. It’s probably the harder path because you’re the only one holding yourself to a higher standard. I’m simply saying that if you view self-publishing as a back-up plan, your quality will likely suffer.

In the end, the publication committee caught my editor’s vision and decided to take a chance on an unknown author. But my point isn’t that anyone can be published if they work hard enough. There are no guarantees (even a great platform isn’t a guarantee). My point is that a lack of platform can be a blessing. It can drive us to write at the highest level we’re capable of. And that should be our goal, shouldn’t it?

What do you think? Is your lack of a platform a blessing or a curse? Is self-publishing an easy way out?

=====================

Josh Kelley is a speaker and author of Radically Normal (Harvest House). His website is www.joshkelley.ink.

Posted in Marketing and Platforms | 8 Comments »

Thursday with Amanda: How to Write a Novel that is Easy to Market

January 22, 2015 | Written by Amanda Luedeke

literary agentAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. You can also check out her marketing skills on Fiverr. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Does this sound familiar?

You have a novel that seems to be going nowhere. It’s a romance, after all. And there are a bazillion other romance novels out there, competing for the same readers. So you try to think outside the box. You can’t really promote yourself, because it’s the beginning of your career and you don’t have a massive fanbase yet, so you turn to your book to help you. It’s really all you have to offer.

You blog excerpts of your book and set up character Twitter accounts and pin a ton of pictures that remind you of your novel and you do gift card giveaways and chapter one booklets and you order bookmarks and go to bookstores and … nothing seems to be working.

You’re still a voice among thousands of other voices. And you’re doing your song and dance along with everyone else, while this mass of potential readers watches.

Novels can be next to impossible to promote or market. Unlike nonfiction, they don’t solve problems (in the conventional sense) or help readers out of holes. They don’t impart knowledge and wisdom in the same way that nonfiction books do, and they certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. Nope. Instead, fiction is viewed as a form of entertainment. A luxury item for those who have the time.

This means that each time a novel is read it’s because that person has chosen to spend their free time not with movies or Facebook or friends or church or shopping or playing sports or hanging out with their kids or ANY other hobby that they may have. No, they are choosing to read a story.

And because they have chosen to read this story instead of doing any of the other countless awesome things they could be doing, they want that story to be a perfect fit. They want it to be the right choice.

So it’s really not a big surprise that readers don’t simply pluck any old book off the shelf. They weigh recommendations from friends. They weigh their mood. And they weigh the likelihood that they will connect with a story based on their interests. 

This is where many novels fall short.

A majority of romance novels that are pitched to me involve the same idea. There is a young woman. There is a young man. There is a small town. There is a family business (maybe a B&B or something of the sort). There is conflict. There is resolution.

Nothing about this idea, aside for maybe the B&B, stands out. Nothing.

Here’s a typical women’s fiction idea:

There is a woman. She is struggling because of ___ (divorce, infidelity, abuse, etc.). There is a man. He is nice but she doesn’t trust him. There is a town and a few friends. She walks around. She hangs out with friends. She slowly heals. Something happens to set her back (ex-husband comes back into town, she finds out she’s pregnant, she becomes afraid to go out alone, etc.). Friends and man help her through. She heals.

Again…nothing stands out. There is nothing to connect this story with the reader. There is nothing that screams HEY! I THINK WE’RE A MATCH!! because there is nothing that connects the reader to the story. There is nothing specific about these stories and these characters that readers can latch on to.

Which means they’re impossible to promote.

The more unique a novel is–the more it targets a specific type of person with specific hobbies and specific tastes–the easier it is to promote.

What do I mean by this? Let me point you to two examples.

From the Start by Melissa Tagg and Reservations for Two by Hillary Manton Lodge are romance novels. They pretty much fit the above romance description, but they’re also MORE than that.

In From the Start you have themes of sports and writing and movie-making ON TOP of the typical romance themes. By taking any one of the unique themes, the author has an entire world of marketing opportunity. She can tailor her marketing to readers who are also fans of football or readers who have a soft spot for those made-for-TV movies.

