Ask the Agent: What do I need to know about author platforms?

April 20, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

We’ve had a bunch of questions come in on the topic of author platforms…

What is the magic platform number publishers are looking for?

In my view, there is not magical number. Every project has its own goals. But it might help to keep two things in mind… First, that publishers are on an economy of scale. So a large house might need to see an author platform of more than 100,000 names, but a small house might only need to see a platform of 30,000 names. Second, remember that the potential readership of your book will be influenced by your platform. A literary novel needs a much broader platform to succeed than, say, a book of quilting patterns, which will sell to a very specific audience.

Is a platform basically a list of who I can reach via personal appearances?

No – a platform is simply the number of people you can reach with your words, whether that is via speaking, personal appearances, your blog, articles or columns you write, organizations you belong to, television or radio time you have, etc. All of those are points of contact with potential readers. It’s why I like to say a platform is simply a number – you add up the audiences for all the ways in which you reach out, and that’s your platform.

Does the number of impressions I get with my online writing count as part of my platform? Does my Facebook and Twitter feed count?

Yes on both counts. If you reach people with your words, it’s part of your platform as a writer.

My Christian publisher told me that the number of books I can be expected to sell is directly related to my platform. Do you find that to be true? And if so, what number are they looking for?

I think there’s a lot of debate over how your platform relates to your sales. I see a ton of author activity regarding Facebook, for examples, but I’ve yet to see much evidence that “having a lot of Facebook friends” equates to “selling a lot of books.” The same is true for Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Flickr, and FaceTwitFlikTumbLin. Look, I see a LOT of authors throw themselves into social media, and I’m just not seeing that it sells books. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; only that I’m not sure it really helps an author move many copies. Sure – the first question I get from publishers on any nonfiction proposal these days is, “What’s the author’s platform?” I need an answer for them. But I don’t let the conversation rest there, because there are other important aspects to having a hit book.

Some people in the industry won’t like this, but consider some recent bestsellers. I was at Alive Communications when my late buddy Lee Hough was trying to land Same Kind of Different as Me. The author had almost no network, but the book went on to sell more than a million copies. My client Ira Wagler’s memoir, Growing Up Amish, has sold 150,000 copies, though the author runs a building supply company in a small town in Pennsylvania and doesn’t do much of anything to generate a platform. Another client, Mindy Starns Clark, isn’t even ON social media, but is a wonderful writer who has had several bestselling books, and two #1 bestsellers. My buddy Cecil Murphey penned 90 Minutes in Heaven and watched it sell 15 million copies or so, and while the author Don Piper is a speaker, at the time the book released he wasn’t well known. We could say the same thing about The Shack, Crazy Love, Anything, One Thousand Gifts, and a bunch of other bestselling books – the industry is filled with books that have done well, written by authors who don’t have a big platform.

That doesn’t take away the fact that there are a lot of people on the other side of this argument. Joyce Meyer is on TV all the time, has a huge platform, and her books sell great. Joel Osteen pastors a giant church, and his books sell incredibly well (even though, you know – he keeps writing the same book with a different title). There are people like John Maxwell or John Ortberg or Eric & Leslie Ludy who have done the speaking thing, built up their platforms, and turned that into strong book sales. My friend Liz Curtis Higgs has spoken in more church basements and to more women’s conferences than just about anyone, and it was a long road for her – but she’s helped turn that into a series of bestselling books.

My point is that there is no “one right way” to build a platform… but at the same time, building a platform doesn’t guarantee a bestselling book. Some bestsellers (perhaps I should say “many” bestsellers) pop up because the writing or the message of the book simply meets a need at the time. Call it dumb luck. Call it karma. Call it the sovereignty of God. I don’t know why, but it happens regularly. And it’s why I’m not one of those who insists every author invest time in a blog, or spend hours on Facebook, or get out on the speaking circuit. There’s no one route all authors must follow.

====================Questions Book Cover

Hey, if you’re interested in asking questions of agents, pick up a copy of Chip’s new book, How can I find a literary agent? (And 101 other questions writers ask), which has just released with The Benchmark Press. Available in both print and e-book formats. 

Posted in Marketing and Platforms | 1 Comment »

What’s going on with Family Christian Stores?

April 17, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

I’ve had a number of people write to ask about the bankruptcy of Family Christian Stores, and specifically if it will affect writers who publish in CBA. A bit of background: FCS has 266 stores, did $230M in business last year, and were the largest purveyor of religious books, bibles, t-shirts, and inspirational ephemera in the country. They were originally part of Zondervan, but were bought out by Richard Jackson (remember that name — it will come up often) and his partners a few years ago. Jackson and his buddies said they were going to use the stores to sell products, make money, and use the profits to fund other ministries around the world. Certainly a noble idea. The only problem? They didn’t know what they were doing.Old Books

Sales dropped. Bookselling turned into a tough business. Profits were slim. So a few weeks ago, the chain filed for Chapter 11, a reorganization bankruptcy. They have huge debts — close to $127M. They owe $7M to HarperCollins alone, largely for bibles, which is an expensive (and lucrative) business. They owe another $2M to Tyndale, and a half million each to Baker, B&H, Harvest House, Crossway, Barbour, Presbyterian & Reformed, etc. Their debts to publishers total roughly $14M. They owe greeting card and gift companies about another $13M.

