Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

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

April 1st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 0 Comments

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!

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

March 27th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

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.

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

March 25th, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 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. 

 

Ten Lessons I’ve Learned (a guest blog)

March 20th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 30 Comments

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. 

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

March 17th, 2015 | Agents, Career, The Writing Craft | 3 Comments

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!

 

The Pros and Cons of Prologues

March 11th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wThis week’s post is one I always think about writing after attending a writer’s conference, the reason being that, for every three manuscripts I’m handed at a conference, two of them (on average) begin with a prologue. Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with starting your book with a prologue, but over the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in authors treating a prologue like a required element of a novel. It’s not.  The problem with this trend is that, in many cases, these prologues are either boring, unnecessary, or straight-up misnamed, so that, right off the bat, I’m distracted or distanced from the story rather than drawn in the way I want to be by the first page of a manuscript. This doesn’t mean beginning with a prologue is always a bad idea, just that you should be sure you understand the function of a prologue and whether your story is best-served by one.

What is a prologue? A prologue is an introductory part of the story (meaning, it’s fictional– not to be confused with a forward or an introduction, which are written from the point of view of a real person such as an author, as opposed to a character or the narrator) that, for whatever reason, doesn’t “match” the rest of the story. Examples include a piece of the story told from a different perspective, such as when the prologue is told from the point of view of the murder victim while the rest of the story is told from the point of view of the murderer, or taking place in a different time period, such as when the prologue shows a scene which takes place during the Civil War while the rest of the story takes place in 1978. A prologue along these lines is used when an author wants to make sure the reader has a certain piece of information or sees the beginning events of the story through a specific lens. So, sure, there are times when a prologue is completely appropriate, even necessary, but there are more when it’s not. Here are a few of them:

  • When it’s an info-dump. There’s a difference between necessary backstory or an important scene/event from the past and an entire chapter of background information on your main character. I’d say about half of the prologues I see fall into this category. It makes sense– the backstory of your main character is often some of the first writing you do as you’re getting to know your characters and where they’re coming from, so it’s fine for a birth-to-present account of your main character’s life to be the first thing that ends up on the page, but it’s not where the story starts. It’s not the first thing you want people reading (which works out real well, since it’s also not the first thing people want to read). All that development is important for you to know, but your reader doesn’t need to know it all right at the beginning (and sometimes, they never need to know it). Let that information inform your writing, but don’t expect the reader to wade through it all to get to the story of what’s happening to your main character now. Note: this is especially applicable to fantasy novels– I need to be drawn immediately into the story and connect with the characters, and a “prologue” that’s really just a detailed history of your world’s politics and flora and fauna and warring unicorn herds doesn’t do that. Sow the information we NEED artfully throughout the novel, and get us involved and caring about the main characters in the present moment as soon as possible, keeping in mind that this doesn’t usually happen in a prologue.
  • When it’s unnecessary. Every character has defining moments in their past, every story is informed by past events, and sometimes, showing the reader one of these moments or events is an effective way to establish the stakes or set a certain tone– if the reader knows from the prologue that the main character watched his sister drown when he was seven, they’re immediately going to understand what’s at stake when he gets assigned to investigate a child’s drowning death. There’s a lot to be said, however, for letting some suspense build about why a character is so afraid of a particular circumstance or why she has such a problem with commitment– not every break-up or parents’ divorce or traumatic experience in a character’s past needs to be shown in a prologue, and I see a lot of manuscripts starting out with an unremarkable or non-compelling scene from the past; your story is often better served by starting with the events of your unique story rather than a scene that feels familiar. If a prologue doesn’t drastically affect the way the reader experiences the story, why include it?
  • When it’s mislabeled. Finally, I’ve seen plenty of manuscripts  in which the author seemed to think “prologue” is just what you’re supposed to call the first chapter– truly, “prologues” which are no different in tone or timeline or perspective from the rest of the manuscript are not prologues! Labeling them such doesn’t make your book fancier or more complex, it makes your reader confused about why content that’s part of the story proper has been labeled prologue.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not against a prologue that immediately draws me into the story by giving me vital information or sets the tone in an importent way, but it shouldn’t be used as a lazy substitute  for sowing backstory artfully throughout a book or thrown in just because you think you need one. Bring your reader into the book at the moment your story starts and get him to connect with your characters as soon as possible (and make sure the first pages an agent or editor read are representative of your writing skill– prologues sometimes don’t reflect the voice/technique of the rest of the manuscript). If the best way to do that is with a prologue, write a great one, and if your prologue gets in the way of that, get rid of it and good riddance!