In Reservations for Two, you again have all the typical themes, except this is a foodie book! So anyone who is part of that foodie movement will see this as a perfect match. A perfect way to spend their free time.

When writing your novel, think about reader groups. Think about hobbies or things of interest or pastimes that you can put into your book. Then, when it comes time to promote, you simply target those groups and make them aware that your book exists. The best part? They won’t be facing this huge question of “Will I like this?” because you’ve answered that for them by putting things that they like INSIDE THE BOOK.

It’s a beautiful thing that not only strengthens marketing, but it will help your book stand out.

Is this making sense? I feel it’s a big topic to cover in one post, so let me know if you have questions! I’m happy to try and help you figure out how you can make YOUR novel a better fit for niche groups.

Posted in Marketing and Platforms | 10 Comments »

Before You Write: Part 3, Plotting with a Purpose

January 21, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing, I’m talking today about different ways to plot your novel before sitting down to write. Figuring out your plot at the beginning of the writing process can help you:

  • distribute your writing– knowing in advance all the pieces that your story will need to include keeps you from getting bogged down/spending an inordinate number of words on minutiae or set-up
  • get a sense of your timeline– understanding the time frame of the events of your story helps you identify any out-of-place jumps or pauses
  • develop a plan B when writer’s block hits– if you get stuck in a certain scene or beat, you know what’s coming next and can move ahead and come back later instead of coming to a grinding halt while you beat your head against the wall (but maybe that’s just me)

There are as many ways to plot a novel as there are authors, and no one approach is the “perfect” one, but most authors use some variation of several common approaches to story planning. These approaches can be organized from least to most detailed, and knowing your writing process and the plot areas you most often struggle with can help you determine which level of detail will be most helpful to you– some authors enjoy the organic plot development that takes place when they’re writing toward a climax without a more rigid plan in place, while others get bogged down in the middle if they haven’t figured out all of the plot points that will take the story from beginning to climax. With that in mind, here are three common approaches to story planning and the common plot problems they can help prevent.

1. The Compass: The Story Arc or Line

At its most basic, a story arc charts the rise and fall of tension in a story. From the stasis, or the way things are at the beginning, all plots generally follow a path of increasing tension or increasing stakes to the high point or climax, after which the relieved tension leads to a new stasis or new normal where most elements of the plot have been resolved. If you chart a story arc on a line graph where the Y axis represents tension and the X axis represents the timeline of the story, the arc will be roughly hill-shaped, though will appear sharper the more quickly events escalate to the climax. If you google “story arc graph,” you’ll find thousands of variations on this type of plot organization strategy, and there isn’t one correct version of a story arc, but an effective arc graph usually includes at least the following landmarks:

  1. Stasis (the way things are)
  2. Inciting incident (the action or circumstance or revelation that gets sets the story into motion)
  3. Rising tension (a series of events or a state of being rather than an individual instance)
  4. Climax (the high point of the action where tension reaches the breaking point)
  5. Falling action (the fallout or consequences of whatever went down during the climax)
  6. Denouement (the resolution/introduction to the new normal)

Some authors don’t need to know any more detail about their plot at the beginning of the writing process than is provided by a simple story arc graph. By knowing the inciting incident, the climax, and the way things are going to end up, they have a sufficient road map to push the story in the right direction but still have the freedom to let it take shape/surprise them as they write. If you think about it in terms of an actual physical journey, a story arc as a means of plotting can be thought of as the equivalent of a compass as a navigational tool. If you know you want to get to the Pacific Ocean from Denver but don’t want to be tied down to a specific route, a compass will get you there by pointing you due west until you hit the Pacific Ocean. Everything you do and see along the way is up to you, but you’re able to keep moving in the right direction thanks to the compass (or, more accurately, thanks to knowing that the Pacific Ocean is where you want to go and that it’s due west). Identifying the major elements of your story using a story arc graph or outline can give you the same directed spontaneity in your writing.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You like to discover minor characters and subplots during the writing process
  • You struggle to stick to an outline once you’ve made it
  • You’ve been told that there isn’t enough build-up to your climax, or that your climax isn’t dramatic enough
  • You make frequent deviations from your original plot plans
  • Your characters tend to change/mutate significantly during the writing process (not to be confused with regular character growth)
  • Your story ideas tend to be more character driven than event-driven

