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!

Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 0 Comments »

Ask the Agent: Book groups and great books

March 30, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

We’ve tried to tackle a bunch of questions quickly this month…

“I want to start a monthly fiction book club to bond members of my writing group. Do you have any suggestions? I thought about reading a book together, then critiquing it so members can learn how to write better. For example, how does a fiction writer work in a description of his characters, or how does the arc of the story change from beginning to end? Any suggestions?”

Yes. Give people plenty of time to read the book. Start with a book you know well and have studied, so that you can intelligently talk it through. Consider bringing in an outside editor or a high school or college writing teacher, who knows the book you’re talking about and uses it in his or her classroom. Choose novels that have clear strengths to them at the start, so that you don’t go too deep, too fast. If you’re reading a contemporary book, think about trying to bring the editor or even the author into your group via phone or Skype, to talk about the artistic choices they made. Let someone else lead the discussion sometime, since we all learn best when we have to teach the material.

 

“Do you know of any successful book clubs led by writers and what is the key to their clubs’ success?”

Sure – there are a lot of successful book clubs led by writers. I think some of the keys to success is to have a diverse group, rather than having it just be your close friends. Diversity will bring more life to the discussions. Figure out ahead of time what sort of group you want this to be. In other words, what is the atmosphere we want to have? Scholarly? Bonding? Social?

Pick a time and place, let the group select the books you’ll all be reading well in advance, and don’t pick super-long books. (Some groups do their meetings 100 or 200 pages at a time.) Have a leader, to keep things on track. If you want to focus on one aspect (characterization, for example, or “the hero’s journey”), let participants know in advance. Have food and drinks, since we all tend to relax and have something to do with our hands when there is a cracker and a glass of wine handy. Let everybody speak, even if they haven’t read the entire book. And have a couple takeaway activities for the writers to try and emulate, so that they’re putting to use the choices they found in the book. By the way, some book groups enjoy going to movies as an alternative, or having everyone bring a book and simply tell the others about it. Doing alternative activities to mix it up can keep things fresh.

 

“I am new to writing, but my book was just published by a small press, and I’m curious about the role of publicist. From what I have experienced so far, the publisher is doing very little to promote the book. I was thinking about hiring someone to help me, but I don’t have a clue where to start or if it is a good investment to do so. Do you have any advice on this subject?”

The role of the publicist is to discover avenues for getting your book in front of readers at no cost (interviews, articles, etc). In your case, I suggest you start by talking to your marketing connection and ask him or her what the company is doing to help promote the book. Find out what they’re already doing, then look for ways you can fill in the gaps. You might search for a freelance publicist who has worked on a couple of successful books in your genre. But that costs money, so think of educating yourself first, to see if there are things YOU can do. Publicity is a funny business – there are no guarantees. You can spend a fortune on a great marketing plan, and still not see a ton of success. There’s not necessarily a correlation between “activity” and “sales.” So if you’re hiring your own freelance marketer, don’t just interview one person. Talk to a minimum of three publicists, find out what they charge, and ask if they’ll state exactly what they’ll do for the money paid them. A good publicity person will give you the details, in writing. And by the way, I never really talk with a writer who feels the publisher did enough marketing for them. As a writer, you’re committed to your book; the publisher is committed to a list of books. So be thankful for whatever they do, and decide you’re going to step in and help wherever you can.

 

“On several occasions you’ve talked about the best classic books of all time. What do you think are the seminal works of fiction since 1995, and what makes them so? Why did these books make an impact? It would be interesting to see if they were mostly established authors or new authors.”

Wow. Love the question. In no particular order, books that have certainly made an impact over the past twenty years would probably include:

Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World

Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavaleir and Clay

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried

Ian McEwan’s Atonement

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road

There are doubtless others. I think one could make a case for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park or Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, or even J.K. Rowlin’s Harry Potter series, but “popularity” and “greatness” don’t often come in the same package. Nevertheless, all three of those authors, while perhaps not having the same impact on the way we see our lives, at least inspired thousands of other writers to pick up a pen and start creating. Still, nobody is going to confuse those novels with great literature, so consider my list above. There are doubtless some titles missing (many readers would probably include Cutting for Stone as one of the best books of the past twenty years.

I’m curious what you think. What would you say are the great books of the last twenty years? 

 

Posted in Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms | 1 Comment »

Mystery vs Suspense… What’s the difference? (a guest blog)

March 27, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

I started out my career writing mystery and now I write mostly suspense novels. What is difference between mystery and suspense anyway? It’s a question I hear often. I suppose I ought to know the answer since I’ve written twenty plus books in the suspense genre. I tell folks who ask that suspense is a situation in which the stakes are high and some is usually running for their lives. Yes, stakes are high in mystery, too, but there is not the same level of danger to the protagonist. It’s more about solving the puzzle, than survival.