Ask the Agent: How do you feel about free fiction? (and other topics)

March 4th, 2015 | Marketing and Platforms, The Business of Writing, The Writing Craft | 25 Comments

A writing friend sent this: “I need your help. A publicist sent me an email and asked me to review a client’s book.  I agreed. Unfortunately, the book is horrible. The publicist has emailed to inquire as to when I would be posting my book review. As a writer, I hate to totally slam a book. What do you suggest?

 

This has happened to lot of us. My advice: Send a nice note to the publicist, saying, “You know, I read this, and it didn’t really appeal to me. I don’t want to say anything negative, so could I beg off, and you could ask me to review another book sometime?”

 

And this came in to the website: “I am writing a book which will be illustrated. What is the industry standard for sharing royalties between authors and illustrators?”

 

A book that has a few illustrations spread throughout usually doesn’t share royalties with the artist – the illustrations are usually licensed and paid for with a one-time payment. A book that has illustrations throughout (for example, a children’s picture book) will either have the artwork purchased outright, OR they will split the royalties in some way. I’ve seen all sorts of splits, by the way, but the standard is 50/50. Be aware, most children’s publishers don’t purchase the art you’re recommending. They’ll contract the text with you, then find their own illustrator whom they know and trust.

 

Someone asked this on the blog: “How do you feel about free fiction?”

 

I think it can work as a marketing strategy. Authors can give away a book to a particular audience, and hope to build readers. (YA author Jenny B Jones talked about that strategy on this blog a couple months ago.) But I also think its effectiveness is diminishing due to the vast amounts of free crap available online. Let’s face it – when you’re given something for free, you tend not to value it very much. So I think an author has to be careful of giving away something and sending the message, “My work isn’t very valuable.” Used carefully, as a means of hooking in new readers, it can still work, particularly for nonfiction authors. Now… all that said, here’s a thought you may or may not appreciate: The vast majority of the free novels available on Amazon are awful. Not all, mind you, but many of them. My two cents.

 

And someone sent this as a follow-up to my earlier answer: “I would find it helpful if you could say more about ‘voice’. What does that look like? How does one develop and improve voice?”  

 

Voice is your personality on the page. Take any two writers you like and compare them – each is unique. Both are good, but the way they sound on the page is different from one another. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, just look at my posts and Amanda’s posts. They both are, in my humble opinion, pretty good. They both offer good content. But I have a strong personality that can come across as hard, even snarky at times. Still, my personality comes across in my writing. So does Amanda, whose “Thursdays with Amanda” marketing posts have proven very popular with writers. She sounds like much more of a teacher, has a much cooler personality, but is still helpful and very straightforward. We both have a sense of humor, but hers is nicer. And I can tell you those posts sound exactly like Amanda. (Sorry if you think I’m glorifying us – just trying to offer an example.) Nobody would read a post of Amanda’s and think, “Chip must have written that.” We sound different, and we’ve both written enough that we know what our writing voices are. My personality comes out on the page. In my view, that’s what “voice” looks like. The best way to find that? Write a lot, study the craft, listen to what experienced writers and teachers have to say, read it all out loud, and you’ll eventually what sounds like you. That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have success (you could practice singing and playing piano for years and still never sound like Diana Krall), but at least you’ll know what your own voice is.

 

This interesting story & question arrived in my in-box a while back: “I had to stop reading the official website of a big writing group I belong to. Recently someone asked if a novel from a newbie had to be completed to be taken seriously by a publisher. A couple authors who know nothing wrote in to say, “No, you can still get it published with a synopsis and sample chapter.’ So an AGENT wrote in to say, ‘Actually, it really does need to be completed to be taken seriously by a publisher these days.’ So then some author, someone who should know better, wrote in to say the agent was wrong. She noted that ‘at her house,’ they’d consider anyone. Well… baloney! And how would an author who is doing all her books at one house have any idea what is going on in the larger industry? Why would she assume she knows more than an agent who is dealing with other publishing houses all the time? Doesn’t that sort of stupid stuff make you roll your eyes?”

 

Yes. I think one of the strengths of writing loops is that they introduce an author to the larger world, and provides an opportunity to hear from a bunch of other writers. But one of the weaknesses is that it makes everyone into an expert, so you’ve got inexperienced people offering advice as though they knew what they were doing. In today’s market, I don’t know of any house that is seriously considering debut authors based on a synopsis and sample chapters. The novel has to be complete for them to even read it… no matter what that author posed on the site.