In the world of Wall Street finance, that may not look like much. (Borders had nearly a thousand stores, and owed publishers much more.) But in the world of Christian publishing, this is huge. Imagine you’re Harvest House — a very well run, medium-sized publishing house that is privately owned, and trying to compete with the Random Houses and Simon & Schusters of the world. If a giant corporation is suddenly told they won’t be paid a half million dollars, you can bet they won’t be happy, but they’ll weather the storm because they have the financial resources to get through the rough patches. But Harvest House? A half million dollar hit is awfully painful. It can mean mean people lose their jobs (and no, I don’t have any insider information on Harvest House — I’m simply using them as an example). At a small house like P&R, a half million dollar loss can spell disaster.

What does that mean for authors? It certainly means fewer places to sell your books, and possibly fewer companies to approach with your manuscript. In the immediate, it means that all those books your publisher sent to the various Family Christian Stores won’t be making you any money, since FCS won’t be paying your publisher for them, and they’ll likely have to write them off. (The total debt for “unsecured receivables,” which means books and stuff they took in but haven’t paid for, is about $40M — the rest of the debts are in leases and equipment, presumably. So they have $40M in product that likely won’t be paid for.)

Worse, FCS began offering consignment sales a couple years ago. It worked this way: If you have, say, a jewelry company that you run out of your garage, they’ll take a bunch of your jewelry and put it on display in their stores, but will only pay you if the jewelry actually sells. So it’s on consignment, and you’re trusting FCS to display and sell your products, then track and pay you the money. But if they suddenly shut down, you get nothing — and you don’t get your product back, either. FCS got into consignments in a big way, since they were a means of making money with nothing down. I’ve seen reports that they had nearly $20M in consignment products (and, as usual with a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the numbers can sometimes be convoluted)… which means little mom-and-pop operations who sent them products are just out of luck. THAT will shut down small businesses, since you can bet when it’s time to divvy up the proceeds, the big banks will get paid first and there won’t be anything left over by the time it gets to the small creditors.

One of the real concerns here is that Family Christian Stores apparently was still ordering more books and taking in new consignments, even when they had to have known they were not going to be able to pay for them. That’s the point where people stop wondering if they were done in by a difficult retail environment, and start wondering if they were simply unethical, or even possibly corrupt.

So Richard Jackson, the guy who bought the company a few years ago? He’s put together another company, and wants to buy FCS. (You read that right — the guy who owns it wants to sell it to himself.) But, of course, he only wants to pay a fraction of what is owed — $28M in cash, and he’ll assume the leases. And who is in line to get paid? Um… one of the creditors is Richard Jackson. Yes. The guy who owns the company, and who wants to buy the company from himself, also wants to be a creditor, so he gets paid before others. What a guy. I’m sure he’ll use the money to fund other great ministries!

Family Christian Stores has come out with a statement that says all their stores will re-open and all their employees will be retained. This is what public relations experts refer to as “spin,” and what the rest of us call a total, stinking pile of bull-pucky. I don’t know what Richard and his friends are smoking, but there’s no way on God’s green earth they keep all the stores open, and even their employees have laughed off the claim that everyone will keep their jobs. And what do you think the folks at Harvest House are going to say when Richard and Buddies call them to order more books?

So, yeah… this is a disaster. For readers, for publishers, and for authors working in CBA.

UPDATE: So Richard Jackson and his friends have indeed dropped their plan to buy out their own company and therefore cheat publishers out of millions of dollars. They faced a lot of criticism as word got out about their plans, and this week a hearing was held that had the current owners, publishers, and lawyers representing the various businesses negotiating for a settlement. A judge set a May 21 auction date for Family Christian Stores, the winning bid will be announced the next day, and the sale must close by early June. What does this mean? It means that either some companies will get together, buy FCS out, and keep some of the stores open, or everything will go into the hands of a wholesaler that will slash prices and sell all the stock, displays, and fixtures in order to close them out. Either way, there’s going to be far fewer selling opportunities for CBA authors.

Posted in Current Affairs | 45 Comments »

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 4, The Lukewarm Ending

April 14, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wI’m continuing my conversation on writing great endings today with a look at what makes a weak, or “lukewarm” ending and how to scrub this kind of ending from your writing.

There are few things worse than being in the middle of a great book or movie and having someone spoil the ending for you, right? All the fun of the building tension, the suspense as to who’s going to live or die, the question of which guy the protagonist will choose– I personally feel that you’re totally justified in punching anyone who ruins the ending of a great book for you. Now, imagine someone is reading your book and some jerk decides to spoil the ending for them– and instead of being furious, the reader’s reaction is, “So… that’s it?”  The best endings, the ones that readers can feel the strongest emotional connection to and find the most satisfying, aren’t just a checklist of “resolved the conflict, established the immediate future, wrapped up subplots.” While these elements might meet the “requirements” of an ending, your readers are looking for something more than just mathematical resolution at the end of a story. Our favorite endings are surprising, or complex, or poetic, or even aggravating or sad or cynical, but they’re rarely just “fine.”

