Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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

April 8th, 2015 | Books, Quick Tips, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 5 Comments

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.

 

 

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

March 25th, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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. 

 

The Journey of my First Publishing Contract (A Guest Blog by Jill Lynn)

February 6th, 2015 | Books, Career, Publishing | 3 Comments

Jill Lynn HeadshotI’m a newbie to the publishing world. In early 2014, I received my first publishing offer from Harlequin Love Inspired. I accepted it with excitement, ready for the words hidden on my computer to be seen by all the world.

Then I received my first edits.

After hyperventilating, I read them again. I could tell my editor was right… she was brilliant, seeing things I hadn’t seen. But the changes… I didn’t have a clue where to begin. The task felt insurmountable. I wrote and wrote, and my family didn’t see me for a period of time.

When we reached the end of edits, then came an entirely new problem. They wanted me to hand the book over to them. What? When did we agree to this? Oh, yeah. When I signed the contract. But still, they actually wanted me to fork over my words. They were going to let people read them. But… but… but I’m not done yet!

I quickly realized I would never feel ready.

Part of being creative is that there’s always something more that can be changed or tweaked or deleted. That’s what deadlines are for. Someone has to pry the book from your hands. I naively thought I would have a book done before the deadline. I’m not a procrastinator and I don’t do things last minute. But I never realized that I wouldn’t feel ready to give it up. I did send it in on time, and then I wandered around my house for a week wondering what to do with myself. Laundry would have been a good option.

Next came the request for titles. I went round and round on those, bugging my friends, my poor agent Amanda, and my husband until people were texting me random title ideas at all hours of the day.

Once a title was picked, we moved on to line edits.

Oh, wait. You thought the edits were done? Those were content edits. These are line edits. Much smaller (not as much to freak out about, though I’m sure I still put up a fair effort.)

Handing the book in this time was even harder because it was the last time I would be able to make any changes. THE LAST TIME.

No problem. I was cool as could be. Pretty sure I cried, prayed, and then hit send on the email. This all sounds very dramatic, and I might be exaggerating just a titch, but there’s truth to it also. Handing over your first book baby isn’t easy.

In December, a box of books arrived on my front step.

SavingTexas

There’s my newborn right there. Isn’t she cute?

The journey of writing might not be easy, but if you asked me if it’s worth it, I would say…

When can we do it again? :)

Jill Lynn lives near the beautiful Rocky Mountains with her husband and two children who make her laugh on a daily basis. Her first novel, Falling for Texas, is available in stores and online. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Jill won the ACFW Genesis award in 2013. She has a penchant for great books, boots, and thrift stores. Find her online at www.Jill-Lynn.com.

Thursdays with Amanda: Winner Chosen! (2015 writing project challenge)

January 8th, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft | 28 Comments

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

PLEASE READ THROUGH TO THE END… EVEN IF YOU DIDN’T WIN I HAVE SOMETHING SPECIAL FOR YOU…

Last week I invited you to share with me the various projects you’ll be working in 2015. I believe there is something inspiring about writers sharing ideas with others. There is something about making a public commitment to PURSUE a project that makes it so much more real (and we all know how working on a book alone, on your own, can many times feel like you’re pretending at this whole writer thing). So I’m very glad that we got a good response to my post. I’m glad for the thirty-some of you who took me up on my challenge and made your 2015 goal project public.

And as promised, I’ve chosen a favorite! Here are some things that I considered when reading through the submissions:

  1. Does the project have a strong external plot? It’s easy to focus on the internal arc (what are their fears and how do the characters change on the inside?), but a pitch is all about the external. What happens TO these characters? That’s what I’m more concerned about at this stage in the game.
  2. Does the project sound different? I see a lot of pitches, a lot of story ideas, and so I’m alway on the lookout for a book that is unique. Something that either I haven’t heard before or something that is different enough from the status quo.
  3. Do I want to know more? This is probably the most important question. Because a book can lack an external plot and sound just like everything else, but if it gets me to want to turn the page…we’re golden.