 

Recently I was on a site where someone asked if self-publishing a first novel was a good way to start a career. Several people wrote in to say it’s a wonderful idea, that they had done it, etc. I wrote in and said, in essence, “Baloney.” My point was to say that it can work fine, if you have small expectations and a great marketing plan to sell copies. But then I did something that ticked off a big group of writers – I asked those who were self-publishing their first novel how many copies they had sold. Well… THAT caused a hue and cry. I was being the mean agent, who would dare to question these fabulous novelists. But you see, the truth is that for every novelist who is actually selling enough copies to matter, there are a couple hundred who are moving a handful (and therefore basically only posting their books on Amazon so that they can impress their friends at the next class reunion by saying, “Hey – I published a novel!”). I thought the idea of these loops was to learn, not listen to inexperience.

Got a question? Send it in and we’ll get to it in March! 

After a Conference: Next Steps

March 3rd, 2015 | Career, Conferences, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’ve talked before about the value of a good writer’s conference as a place to connect with mentors/writing partners and as a reward/motivating factor in meeting your writing deadlines. Since I just got back from a writer’s conference, I thought I’d talk about some post-conference steps you can take to make sure you get the most out of your experience, because as fun or as encouraging as writer’s conferences can be, you’re not getting the most out of your time and money if you don’t follow up on the new information and contacts you encountered there. Here are a few ways to maximize your conference experience after you get home.

  • Organize new contact info (before you lose it). Save email addresses and phone numbers, make notes about who was who while you still remember– if you’re keeping business cards, write some reminders on the card, such as “French parenting book” or “talked about Star Trek.” This will help you keep all your new acquaintances straight and give you a talking point to start from if you contact them in the future.
  • Compile new information/feedback. Go through your notes from workshops and meetings, look over the comments on any manuscripts you shared for critique, and highlight or copy the pieces of advice that resonated the most, as well as the pieces you have questions about or didn’t understand. This way, you have all your favorite advice in one place to look over and remind yourself of, and you have the things you need to think more about/ask more questions on in one spot for reference if you want to email the workshop teacher for clarification or decide explore a topic more at a future conference.
  • Compare advice. Between workshops, critique groups, and agent/editor meetings, you can come away from a writing conference with a whole bunch of suggestions for your work, and they’re not always going to agree! Before you can decide which advice to take, you’ll need to compare the different feedback you received. Make a list of each general piece of criticism you received– too many adjectives, voice not strong enough, pacing inconsistent, etc.– and add a check to the list for everything you heard more than once (additional checks for additional times). Don’t forget to track your positive feedback, too– if you receive multiple compliments on your characters or voice, make note of it. Anything you have more than one check mark for is probably worth some consideration, either as an area you need to work on, or as a strong point you want to continue to highlight. Consider also the source– if you were told one thing by a beginning writer in a critique group and another by a longtime editor in your genre, you should usually lend more weight to the opinion of the more experienced critic.
  • Take action. Once you’ve identified some areas for improvement or collected some strategies for improving your writing and writing habits, take specific action steps to work on those areas and implement those strategies. If your dialogue needs work, seek out some novels in your genre with great dialogue. If you got some helpful time management tips, buy a planner and revamp your schedule/goal list. If your characters are two-dimensional, find a writing partner who is great with character development.
  • Follow up with new contacts. If an agent or editor requested materials, send them. don’t wuss out! If you met a new friend who you might want to form a critique partnership with, follow up and feel them out on that possibility. If you took an especially helpful class from a faculty member, send them an email thank you– it’s always nice to hear.

Don’t let your conference experience be limited to the time you’re actually on-site. Review your new info, follow up on new connections, and take some steps to apply what you learned!

It’s “Ask an Agent” time!

March 2nd, 2015 | Agents, Career, Deep Thoughts, Questions from Beginners, The Writing Craft | 8 Comments

I’ve got a new book coming out very soon — How can I find an agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers). In celebration of that, I thought we’d take the month of March and just answer the agent questions you’ve got. So if there’s something you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent, this is your chance. Drop a note in the “comments” section, or send me an email at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. I’ll try to get to as many questions as I can. So let’s get started with some of the questions people have already sent in…

A friend wrote to say, “I’ve noticed that agents at conferences will list several genres they’re interested in, but rarely see any specifications about the exact type of books that interest them. I write YA – can I pitch them ANY YA novel?”