The best endings are those that it is impossible for the reader to be ambivalent about. They should love it, or hate it, or be deeply conflicted about it, or be left with lingering questions about it (in a good way, not in a the-author-dropped-four-plot-threads-and-so-the-reader-has-no-clue-what’s-going-on kind of way). Think about some of your favorite books, specifically their endings– if asked to talk about how one of these books ends, you’d probably say things like, “It’s so beautiful!,” or “It’s SO sad,” or “It’s really happy!” Your reaction to the ending of a book isn’t specific to a certain kind of ending– happy, sad, poetic– but to your connection to it– whether you stayed sufficiently emotionally engaged with the characters and the storytelling universe that you felt something at the end of the book other than a sense of technical resolution because all the right boxes were checked. “What I’d really love for my reader to feel at the end of my book is apathy and mild approval,” said no writer ever. So how can you ensure that the reader who has been perfectly willing to follow your characters through their story aren’t left lukewarm after the last page is turned? A few suggestions:

  • Raise the stakes in your conflict. Often, the ending of a book feels bland because it doesn’t contrast sufficiently with the climax– one moment, the main characters are in a disagreement, the next they’ve worked it out in a long conversation over coffee and are happily planning their wedding. Yawn. The more the main conflict and climax disrupt the characters’ lives, the more the conflict affects the world surrounding the main characters, and the harder it is to resolve that conflict, the more deeply we feel for the characters when the do get their happy ending.
  • Surprise the reader (fairly). The reason the ending of “The Sixth Sense” works so well is that, as the viewer is reeling from the shock of the final revelation, we’re frantically playing back certain scenes and relationships in light of that new knowledge and discovering that it actually DOES make sense that (spoiler alert) Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. It’s a twist that makes perfect sense in that story universe but that hooks the viewer anew right at the end, so they’re essentially glued to the screen right until the very end. Last-minute surprises and revelations and twists can certainly be gimmicky, but when the right groundwork has been laid, they stoke the reader’s interest in the story just at the moment when he was ready to skim over the happily-ever-after fluff and leave him energized and more fully connected to the story, which is exactly what you want– you want to end the book on your terms rather than give your reader a nice sleepy chapter in which to detach from the story universe as the last pieces fall neatly into place. These don’t have to be big surprises– you don’t have to end your cute romance with an evil twin showing up at the wedding (and probably shouldn’t)– just fun, clever, or sweet twists or inclusions that make the reader feel more deeply about a character or situation.
  • Make strong choices. Now, I’m the last person to encourage you to kill a character or break up the main couple at the end just for shock value (I personally Hate unhappy, cynical endings), but the truth is, sometimes the stronger writing choice, the choice that stays true to the characters you’ve written or the world you’ve created, IS for the main character to have to make a major sacrifice or hard choice, or for the couple decide NOT to stay together (within the expectations of your genre, that is– no romance reader is going to want to read a book where the couple doesn’t end up together, and no romance editor is going to publish it). There still has to be resolution, and there should still be hope and a sense of justice having been done or potential for something good to come out of the events of the ending, but a strong choice generally makes a more memorable and more polarizing ending than a weak or easy one.

By making every effort to ensure your reader can’t remain neutral about the ending of your book, you guarantee that they’ll remember your book, think about it, have conversations about it, and will be more likely to seek out additional titles from you in the future.

Have you ever been left “lukewarm” by the ending of an otherwise enjoyable book? How could the author have salvaged it? How have you avoided lukewarm endings in your own writing? I love to hear about your experiences in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!

Posted in Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 1 Comment »

How can I find a literary agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers)

April 13, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Hey, my new book is releasing!

Questions Book Cover

Over the past several months, I’ve been answering your questions about how to find a literary agent, how to make a living with writing, how to maximize the marketing of your book, and dozens of other questions writers ask.

The landscape in the publishing industry has shifted and blurred in the past decade. Writers, from novice to veterans, are struggling to re-define their job, their goals, and their role in the process. I’ve been more or less known for staying in front of the changing industry paradigms, offering support to writers and agents while hosting this industry blog and speaking on the writing conference circuit.

So listen… if you were the writer lucky enough to sit down with an experienced agent over coffee, what would you ask?

That’s what this book is all about. Inside, you will find answers to a collection of the top one hundred and one questions literary agents are asked every year—and some that should be asked. So if you’re an unpublished writer seeking to take the next step, or a seasoned writer bewildered by today’s evolving world of publishing, check out the new book Holly Lorincz and I created for The Benchmark Press. You can get it in hard copy or as an ebook by going here.

And some nice words from writers:

New York Time and USA Today bestselling author Vince Zandri said, “I can’t think of a better authority on agenting than one of the country’s best agents. Chip MacGregor not only pulled my career from out of the ashes, he guided it on a path to New York Times, Amazon, and USA Today bestselling-status. His management savvy and articulate knowledge of the ever changing publishing marketplace has enabled me to make a very good living writing fiction.”