2. Turn by Turn Directions: The Beat Sheet

Beats are the unit of storytelling used by screenwriters to organize the action events of a movie, and many authors have adopted their use into their own story planning. When you hear the term “action events,” you may jump immediately to high-octane scenes of gunfire and car chases, but in reality, the phrase simply refers to every action performed by the characters that moves the action of the story forward in a significant way. For example, a conversation your protagonist has with her best friend in which she first begins to doubt her boyfriend’s fidelity would be a beat. Sneaking a look at her boyfriend’s phone while he was in the bathroom would be another beat. Confronting him about all the texts from “Alicia” would be another. All these actions, though smaller than a big confrontation at her wedding in which she finally realizes that she’s about to marry a cheater and calls him out in front of all their friends and family (this would be more of a “climax” type of action, and also a beat) move the story forward in significant ways– her thinking is changed in the first one, she takes action in the second one, she changes the dynamic of her relationship in the third, etc.

The number of beats required to lay out an entire plot changes based on the type of story you’re writing, but will generally be between 15 (a category romance) and 30 (a complicated political thriller). If you’re confused about whether or not an event is actually a beat or not, ask yourself if anything is different after it happens– a scene in which your protagonist googles “how to know if he’s cheating” might be funny, but if it doesn’t change her thinking or incite her to action (the conversation with her friend is what really rocked her world/introduced her doubt), it’s not really a story beat. However, because story beats exist to get the actions/decisions of a story pinned down, they leave a moderate amount of space for periphery or filler scenes such as the Google one. Continuing our navigation analogy, a beat sheet is more like specific directions to the Pacific Ocean– “get on I-70 heading west, then take I-15 south, then follow the signs for Long Beach.” You know the specific landmarks and turns you need to make, but you still have the freedom to get off the highway and look around/buy some beef jerky if you want to.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You enjoy having a road map to follow when writing
  • You often struggle with writer’s block
  • Your plots have been criticized for escalating too slowly or too quickly
  • You begin with a clear sense of your major characters and their world/the settings you’ll be using
  • You enjoy (or at least aren’t bothered by) writing scenes out-of-order on occasion

3. The Guided Tour: The Outline

A full outline is the most detailed of story planning devices. Some authors love writing from an outline because a well-constructed outline can serve as a virtual blueprint for a novel, telling you exactly what scenes appear in which order, as well as the setting, the featured characters, and the point of view for each one. Not surprisingly, other authors HATE this kind of story planning, because of the lack of room for spontaneity it offers and the amount of premeditation it requires. If you like the idea of having an outline tell you exactly what you’ll be use your word count on each day, you may want to try this method of plotting. If your beat sheet laid out every action event or scene of significance to the story arc, an outline expands on that to include the trivial and expository content that round out a novel– an outline indicates where you’re going to put the protagonist’s backstory and description, which scenes are going to start out with a description of the setting, which scenes will be told from alternate points of view, where you’ll include “montage”-type scenes which establish a pattern or show the main character in her element (i.e., scenes showing a wedding planner meeting with a couple or chasing a flower girl or wrapping chairs in tulle which aren’t central to the plot but which bring the character’s daily life into focus and provide a backdrop for the action events of the plot), etc.

If story beats are turn-by-turn directions, an outline is a guided tour which takes you on a carefully scheduled and carefully routed excursion on which each rest stop, gas station, and side trip is planned in advance and the guide has a list of views he’ll direct your attention to along the way. Not everyone enjoys traveling this way, but it does ensure that you will get safely to your destination and will have seen everything you should have along the way.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You’re a control freak– in a good way
  • Your subplots have been criticized for being weak or underdeveloped
  • You’ve been told your plots are confusing
  • You have a short time frame for writing
  • You have trouble jumping back into your novel when you come back to it each day
  • You’re writing your first novel/you’ve had trouble completing a novel in the past

Obviously, there are dozens of variations on these three methods, and a quick Google search will yield a myriad of resources to help you use and adapt each one to suit your own needs, but hopefully you recognized an element of your own process or a problem you’ve struggled with and can walk away with a better idea of which story-planning method can best help you position your next novel for success! Where on the spectrum of compass/directions/guided tour does your plotting technique fall?