FINALISTS

  • ALICIA TUBBS: DR. VIRGIL’S AFTERLIFE RECORDINGS – Dr. Santos Virgil has been entrusted with a device that records a person’s life review upon the moment of death. In the wrong hands, the secrets revealed in these life reviews could destroy the world. When a cold-blooded mobster holds Santos’ friends hostage in exchange for the device, Santos embarks upon a suicidal rescue mission. If his mission fails, his friends will die, and the device will fall into the mobster’s possession. No secret will be safe from the grave.
  • SCOTT KEDERSHA: The Best Seat in the Chapel: Lessons Learned From Over 2500 Premarried Couples – When you attend a wedding, most of the ceremony, all you see is the backside of the bride and groom. You see his face when the bridal party processes and you see her’s as she walks down the aisle. For most of the ceremony, however, you cannot see their faces, the excitement and anticipation of becoming one with each other. Only one person has the privilege of seeing in their faces most of the ceremony. The pastor has the Best Seat in the Chapel. In this book, I will share what God’s Word says about marriage and stories of real couples and the challenges they have walked through in preparing for marriage. The Best Seat in the Chapel is the culmination of what I have learned from over 2500 premarried couples as a marriage pastor over a thriving premarried church ministry.
  • KELLY COLLINS HOPKINS: Goode Music – Engaged to a controlling school superintendent, Kyra Goode is an ambitious, gifted music teacher in Pennsylvania until she loses her job to a budget cut. Packing up what’s left of her pride, Kyra heads for South Carolina and a spot in her brother’s tavern band. Playing in public again sounds like a great idea until she meets the band’s handsome lead singer—her former college flame, Mel Farr. The last thing Kyra wants is a new romantic entanglement, but she can’t resist the grip Mel still holds on her heart and sparks fly. While Kyra loses herself in her music and new love, her former fiancé fakes his own death to stalk her, plotting to destroy Kyra and everyone she loves.
  • KRISTEN JOY WILKS – Ten-year-old triplets finally escape their mother’s smothering to enjoy a week of summer camp. But every 100 years something impossible comes to Camp CastleSnag. An ancient castle appears for an hour at twilight. Its gate leads into The Wandering Wood, a primeval forest populated with extinct monsters from earth’s distant past. However, trouble soon follows their discovery. Someone is releasing creatures from the Wandering Wood. God may have provided a sanctuary for the animal wonders of long ago, but will He provide a way for the boys to avoid being trampled or accidentally devoured? Is guarding the Wandering Wood their destiny, or just a handy way for God to be rid of three pesky boys?

WINNER!!

The winner is Kristen Joy Wilks and her Jumani-esque story about triplets and extinct monsters! I chose this blurb because, for me, it nailed my three main questions (above). And after reading it, I didn’t come away with any hesitations or concerns. Just positive vibes! So congrats, Kristen! Sorry I don’t have a prize…but maybe bragging rights are enough?

Now, for everyone else who entered and are either wondering why you didn’t final or what I thought of your blurb, I’m happy to answer questions about those very blurbs (this is not an invitation for you to post your first chapter or your synopsis, etc). So if you want to know x or y about your blurb and what I thought, feel free to leave a comment! I’ll be responding over the next few days.

 

Thursdays with Amanda: Share Your 2015 Writing Project

January 1st, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft | 40 Comments

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.

Instead of doing a list of resolutions or predictions or blah blah blah, we’re going to do something fun…

Let’s face it, if we’re serious about writing, we should be able to finish a book this year, right? So, let’s focus on THAT.

What book will you finish in 2015? It can be a novel. A nonfiction book. One you’ve been working on for years or one you’re starting today. Whatever it is, tell us about it! Give us a one-paragraph blurb. Really sell the thing. Make it shine. I’ll be reading the comments and will pick my personal favorite NEXT THURSDAY. Spread the word!

What was the best book you read in 2014?

December 29th, 2014 | Books | 19 Comments

So it’s the end of the year, and I always try to ask readers to participate in a couple of conversations with me. My question for you: What was the best book you read in 2014? 

It doesn’t have to be new, but I’m interested in what you read this past year. My list was pretty long — longer than normal, I think. I read through Abraham Erghese’s Cutting for Stone, Robert Kolker’s haunting Lost Girls, Ben Mezrich’s interesting Bringing Down the House, Douglas Preston’s fascinating The Monster of Florence, Robert Wittman’s Priceless (a fascinating book about the FBI’s art theft team), John Schiffman’s Operation Shakespeare (about the US government going after illegal arms traders), Les Edgerton’s The Genuine Imitation Plastic Kidnapping  (perhaps my favorite comic read this year), Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Karen Prior’s Fierce Convictions, four books from Malcolm Gladwell, two from Bill Bryson, and two from thriller writer Joshua Graham. All of these would make my “suggested reading list.” I also re-read two from Charles Dickens, two by Mark Twain, two from Henry Nouwen, two from personal favorite Lauren Winner, and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (a favorite of mine).