And Dwight Baker, the president of Baker Books, had this to say: “Chip Mac Gregor is the first person who comes to my mind when a writer asks me for guidance. Why? Because writers become more professional and ready for publication after they spend time with Chip. He has a sharp instinct for talent, a passion for good books, and he loves – albeit toughly – the people who provide them. So aspiring writers have two choices. We can seek out Chip in person, buy him a Guinness, and listen carefully. This is a delightful experience, but you then need to stalk him, which is creepy and time consuming. Or you read this book. Let me recommend the second choice. You won’t need to search the crowded pubs, and the overuse of Chip’s book will not result in a hangover.”

So drop by Amazon sometime and get your questions answered! Thanks – Chip

Posted in Favorite Books | 17 Comments »

The Thrill of the Journey (a guest blog)

April 9, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

 

As a fresh kid rounding the bend on the second half of life, and after a series of challenging events, I’d determined again to dive into a childhood calling of becoming a writer.

A trip to the Oregon Coast never failed to give me the much needed kick in the aft, so off I went. I strolled the docks at Newport, admiring the wizened characters of assorted commercial fishing boats, and recalled one summer of my first youth when I considered donning a flannel shirt and chest waders to become a commercial fisherwoman in pursuit of romance and valiant endeavor. But my goals, while no less valiant and only slightly more realistic, had since changed course.

I moved along, skirting tackle and dock debris, and shooting portraits of the more experienced, therefore more aesthetically interesting vessels, until there before me, requiring an entire length of dock, I saw an imposing black giant of a boat, moored with the others but not of their ilk. It arrested my attention for its sheer mass and for her name. Her hull was free of rust and barnacles, like they scrubbed her clean after each run and added a freshen-up of marine paint as needed. Ropes as thick as my wrist tethered her close, while trios of fat, orange fenders cushioned her side. Rigged for success with high-powered lights, radar equipment, and the most rubbish-free deck of the lot, this lady floated high for action. And her name in bold gold against the black read, PERSISTENCE.

I wondered what kind of struggles and disappointments her skipper and crew had overcome, with a handle like that. I was curious about how long the owner had sweat and waited to save enough for a boat of his own. How many legal hassles or personal setbacks? How much waiting.

Suspecting I’d have need of it along the course I’d chosen late in life, so-called, I snapped her picture and walked on to satisfy my yearning for the open sea with a salmon dinner.

I’d attempted writing before, but always let discouragement preside over determination. I became familiar with writing conferences and attended a few, took classes, and read great books on how to do the deed well. But nothing prepared me for the waiting.

The first version of my manuscript took two years of purposeful writing to complete. I figured the infant was ready for delivery, or as close as I could make it before working with a professional editor or agent. During the following four years I queried, waited, received denials, received nothing, declined one myself, inhaled deeply enough professional and subliminal encouragement to plod forward, rewrote the query, waited, revised the story, you get the picture. Throw in to the mix several helpings of wine, whine, prayer, and tears and you’ve got a good image of the journey.

When I wasn’t questioning my sanity, I wrote other stories and articles. By God’s amazing grace, I ended up with my own weekly column in a regional newspaper and sold an expanded article to the folks at Chicken Soup for the Soul.

I likely would have called it quits on the novel and hunted for a job that paid money if it hadn’t been for a sustaining supply of go-juice from people in the business. They fed me the right mix of constructive criticism and sugar to enable hope to light the path, one step at a time. And I listened. Oh, I may have thrown a few tantrums. But, the cat eventually stopped racing up the stairs, and I put my hands to the keys because what the critics said made perfect sense, and I wanted to improve—still do.

With help from a patience that I lacked in my twenties, and stubbornness I brought with me, the hard work paid off. I had won my dream agent, Chip MacGregor, or so I’ve heard. After all, I’m a newbie and the proof is in the shortbread, eh Mr. Chipping?

What I find crazy is, how every wave that threatened to swamp and mouthful of froth swallowed was worthwhile to land on the next plateau, writing—and waiting.

 ======================Peggy

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer living in Southern Oregon. She writes the weekly column, “Southern Oregon Journal,” for the Mail Tribune Newspaper. Dover is represented by MacGregor Literary.

Posted in The Writing Craft | 2 Comments »

Publishing & Technology

April 8, 2015 | Written by Marie Prys

Narrative-Based Mobile Games: Inconceivable?

brt-headshotBrian Tibbetts is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Wednesday, Brian posts about trends in the publishing industry and developments in technology that impact the industry. You can find him on Twitter @BRIANRTIBBETTS

This week in Publishing & Technology, we’ll be using the recent ios release of Gameblend Studio’s The Princess Bride: The Official Game as a jumping off point to discuss the adaptation of books and stories for mobile games.

Earlier this year the industry newsletter newser.com reported on the release of the $20 flash-animated game and its merits as an entertainment. Let me pause here to say that I have not downloaded the game. I do not have any interest in it beyond its value as another example of the blurring of the boundaries between story and game through the integration of narrative elements from an existing work of fiction into new and emerging technologies.