Creating suspense is trickier than it sounds for the hardworking author. Conflict is not the same as suspense and neither is surprise. Those are lessons I’m still learning! A while back I stumbled across an interesting view from the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s idea was that the difference between surprise and suspense has to do with what the audience knows. Surprise occurs when something we don’t know is going to happen, does. For example, a car bomb goes off. Suspense is when the audience knows and watches it play out on the unwitting protagonist. “Don’t turn that key,” we silently shriek, wondering if what we know is going to happen actually does. The bomb doesn’t necessarily have to explode, but the suspense comes in our knowledge that it most likely will.

So what do you think? Does Hitchock’s analysis work for you? What suspenseful book or movie have you seen recently?dana

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Dana Mentink is an award winning author of eighteen mystery and suspense novels. She is honored to have received an ACFW Book of the Year nomination, a Holt Merit Award, a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award and two ACFW Book of the Year Awards. Please visit her on the web at www.danamentink.com or find her on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. Dana hosts monthly contests at www.dmentink.wordpress.com.

Posted in The Writing Craft | 2 Comments »

Ask the Agent: If I have a contract in hand…

March 25, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Some fascinating questions have come in recently…

“I know of several agents who edit or write on the side. Is there anything wrong with that?”

I’m on record as having said, “You’ll do best if you find a full-time agent.” But I also recognize the times are changing – now we’re seeing agents help authors self-publish, or help with marketing plans, or have some other part-time position, so I know our role has changed. An agent who also edits or writes on the side has become fairly common. My feeling is that those agents need to be careful not to mix the two – and I’ll use myself as an example. While I will always go through a proposal and make sure it’s strong, editing and tweaking as necessary, I don’t freelance edit. I tell authors that my company is not an editorial service, so if they need a full-blown developmental edit, they’re better off hiring a freelance editor. I generally will give authors three or four names of editors who I like and trust… but I always explain that I don’t care which editor the author approaches, and I’m always quick to say these people don’t work for me, and I don’t get a kickback for recommending any particular editor. So if an agent wants to do some freelance editing, I think they have to create a bright line about separating the two aspects of their business (I recently saw one agent tell authors, “I’ll represent this if you’ll hire me to edit it first”). They have to be very careful that they don’t try to sell their editorial services to clients, which will get them kicked out of the AAR. Similarly, I know of a few agents who also work as freelance writers. So long as they’re not selling their writing services to clients, and basically running two separate businesses, I think they can make that work. I understand why they need to do that financially, but I think they have to be very careful that the two services don’t sell each other. The same holds true for an agent who works part time as a publicist – you don’t try to sell your marketing services to your agency clients. The bottom line seems clear to me: If I am paid to edit or write it, I shouldn’t also try to represent it. To do so is unethical.

 

“I’ve heard it said that one way to get an agent is to get a contract. Let’s say an agent was willing to look at a contract and offered representation. Am I correct in assuming the agent would take the usual cut on that first contract, although the agent didn’t shop the manuscript? Or does this type of thing even happen?”

This is a question that I am frequently asked at conferences, so I’m glad to see it come up on the blog. Yes, there are agents who will step into a deal that’s already in place. (In fact, I know of one agent who has publicly stated, “If you’ve got a contract offer, call me!”) Is that acceptable? Maybe… but if an author ever comes to me with a deal in hand, my first advice to him or her is to say, “Check out a good contract review service, or research getting an experienced publishing lawyer to review your contract.” You see, once you have a deal in hand, the hard work has been done. The agent didn’t help you concept the book; didn’t help shape your proposal; didn’t shop it to publishers. All they’re doing is stepping in to read the contract and get paid. So in my view the agent should not be taking a full 15% commission. Maybe the agent can help improve the deal, or help with the marketing of the book. Certainly he or she ought to help you with career choices. But I’ve regularly seen authors pay 15% to an agent who did almost nothing to earn the money, and that bugs me. I think authors need to check out other sources. (And I think agents need to have the integrity to recognize when they don’t deserve a full commission.)

 

“I need some advice about USA Book News Awards. Is this a legitimate contest or some sort of scam? I’m curious about them and other contests like this, where you have to pay a tidy sum to enter the contest, and there sure are a lot of finalists.”