 

Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Ask the Agent: What are you looking for in a query?

January 19, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

I’m getting ready to head out to speak at a writing conference at San Diego State this weekend, and someone who is going to be attending wrote to ask, “Can you tell me what you’re looking for in a query?”
That’s easy: Every time I open a query letter, I’m hoping to see something I’ll fall in love with. I want to see a great idea, supported by great writing, from an author with a great platform. I want to read an idea that makes me go, “Fabulous! Why didn’t I think of that?!” I want to see an author platform that shrieks, “I can help support this book!” I want to come across writing that hooks me from the first line. It’s rare, but it happens.
Of course, the one thing that makes sit up and take notice is great voice. If an author sounds unique and has personality on the page, I tend to pay close attention. (Unfortunately, some editors and agents don’t want to see any writing at a conference — they only want the idea. If I like your idea, I’m going to want to see if you can support it with good writing, so I encourage authors to bring some sample pages with them to a conference.) Again, I’m a sucker for great voice, and it’s the one thing we rarely see. Much of what we see isn’t bad, but so much as it’s the same as everything else. It sounds the same, it reads the same, and it could have been written by anybody. Great voice in writing always grabs me.
On the flip side, the thing that makes me immediately plop the query into my “reject” pile is seeing the same old thing — something that’s trying to ride the coattails of a project that’s already been done in a big way. (Examples include, “I’ve created a story about a boy wizard,” “I’m doing a dystopian where this young girl proves she’s brave and leads a revolution,” and “My lead character has sex on every page, since I couldn’t think of any other way to mirror Fifty Shades of Grey.”) In this business, you tend to see the wannabe’s and Me-Too’s, when we’d really like to see something fresh.

So a great idea (expressed clearly but succinctly), from an author with a great platform, demonstrating great writing. Sounds simple, right?

Posted in Conferences | 1 Comment »

On Crime Fiction and Sales (a guest blog)

January 16, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Analyzing sales trends is a tricky business. Predicting them is almost impossible. But when thinking of what type of crime novel sells, be it the cozy or the more violent thriller novel, there are a few clear issues that emerge. Are readers looking for reassurances that traditional narratives offer, or is violence the allure?

One model of analysis that is illuminating is the Nietzschean dialogue between Dionysian and Apollonian energies [1]. If Apollo represents law and Dionysus chaos, then crime fiction is built on a fundamental friction between the two. And proportionally, the largest part of any crime novel is the narrative showing the seductive uprising of forces that threaten to destroy society. There may be a certain voyeurism at play here, as the reader is allowed to witness things he would not ordinarily see, as he is given a peek into lives that are as exciting as they are flawed. But ultimately the narrative thrust is towards the vindication of law.

That is one thing that is a recurrent feature: most crime fiction is redemptive. The plot and story are often driven by criminal subversions and focus on the damage done to peoples’ lives by criminals, while the protagonist, often a detective, struggles to catch the culprit, but in the end order is restored and justice served, often lawlessly where revenge is part of the plot. Justice is a prevailing theme, but it is one that is interpreted in many ways. The police procedural traditionally relies on the investigation and the judicial system to restore order, while other novels mete out poetic justice to the wrong doers. These are some of the shared themes of crime novels, but the approaches are all different.

Agatha Christie wrote addictive cozies that centre on a period of English history when class dominated social interactions. Her core strengths are her plotting and protagonists. Poirot remains an undeniable force among detectives. Christie’s novels are addictive because she uses a familiar pattern when she constructs a plot, and the reader knows that while everyone may come under suspicion, by the end all questions will be answered and life will return to normal. And this is the main reason why I believe she sells. She tips a microcosm on its head, we see the small village torn apart by doubt and fear, then she puts it all back together again. Her reassurances are based on the innate sense her fictions contain that social order will prevail. And the backdrop to the events is the unshakeable class system that remains a constant.