Authors I represent also had several good titles release — and while it’s not fair to name all of them, a handful of favorites were Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds, Lisa Samson’s Runaway Saint, Maegan Beaumont’s Sacrificial Muse, Bonnie Gray’s Finding Whitespace, Emily Wierenga’s Atlas Girl, and Vince Zandri’s The Shroud Key. Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice came out in a special edition on Snippet, and it’s one of the best writing books I’ve ever read (plus you get to listen to Les telling stories in video clips). And Rob Brunet’s Stinking Rich is a hoot, if you like crime capers.

There were others I really liked. Anything from Jessica Dotta is going to be good, and her most recent, The Price of Privilege, doesn’t disappoint. David Thomas helped Mark Schultz create Foxcatcher, which turned into a movie with Steve Carrell that is going to make some noise at Oscar time. Susy Flory collaborated on a great book, Unbreakable Boy, that hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves. Leslie Gould’s Becoming Bea is a good read in a genre series, and Rachel Hauck’s Princess Ever After shows off her burgeoning talent. And I think readers can look for Susan Sleeman and Dana Mentink and Janice Thompson to really bust out in 2015 — they’re all fine writers, telling good stories in 2014, and have the chops to do even bigger things in the next year.

So if I was going to pick a couple books to suggest everyone read… it would be awfully hard. If you like edgy novels that make you think, by all means pick up Les Edgerton’s The Bitch. (The title is about a “habitual” offender, so don’t be put off by it.) A very satisfying read. If, like me, you enjoy great, insightful nonfiction writing, pick up a copy of Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, which will simply change you. (No, the book didn’t come out in 2014 — in came out a couple years ago, but I read it in 2014, and found it to be one of those eye-opening, table-pounding sort of experiences.) And, if like many readers who come to this blog, you’re looking for something spiritually moving, have a look at Bonnie Gray’s Finding Spiritual Whitespace, which I found helpful and insightful. Those would be my top picks for the year.

Your turn. What did you read in 2014 that you can recommend? Leave your suggestion in the comments section, with your thoughts as to why it’s good.

Books about Books (a guest blog)

August 22nd, 2014 | Books | 8 Comments

Landscape, language, arts, culture, current events—these are some things a novelist must research before writing her novel. When I was researching my Ellis Island series, one thing I looked at was what people were reading at the turn of the twentieth century. You can discern a lot about a person by observing his/her reading choices, so why not do this for the characters in a novel?

 

It doesn’t matter if you are writing historical or contemporary, but books were far more valuable and treasured in years past, so I think historical novels ought to include them. It’s not only fun for the writer but also for the reader who most likely enjoys books as much as you do.

 

In my series I wanted to have my characters read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz because it was taking the country by storm. Everyone was reading it. It’s no wonder because so many people related to Dorothy Gale—displaced in the strange new world that America was becoming. My Irish characters had be emerged in the storytelling tradition that the Irish are known for. My American characters had to be enthralled with the futuristic tales of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Public libraries were not as accessible back then so I imagined people traded books, talked about them, and looked forward to new ones coming out, perhaps even more than people do today.

 

My advice for novelists is to research what people were reading at the time of your setting, and also look at what the newspapers were saying about the books being released. I’ve been hearing how much my readers are enjoying learning about my characters’reading tastes.

 

___________________

 

Cindy Thomson’s newest novel is Annie’s Stories (Tyndale House Publishers, July 2014,) the second in her Ellis Island series. She is also the author of Brigid of Ireland, Celtic Wisdom: Treasures From Ireland, and co-author of a baseball hall of famer biography Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story. She has written numerous magazine articles mostly on Irish genealogy, and blogs at www.cindyswriting.com.