I don’t know that the USA Book News Awards are a scam, but they are a vanity award. You pay a fee (I think it’s currently $69), you’re sent stickers to put on your book, and some unknown entity selects the winners. (For the record, the USA Book News Awards are owned by a PR firm, JPX Media.) There are a bunch of these, and have been criticized for creating numerous categories so that everyone who enters wins some sort of award. Just so we’re clear, there are certainly legitimate writing contests and awards. But if you’re paying a fee and are guaranteed an award, that’s a scam, not legitimate contest.

 

“I recently read somewhere that you don’t necessarily need an agent if you write for children, and that it might be better use of your time to submit directly to a publisher. Is that true?”

I’ve never been an agent evangelist – the type of person who insists that EVERY author have an agent. The fact is, you might be able to survive just fine as an author without an agent. Certainly there are children’s authors (as well as adult authors) who do. The children’s publishing market is its own world, quite separate from that of adult publishing. Right now it’s certainly possible to work directly with an editor with your children’s book… but in my view, it’s getting harder. If you’re simply talking to an agent to try and land a deal, you may want to simply go to a good Society of Children’s Book Writers and Editors conference, and try pitching your idea to some editors. But if you’re looking for story help, editorial direction, career advice, contract experience, and connections to the industry, an agent may be what helps you move forward.

 

“With the novel I wrote, I took on the role of a packager and hired editors, illustrators, photographers, graphic artists, and then put it all together in Adobe Indesign. I was only thinking of myself as a self published author, but your blog makes me wonder if I should try to attract the attention of a publisher. Would a publisher consider this, particularly if my novel is similar to a recent hit movie?”

If the movie you’re referencing is already out, it’ll be too late to tie your novel to it – but you might be able to reference the movie as something trending in the culture, and therefore link your novel’s appeal to that same trend. But overall, interest in previously-published novels goes up and down. For a while you couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to a book that had already been released. Then things changed, and publishers were looking for novels that had been self-published and had some success. Now it’s turned again, and you’ll find it hard to have a publisher pay close attention to your self-pubbed novel, unless it’s done very well… and the problem with that is simple: If your self-published novel has done well, what’s your motivation for giving it over to a traditional publisher and making less money on each copy sold? To do that, you’ll need to think carefully over all the issues – can a traditional publisher reach people you’re not reaching? Can they improve the product? Can they take it off your hands, and thus free you to do more writing? If not, you may not have much incentive to go with a legacy publisher.

Posted in Agents, Current Affairs, The Business of Writing | 2 Comments »

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 1, The Importance of Endings

March 25, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wI’m starting a new series today, one that will last until I run out of things to say on the topic or until I get bored, whichever comes first. I’ve received several ending-related questions over the past few weeks as well as been disappointed by the endings of several otherwise-good submissions I’ve read lately, so I thought we’d spend a few weeks talking about how to end a novel as effectively as you began it.

There are a whole lot of resources out there to help you craft a dynamite beginning of a novel– plenty of “first five chapters” workshops, lots of conversation on the importance of a great opening sentence, a bunch of opinions on how soon in a book the action needs to kick off– but not as much attention paid to how to END a novel well. It makes sense; the beginning is what makes someone decide whether or not to keep reading, and therefore gets most of the responsibility for selling a book to an agent, editor, or reader, but too often, all this emphasis on the beginning of a novel leads to some neglected or rough endings by comparison, and endings are what make someone decide whether or not to look for another book from that author. If you’ve managed to entice a reader into picking up your book and making it all the way through, you want them to stick around longer than just that one book. This week, we’ll talk about how the end of a story and the end of a book are (or should be) connected, as well as preview some of the topics we’ll address over the next few weeks.

“When is a book done?” “When is a story over?” These questions came in separately, and while they’re asking about two different things, the answers are related. A complete story has been told when the major conflict has come to a head (climax) and the events of the plot and sub-plot have been resolved in the aftermath of the climax (denouement). A book is done (or should be done) when the story has been told. The majority of problems I have with endings can be traced to a failure on the part of the author to either A) finish the story satisfactorily before ending the book, or B) end the book when the story is over.

Let’s look at problem A first– failure to finish the story to the reader’s satisfaction. Obviously, “reader satisfaction” is a subjective quality, and you can always find a reader who will want more details or more resolution than whatever you’ve given them, but for the most part, readers expect that the major conflict will be resolved (or at least ONE major conflict will be resolved or brought to a stopping point, in the case of individual books in a series), loose ends related to subplots or secondary characters will be tied up, and some lingering questions will at least be addressed, if not answered. When an author loses track of a subplot, or introduces a secondary character and a problem or scenario and then never brings it up again, the reader is left feeling cheated, and justifiably so.