 

The conference often asks agents to briefly list what we’re looking for. They usually don’t give us room to offer a lot of detail. So, for example, I represent romance novels, but there are some areas of romance I don’t really work with (paranormal, for example). There’s no method for offering much beyond a quick description, so I’m always happy to talk with any romance writer who stops by, and will try to help or steer him or her in the right direction, if I can. From my perspective, if an agent says he or she represents YA, then set up an appointment to go talk through your project and ask questions.

 

This came in on my Facebook page: “How do I get what’s in my head onto paper in a way that will grab the reader’s attention?”

 

Great voice… and that’s easier said than done. I’ve never been sure if we can teach an author how to have great voice. We can help writers improve, help them use better technique, better structure, a more active voice. We can help them come up with a stronger story, more interesting characters, and a better setting. But what sets a book apart in my view is usually the voice of the writer, and I’m just not sure we can make an author sound different (though I do think that, with practice, we can sometimes help an author discover his or her voice). To get a better handle on this, think about American Idol, which, as I write this, has just started to shrink their list of singers. All of the singers in the current 24 can sing. But some have a more interesting, more powerful, or more unique voices. God just made them that way. They all can train to improve their sound, or use better breathing technique or something, but the basic quality of their voice is God-given. I’ve often wondered if writers are the same way.

 

This also came in on Facebook: “What makes a ‘killer’ One Sheet?”

 

You may not like my answer: I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “killer” one-sheet. That is, they don’t land you a deal, they just help you take the next step. For those who don’t know, a one-sheet is a one page overview of your novel. It offers a brief description of your story, gives some detail on genre, word count, and audience, and tells something about the author. Often it’ll have some sort of graphic element to make it visually interesting. They tend to be used as a means of introducing a novel to an editor or agent at a conference. But they’re just an introduction – if they’re good, they will encourage the editor to look at the formal proposal. So I guess the best one-sheets are the ones that make the story sound interesting enough they get me to take the next step.

 

And this question was asked on my Facebook page: “Every agent I talk to says they can’t sell what I write. How do I overcome that?”

 

Um… write something else? I’m not trying to sound snotty, but if you keep hearing people say they can’t sell it, you’re either going to have to self-publish it, wait and hope to meet someone else, or write something they CAN sell.

 

Someone sent me this: “As an avid reader–about two thrillers a week–I am curious what your thoughts are about something. How does a poorly written book make it to the NY Times bestseller list, and riveting page-turners languish in obscurity? I just read a so called ‘thriller’ that has garnered close to 400 good reviews on Amazon and is on the NYT bestseller list. Besides the fact that the book reads like a rough first draft, as an ex-NYC cop I can attest to the fact that the author knows absolutely nothing about his subject matter, and even less about how police officers interact with the public and each other. On the other hand, I recently read two great thrillers by a new author who has garnered about 50 reviews on Amazon but no one seems to have heard of him. This sort of thing puzzles me. Thoughts?”cartoon

 

Life ain’t fair. Every agent can tell you of great authors he or she has represented that languished, and of weak writers who surprised us all by hitting a bestseller list. EL James sold millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I felt could have been written by a world-wise fifth grader, while Abha Dawesar’s fabulous Family Values is far more interesting and entertaining, written with polish and grace, and, while recognized by reviewers as a wonderfully written piece, has never hit a bestseller list. Like I said, life ain’t fair. Or, as the wonderful essayist HL Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

 

 

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The Perks of Being in a Writing Group (a guest blog)

February 27th, 2015 | Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

I posted on Facebook once: “Spending the day with my laptop. I know you all think I’m sipping Dom Perignon and writing the next great American novel from the top of the Eiffel Tower, but I’m actually down at the coffee shop, no make-up, hair tied up, wearing a pair of white sweatpants that are so big you could play a movie on my rear end if I bent over at the drive-in theater.” I added the hashtag #thuglife.

It took all of ten seconds for one of my smart-aleck friends to respond, “What’s playing?”

We writers know that we’re really not having tea and crumpets with JK Rowling every other week. I’ve never even seen a crumpet and have yet to meet Ms. Rowling. But there is one thing I decided to do to bring some bling to my writing career – start a writing group. Crazy, right?

How I ever managed to gather the caliber of writers that so divinely came to me is beyond anything I could have imagined. We call ourselves the Flying M-Inklings (pronounced Minklings), a nod to The Flying M coffee shop where we meet every Saturday as well as to those talented Oxford-lads across the pond.