If you’re new to the world of publishing…

July 7th, 2014 | Books, Publishing | 7 Comments

I’m a big supporter of authors trying to self-publish their out-of-print works (and sometimes their new works, depending on the author and situation), and I’ve had a number of authors write to ask questions about publishing terms and traditions. I thought you might find it helpful to know some of the official nomenclature we use in the industry:

The FRONT MATTER is all of the information that goes in the front of the book, between the cover and the actual text. It usually contains a bunch of legal and technical information about the book, and the pages are all numbered, but they often don’t have actual page numbers showing up (at least not on what are called the “display” pages — the title page, the half title page, the copyright page, the dedication page, any blank pages, etc).

There are a number of elements to the Front Matter that require special terms: the title page (which has the complete title, subtitle, author name, and publisher) the half-titlte page (which just has the book’s title), the copyright page, the legal or copyright acknowledgements (if you needed permission for anything in your text), the dedication, acknowledgements, and table of contents. There will also be a colophon, a more recent development in publishing a book that details the font, the printer, and any special production notes about the book.

There are also a number of additional Front Matter pieces that are used less often: a foreword (written by someone other than the author, to introduce the topic), a preface (written by the author to explain HOW the book was written), an introduction (written by the author to explain WHY the book was written), a prologue (written by the narrator or a character in the novel to set the scene or give important background information), an epigraph (usually a poem or quote pertinent to the story), and the author’s acknowledgements (so you can tell everyone how great your editor and agent have been in the process). The fact is, in recent days we’ve seen a decline in much of these. There’s nothing more boring that picking up a book that has a foreword, a prologue, and introduction, and three pages of acknowledgments. By then, the reader has already fallen asleep.

The BODY MATTER is the text of the book — that is, the manuscript created by the author. These pages are all numbered, and the numbers normally show on most every page. Special pages in between for chapter breaks, section breaks, book breaks, or part breaks (that is, a page that says “Part One,” for example) normally don’t have a number on them. Sometimes a publisher will make an artistic decision to leave the page numbers off of blank pages within the text or the first page of each chapter, but that’s not the norm.

The BACK MATTER contains any content that is additional or subsidiary to the text. Examples include footnotes, an index, a glossary, an appendix, or a bibliography. Occasionally the Back Matter will also include an afterword (where the author says something about the creation of the book) or an epilogue (where the author brings closure to the story or explains what happened after the book was written). Other elements of Back Matter include an author bio and a list of other titles from the author. In recent years we’ve seen some of these elements move around — with author titles moved to the Front, or acknowledgements moved to the back, but for the most part this is where the various pieces fit.

The COVER COPY is simply the text that will appear on your front cover — the title, subtitle (even if it is simply the words “a novel”), and author name. Some nonfiction books will have additional information on the topic or the author to buttress the book’s validity.

The BACK COVER COPY is everything that appears on the back cover. For most novels, that’s a short elevator pitch to try and convince readers to get hooked on the story. For most nonfiction books, it’s a selling tool to get the potential reader to crack open the book and look at the table of contents. It may or may not contain a very brief author bio. Most publishers also lump the SPINE COPY in with back cover copy, and refer to it all as “BCC.” Your spine will be limited to the title, author last name, and publisher imprimatur.

If you’re releasing a hard cover book with a dust jacket, you will also have FRONT FLAP COPY and BACK FLAP COPY. The front flap of a novel offers a short synopsis for the story, and often replaces the back cover copy. The back flap of a hardcover novel will offer an author biography. With a nonfiction book, it’s common for the summary to start on the front flap and continue to the back flap, before presenting a very brief author bio.

What are the publishing terms you’d like to ask about? What about the production of book is unclear or do you have questions about?

Sitting down with a literary agent for a latte…

April 15th, 2014 | Agents, Books, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 8 Comments

So if you could sit down at Starbucks with a literary agent, and ask him any question you wanted, what would you ask? I’m taking the month of April to let you ask those questions you’ve always wanted to talk over with an agent…

Does being a self-published author with several books help or hurt your chances of getting an agent to read something?

If the books are well written and have a good track record of sales, that will improve your chances. If the books are poorly done, or if you can’t show that you’ve sold many copies (or worse, the Amazon numbers suggest you haven’t sold a bunch of books), it will hurt your chances. I guess that’s not a surprise to you. But understand that self-pubbed books don’t disqualify you from landing an agent, nor does having a printed book you did on Create Space help your cause very much. An agent is going to be looking for a great idea, expressed through great writing, from an author with a great platform who has a strong track record of sales.