By contrast, a writer like Thomas Harris straddles the line between crime and horror. The creation of a new monster is always popular, since the fear factor is a driving force in a good page turner. Hannibal Lecter is perhaps the last great monster to have been written, and he is chilling precisely because he appears so normal. His derangement involves no loss of control, he is a manic with no social signs of mania. His ability to reason his impulses and to analyse the pathology of others places him firmly on the rational side of pathological, and as such he epitomises the dialogue between criminality and normality that informs many great crime fictions. His appeal is violent and permissive. He embodies the Dionysian in crime fiction.

I think Harris gives a good insight into the mind of a psychopath in The Silence of the Lambs, and that is one reason his novels have sold so well. Readers want to be entertained, but I believe they also want to understand something about a subject that they feel is closed from them. If a writer shows the reader a glimpse into the world of say, the Colombian drug cartels, and gives a realistic portrait of that he has engaged the reader’s interest. That sense of realism is key.

When you read an Elmore Leonard novel his criminals feel real. Part of that is due to his brilliant dialogue. Leonard writes superb fast paced novels that are dialogue driven. He attributes this style to the influence of George V. Higgins and his seminal novel The Friends Of Eddy Coyle. Higgins showed you can structure a novel almost entirely out of dialogue and reading The Friends at times feels like listening in on a group of criminals talking. Leonard’s crims are street smart, dumb, flawed and you know they are going to mess it up. Therein lies the reassurance, these guys are not going to get away with it.

Violence may sell a novel, certainly, especially if it is part of a revenge plot, but not on its own. A writer whose novels contain a good degree of violence is James Lee Burke. Burke has written some of the greatest crime novels today. His characters have depth and his two detectives, Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel, balance law and lawlessness well, with Robicheaux the voice of order when Purcel may want to take the law into his own hands. And this is their appeal: the criminals commit atrocities that make the reader want to see them punished and when the law fails to do so there is satisfaction in what is meted out by Burke’s protagonists. They act as a narrative focal point, taking the reader into the world of crime in order to stop the criminals.

While the cozy may lack the violence of many crime novels, it shares with them the narrative drive towards resolution of the things that threaten order. Ultimately, that is the appeal of a good crime novel: the reader is allowed a safe trip inside crime, one which he may learn from, and be entertained by. But at the end order is expected to be restored, unless you have to wait for the sequel and then surely you are selling. The reader has had the thrill of watching crime at work and ended with the pleasure of seeing it dealt with.

[1] Nietzsche, The Birth Of Tragedy.

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Richard Godwin is the author of such critically acclaimed crime novels as Confessions of a Hit Man, Noir City, One Lost Summer, Mr. Glamour, and Meaningful Conversations. A published poet and playwright, he was educated at King’s College. He lives in London. 

Posted in The Writing Craft, Trends | 1 Comment »

Thursdays with Amanda: The Importance of Networking on Twitter

January 15, 2015 | Written by Amanda Luedeke

Amanda LuedekeAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. You can also check out her marketing skills on Fiverr. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

I barely have any Twitter followers!

No one tweets me! Heck, no one even retweets me!

My Tweets fall on deaf ears!

Have you ever wondered why Twitter isn’t working? Have you ever stared blankly at your Twitter home page in a painful attempt to write something that is reTweetable? Favorite-able? Enjoyable? And then have you whittled your overly long message down to 140 characters (link included!) and sent it out to the masses only to go…unnoticed?

If this fits you, know that you’re not alone! Many struggle with Twitter, and it’s understandable. We treat it like we treat Facebook. We throw something out there and wait for the interactions to roll in.

But Twitter isn’t like Facebook. With Twitter, you have to be far more relational.

It’s a scary thing to promise marketing results, because let’s face it…marketing is a gamble each and every time. So I was a bit hesitant when I set up my Fiverr account. I felt fairly confident that I could (and can) provide social media copy that gets results, but I had doubts. I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to go back to my clients and tell them that I don’t know how to help them. That I’ve done my best and my best isn’t working.