I had no idea when I put the word out that I was starting this group that these individuals would become my best friends, proverbially greater than the sum of our parts. Of course, we share our writing and critique each other’s work – we’re a writing group after all. But the M-Inklings have evolved into much more than that. Part of what we do as a group is encourage other writing groups to find their own collective identities.

On behalf of my fellow M-Inklings, who believe that all writers should join forces with others, I would love to show here how worthwhile a writing group can be.

Ah, the possibilities…

  • Has your manuscript ever been passed over by a big publisher, not because your writing wasn’t good enough – but because your platform wasn’t big enough? In case you don’t know this feeling, it sucks, let me tell you. One of the most compelling perks of being in a writing group is that you are able to share each other’s spheres of influence, which instantly increases your reader base. On social media, my own “friends’ list” more than quadrupled by being part of the M-Inklings. Our friends’ lists increase together exponentially. This is an example of instant gratification in spades. The only thing better than stepping out onto your own platform to be heard is being able to stand on the platforms of others. Do the math. It’s pretty slick.
  • Don’t you wish all you had to do as an author is write? We can’t merely write! We have to know how to market and how to blog. Our tech skills are challenged every day. We need a website. We have publishing questions. We have a business to run. When you are part of a writing group, each individual brings their own area of expertise to the table, and everyone in the group benefits. Among the M-Inklings are syntax warriors and grammar geeks, website-teckie-blogging buffs and structure virtuosos. Your career goals, whatever they are, have an infinitely better chance of becoming reality when you’re working with others than they would if you were working alone. The learning curve shortens right up when you are working in tandem with writers who have similar goals.
  • Here in Boise we are lucky enough to have The Cabin whose mission is “…to inspire and celebrate a love of reading, writing, and discourse throughout Idaho and the region,” which is pretty well what the M-Inklings are all about too. It’s been amazing for The Flying M-Inklings to be able to hook up with The Cabin and participate in some of the events they host. Just recently, we went on one of our field trips to meet Markus Zusak who, we all know, wrote The Book Thief, my current #1 fave (subject to change, of course). Here is Brandon getting his books signed. We had waited in line for three and a half hours to see him. In that time, Brandon and Katie and Nic and I thought of at least a dozen new projects for our group which we will roll out in time. Never a dull moment.
  • Your writing group can become a living, breathing being. In fact, the Flying M-Inklings have become an entity all her own, and she has even launched her own website – flyingminklings.org. The site features our writing but also provides writing tips for other authors and bloggers. Not only do we collaborate with each other, we are also interested in collaborating with other writers who are willing to share their expertise with us and the rest of the world. So if you’d be interested in standing on our platform and guest blogging for us, let us know. We’d love to hook up with other writing groups out there.
  • Finally, check out this place! Our very own Brandon Paul has taken it upon himself to be the events coordinator for the group, and we are thrilled and delighted to let him. (We call him Julie, the Cruise Director, which… he’s probably about to figure out as soon as he reads this. Maybe he won’t read this?) This has got to be one of the best perks of having a writing group. The M-Inklings’ Annual Writing Retreat is the highlight of our entire year. It is a time where each one of us looks back at our own individual accomplishments as well as our achievements as a group. We set new goals, we strategize the best ways to reach those goals, and we provide a support for one another. Additionally, we definitely know how to celebrate ourselves and encourage each other over every hurdle. Priceless.We know that many of you are already in some amazing writing groups who have enjoyed extraordinary success, and we’d love for you to start a thread here on Chip’s blog. The M-Inklings will all be checking in and taking part in the conversation. Also, if you are interested in starting a writing group, let us know what questions you have, and we’ll get them answered for you!

Talk soon!

Daisy Rain

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Daisy Rain Martin is an author, educator, speaker, and advocate for those who have been marginalized by abuse and poverty. Her first book, Juxtaposed: Finding Sanctuary on the Outside, was the #1 top selling book for Christopher Matthews Publishing in 2012. Her second book, If It’s Happened to You, is available for free on her website: www.daisyrainmartin.com. Daisy is Editor in Chief of RAIN Magazine, a small online publication that features new, up-and-coming writers and raises money for three charities: Advocates Against Family Violence in Caldwell, Idaho; The City Impact Center in Las Vegas, Nevada; and Treasures of Africa Children’s Home, an AIDS orphanage in Moshi, Tanzania. Daisy is also one of seven members in the Flying M-Inklingswriting group which works to promote literacy and help other writers and writing groups reach their literary goals. She lives with her husband, Sean-Martin, and their lab, Sofia, near Boise, Idaho, and loves talking to other writers. Please feel free to friend her on social media.