What advice would you give a first-time author? I’ve been trying to network, but not sure what else to do.

Know your audience. Take charge of your marketing. Have goals. Talk with someone who really knows how to market. Go to everyone you know. Do everything the publisher asks you to do. Research where your likely readers are online — maybe make a list of the top 100 sites your potential readers are gathering — then find ways to get onto those sites and get your name and book title in front of those readers. Learn to talk about your story in a way that’s interesting, and find venues to do that. Solicit reviews. Use the Amazon tools. Figure out some strategies you are comfortable with, and which you think will be effective, then do them. Don’t expect miracles. Don’t give up after two months.

Do you see the possibility of “New Adult” ever working in CBA?

Yeah, I do. New Adult is the (relatively new) category in publishing that appeals to those just past YA fiction, but maybe not interested in the romances and suspense stories we consider “adult” fiction. NA appeals to those in the 17 to 25 age group, and it’s been all the rage in publishing circles — growing like crazy. The genre began by looking at the issues closely related to people that age: relationships, career choices, new jobs, new cities, new adult friendships, the freedom that comes with growing up, etc. But it’s slid into a sort of soft-porn-for-younger-women trough, so authors are complaining that they can’t get their books looked at unless they raise the slut factor. Will this genre make its way into CBA? Yeah, it will, since Christians tend to buy books. Trends often hit the general market first, then trail along a year or two later in CBA. I think it’s just a matter of time before we see more New Adult fiction at CBA publishers.

What is the impact of e-books on “out of print” status of books? Do books never go out of print, and thus an author’s rights to have book and artwork revert back to them never take place?

You pretty well summed it up. Publishers have changed the wording of contracts to include e-books as qualifying for a “book in print.” And, since e-books don’t require warehousing, it basically means a book need never be declared “out of print.” That’s why authors have to be very careful with what they sign — have a professional look over your contract, just to protect yourself. One publisher recently sent contracts to dozens of authors, telling them they wanted to include their out-of-print works into e-book collections. That sounded like a great idea to several writers, and they signed the contract and sent it back without checking with anyone. The problem? The document they were sent grants ALL book rights to the publisher, and once publishers have a right granted them, they rarely want to give it back. This is why agents are pushing for either sales thresholds (“if the book doesn’t sell 500 copies in a year”) or term limits (“this agreement is in force for five years”), so that an author will eventually be able to get his or her work back.

How long does it take, on average, from when you agree to take on a new novelist to when you sell their manuscript?

It’s unique with each book, of course, but I would say an average for a first-timer is less than a year. Still, I have a couple novelists I represent, whom I’ve worked with for almost two years, and I’ve not been able to sell their work. (Not proud of that fact, but being honest.) I believe in them as authors, and want to sell them, but the fiction market is in a state of revolution. So I preach patience, and sometimes self-publishing, and continue talking with them about the future. They’re good writers, but it’s tougher than ever to land a debut novel with a publisher.

I see you’re responding to email questions, but I sent you a query letter two weeks ago for a sure hit suspense book and you have yet to respond. How long should I wait for you (or any other agent) to get back to me?

I’m trying to think of a sensitive way to say this… Cry me a river. I’ve got authors I already represent who require my time — is it fair to ignore them (who I know) so that I can take care of you (who I don’t know)? I’ll get to it when I can — usually in a month or two. That’s about the norm in the industry. But whining at me about taking time to write my blog isn’t going to win you my friendship. Besides, where is it written that I owe you a response for your proposal? I didn’t ask you for it. My website basically discourages a lot of writers from sending in something cold. I do that because I can’t respond to everyone who decides they have a “sure hit book.” (And I’ve got a secret for you: There are no sure things in this business. I’ve seen great books fail completely.) Of course, a nicer, gentler agent would say to you, “Have patience, my friend. All in good time.” Unfortunately, you didn’t write to that nicer agent; you wrote to me. And my feeling is that you sound impatient and entitled. When I have time, I’ll get to it. If I feel it deserves a response, I’ll write one. If you don’t like my answer, you are free to withdraw your proposal and talk to someone else. I’ll cry all night.

Could you shed some light on the reality of “movie rights?” I read recently that a book to movie was finally beginning production—10 years after the contract was signed. And they say publishing is slow!