From my perspective, the adapting of written works to new technological modes of delivery is primarily interesting as it represents a potential revenue stream for those of us that make a living from the written word. But how much of that $20 price tag for the game will eventually end up in the William Goldman’s pocket? I am not privy to the details of Goldman’s initial publishing contract for the book, nor of any renegotiations of that contract in light of technological developments since 1987. But, if I had to wager, I would probably put my money on his royalty for the mobile game being somewhere between nothing and negligible.

While the potential for developing written works for mobile games may hold some promise as a side stream of income for writers already working in more traditional story modes, it remains to be seen if authors may ever be able to rely on it as a significant portion of their living. The practice is still infrequent and the potential of any monetary value to rights holders is far from decided. That said, if I were representing a work of fiction (or to some extent, non-fiction) that had potential for being adapted for new transmedia productions across multiple digital channels, I would make absolutely sure that any deal brokered provided for the protection of my author’s rights.

Posted in Uncategorized | 0 Comments »

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 3, Avoiding Anticlimax

April 8, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on writing great endings, I’m talking today about how to provide satisfactory resolution without letting the energy of your story run out.

I spent last week talking about all the resolution the reader expects from the denouement– resolve the events of the climax, answer unanswered questions, wrap up subplots, and establish main characters’ immediate futures. Sounds like a lot of content, right? But you as the author have a delicate balancing act to maintain, because while it’s true that the reader is going to be dissatisfied if you leave out the resolution they expect, it’s also true that there’s no better way to make sure your reader’s enthusiasm has flagged by the time they read the words “The End” than by dragging the book out two chapters after the story has actually ended. Ending on an anticlimax leaves a dull taste in the reader’s mouth and causes their last impression of your book to be a less positive one than if you send them out on an emotional high note, and the way to do this is to fit all your resolution in before the excitement of the climax has fully worn off.

The reader’s emotional high point usually coincides with the characters’, which is usually the climax– in a romance, the climax is not the wedding, but the dramatic moment when Slim rescues Peggy Sue from the train tracks and confesses that he always loved her, he just didn’t think a lawman had any right to ask a nice well-bred young lady to marry him and share his dangerous life. This is the moment when tension and emotions are the highest, and this is the moment that readers have been waiting for. Sure, they want to read that the happy couple got off the train tracks in time and know that Salty Sam is going to jail for his crimes, but the story is effectively over when Slim and Sue finally get together. The author then must resist the temptation to spend a lot of time on the new status quo– yes, the reader wants resolution, and glimpses into a character’s future can be fun, but it’s ultimately anticlimactic to spend a lot of time on the “happily ever after.” I’ve been disappointed by book weddings a surprising number of times, not because I’m heartless and cynical (I cry watching those “surprise Disney trip reveal” videos), but because the wedding scene has kept me in the story universe too long after the climax without really continuing the story.

Think about how much time it takes to reach the climax in the average novel– the climax is usually near the end, so the author has about 90% of the book to take the characters from their nice, safe, boring, everyday life into the exciting, different, dangerous, emotional atmosphere of the climax. The reader enjoys the building tension and the changes taking place because of the expectation of a dramatic climactic scene and some significant change/result– the main character will finally find his soulmate, the world will be saved, the murderer will be stopped, etc. Once this has happened, the story is essentially over, and the author who takes the characters all the way back into the nice, safe, everyday life where we found them at the beginning of the book risks the excitement of the climax fading into the background and a reader who’s left feeling like nothing much changed. I definitely don’t want to go from the exciting train tracks rescue scene to three chapters about Slim and Sue planning their wedding and how Sue is afraid Mama won’t want to come out from Boston for the wedding because she hates the west. This is Not part of the story and isn’t vital to its resolution, either. So, how to finish on a high note without sacrificing resolution? Here are some strategies to keep in mind:

