Sunday, January 30, 2011
Writers, you are in control of your novel. You control your character's every motion, you control their motives, their challenges, their successes, their drama. You control the nuances of their subplots. You control your plot and the pace in which it moves. You control the rise in action, the climax and the resolution. You are the driver, here, my dears, so take the wheel. It's yours!
Let's start with your baby, your main character. How many of you really know your main protagonist? Do you like them? A common problem I'm seeing with first time fiction writers is not enough in-depth knowledge and appreciation of their main character. They have a general idea of who he/she is and an idea of where they'll find them at the end of the novel, but that's about it. The details are fuzzy. And some of you have larger than life sub-characters that are stealing the spotlight.
Writers, getting your fiction noticed by an agent and/or editor is DIFFICULT. In order to keep your foot in the door of consideration, your main characters must jump off the page, grab the reader by the collar and get nose to nose. And the only way to build a strong character is to know them. You've got to know what your character loves and loathes. What do they fear? What makes them laugh? How do they dress, speak, walk? What do they desire? What turns them on? What do they eat and how? What about their DNA makes them special, unique? Why will your readers want to spend money and a couple of days with them?
For those of you who have strong sub-characters but find your main kind of a snore, consider why you've placed more attention on your sub's attributes. Why are you more intrigued by him/her? Maybe that's your main character instead? Maybe the story starts with them? What does your gut tell you?
I know of a few writers who got so into their characters, they lived like them for a few days/weeks, as a character actor would (I don't recommend extremes, taking drugs or breaking the law). Others cut out pictures in a magazine or found photos of what they wanted their character to look like and they wrote a detailed character sketch around that image. Others simply outlined all their protag's traits from the physical to the spiritual and everything in between. They left out nothing. I frequently lead my writers through this exercise with very good results. And it's fun!
Will you use all this detail in your novel? Probably not. Only use the details that are important to your character's arc.
Does it take a lot of work? Yep. Will you have to dump your current character if they are just not working out for you? Maybe. There are no short cuts in writing. Cut and paste editing is not good writing. But if you do the work, if you get nose to nose with your characters, you'll know their motivations. You'll know just how they'll move in and out of conflict, climax and find their resolution. And most of all, you'll build a character you're truly proud of.
Knowing your characters on a cellular level BEFORE you begin their (and your) journey is the first step to knowing your novel. We'll focus on plot later this week.
Your Action: If you're stuck with your novel, consider your main character. If you haven't taken the time to outline them, to live a day in their shoes, to "see" them, take the time to do it. Hang out with them. Get to know them. Invest in them. Be them. And, you might want to give the people you live with a heads up before they find you doing who knows what. Again, no extremes, writers.
Here's to the birth of your new characters! Have a fruitful week, writers!
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Q: "I've been querying my completed books as a memoir, even though I despise the notion and don't really think it is a "memoir."
On occasion I query it as nonfiction narrative, but this bothered some agents. On your blog, you call Sedaris's work "humorous essay," and frankly that is the best descriptor I've heard. Is this a common term in your profession, is it well received in the literary community?
And for the 64 million dollar question: Do you think humorous essay is more marketable than memoir?"
A: Maybe this is an American thing, but the word "memoir" sounds so dramatic and...fancy. You can practically hear the word roll off the tongue of an A list movie star, high society maven or Pulitzer Prize winning author the way the French intended. As in, "You'll read about it in my memoirs."
Let me demystify the word for you right now. Memoir means: "a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation." Sounds totally un-magical and un-sexy, right? Almost clinical. So not fancy.
So, really, anyone can write a memoir. But not every memoir is marketable and some popular memoir topics move in and out of vogue. I've spoken with several agents this year who've said they've seen enough "survivor stories," as in surviving abuse, cancer, horrible accidents, painful childhoods, etc. While one or more of these incidents may happen within a memoir, they don't want it to be the entire focus because they feel the market is saturated. This, of course, will change in time.
"Narrative Nonfiction" (or even "Creative Nonfiction") is a term popular in writing workshops, and you're right, most agents don't really use the term, or look favorably upon it. In general, it's too broad. Avoid it.
As far as "humorous essay" goes, your work would fit within the genre should your writing be uniquely funny and does not follow a linear path, per se, whereas memoir is more linear and story driven. Both genres are marketable. You just have to make sure you know where you fit before you query. Also, pay attention to the type of memoir agents are taking on: travel memoir; food driven memoir; friend/family driven memoir, etc. This takes some digging. My best suggestion is for you to research what agents are taking on at Publishers Marketplace, see where your work will best fit and query as such. And last but not least, keep your memoir factual.
Q: " Let's say an author publishes their own novel and it doesn't sell particularly well. The writer then decides to take a crack at traditional publishing with the same novel. When querying agents, should the writer mention that the novel has already been self-published, even if it's not selling well? Or is it better to wait until the agent has gotten interested in the manuscript before he/she admits to it?"