But eventually, I put my fears aside, created my page, and told a few people about my account.

The general idea behind the services that I offer on Fiverr is to help people understand how they can better communicate via social media. Yes, I write copy for them, and yes, I do research and handle a lot of the legwork. But my goal is to also show them how they can improve.

My first Fiverr job was to write five Tweets for an author that I knew. The goal? To help the author gain followers. After a bit of panic and sudden onslaught of self-doubt, I put my head down and worked.

I reminded myself that to gain followers, the author had to IDENTIFY A TARGET AUDIENCE. For this author, a clear target audience was “geeky pastors.” Once I had that nailed down, I knew that the next step would be to FIND THE TARGET AUDIENCE ON TWITTER. With the help of Google and Twitter’s search engine, I found 4-5 individuals that fit the bill. Which only meant that I needed to WRITE COPY THAT WOULD ENGAGE THOSE USERS.

I whipped together a few Tweets, sent them to the client with a note as to how to use them, and the next thing I knew, the author was showing me screen shots of this crazy long Twitter conversation he was having with these five Geeky Pastors.

If he keeps it up, he’s going to get some new followers. He’s going to have direct contact with potential readers. And it’s going to make his job of marketing his books a whole lot easer. Plus, imagine what will happen if he keeps finding NEW geeky pastors?! The sky is the limit here, but it all starts with being proactive.

The worst thing you can do on Twitter is sit back and wait for followers. The best thing you can do is find those who fit your audience and engage them in conversation.

I don’t mean for this to be an advertisement for my Fiverr page, but if you’re curious to see what $5 can get you, check it out. I also plan to add a few more gigs, one being where I will research Twitter users for you and find some that fit within your target audience.

Until next week!

Posted in Marketing and Platforms, Web/Tech | 4 Comments »

Before You Write: Part 2, Developing Your Characters

January 14, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wLast week, I started a new series about some pre-writing strategies that can help you preemptively fix problem areas in your manuscripts. Since not every author is going to find every strategy helpful, however, I included a list of questions to ask yourself about your writing process to help you in figuring out which pre-writing exercises are worth your time. I’m talking today about some character development tools that you may find helpful if:

  • you struggle with writing multi-dimensional characters/relationships
  • you find yourself getting bored with your characters partway through a manuscript
  • you’ve struggled in writing dialogue for specific characters
  • you’ve ever been uncertain of a character’s motivation
  • you’ve received feedback about characters acting “out of character” or being inconsistent.

If any of those sound like you, some of these tools/exercises can help pave the way for a smoother, more informed relationship with your characters throughout the writing process.

Interview Your Characters

I’ve mentioned this approach to character development before, but it’s worth repeating. I often read decent, well-written manuscripts that start out with several pages/chapters of backstory and character introduction that I, as the reader don’t need to know right away (and sometimes, at all). What generally happens is that as an author begins writing about a character, that character continues to grow/take shape in the author’s mind and all of that new information ends up in the manuscript, slowing down the opening of the story and delaying the action. While it’s true that a lot of authors learn about their characters by writing about them, that material shouldn’t necessarily end up in the book, and definitely shouldn’t be dumped in a big chunk at the beginning of the narrative. Instead, consider filling out an interview questionnaire for each character that figures substantially in your story, taking some time to answer/invent the answers to a wide variety of questions that reveal the character– physical appearance, family, childhood, education, places he’s lived, significant relationships, hobbies, fears, religion, lifestyle– the more information you compile about a character, the more choices you have when writing about them.

When I was involved in theater in high school and college, we completed a similar exercise for our characters in each play/musical, even for the insignificant characters (Woman #3 in Fiddler on the Roof, anyone?), the idea being that if every actor onstage had examined his character’s relationships with the others, with the setting, and what was going on in his private life before the events of the play, every interaction that took place on stage would be informed by that knowledge and would be more lifelike because of it. Even if the audience never had occasion to find out that my character hated Woman #4 because her husband had cheated mine in business, knowing that made it easier for me to decide how to interact with her character onstage and made for a more compelling interaction between us. In the same way, your characters’ scenes are going to have more life/more flavor for you having delved deeply into their histories and personalities, and your reader will notice the difference even without being privy to all of that information.