  • Resolve the events of the climax quickly. I talked last week about how, if there were loose threads related to the immediate aftermath of the climax, they needed to be at least partially resolved, but this doesn’t have to happen in fully-realized scenes. Think about the end of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy– the various hobbits and dwarves and elves have essentially spent nine hours getting to their various scenes of climax, but do we watch them retrace every step of their journeys after the ring has been destroyed and the battle won? Nnnnno. That would be excruciating. Obviously, the filmmaker couldn’t just jump from Frodo and Sam watching the ring tumble into Mount Doom straight back to Frodo at home in the Shire, but by letting us see a glimpse of approaching eagles and a shot of the ground passing beneath an unconscious Frodo, we’re given enough to connect the dots as to how Frodo and Sam got back to safety without the filmmaker having to spend three hours showing exactly how. Exit your climax scenes the same way, in a fast retreat or select flashes of scenes, picking up scattered characters and dispatching leftover minor villains as needed.
  • Use representative, rather than inclusive, resolution. The problem with packing all your resolution into the denouement is that often, if you try to resolve every single thread/minor character’s story line, it will start to read like the family Christmas letter– “Billy did this, Sally went here, Joe married Lisa, Grandpa died, Bev started a business–” and no one likes to read those Christmas letters. They’re tedious. (Except for mine. They’re hilarious.) Let’s take one of the types of resolution readers typically expect in the denouement– that some kind of justice be done for the characters who were wronged. This doesn’t have to be a matter of “make sure every bad guy is caught and goes to jail and every bully learns her lesson,” which would be tedious and unrealistic, but as long as some restitution is made for the places the reader felt loss or injustice or helplessness, the reader will generally be satisfied. The last Harry Potter book is a great example of this: there are about a million “bad guy” characters and betrayals and wrongs and murders that happen over the course of Deathly Hallows, and it would have been dull, unreasonable, and extremely unwieldy for Rowling to have shown resolution/justice done for ALL of them– we don’t see Harry get a new owl to replace Hedwig, Umbridge isn’t shown being eaten by piranhas like she deserves, Griphook is never confronted on the page for his betrayal– but we are given enough scenes of justice and triumph over evil to satisfy us– Mrs. Weasley’s duel with Bellatrix and Harry’s showdown with Voldemort are cathartic and serve to vindicate many earlier wrongs, and the story is allowed to end very shortly after the climax while still satisfying the reader’s need to see justice done.
  • Layer your resolution. The more information you can impart in a single scene, the quicker you can bring the book to a close after the climax. Consider how you can accomplish resolution through the setting– a scene taking place in the new wing of the hospital tells us that they eventually did raise the million dollars they needed without wasting page space talking about the last three fundraisers they had to do (yawn), a scene taking place at the B couple’s wedding reception answers all the questions about their on-again, off-again relationship without us having to watch their reconciliation, their proposal, etc. Observations on the part of a main character can also serve to provide a lot of resolution– if the main character glimpses his ex across the room, laughing and talking with the friendly lawyer who’s popped up a couple times before in the story and is known by the reader to be a nice guy, we can assume that she’s moved on and won’t be trying to sabotage the main character’s happiness anymore and that the lawyer is not going to be lonely anymore, again without the author having to spell it out for the reader. Readers are pretty good at picking up on clues, don’t be afraid to give them some pieces to put together on their own rather than fitting each one into place for them. A line of dialogue is another way to include resolution in a scene that’s really about something else– a character finishing a phone conversation with, “No, I’m sorry, I’m booked through June of next year” lets the reader know that she did start that photography business after all and it’s a big success without drawing focus from whatever the scene is actually about.
  • Fast-forward. Epilogues are in danger of becoming as overused as prologues, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sometimes the best way to provide a lot of resolution without compromising the momentum of the story. The popular “X years later” format is a good example– it may only be a page or two, just a tiny glimpse of a scene from the future story universe, and it doesn’t have to fill in all the gaps, but that glimpse at the main couple welcoming the B couple to a Christmas party at the family homestead with a baby crying in the background lets the reader know that, yes, they did rebuild after the fire, she was able to have kids after all, the B couple eventually made up and got together, without following the exciting climax scene with ten tame ones to show the resolution for each one of these plot threads. Remember, the reader rarely needs to know everything YOU know about a character– as long as you sow the right bits of information and have laid your foundation well, they’ll connect the dots on their own.

If you need more examples of how to fit a lot of resolution in before the “buzz” of the climax wears off, watch some action-adventure movies or a formulaic mystery show or any movie with a quest-type storyline, paying close attention to how many subplots and plot threads/minor characters are introduced throughout the rising action, and then noting how each is resolved after the climax– through a single shot showing something revealing about a character or a situation, through a line of dialogue, by using a setting, by providing epilogue-type title cards at the end of the film, etc. Hopefully, you’ll get even more ideas for ways to satisfactorily wrap up a story before the reader’s enthusiasm has the chance to lag.

 

 

Posted in Books, Quick Tips, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 4 Comments »

Five Lessons I’ve Learned About Writing (a guest blog)

April 3, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

  1. Have something worth saying.In his book Culture Care, artist Makoto Fujimura tells a story he confesses may be legendary about a Yale student taking Hebrew from the great Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs. The student, discontent with his grades, asked the scholar how he could raise them. Childs’s answer: “Become a deeper person.”

Peggy Noonan writer of seven books on politics, religion, and culture, and weekly columnist forThe Wall Street Journal, was at one time the speech writer for the man considered The Great Communicator. In her book Simply Speaking, she says that what moves people in a speech is the logic. The words “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” are not all that poetic when taken at face value. But they express something that resonates in the human heart. In the words of Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
In the same way that logic is what moves people in a speech, logic is what moves people in writing.  And to have logic, to move people, we must have something worth saying. In fact, probably about 90% of writing is having something worth saying. And how do we get something worth saying? By expanding the world of ideas to which we expose ourselves and by cultivating a rich inner life.

  1. Decrease your vision. That is, “think local.” Start with your family. Doug Bender, the bestselling author of I Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. wrote a book for an audience of one. When Doug’s wife had a miscarriage, it grieved the Bender’s little girl. So Doug wrote a child’s book about death and loss just for her.

    My husband’s favorite seminary professor told his students, “Stop thinking you will go out and save the world, and instead become the best family member you can be, the most grateful child of your parents, the greatest and most dependable encourager in your church, the best contributor to your community.” We influence the world one small corner at a time. Cherish the small.