That’s not to say that everything has to be sewn up tidily at the end of a book– unanswered questions, relationships in limbo, and continuing conflict are all parts of life and therefore are legitimate choices for inclusion in fiction, but there has to be some kind of resolution (a “story” is defined at its most basic, after all, as having a beginning, middle and end), and  the reader does have to be left with the sense that the author is still in control of his universe and is fully aware of the lack of resolution rather than feeling like the author has been stringing them along and dumped them in the middle of nowhere without a map, or worse still, that the author has forgotten about the plot holes, unsolved mysteries, and unfinished subplots. The former feels like a con on the part of the author, and the latter like bad craftsmanship.

Problem B is less frustrating, but almost more damaging to the reader’s perception of your book. Psychology 101 teaches that people’s memory/impressions are tied most strongly to primacy and recency– in other words, the things that stick with us the most from a study session or a conversation or a movie or a book are the first things we see or hear, and the last, or most recent, things we see or hear. There could be a lot of good stuff in the middle, and we might enjoy it while we’re reading/watching/studying, but that middle content just doesn’t stick with us like first and last impressions. Need proof? Think about someone you see on a regular basis, such as a coworker or a teacher or a pastor. You can probably recall the first time you saw or met that person, or at least one of your earliest interactions with them– where it took place, maybe who else was around, perhaps even some aspects of their appearance, such as a different hair color or cut– and you can probably recall what your last conversation/interaction with them was about and where it took place, or even what they were wearing the last time you saw them, but you probably can’t pin down a whole lot of specific outfits or conversations or sermon topics from the time between when you first and last saw or heard them. If you’ve ever had a falling-out with a friend, you know that your perception of that person is colored by your most recent interaction– even if you had five great years of friendship with them, if it ended badly, with an ugly confrontation or hurt feelings, that’s going to be how you remember that person.

What this means for authors is that, even if a reader loved the beginning of your book enough to keep reading, and even if you do a great job of building tension and they really enjoy reading the middle, that enthusiasm will be tempered with apathy if the ending leaves them cold– you want them to remember feeling excitement and satisfaction at the end of the book, not just pleasant interest, so you want to end the book while the reader is still basking in the emotional high of the climax rather than giving them time to come back down to neutral, emotionally, while you drag out the book for four more chapters. This causes the reader’s last impression of your book to be more tame or more forgettable than it could have been had the book ended at a point closer to the emotional high point.

I’ll be talking more about how to avoid anticlimax while still satisfying the reader’s need for resolution after the climax in the coming weeks. Next week, I’ll be talking more about denouement and how to give readers the resolution they expect without letting the momentum of your story peter out. If you have any ending-related questions or issues you’d like me to address in this series, let me know in the comments! As always, thanks for reading. 

 

Posted in Books, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Ask the Agent: Piracy, Careers, and Marketing

March 23, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

A bunch of interesting questions have come in, so let’s get to them…

“Every couple months I find one of my novels online illegally as a free download. I complain, they usually take it down, and then someone puts it back up soon after. My publisher says they’re sorry, but it’s part of the biz. (I assume that’s true because they’re losing money too.) Are there any tech innovations that might prevent this?”

There are tech innovations that will locate a pirated manuscript, but I don’t know of any that will prevent it. And yes, this is a growing and annoying (and potentially expensive) problem in the industry. Pirated tracks helped kill the music business, and publishers tend to come down hard by threatening legal action against those who violate copyright. Publishers tried to protect themselves by using DRM with ebooks, but that has proven to be ineffective to stopping piracy. My guess is that the government will continue to seek out methods for strengthening copyright, just as pirates will continue to look for ways to cheat authors out of their rightful income. (I’m one of those who has no patience with people who want to illegally give away the artistic creations of others.)pen and ink

At the age of fifty I began writing professionally. I’m now past sixty, and over the last decade I have typically been able to bring in between $1500 and $12,000 a year via my writing, mostly through articles. I enjoy my full time job, and it fits well with my writing, so I do not foresee ever having a writing career or a platform sufficient to make an agent beg. Do I have a shot at getting an agent? If so, what can I do to improve the odds?”

If you are mainly writing articles, you don’t stand a great chance of landing an agent in today’s publishing world. But I know from your note to me that you’ve got a couple completed nonfiction books you are pitching, and for those I would say, “Of course you stand a chance of landing an agent.” Most agents are looking for writers who work hard, sell books, and have a track record. Your article writing has proven that. So I think you can significantly improve your odds if you were to craft a well-written book that offers insightful answers to a perceived need, demonstrate to the agent that you are the right person to be writing on the topic, and (most importantly) be able to show that you have a significant enough platform to reach the readers of that book. In my view, if you focus on those three things, you stand a very good chance to landing an agent.