Visit Your Characters’ Pasts

Sometimes, simply knowing that a particular event took place in your character’s life isn’t enough to be able to understand how that event affects their motivations or reactions. For example, I read a manuscript a couple of years ago in which we find out early on that the protagonist’s love interest has some traumatic event in his past, but we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way through what it was (his brother was killed when the two of them came home late one night and surprised a burglar). The story was pretty good until the climactic revelation conversation, and then– flat as a pancake. The dialogue in that scene and the conflict that arose in their relationship supposedly related to his brother’s death just didn’t ring true. I didn’t care, and the conflict seemed contrived. Now, obviously, that event was tragic, and it certainly could affect his relationship, but the problem was that the character just didn’t seem connected to that event– I didn’t buy his motives for pulling back from his relationship, and I wasn’t moved by his revelation. It felt as if the author had simply plugged a tragic event into his backstory in order to create the necessary conflict in the relationship.

A strategy I’ve found extremely helpful is to write out pivotal scenes from your character’s past so you can witness them firsthand. Seeing these determining moments through their eyes gives you a whole new level of empathy/understanding for a character, and gives a ring of truth to their conversations when they talk about it, and their actions when they’re motivated by it. Even if a scene would have no place in your finished manuscript, writing it out can be invaluable in helping you understand your characters and write their words and actions convincingly. If your character was in an abusive relationship, write out a few of those moments, as painful as that may be. If your character had a bad relationship with her parents, write out a few of their biggest fights. If your character was engaged before, write out the scene where he proposed to his first fiancee. Having these scenes in your mind will inform your writing about these characters in surprising ways.

Role-Play with Your Characters

Your characters aren’t necessarily going to spring magically to your mind or to the page fully realized. I’ve read plenty of interviews with authors in which they talk about a certain character walking into their life one day with every detail intact, but I’ve had much more experience with authors who gradually patch their characters together from bits and pieces of inspiration, learning more about them the more they write. Consider taking your main characters through some sample scenes to learn more about them. Simple scenarios such as receiving bad service at a restaurant, someone cutting in front of him in line at the bank, or being seated next to a three-year-old on a flight can help you discover a lot about your character’s personality/reactions. Is he impatient? A pushover? Soft-spoken? Sarcastic? Is she uncomfortable around children? Does he avoid confrontation or relish it? Again, you may not have much luck with the whole “put your character in a situation and wait to see what they do” approach, but you can try several different options for each scenario and see which one feels the most natural– which response was the most fun to write? Which version of your character are you most interested in? Which character choice do you see providing you with the most options or the most conflict in light of your story? Writing some sample scenes like this can prevent you from picking a character trait at random and then struggling to make it stick for the rest of the story.

As I mentioned last week, the goal for these exercises isn’t to provide you with ways to procrastinate on writing the actual story, but to help you avoid writing yourself into a dead end or stalling out when you run out of information. If you’ve had character-related trouble in the past, try one or two of these strategies and see if doing a little homework sets you up for more success in the long-term.

Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Je Suis Charlie

January 12, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

The shooting of writers, editors, and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week should be remembered by every writer, and everyone in publishing, because it’s an attempt to shut up people who want to tell stories and influence the culture.

I represent a lot of suspense writers. Imagine one day you’re sitting at your desk, writing the latest bomb-in-the-briefcase story featuring a con man and a bad cop, when suddenly some nut bursts in, yells something about your stories pulling people away from thinking moral, uplifting thoughts, and tries smashing your computer. I represent a lot of Christian writers. Imagine one day you’re at a signing at a Family Christian Store, when you’re interrupted by a violent atheist who wants to stop everyone from reading about God. I represent several Catholic writers. Imagine coming home to find your place defaced because some crazed Protestant disagrees with your theology. We just don’t appreciate violence aimed at shutting up someone who wants to tell a story, and we need to take a stand to defend those who are being persecuted for nothing more than writing a joke.