In the days when Abraham’s descendants had been carried off from Israel to Babylon, their prophet, Jeremiah, sent a letter to King Nebuchadnezzar for the surviving leaders in exile. Jeremiah’s counsel: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce….   Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jere. 29:1–7). Seeking the good of the city where we live is always good counsel. So write for your kids, if you have any. Contribute good columns to the local paper. Donate some book reviews for your favorite local web site. Do readings at the library. And do so simply to give back and because you wish to make your corner of the world a better place.

  1. Read or listen. A lot of people say that to be a good writer you have to read. But that is not totally true. Not everyone can read—even among bestselling writers of worth. Bodie Thoene, who has sold millions books, has dyslexia, which makes it nearly impossible for her to read. My own husband, who holds a master’s degree from a rigorous program, can hardly read without falling asleep, due to a mild form of dyslexia. But he watches a lot of National Geographic shows and keeps up with the news in non-written forms. Some say that Emily Dickinson’s meter draws not on the cadences of authors she read but of hymns she sang.

Those who cannot read can listen. And even those of us who do love to read can benefit by hearing. These days I learn aurally from NPR’s book reviews, the weekly podcast of the New York Times Book Review, and at least one Audible book per month. In the past six months, I’ve switched my drive time from passive radio listening to more active listen to books on audio. The list has included mostly fiction such as The Goldfinch, The Invention of Wings, Lila, Gone Girl, and The Fault in Our Stars. But I’ve also enjoyed Unbroken, Quiet, I Am Malala, and Bonhoeffer. I would never have had time simply to sit and read those books.

  1. Write what contributes to human flourishing, not what you perceive as the next hot market.Trying to predict what will sell is like leaning on cobwebs. Just about the time you find a post to rest against, it gives way. By the time you finish writing a book to meet demand, the market will have left you in the dust. So write what you love to write and/or what you can write with excellence. (Sometimes we must write what we do well to pay the bills, even if it’s not our favorite.) Of the twenty or so books I’ve authored or coauthored, the one that continues to bring the most income is Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. There are fifty shades of books available on the topic of sex that sell many more copies than the one I coauthored. I could have turned up the steam and helped people live less fully human lives. And I probably would be making a lot more money. But the world needs more beautiful relationships, not those that are more hollow.
  1. Measure success accurately. You will be tempted to measure your own success by a number of externals that have nothing to do with your worth. Tell yourself they are lies.

Someone once told me that the only human-made structure visible from space was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower or even the tallest building in the world, but only the Great Wall of China. Think of all the amazing structures that “failed” to make that list.
But that does not make these structures failures. It just means that when measured by one narrow definition of success, they failed. As writers, any number of false measures can make us feel like losers. Did our last book fail to earn out its advance? Did we do a book tour? Did the work gain rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal? These are not accurate measures of whether we can write. Lots of crummy books sell big. Many divergent books make their authors lots of money, but that does not make the books or the authors successes.
At one time, I thought doing a book signing would indicate I had really arrived. Imagine my humiliation when I had to share a book-signing table with a famous person who had a long line of fans lined up out the door while I had nobody. Well, okay, one person. But she probably felt sorry for me. Still, that book itself changed some lives for the good. The humiliating signing experience had no correlation with the book’s success or mine.

So measure not by money or fame, but in influence on human flourishing. And of course, that is impossible to measure. Which is precisely my point.

===================Sandra Glahn

Sandra Glahn (PhD, UT Dallas) teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, her alma mater. She is the author or coauthor of eighteen books, including the CBA bestseller and Christy Award finalist, Lethal Harvest. She is also editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine Kindred Spirit.

Posted in The Writing Craft | 5 Comments »

Announcing the Latest Addition to the MacGregor Literary Team

April 1, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Meet our newest literary agent, Brian Tibbetts.BRT-Headshot

Brian will be representing subsidiary rights for the MacGregor Literary catalog, as well as new works of fiction and nonfiction for the general market. His areas of interest include literary fiction, young adult titles, new adult titles, science fiction, fantasy, horror, art and music memoirs, natural foods, alternative healing, and sustainability issues. He will be writing for the blog on publishing trends and the relationship between traditional book publishing and emerging technologies.

He lives in Portland, Oregon with the world’s most neurotic pitbull, a near-blind, toothless, fifteen-year old chihuahua, and his two children. He is an avid cook, a wood and linoleum block print artist, a musician, and a published author of poetry, fiction, and personal essays.

Brian was born into a military family and spent the first ten years of his life in various exotic locations throughout the world before settling down in a sleepy college town in the Willamette Valley. It was while his family was stationed at San Vito dei Normanni air base, near Brindisi, Italy that Brian published his first piece of short fiction in the base newspaper.

He earned his BA in English with high honors in 2000. He spent the following twelve years working in sales and marketing in the natural products industry. During this time, Brian wrote whenever he could, publishing a number of short works of fiction, and completing his first novel. He also managed submissions for a handful of clients, and edited fiction for a handful of small literary journals in his spare time.