You have to learn to see movies as being completely different from the book world, just as dance performance is completely different from the world of costuming. I mean, every dancer onstage is wearing a costume, but the two things are unique businesses. If a book publisher offers you a contract for your completed manuscript, the odds are better than 90% that your book is going to come out. If a movie production company offers you a contract for your completed screenplay, the odds are less than 5% that it will come out. (As I said — different businesses.) If a book publisher contracts for the rights to your book, chances are very good you’ll eventually see that book on sale in a bookstore. If a movie production company contracts for the rights to your book, they are only buying an option to talk about it for a period of time, and the vast majority of those options will simply expire with nothing concrete ever happening to move the story toward a production in theaters. If a book publisher accepts your manuscript, you’ll probably see your book on store shelves in 12 to 24 months. If a movie production company accepts your manuscript, you might see your movie in theaters in four to ten years (but probably not, since they’re just going to cancel the project anyway). It’s fun to have a production company contract for the movie rights to your story, but the odds are long that they’ll ever make a film of it.

The numbers you shared in the blog the other day (about how many people we need to be connected to as authors if we are to do a good job marketing our books) seemed awfully high. What constitutes a good platform for a beginning novelist?

I’ll stick with what I said. Publishers like big platforms. A small publisher will be happy to see an author have connections to 10,000 people (they may contract a book with an author who has a smaller platform, but they LIKE to see 10k or larger). A mid-sized publisher is happy with 40k to 60k. A large publisher wants large numbers. Again, any publisher may do a book with an unknown author who has a small platform — but the odds of landing a deal increase as your platform increases.

I know you do some Christian or spirituality books, and that makes me wonder… Why aren’t there any books for men? “Wild at Heart” was published about fifteen years ago, and people still hold that up as a contemporary men’s book.

Yeah, that’s something CBA publishers tend to weep and wail and gnash their teeth over. The problem is that men don’t buy that many books in CBA stores, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — “Men don’t buy much, so we’ll design stores that basically appeal to women, so men will buy even less.” I have no idea what the solution is, though I hope publishers don’t give up on male readers.

Is there any chance that Barnes & Noble and the Nook survive?

I’m always hoping, and I think the industry is better having a national bookseller, but realistically it’s hard to see. They are obviously squeezed by Amazon, and I think we can expect them to continue to shrink. But dang! I really want B&N to survive. Like you, I’ve heard nothing but negatives about Nook, what with executives leaving and staff shrinking — so let me just state here that I LOVE my Nook, and think it’s a great e-reader. And the Nook team just announced they’ve grown the international side, so they’re in 32 countries, and 19 languages, with hopes of being the leading international e-reader. Like the boys in Monty Python said, always look on the bright side of life.

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Send it along to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary. I’ll do my best to get you an answer.

And the biggest successes of 2013 were…

March 25th, 2014 | Author News, Deals, Books, Career, Current Affairs, Publishing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 8 Comments

In this week’s issue of Publisher’s Weekly, they have their annual report on the bestsellers of the previous year. I always enjoy reading about it and discussing it with authors, because nothing gives perspective more than a number. You see, authors like to talk about having books “sell a million copies,” and I’ve frequently seen proposals in which writers make wild promises about selling millions, since the audience for a particular topic is considered huge. (“There are 246 million people with dandruff in this country! There’s a ginormous market for my book on hair care!”)

But then every spring PW releases its report, and everyone gets a dose of reality. How many hardcover novels sold a million copies in 2013? One — Dan Brown’s Inferno. How many hardcover nonfiction books sold a million copies? Three — Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus and two of the “Duck Commander” books, Happy, Happy, Happy and Si-Cology. How many trade paper books sold a million copies? One — and it was released decades ago… F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There was only one mass market book that sold a million copies, proving that this formerly big-number format is quickly dying off, replaced by digital books — George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

On the children’s side, there were a handful of books that passed the million mark. Jeff Kinney’s Hard Luck: Diary of a Wimpy Kid #8 sold more than three million copies, and was the biggest seller in one format of any book sold last year. But Veronica Roth’s Allegiant and Insurgent, Rick Riordan’s The House of Hades, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars also hit the mark. (Two other titles probably did: Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham, but the numbers are unclear because of several factors.) Still, when it comes to print copies, that means there were all of thirteen titles that sold a million copies last year. And there were roughly 250,000 books releasing in print last year, and approximately five million books in print for sale. Thirteen books. Makes one pause to think, doesn’t it?