“Do you think a Facebook tour can be useful for marketing your novel? I had a friend offer to post things on FB, because she doesn’t have a blog, and I wondered if it might be helpful.”

 I’ve seen a bunch of novelists market their book on Facebook, and it’s certainly one part of an overall strategy. You can use it to announce the book, to solicit participation, to get the team excited. So it can be effective, but there are limitations… It tends to only reach your friends. It can be annoying if it comes across as pushing too hard to sell a product. It’s usually not the type of thing that will be shared. But when taken as a part of the overall marketing plan, it can certainly useful.FB-f-Logo__blue_512

 I recently left my full-time job to follow my dream of becoming a freelance writer and author. The transition has been both thrilling and overwhelming. I’m working on a non-fiction, self-help book. So much of the information I read on publishing is for fiction. Where does a non-fiction author begin to network and find the right fit for representation?”

 There are a number of ways a nonfiction writer can network with other writers. First, you can hook up with a local writing group, which you may be able to find through friends or your local bookstore. Or you could see if there is a local writing class at a community college or a nearby university – such classes often see a lot of local writers participate. You can also check into national writing organizations, such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors or American Business Media (check out the list of national writing organizations at Writers Write). There are also many online writing groups for nonfiction writers, including The Writers Café, Absolute Write, The Write Idea, The Writers Beat, and a host of others. Just a bit of searching online will reveal more than a dozen. Another great way to hook up with other writers is via writing conferences, which you can easily find online. Some conferences focus on one type of writing or genre, but many are great for making connections with other nonfiction writers. As for finding representation, the process for a nonfiction writer isn’t much different from that of a novelist – you built your platform, create a great proposal, and seek out an agent either at a conference or by doing some research to see who represents works in your field. Again, with a nonfiction manuscript, the first two questions an editor is going to ask an agent are, “What’s the author’s platform?” and “What are the author’s qualifications for writing on this topic?”, so make sure you can answer those adequately before going to talk with an agent.

And a favorite question of mine: “What 10 editorial mistakes do most novice authors make?”

 I suppose if you asked this of ten agents, you’d probably get a hundred total answers, but here are my pet peeves with newbie authors:

  • Too many exclamation points!!!
  • A proposal that has not been proof-red
  • Overpromising, as in “This proposal will sell a billion copies!”
  • FEELING A NEED TO PUT LOTS OF WORDS IN ALL CAPS.coloredpencils
  • Random numbering in an outline.
  • I did this, I did that, I did this other thing, I, I, I.
  • Random commas, that make no, sense.
  • A failure to understand how to properly use “quotation” marks. (Also parentheses. And their attached punctuation).
  • Failing to understand the difference between its and it’s (or there and their and they’re).
  • The manuscript is passive due to the author.

 

Hint for the humor impaired: There are intentional errors in that list. If you see one, don’t send me a scolding note or you’ll be banned from the blog. It’s a joke. I know you don’t get it. Just trust me – others find it funny.

Posted in Agents, Career, Marketing and Platforms | 10 Comments »

Ten Lessons I’ve Learned (a guest blog)

March 20, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Before I opened my freelance doors for business, I worked as an associate editor for a small publishing house. Long before that I earned a degree in Journalism. But much of my training for my current job came from many hours writing fiction and working with my critique partners. Since I started this freelance venture, I’ve worked with all sorts of authors, newbies to multi-published veterans on multiple projects, fiction and non-fiction, in various genres—contemporary and historical, romance and suspense, memoir and magazine articles. As a writer, a critique partner, an associate editor, a copyeditor, and a freelancer, I’ve learned a few things.Keyboard