In 2013 Brian made the decision to move fully into working with words, taking on freelance writing and editing work for an editing service and several independent clients while beginning coursework toward an MA in Book Publishing at Portland State University. While at Portland State, Brian took on the management of Portland Review as Editor-in-Chief and worked as the Acquisitions Manager for Ooligan Press. He also completed internships with Hawthorne Books and MacGregor Literary, the latter transitioning into marketing consultancy work and an eventual offer to come onboard as an agent.

 

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How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 2, The Art of Denouement

April 1, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on writing great endings. This week, I’ll be talking about a misunderstood but vital part of any story, the denouement.

The Google dictionary definition of “denouement” is “the final part of a narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.” “Denouement” is one of those literary words that most of us learned somewhere in high school or college English classes and then filed away along with “synecdoche” and “antithesis” to be trotted out when we need to sound smart, but whereas you could probably write a pretty great novel without being able to identify the areas where you used antithesis, it’s REALLY hard to end a book well without having more than a dictionary understanding of the functions of a denouement.

Think of the denouement as “the beginning of the end.” If you’re plotting the arc of a story or plot, the denouement appears right after the climax and generally encompasses everything else taking place between the climax and the end of the story. Let’s start by looking at the jobs a denouement needs to do:

  • Resolve the events of the climax. If the climax occurs when Slim pulls Sue off the railroad tracks seconds before the train thunders by, we don’t have to see every second of what happens next, but we would eventually like to know how they made it back to town after Slim’s horse ran off, how Salty Sam was finally apprehended, and whether or not Slim’s sidekick died of his rattlesnake bite. The actual top-of-the-tension moment is when Sue and Slim declare their love seconds before they might be smushed by the train, but these other events were all pieces of the climactic scene and the scenes leading directly up to it, and the reader wants to know how they turned out, even if it’s in a paragraph of narrative at the beginning of the next chapter rather than in five more scenes showing the aftermath/resolution of each. (And actually, it’s usually better to resolve the events of the climax more quickly than not, but we’ll talk more about anticlimactic endings next week.)
  • Solve mysteries/answer unanswered questions. Think about the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple are explaining how they figured out the identity of the killer. They go through each of the clues/mysteries involved in the crime and helpfully point out which were red herrings, which could be explained by the hitherto unsuspected romantic sub-plot, and which actually point to the killer. While most novels won’t end with a nice tidy monologue listing mysteries and their solutions, these answers all still need to find their way into the denouement, otherwise the reader feels gypped and the author comes across as either flaky or untrustworthy.
  • Wrap up your subplots/follow through on your promises. Is there anything more frustrating than getting to know some fun minor character or glimpsing an interesting subplot and then never hearing from them again? It’s like the old rule about the rifle– if you tell the reader there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in chapter 1, somebody better fire it by the end of the book (there are various versions of this quote having to do with both novel-writing and playwriting, and it has been attributed to Chekov, thought not 100% confirmed). Don’t spend words to bring in minor characters’ conflicts or spend the whole book talking about the upcoming town carnival without giving the reader some resolution for those conflicts, or letting them experience a bit of the carnival before the book is over, even if it’s just a mention in passing or a single scene at the end of the book.

  • Establish your main characters’ immediate future. The extent to which you need to do this varies widely depending on the genre you’re writing, but no book should end with the main character being dangled off a cliff by his ankles. In a romance, the reader wants to know that a relationship finally has staying power (we’ve probably seen them break up at least twice over the course of the novel, after all, so we’re a little skeptical). We don’t need to find out an exact wedding date or how many kids they’re going to have, but a proposal or a reference to whose family they’re going to spend Christmas with or a longtime commitment-phobe giving her boyfriend a key to her apartment gives us some closure and assures us that it really will be “happily ever after.” In a thriller, the reader wants to know whether the main character changed his mind about leaving the CIA or what the lawyer is going to do now that she’s been fired from her elite law firm for standing up for the little guy. Again, we don’t need to follow the main character’s every move for the next five years, but some clue about the direction their life is taking, or even just assurance that the main character is happy even if her future is a bit unsettled is important to the reader’s sense of whether or not a complete story has been told. In books in a series telling a larger story, we still need to get to a somewhat “safe” stopping point for the main characters and have reached resolution for some of the story arcs, even if there is unresolved tension and continuing danger, e.g., the end of The Hunger Games, after Katniss has survived the games but realizes that there is more trouble and danger coming for her family and her district.

So there you have some of the major roles of the denouement. Authors who skimp on resolution at the end of their books risk alienating readers who feel cheated out of the full story, especially if the author dangled “bait” in the form of subplots, mysteries, and upcoming events throughout the book.

Now, as I cautioned several times in today’s post, one of the biggest dangers in writing your denouement is that your narrative can start to drag as you dump all kinds of info and resolution at the end of the book, so before you go too far down the Miss-Marple-monologue path, make sure you come back next week when I talk about how to make strong choices in your denouement that allow the energy of the narrative to remain intact while satisfying the reader’s need for resolution.

What else do you expect a denouement to provide? Have you ever been frustrated by unanswered questions or dropped plot threads after finishing a book? I’d love to hear your examples. Thanks for reading!

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