Look, I find several of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo offensive and immature, and would never post them on my blog. But the quality of their work is not the point. I value the freedom writers have in our culture to say what they want, to explore crazy ideas, and, yes, even to say something offensive. Humor and satire are ways of pointing out what’s wrong with the world or the government or the culture, and it’s the sign of a mature person to be able to laugh at himself or herself. Laughter can offend, but it can also offer perspective.

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is very funny — sure, it slants decidedly to the left, and his mash-ups of Fox News clips and conservative speakers can be misleading and unfair… but so what? He’s funny, and points out the foibles of politicians and media spokespeople, and if anyone tried to firebomb his set I’d be on a plane to New York to join the crowds who would march in support of his show. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh’s program has a decided slant, and he’s sometimes funny, and I hate the thought of some left-wing nutjob attacking him simply for offering up one of his parodies.

You see, as writers we all understand that words matter. Your ability to tell a story, without government or religious interference, is an essential part of democracy, and part of what we hold dear as writers. You don’t have to get your priest’s approval to say something. You don’t have to wonder if your murder scene will offend the local government. You don’t have to make sure your thoughts on God are in line with the powers that be. The cowardly act of shooting the creators of Charlie Hebdo is an assault on freedom of speech, and it’s exactly what America’s founding fathers intended to resist when they set up a government with no state religion. (If you don’t know your history, they were largely deists, worried about the religious and class wars happening overseas, and they made sure America would not be a theocracy. It’s why Americans need to resist sharia law, which wants the religious leaders to also be the political leaders. Do you want Pat Robertson as president? Do you want some local redneck pastor as your governor? Because that’s what they’ve got going in the Middle East these days — the Arabic equivalent of redneck pastors running cities and states.)

So I don’t care if you’re offended at Charlie Hebdo printing immature cartoons of Mary and Joseph having sex, or of the Prophet Muhammed kissing his gay lover. Offensive? Yes. Worthy of violence? No. And by the way, don’t believe the common notion that all Moslems reject depictions of their prophet. That’s just not true. It’s not in the Koran. In fact, there is plenty of art from the Middle East portraying Muhammed. What they have is a desire to not elevate any man into an idol, so they don’t want images of him in their mosques… and that has led the uneducated and the violent to make this into an issue worth killing for.

There are times I wish contemporary Christianity had something in print that was the equivalent of humor and satire, to poke fun at the Mark Driscolls and Wine Presses and the Ted Haggards. We don’t — we did have the late, lamented Wittenburg Door, but it seems like most evangelicals these days are WAY too angry to laugh at themselves. (Though if you’re interested, take a look at an assessment from Robert Darden, the longtime editor of The Door, in the Huffington Post.)  Still, don’t buy into the whole argument that “Christians do the same thing” when it comes to this type of violence. In our contemporary world, that’s bull. We’ve all watched Father Guido Sarducci, read Mark Twain on the faith, and listened to Lenny Bruce riff on the church without rioting. We’ve seen numerous depictions of bad priests and evil pastors in Hollywood films, and listened to both stupid and heretical lessons via countless TV talking heads — all without resorting to violence. The notion of killing someone for making a joke, even a tasteless or racist or heretical joke, is considered evil by any thinking person.

So the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on all writers. It was an attack on everyone who wants to tell their own story and speak their own mind. It’s why I think we need to be outspoken in our belief that freedom of expression matters — even to those who we disagree with. I’d like to see Jon Stewart, and Rush Limbaugh, and Jerry Seinfeld, and Lewis Black, and Ellen Degeneres, and others who are both funny and acerbic, get together and say, “We insist on one another’s right to freedom of expression, because artistic freedom is a key ingredient in contemporary democratic societies.” I’d like to see the New York Times and Fox News stop acting afraid and reveal the cartoons that got people killed. (For all their chest-thumping, they’ve been totally frightened by the terrorists.) And I’d like to see writers, including people I know in the industry, publicly state that, while they may not appreciate the art of Charlie Hebdo, they stand with the creators.

Twelve people died defending your right to write what you want. Let’s remember them.

 

Posted in Current Affairs | 42 Comments »