On the positive side, more hardcover novels than ever (a total of 251 different titles) hit the bestseller lists than ever before. But on the negative side, the list of hardcover fiction that sold more than 100,000 copies comes to just 89 titles — the lowest I’ve ever seen. Also on the positive side, there were a bunch of Christian titles on the various lists. But on the negative side, of those 89 hardcover novels that sold more than 100,000 copies, only ONE was from a first-time author. In other words, the best way to be a bestselling author is to have been a bestselling author last year. Sigh…

The ebook sales in PW are harder to discover. PW relies on publishers to send them figures, so self-published books (and, let’s face it, most small e-publishers) simply aren’t included. There were only two ebook titles that, according to their study, sold more than a million copies: Dan Brown’s Inferno and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. With the proliferation of indie publishing (whether by the author, an author co-op, or by a small independent press) we’re in a state where getting complete numbers is nearly impossible. And, I’ll admit it, while I’m very supportive of indie publishing, I tend to discount what some of them report. For example, on Randy Ingermanson’s wonderful “Advanced Fiction Writing Blog,” during a discussion of Hugh Howey’s interesting “Author Earnings” article, Mr. Howey came onto the site to say that he knew of “several (indie) authors who sold multiple millions last year.” Um… I doubt that. Randy’s own analysis (the guy has a PhD in quantum physic) was that there could theoretically be two authors who sold a couple million ebooks, and another handful that sold a million. So the irrational exuberance of claiming to know a bunch of authors who all self-pubbed and sold “multiple millions” may be encouraging to author wannabe’s, but I don’t think it’s accurate.

That said, if you take a look at the article in PW, you’ll see some really good news: the overall number of ebooks reported, even though it’s basically from traditional publishers, reveals that more books are selling than ever before. The explosion of ebooks and self-publishing has been a fabulous step for authors, even though we’re all still trying to figure out how to track the numbers and understand the new systems. Sure, there’s been a migration away from mass market books to Kindles and Nooks and iPads, but the overall numbers of titles selling is greater (and hey, there are still a significant number of mass market titles sold). This is great news for authors — books are continuing to sell, more people are reading than ever before, there is a greater need for content, and there are more opportunities to publish and be read than ever before in the history of the world. What’s to complain about? This is the golden age of publishing, people.

And one last thought comes to mind as you look over the article… Publishing is very much like buying a lottery ticket. (Or, as Joe Konrath once put it, “Publishing is a carny game.”) Some people can work at it, study the probabilities, try their hardest, and never get anywhere. Others stop by 7/11 one day, drop a dollar on a lark, and find themselves living in Beverly Hills and driving a Maserati. Hey – life ain’t fair. But understand that’s the system. Writing is art, and I never knew anyone who felt the world of art was going to be easy. You pick up a paintbrush, take lessons, work with a mentor, practice, and work your way through a thousand canvases before you’re any good, and even then you still might not get noticed. Or you fall in love with the ballet, invest thousands in lessons, spend your life doing plies, and hope to latch on to a little dance company in Toledo. Or maybe you buy a used Stratocaster, invest in lessons, start a band in your garage, and play every school dance and grange hall in hopes of getting discovered. Occasionally something works — your band gets noticed and you’re offered a job as an opener for a headliner, or you get cast in a lead role that gets rave reviews, or your sculpture garners a headline in a major art magazine. You bust out. It happens. Sometimes it’s because of your great craft, your unique interpretation, or your artistic vision. Other times it’s dumb luck — your book hits the same time the culture happens to take an interest in your topic, or your title appeals to somebody at USA Today. That’s life — you do your best, and sometimes you hit the lottery. Or you don’t, in most cases, and you continue to work at it because it’s art and you enjoy it. But there’s no sure thing in publishing. Books are selling (more books than ever, thank God), and opportunities abound. I still think you’ll do better if you practice and get a mentor and learn something about the craft, no matter the success of Fifty Shades of Gray. But this year’s report once again shows there’s no guarantee to success — and some of our best writers may not be selling all that well. Still, there’s a chance of finding success, whether modest or great, and we do it because we love words. That, to me, is always the point of reading about the biggest successes in our industry.

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To see the blog post from J.A. Konrath that I referenced above, go here: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/02/eisler-publishing-is-lottery-konrath.html