A: It would be especially wise for a writer to disclose any information about their previously self-published work within the query to an agent or editor because they'll find out anyway, should they be interested. If your sales were poor, don't dwell on it. Just state the sales figure (how many copies sold) and focus more on the high praise your work has received. Provide copy for agents of the great blurbs your book has garnered. Give them a list of your author appearances, signings and radio interviews, etc. Keep your focus PR related.
Don't have great reviews/blurbs/PR events OR sales? Time to get to work. As an author, you MUST sell your book. Your traditional publisher will expect nothing less. Start online and explore your options with all the social media outlets available to you to just get your name out. Get to know your online community. Make friends. Then start getting to know people in your own back yard. Seek out any opportunity to sell your book locally. When you've saturated your home town market, head next door. Keep going. Keep selling.
How many copies do you need to sell of your self-published book to gain the interest of an agent? With fiction you want to shoot for 2500 copies minimum within a year of publication. Nonfiction, shoot for 5,000 minimum. These are very modest print runs at traditional publishing houses. Anything less will doubtfully be considered.
Hope that clears it up, Cathy!
Q: " I have gotten the attention of an agent. Which is great and I'm over the moon about it. However, it feels a bit premature. I have been asked to provide 60 sample pages and a proposal. I eagerly agreed to provide the requested material. I then gave myself a deadline that, in hindsight, was rather unrealistic. Furthermore, I let the agent know the deadline, so that she knew when to expect what she was requesting. I now have the pages completed, and they're within the deadline, but they don't reflect my best work. How do I ensure I don't squander this opportunity? Is it better to send what I have so that she knows I'm responsible and can meet deadlines or do I ask her wait so I can submit the work I'm capable of?"
A: Oh, dear. You're in a spot. (Not really, readers, because I responded to her right away....it was a literary emergency...so now, Kelly, the long answer).
There is so much to learn here, writers. First, yes, it's great when an agent shows interest in your work (in Kelly's case, a blog), and wants to see more. While it's a golden opportunity for possible representation, I want you to do two things: 1) Research this agent. Do you like the books they've sold? Do they have a good reputation? Do they charge fees of any kind beyond copying/postage expenses? Your answers should be: yes; yes; no. After speaking with them, do you LIKE them? Were they polite? Did they respect your time? Answers should be: yes; yes: yes! And 2) Provided they seem like a good fit for you, be realistic about your turnaround time. If you're mid-blog, you likely still need to map out your blog direction not to mention YOUR direction as a writer. You not only need to take time to consider the creative direction of your book and the more technical aspects of your proposal, but your writing career as well. If you remember nothing else, remember: under promise, over deliver!
And any good agent will never fault you for taking some extra time to polish your work. They WANT it to be great! Just be honest with them.
Hope that helps, Kelly!
Thank you for your questions, writers. I love hearing your success stories, too, so keep me posted!
Have a fruitful week!
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
When and why it's okay to put an agent on hold
How to query a memoir (and what's up with this grey genre)
If you should disclose your poorly selling self-published work in your agent query
Also, I've completely updated my methodology page. Check it out!
Have a glorious winter weekend, writers! Stay warm and dry.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
I still love my romance novels. I love love stories and happily-ever-afters—the two requirements for a book to fall into the romance genre. (Contrary to popular belief, romance is not a paint-by-numbers proposition.) If early bloggers writing about Hester assumed I couldn’t write anything but romance, well, so be it. In fact, one reviewer actually called Hester a bodice-ripper, clearly with the intention of insulting me, but I’m not embarrassed by my roots. I didn’t stop writing romance novels because I got “too good” for romance. I just found myself wanting to write about things that didn’t fit the current market.
It isn’t that there are forbidden topics in romance, but I am ultimately fascinated by religion and politics and how those things have influenced people’s lives and relationships throughout history. Alas, these topics generally aren’t considered appropriate for polite dinner conversation, much less romance novels. When I was writing historical romance, the hottest trends were Regency (think “hot” Jane Austen) and hunky Highlanders. There’s nothing wrong with those, but it made a concept like “a man and a woman rising above ideology to find love” a tough sell. Several years ago, an editor turned down a book proposal with a union-organizing hero because “social reform isn’t sexy.” Maybe it’s just me, but I have to admit, I find social reform dead sexy.
In the romance genre the main story must be a love story, and happily-ever-after is a non-negotiable element. Sometimes, though, it seems to me that happily-ever-after can be walking away when a romantic relationship ends and keeping a true friend, so when I wrote Hester I chose a different path—straight historical fiction based upon a previous literary work. There’s a bit of sex, but the focus of the novel is not a romantic relationship, and while I think the end of the novel is emotionally satisfying, it is not a traditional happily-ever-after.