  1. Talent matters. All great writers begin with talent. I can’t carry a tune, but suppose the height of my ambition was to become a famous singer. Suppose I took voice lessons and spent lots of money and time honing my skills? Suppose I spent thousands of dollars going to singers’ conferences (are there such things?) and hob-nobbing with the best? I might possibly be able to carry a tune someday, but would I ever be singing at Carnegie Hall? Heck, my church’s worship team wouldn’t even want me. I can become a better singer. But I would never be good enough for people to fork over hard earned cash to hear me. Hard as this is for some of us to hear, talent matters.
  2. Hard work is everything. I’ve seen many writers with only a modicum of talent transform their writing through sheer determination. These writers don’t rely on instinct. Rather, they work with good critique partners, question their editors, and subject themselves to arduous rewriting sessions. They don’t settle for that’ll-do writing. They read craft books, attend writers workshops, and devour great works. Eventually they hear the words, “You’re so talented.” And they are, but that talent would still be raw without these writers’ passion for excellence.
  3. Writing is hard. You’ve heard the joke about the brain surgeon and the novelist who chat on the golf course. The brain surgeon says, “I’m going to take this summer off to write a novel.” And the novelist quips, “Really? I’m going to take the summer off to perform brain surgery.” Too many people believe writing is easy. They remember what they learned in ninth grade English, and they know where the commas go. They have decent vocabularies and a story that (they’re sure) needs to be written. What else is there? I’ve worked with folks like this. They pen their first manuscript and send it to me to edit, figuring they’ll get it back ready for a big New York publishing house. Instead, I send it back dripping in red. Even after they make the changes I suggest, in most cases, that manuscript still won’t be ready. I hate to break this to you, but your first manuscript probably isn’t very good. (I’m no exception. My first was terrible. My second rose to the level of mediocre.) Are you surprised? Was your first painting akin to a Van Gogh? Was your first Play-Do sculpture comparable to a Rodin? Writing is hard.
  4. Writing costs. Oh, I know, all you need is a computer. Theoretically, all you really need is paper and a pencil. But you also need what’s inside you. Your heart, your experiences, your emotions—these need to be liberally poured into your manuscript. If you’ve never felt heartbreak, you can’t write about it authentically. Sure, you can imagine a scenario, but unless you dig into yourself, find the heartbreaks in your past—even if they’re quite different from those in your story—and apply those feelings to the scene, your words won’t have the depth of emotion your readers are seeking. When you attempt to write without touching those deep, difficult places, your writing turns out flat and inauthentic. No editor will pull your truths into a story. Only you can do that.
  5. The editor isn’t always right. In fact, I’m sure I’ve often been wrong. I might read something one way when you intended it to mean something different. (However, one could argue that if it’s not clear to the editor, then it might not be clear to readers, either.) If your editor misses the mark, shake your head and move along. If he misses the mark a lot, consider chatting with him about it. If he misses the mark more often than not, it’s time to find a new editor—assuming you’re working with a freelancer. Having said that, please consider the fact that, though your editor might be wrong, if he is experienced, if he has worked with many manuscripts and authors over the years, and if he is an expert in the field, he might be right.
  6. Tension is king. Your manuscript needs big conflicts. But it also screams for minute-by-minute tension. That’s what makes readers turn the page. It’s not what happens at the climax of the book, it’s what happens in the next page or two that keeps a reader up at night. There are lots of ways to add tension. Learn those techniques and employ them on every page. Yes, on every page. It’s not your editor’s job to add tension to your manuscript, and we don’t like it when our eyes glaze over, either. Unlike readers, we don’t have the luxury of putting the manuscript down.
  7. Planning helps. Sorry, seat-of-the-pants writers, but it seems to me that the plotters have an edge. It might not be as fun to write with a detailed outline, but it usually makes for a better, cleaner book. I’ve seen so many plot holes and lost storylines in novels written by non-planners. Obviously, not all pantsers leave holes and hanging storylines, but that’s often because they’ve gone back and fixed them. If you must be a seat-of-the-pants writer, plan to do a lot of self-editing before you send your book to an editor.
  8. There’s no such thing as a good first draft. If you’ve ever been tempted to send your first draft to your editor, go back and read that opening line again. I’m serious. Don’t do it. Find a critique partner or two (I have eight). Rewrite and edit. And then, when you’re absolutely convinced it’s perfect, send it to an editor to prove you wrong. (He will, by the way.)
  9. Even the best editor can’t fix ugly. You should treat your editor as you treat your housekeeper. Everybody picks up before the housekeeper comes over. We joke about it, but do you really want to pay someone to pick up your dirty socks? If your housekeeper walks into a room covered in clutter, even if she hasn’t been paid to pick it up, she has to move it to clean around and under it. Either she will charge you more or not clean as well. If your book is filled with spelling, grammar, and usage errors, if it’s riddled with overdone metaphors and overflowing with unnecessary adverbs, your editor will spend half her time sifting through that junk to dig out the story beneath. It’s easy to miss plot holes when they’re cluttered with bad writing. So clean up that manuscript before you pay someone to shine it for you.
  10. Good critique partners are priceless. Find one—or a group of them, if possible. Your local and national writer’s organizations should be able to help you. And if you’re not involved with a writer’s organization, get involved. Once you’ve found a good critique partner or group—and beware: they’re not all good—you and your partners can learn and improve together.

So there you have it: ten lessons I’ve picked up in my years as a writer and editor. I strive to learn even more this year, not just about editing, but about writing and marketing, too. If I’ve picked up anything since I started this journey, it’s this: the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

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Robin Patchen runs Robin’s Red Pen, an editorial service specializing in fiction editing. She is one of the editors we really like and respect, and we’re thrilled to have her offer this guest blog to our readers. Robin blogs regularly with a group of friends over at Quid Pro Quills, and she is the author of several books, including the just-released Finding Amanda. 

Posted in The Writing Craft | 30 Comments »

Thursdays with Amanda: 2015 Conference Schedule for Amanda Luedeke

March 19, 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. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

It’s late in the day, so I’ll keep this post short.

I know some people have been asking, so here is my very brief conference schedule for 2015. At the end of last year, I decided to take a break from travel, and so I’ll only be doing a couple of events.

Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference – March 27-31

Realm Makers – August 7 & 8

Hope to see you at one of those, and if not you can connect with me on Twitter.

Posted in Conferences | 0 Comments »

Ask the Agent: Working with agents and others

March 18, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

We’ve been getting a variety of questions about working with agents…

“I am seeking an agent for my new book and have created a website to promote it. What does an agent want to see on that website?”

A great design, that fits your brand, and makes potential readers like you. Specifically, I’d probably like to see some background or biographical material, introductory material on your books, your book covers and ordering information, media links, social media connections, and some sort of contact information.Old Books

If an agent rejects your manuscript and has given some idea as to why, is it okay, after having done substantial revision, to re-query the same agent?”

It depends on the agent and the situation. In my experience, most people who have said “no thanks” aren’t going to be terribly excited about looking at the same project again, even if it’s revised. That’s why, if something intrigues me but just isn’t quite right or isn’t ready yet, I’ll often reject it and include a note that says, “When you’ve made your changes, feel free to run this by me again.” I like to make sure authors know when it’s okay to revise and come back. But what’s wearying is the author who sends something in, gets rejected, revises, sends it in again, gets rejected again, revises again, sends it in again… The fact is, some ideas don’t need revising – they need to be set aside so the author can write something else.

“I am working with a ghostwriter for my memoir.  Will agents work with authors who use ghostwriters?”

Sure they will, if it’s done well. But the contemporary publishing scene is probably going to suggest the writer’s name is on the cover or title page as a collaborative writer, rather than having it hidden as a ghost writer. There’s nothing at all wrong with getting help on your manuscript from a collaborative writer.

“When collaborating with other writers on a series and the contract ends, can someone use your characters in another book? For example, could someone create a suburb of Mitford and have Father Tim and other characters show up?”

Nope. The characters are the artistic creation of the author, and another writer can’t borrow them to use in his or her own stories. (So no “Harry Potter Comes to Dinner.”) Sometimes a publishing contract will even prohibit the creator from using those characters anywhere else – the license calls for the author to only use those characters at one house.

“What are the pros and cons of creating books with other authors?”

The pros of working with another writer: Another creative mind at work on the project. Someone to fill in your gaps, give the manuscript a fresh set of eyes, or to talk through questions. Someone to lift you up or protect your back during difficult times. Someone to blame if it all falls apart, I suppose.

The cons of working with another writer: You don’t get to make all the decisions. You have to rely on someone else, and trust they’ll do their part. It takes longer, since there are two people who have to read and decide on the book. Most people who have done this will tell you it’s harder to collaborate with another person on a book. I think it takes a certain type of author to make it work.

What have you always wanted to ask an agent? Send me your question and I’ll try to get to it this month. 

Posted in Agents | 3 Comments »

Ask the Agent: Children’s books, writing coaches, & agents

March 17, 2015 | Written by Chip MacGregor

We had a bunch of questions come in this past week, so let me get to several of them…

This came from a reader in the Midwest: I’m at the point where I think I’d like to work with a writing coach. How can find someone reputable? Is there some sort of accreditation out there? Do you have any recommendations?”

That’s a wonderful question. I think a writing coach or mentor is a GREAT idea. Getting another set of eyes on your manuscript is always helpful, and finding someone who has experience, who is a little farther down the path, is one of the best ways to move forward in your writing career. I don’t know if there is any accreditation service of note (but I’d love to hear from readers who can suggest such a service), but there are a ton of experienced writers who serve in this capacity part-time, helping other writers who can benefit from their wisdom. I know of several, but it probably wouldn’t be fair to name one or two. Going through a reputable writing organization like RWA or SCBWI or ACFW is one way to find a good writing coach. Exploring some of the people available through Writers Digest or a good conference is another. But you may want to simply start asking around through writing friends or those at the next big conference you’re attending.

This question came in on the website: “I recently read somewhere that you don’t necessarily need an agent if you write for children, and that it might be better use of your time to submit directly to a publisher. Is that true?”

We have our own in-house expert on children’s books. Erin Buterbaugh handles all the chldren’s stuff for MacGregor Literary, so I posed this question to her. Here is Erin’s response:

 

I wouldn’t say having an agent is any more or less vital for a children’s writer than it is for any other writer. If you have the connections to get your manuscripts in front of the right editor, the know-how to package/position your manuscript and your brand in the way the editor expects, and the confidence to negotiate your own contracts, then certainly, go ahead and submit directly to a publisher (keeping in mind that some editors flat-out don’t accept unagented manuscripts). Some areas where a children’s writer needs to be especially savvy (and where having an agent who knows the children’s arena is a big advantage) include presenting your brand as a children’s author and knowing the requirements/characteristics of the imprint you’re submitting to. 

For instance, rather than receiving a single picture book manuscript from a debut author, most editors prefer to see two or three manuscripts (or at least ideas) that demonstrate some understanding on the part of the author as to her “brand,” or the themes/characteristics/voice that make her picture books distinct and recognizable, such as a zany sense of humor, or whimsical subject matter, or multicultural family tales. Because picture books are so expensive to publish, an editor prefers to make that investment in an author who has more than one idea along the same lines, the hope being that if the publisher is successful in pairing a complementary illustrator with a story and finding an audience for it, that same audience will seek out future stories from that team looking for similar themes or subjects, rather than the publisher doing all that work to find out that the author’s next ideas are completely dissimilar. An agent can help you refine and develop your brand as a picture book author and advise you as to which manuscripts to present together in order to give the editor the best overview of your work and the best idea of the kind of audience you’ll appeal to. 

Regarding the specific characteristics of various imprints, if you don’t know that a certain picture book line only publishes books under 300 words, you’re wasting your time submitting your 900-word manuscript, no matter how good it is, just as an imprint that only publishes middle-grade isn’t going to have a place for your early reader series. A good children’s agent is familiar with the parameters of the various imprints/lines and will help you avoid wasted submissions and dead-ends. 

 

And a related question about children’s books:I am a kidlit author & illustrator. Over the years I went from picture books to chapter books to novels and most recently to board books. I do the full span of kidlit formats, and it’s rare to find agents who are willing to represent all of them, and of those who do there can be specifications: only funny picture books, etc. It keeps me from submitting to them since not every picture I’ve written is funny. Should I submit anyway? Is there a way past this obstacle?”

You have to understand that nobody can represent everything. I don’t even review children’s books, since I don’t sell them, wI don’t have the background with them to feel terribly competent in exploring them, and don’t have the contacts in publishing to really sell them. So sending me a children’s manuscript is on par with sending me poetry – it’s pearls before swine. It might be great, but I wouldn’t know it. So my advice for you would be to do some research on the agents who represent the types of projects you write. If you’re not involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI, called “squibby”), check them out. They do local, regional, and national conferences, and are the leader in getting together authors and agents for children’s projects.

If I’ve published 2 books on my own, without an agent, does that make me more valuable or less valuable to a potential agent?”

Generally that would make you more valuable to a literary agent. It shows experience and the fact that publishers want to work with you. Of course, if you’re a novelist and both the books bombed, you may find it tough. Right now publishers are staying away from writers (even good writers) who have had a bad track record. (And I don’t say that to be negative, by the way – just pointing out the facts.)

“Will an agent represent a book that is actually two novellas in one volume? One POV character crosses over from the first book into the second.”

Beats me. They might if the writing was really good. Most agents aren’t looking at the format so much as the genre, the quality of the writing, and the personality of the writer. That said… I’m not sure this particular idea will appeal to agents. Are there some good comparable titles you could list, to show this has been done a bit?

“What is the single most important factor in your decision to rep and work with a new writer?”

Hmmm… There are several factors that are important to me – the voice in the writing, the importance of the book, the fact that the writer isn’t crazy… But if I had to pick one thing, for me it would probably be the salability of the project. If I don’t think I can sell it, then I’m not going to represent it, no matter how much I like the author or his/her work.

 

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask an agent? Send it to me, and I’ll try to get to it this month!

 

Posted in Agents, Career, The Writing Craft | 3 Comments »