This was a pretty big shift in terms of marketing myself as a writer. These days, writing is all about “branding.” A few years ago, a Paula Reed novel would have been a romance with strong spiritual or social issue elements. Now, it seems to be historical fiction based upon previous literary works. To that end, I’m working on a novel based upon Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Ruined Maid.” This Victorian London-set novel revolves around religion, sex, and social issues. I keep thinking that’s my real brand. Whether I’m writing historical romance or mainstream historical fiction, in a Paula Reed novel you can count on the three things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company."
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Artistic Integrity - The Balance Between Listening and Leading: A Blogshop with Author Ellen Meister
Many writers who contact me for services are at one of two phases in their pre-agent/publishing deal stage: once they've read all the how-to advice and are totally lost in the woods mid-way through their first draft; or after they've Frankensteined their novel with all the advice from agents and/or editors who've passed on their work for various reasons (all which have been addressed in a horrific cut and paste job only Mary Shelley could appreciate).
As you learn more and more about the craft of writing, you'll understand your artistic integrity - what is authentic to you creatively - has nothing to do with marketing or publishing trends. While keeping an observant eye on those current, super selling titles you'd like to see your book rub covers with is smart, know when to shut off all that buzz and focus on the story your gut is telling you to write.
Ellen Meister, author of the rave-reviewed Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA; The Smart One; and The Other Life understands the difference between listening to and applying editorial feedback and following her authentic vision. Ellen kindly contributed to TLCG how she struck the balance.
"People talk about artistic integrity as if it's a solid thing you can carry around with you, like your checkbook and car keys.
But the truth is that it's a fluid concept, especially for novelists. As writers, we're hardwired to see the validity of others' points of view. So when we get editorial input, it can be difficult to decide if the advice truly resonates with our artistic vision, or if we're compromising our own creativity.
In a way, my first novel was the easiest to write, as the only voice in my head was my own. I wasn't thinking about editors, agents, book critics or readers—just the story that tickled and touched me, and the characters I had fallen in love with. That resulted in the freedom to create a fearlessly raunchy tale about three women conspiring to get a George Clooney movie filmed in their children's schoolyard.
Later, when I found an agent who loved the book and had some editorial comments that resonated deeply—namely, that the through-line needed to be stronger and the ending less reliant on luck and more on the actions of the protagonists—I went right to work. It took a few passes to get right, but it was clear to me that every revision made the book stronger.It must have worked, because a wonderful editor at Morrow/Avon bought the book, and two years later it appeared in bookstores as SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA.
My second book started out well enough. I had a vision for a sister story with a strong voice and three very original characters. I wrote a proposal my agent loved and my editor snatched up. I had a another book contract, and all was beautiful.
But when I sat down to write the thing, I got lost, and all the warnings in the world about the sophomore slump didn't help. I wasn't writing the book for me, but for my editor, my agent, my readers, my critics. That's a big crowd for one novel, and the first draft was a mess.My agent had a hard time pinpointing exactly what the problems were, so I just took a guess and rewrote it. The next draft wasn't much better, but we sent it off to my editor for her input.
To make a long, frustrating and painful story short, it took about ten rewrites for me to get THE SMART ONE right. Along the way, my confidence took a severe beating, and I emerged so bruised and battered I had no idea what my future as a writer might hold.Then something miraculous happened: I got an idea. A big idea. A high concept story that made my heart race. But it was so different from my previous books that I didn't know if my agent would accept it. Still, I knew had found the story I needed to write, no matter what. So I put together a proposal, sent it off, and held my breath.
A few agonizing weeks later, I got the call. She loved it. Everyone at the agency loved it. And soon enough, the book was submitted to editors and sold at auction. It's called THE OTHER LIFE and it comes out next month from Putnam. I'm thrilled!I wish there was simple lesson here, like three easy ways to tell which darlings you should kill and which you should nurture. But like I said, writing is a such a fluid process it's often hard to tell where creative integrity begins and just plain stubbornness ends. You have to fall in love with your work, but not so inflexibly that you can't be objective about the editing process. You have to be open to input from your editor/agent/beta reader, but not so wishy-washy that you compromise your vision.
The good news is that over time, you start to get a more solid sense of which suggestions resonate and which don't. You might have to stumble a few times to reach that point, but you won't be alone. And that's something you can carry wherever you go."TLC: This week, quiet the noise that's ever present on the web and on the newsstands about how to write the hottest, saleable, agent worthy book ever...just for a moment... and honor your artistic integrity. Without thinking about what's hot on the market right now, ask yourself: what story do I REALLY want to tell?
Have an enlightening, truly artistic week, writers!TLC
About the Contributor:
Ellen Meister is the author of three novels, THE OTHER LIFE (Putnam, 2/2011); THE SMART ONE (HarperCollins/Avon 8/2008; and SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA (Morrow/Avon 8/2006), as well as numerous short stories including a contribution to the recent MILK & INK ANTHOLOGY. She currently curates for DimeStories, a literary podcast program, and runs an online group for women authors. Ellen lives on Long Island with her husband and three children and is at work on her fourth novel, FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER.